Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 can wipe away judgment liens. But doing so under Chapter 13 can be better when used with its other benefits.
In our July 1 blog post we gave a list of 10 ways that a Chapter 13 case can help you keep your home. Today we cover the 9th of those 10 ways. Here’s how we introduced this earlier.
9. Judgment Lien “Avoidance”
A judgment lien is put on your home by a creditor who sues and gets a judgment against you. It then records that judgment in the county where your home is located. (Or the creditor uses whatever procedure creates a judgment lien in your state).
In bankruptcy, a judgment lien can be removed from your home under certain circumstances. Essentially, the equity in your home that’s encumbered by the judgment lien must be covered by the applicable homestead exemption. In other words, the judgment lien must “impair” the homestead exemption. If it does, the judgment lien can be removed, or “avoided,” from the title of your home.
Judgment lien “avoidance” is available under Chapter 7 as well as Chapter 13. But Chapter 13 can be better when lien “avoidance” is used in combination with other tools only Chapter 13 provides.
Here’s how this works in practice.
Assume that you own a home that is worth $200,000. You lost your job 18 months ago and were unemployed for 12 months. As a result you fell 9 payments behind on the $1,200 monthly mortgage payments, a total of $10,800 behind. The full amount owed on the mortgage is $180,000. Your mortgage lender is threatening to foreclose on the home if you don’t quickly catch up on the missed payments.
During your unemployment you also couldn’t make the payments on a credit card with a balance of $7,500. It was sent to collection and the collection company sued you. You didn’t respond to the lawsuit because you knew you owed the money and saw no benefit to objecting. So the collection company got a default judgment against you. The amount of the judgment is $8,750, since the collector could add its costs of the lawsuit to the judgment. The collector then recorded a judgment lien against your home in that amount.
So your $200,000 home in encumbered by the $180,000 mortgage plus the $8,750 judgment. Assume also that you are entitled to a $25,000 homestead exemption.
The Judgment Lien “Avoidance” Here
Under either a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” or a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts,” this $8,750 judgment lien can be removed from your home’s title.
That’s because the equity in your home that the judgment lien is encumbering is protected by the homestead exemption.
Here’s how the math works. Without the judgment lien, there’s $20,000 in equity in the home—its $200,000 value minus the $180,000 mortgage. The $25,000 homestead exemption would protect up to $25,000 of equity. So, all of the $20,000 in equity is protected. The entire $8,750 judgment lien eats into, or “impairs,” this protected equity. And so the entire judgment lien can be “avoided,” or released from your home’s title through bankruptcy.
The Chapter 7 Possibility
If you filed a Chapter 7 case and “avoided” the judgment lien you would likely also be able to “discharge”—legally write off—that $8,750 credit card debt. The debt would be gone, and the judgment lien would be gone off your home, and the debt itself would be gone forever. Mission accomplished there.
But that still leaves you $10,800 behind on your mortgage. Discharging your other debts may leave you with some available money each month to pay towards this mortgage arrearage. If so, you might be able to make a deal with your home mortgage lender for catching up on the mortgage. If so, go for it.
However, often the amount that you could pay towards the mortgage arrearage would not be enough to satisfy your mortgage lender. Mortgage lenders in this situation often insist on homeowners catching up within 10-12 months. That’s amounts to about $1,080 to $1,200 per month under our facts. And you’d have to pay that on top of the regular ongoing monthly payments of $1,200.
You may simply not have much extra money in your budget even after a Chapter 7 case. You may not be able to catch up on your mortgage fast enough to satisfy your mortgage lender. If so it wouldn’t do much good to “avoid” the judgment lien on your home only to lose it to a mortgage foreclosure.
The Chapter 13 Advantage
If you and your bankruptcy lawyer instead filed a Chapter 13 case, it could solve this dilemma. Your mortgage lender would be forced to give you MUCH more time to catch up on the mortgage arrearage.
A Chapter 13 payment plan usually lasts from 3 to 5 years. You are generally allowed to push it out the full 5 years in order to reduce how much you would need to pay your mortgage lender monthly.
The payment plan can often be creative by adjusting for anticipated changes in your income or expenses. You may be able to pay less on the mortgage arrearage early in the plan to deal with even more urgent debts. Sometimes you can even pay all or part of the arrearage through a later refinancing or sale of the home.
The bottom line: when you need to “avoid” a judgment lien but also need other benefits that Chapter 13 provides, look closely at that option. Chapter 13 takes much longer but those benefits may make it well worthwhile.