Taking Advantage of the Rigidity of the Chapter 7 “Means Test”
March 31, 2014
Because of how precisely the amount of your “income” is calculated, filing bankruptcy just a day or two later can make all the difference.
Passing the “Means Test”
Our last blog post was about most people passing the “means test” by making no more than the median income for their state and family size. We also made clear that “income” for this purpose has a very broad meaning, by including non-taxable received from irregular sources such as child and spousal support payments, insurance settlements, cash gifts from relatives, and unemployment benefits. Also, we showed how time-sensitive the “means test” definition of “income” is in that it is based on the amount of money received during precisely the 6 FULL CALENDAR months before the date of filing. This means that your “income” can shift by waiting just a month or two, or even by waiting just a few days until the turn of the month (since that changes which 6 months of income is at issue).
Why is the Definition of “Income” for the “Means Test” So Rigid?
One of the much-touted goals of the last major amendments to the bankruptcy law in 2005 was to prevent people from filing Chapter 7 who were considered not deserving. The most direct means to that end was to try to force more people to pay a portion of their debts through Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” instead of writing them off Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”
The primary tool intended to accomplish this is the “means test,” Its rationale was that instead of allowing judges to decide who was abusing the bankruptcy system, a rigid financial test would determine who had the “means” to pay a meaningful amount to their creditors in a Chapter 13 case, and therefore could not file a Chapter 7 case.
The Unintended Consequences of the “Means Test”
The last blog post explained the first part of the means test: comparing the income and money you received from virtually all sources during the six full calendar months before filing bankruptcy to a standard median income amount for your state and your family size. If your income is at or under the applicable median income, then you generally get to file a Chapter 7 case. If your income is higher than the median amount, you may still be able to file a Chapter 7 case but you have to jump through a whole bunch of extra hoops to do so. Having income below the median income amount makes qualifying for Chapter 7 much simpler and less risky.
Filing your case a day earlier or later can matter so much because of the means test’s fixation on the six prior full calendar months, AND because you include ALL income during that precise period (other than social security).
So if you receive some irregular chunk of money, that can push you over your applicable median income amount, and jeopardize your ability to qualify for Chapter 7.
It does not necessarily take a large irregular chunk of money to make this difference, especially if your income without that is already close to the median income amount. An income tax refund, some catch-up child support payments, or an insurance settlement or reimbursement could be enough.
Imagine having received $3,000 from one of these sources on October 15 of last year. Your only other income is from your job, where make a $42,000 salary, or $3,500 gross per month. Let’s assume the median annual income for your state and family size is $45,000.
So imagine that now in the early part of April 2014, your Chapter 7 bankruptcy paperwork is ready to file, and you would like to get it filed to get protection from your aggressive creditors. If your case is filed on or before April 30, then the last six full calendar month period would be from October 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. That period includes that $3,000 extra money you received in mid-October. Your work income of 6 times $3,500 equals $21,000, plus the extra $3,000 received, totals $24,000 received during that 6-month period. Multiply that by 2 for the annual amount—$48,000. Since that’s larger than the applicable $45,000 median income, you would have failed the income portion of the “means test.”
But if you just wait to file until May 1, then the applicable 6-month period jumps forward by one full month to the period from November 1 of last year through April 30 of this year. Now that new period no longer includes the $3,000 you received in mid-October. So now your income during the 6-month period is $21,000, multiplied by 2 is $42,000. This results in your income being less than the $45,000 median income amount. You’ve now passed the “means test,” and qualified for Chapter 7.