The “Means Test” Tries to Be Objective
April 14, 2014
The point of the “means test” is to objectively judge whether you have the means to pay your creditors. But this test is very arbitrary.
As we explained in last week’s blog post, the “means test” is supposed to be an objective way to decide who qualifies to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. That decision used to be more in the hands of bankruptcy judges, who were apparently seen as being too lenient with debtors (which is odd because the majority of the judges are former creditor attorneys!).
The “Objective” Rule
As also discussed in the last blog post, there is a very specific formula for determining if you can do a Chapter 7 case: if your budget shows that you have some money left over each month—some “disposable income”—it all depends on its amount and how it compares to the amount of your debts. This is how “objective” this rule is:
If your “monthly disposable income” is less than $125, then you pass the means test and qualify for Chapter 7.
If your “monthly disposable income” is between $125 and $208, then you go a step further: multiply that “disposable income” amount by 60, and compare that to the total amount of your regular (not “priority”) unsecured debts. If that multiplied “disposable income” amount is less than 25% of those debts, then you still pass the “means test” and qualify for Chapter 7.
If EITHER you can pay 25% or more of those debts, OR if your “monthly disposable income” is $208 or more, then you do NOT pass the means test. BUT you still might be able to do a Chapter 7 case IF you can show “special circumstances,” such as “a serious medical condition or a call or order to active duty in the Armed Forces.”
Where Do Those Crucial Amounts—$125 and $208—Come From?
Notice the huge difference in effect of these numbers. If you have less than $125 to spare, you are “presumed” to qualify for Chapter 7; if you have more than $208 to spare, you are“presumed” to not qualify for Chapter 7, unless you can show “special circumstances.” And if you have an amount in between, then you must apply that 25% extra condition.
That’s a huge difference in consequences for a spread of only $83 per month.
So where do these hugely important numbers come from? The Bankruptcy Code actually refers to those numbers multiplied by 60—$7,475 and $12,475. When the law was originally passed in 2005 these amounts were actually $6,000 and $10,000 (therefore, $100 and $167 monthly), but they have been adjusted for inflation since then.
So where did those original $6,000 and $10,000 amounts come from?
They are arbitrary. Why was anything less than $6,000 (now $7,475) considered low enough to allow a Chapter 7 to proceed, while anything more than $10,000 (now $12,475) was considered high enough to not allow it? Some creditor lobbyist or Congressional staffer likely just came up with those numbers, and maybe they were negotiated in Congress. In any event, somewhere in the process Congress decided that it needed to use certain numbers, and those are the ones that made it into the legislation. It’s the law, regardless that there doesn’t seem to be any real principled reason for using those amounts in determining whether a person should or shouldn’t be allowed to file a Chapter 7 case.
The Bottom Line
Sensible or not (and there is a lot in the “means test” which is not!), if your income is under the published median income amount, then you pass the “means test” and can proceed under Chapter 7 (see our earlier blog about that). But if you are over the median income amount, then the amount of your “monthly disposable income” largely determines whether you are able to file a Chapter 7 case. (Remember that most people needing a Chapter 7 case qualify easily by having low enough income, skipping the complications covered in today’s blog post.)