Priority Debts in a Chapter 13 Case
Chapter 13 gives you some huge advantages over Chapter 7 for paying your priority debts. You’re protected while you pay what you can afford.
Priority Debts under No-Asset and Asset Chapter 7
Our last two blog posts described how Chapter 7 can sometimes be a sensible way of dealing with priority debts. (Those are ones you can’t “discharge”—legally write off, the most common being recent income taxes and child/spousal support.) Our blog post two weeks ago: a no-asset Chapter 7 case discharges all or most of your other debts. So then afterwards you can better afford to pay your priority ones. Last week: in an asset Chapter 7 case your bankruptcy trustee collects your unprotected asset(s). He or she then pays part or all of your priority debt out of the proceeds from selling those asset(s).
But Chapter 7 is not well-designed to deal with priority debts in many situations. Here are the main problems:
You get only brief protection, or none at all, from your priority creditor(s). With income taxes, the IRS/state can resume collections when your Chapter 7 case is over. That’s only 3-4 months after you and your bankruptcy lawyer file the case. With child/spousal support, there is no protection at all: collection continues even during your Chapter 7 case.
Because of this lack of legal protection, you have little or no leverage about the dollar amount of payments you pay on your priority debts. You are largely at the mercy of the IRS/state or the support enforcement agencies.
In an asset Chapter 7 case, you have no control over the trustee’s sale of your asset(s). Plus you have to pay a significant amount for the trustee’s costs and fee. That reduces what goes to your priority debt(s).
The Benefits of Chapter 13
In contrast, Chapter 13 is well-designed for you to deal favorably with your priority debts. Here are its main benefits and advantages.
1. Ongoing Protection, for Years
The protection from creditors called the automatic stay lasts not 3-4 months but rather 3-to-5 years in Chapter 13. You can lose this protection under Chapter 13, if you don’t follow the requirements. But usually this sustained protection is a very powerful tool. It gives you tremendous peace of mind. It forces otherwise very aggressive creditors like the IRS/state and support enforcement to cooperate. It gives you an incredible and practical second chance to do what you need to do. Instead of these tough creditors having the law and the leverage on their side, Chapter 13 puts you much more in charge.
2. Pay Monthly What You Can Afford to Pay
The practical leverage Chapter 13 gives you helps where it counts. It enables you to pay your priority debts under sensible and manageable payment terms. Priority debts are ones you have to pay regardless of bankruptcy. You mostly just wish that there was a way to do so that was doable. Chapter 13 fulfills that wish.
Here’s how it works You and your bankruptcy lawyer propose, and the bankruptcy judge approves a payment plan. (This approval comes after possible input from the Chapter 13 trustee and your creditors.) This payment plan is mostly based on how much you can actually afford to pay the pool of your creditors. You have to pay all your priority debts in full, but you have 3 to 5 years to do so.
You generally pay nothing on your other unsecured debts until you pay your priority debts in full. Sometimes you don’t pay anything on those “general unsecured” debts. At the end of your case whatever you haven’t paid is forever discharged. At that point you will have paid off your priority debts in full, and usually owe nothing to anybody.
3. Avoid Interest and Penalties
You can often avoid paying any interest or penalties on your priority debt(s) under Chapter 13.
For example, with recent income taxes, interest and penalties continue to accrue after you file your case. But as long as there no prior-recorded tax lien, and you successfully finish your case, you don’t pay these additional interest and penalties. You only pay the initial priority tax debt.
Furthermore, in most situations the penalties that accrued before your Chapter 13 filing are not a priority debt. This portion of your tax due at the time of filing is treated as “general unsecured.” This means it’s treated just like your unsecured credit cards or medical bills. You only pay it to the extent you have money available after paying the priority debts, if at all.
This combination—no accruing interest and penalties, and no penalties treated as priority—can significantly reduce how much you must pay. The less you have to pay as priority means the less you pay in your Chapter 13 payment plan. The less you have to pay usually means you finish your plan quicker. It’s more likely to last closer to 3 years rather than 5 years. And if you have to pay less there’d be less pressure to pay more per month to get it done on time.
4. Pay Priority (and Secured) Debts Ahead of (and Instead of) Other Debts
If you have secured debts you have to pay—a vehicle loan or home mortgage arrearage, for example—you often can pay these ahead of the priority debts. Your priority debts generally just have to wait, as long as you are appropriately following the payment plan.
This flexibility, and being able to essentially force priority creditors to be this flexible, can be extremely beneficial to you. You not only get to pay your important priority debts ahead of your other unsecured debts. You often get to favor debts that are very important to you—for example, to save your home and/or vehicle—ahead of the priority debts. You do have to pay the priority debts in fully before you can finish your Chapter 13 case. But often you are allowed to fit those payments in only after paying your crucial secured debts.