The Expenses Step of the Chapter 7 “Means Test”

Law Office of Robert L. Firth April 7, 2014

If your income is higher than “median income,” you may still file a Chapter 7 case by going through the expenses step of the means test.

The Easy, Income Step of the Means Test

The last couple of blog posts have covered the first step of the means test, the income step. It says that if your “income”—as that term is uniquely defined in this law—is no more than the published median amount for your state of residence and for your size of family, you can skip the rest of the means test, and you generally qualify for a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. You don’t have to go through the rest of the means test.

The Admittedly Complicated, Expenses Step of the Means Test

If on the other hand your “income” is greater than the median income amount applicable to your state and family size, then you have to go through the detailed expenses step to see whether you can participate in a Chapter 7 case.

The Challenge of the Means Test

The concept behind the means test is pretty straightforward: people who have the means to pay a meaningful amount to their creditors over a reasonable period of time should be required to do so. But putting that concept into law resulted in an amazingly complicated set of rules.

These expense rules are detailed and rigid because Congress was trying to be objective. The assumption was debtors would just inflate their anticipated expenses to show that they had no money left over for their creditors—no “means” to pay them anything.

One of the complications is that the allowed expenses include some based on your stated actual expense amounts, while others are based on standard amounts. The standard amounts are based on Internal Revenue Service tables of expenses, but some of those standards are national, some vary by state, and some even vary among specific metropolitan areas within a state. There are even some expenses which are partly standard and partly actual (certain components of transportation expenses).

There are also rules about when to allow and how to determine the allowed amounts for secured debt payments (vehicle, mortgage) and for “priority debts” (income taxes, accrued child support).

If You Have Disposable Income

After all that, if after subtracting all the allowed expenses from your “income” you have some money left over, whether you can be in Chapter 7 depends on the amount of that money and how that compares to the amount of your debts:

  1. If the amount left over—the “monthly disposable income”—is no more than $125, then you still pass the means test and qualify for Chapter 7.

  2. If your “monthly disposable income” is between $125 and $208, then apply the following formula: multiply that amount by 60, and compare that to the total amount of your regular (not “priority”) unsecured debts. If the multiplied total is less than 25% of those debts, then you still pass the means test and qualify for Chapter 7.

  3. If after applying the above formula you can pay 25% or more of those debts, OR if your “monthly disposable income” is more than $208, then you do NOT pass the means test, UNLESS you can show “special circumstances,” such as “a serious medical condition or a call or order to active duty in the Armed Forces.”

THAT’s Complicated!

True enough. So you certainly want to have an attorney who fully understands these often confounding rules and how they are being interpreted by the local bankruptcy judges and the pertinent appeals courts.

If you don’t pass the means test you will instead likely end up in a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case. Not only would that mean getting full relief from your debts years later than under Chapter 7, with a similar delay in rebuilding your credit, you may well also end up paying thousands, or even tens of thousands, more dollars to your creditors. It’s definitely worth going through the effort to find a competent bankruptcy attorney to help you, whenever possible, find a way to pass the means test.