Filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case stops a foreclosure and buys some time to either arrange to keep the home or move in a peaceful way.
Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy” vs. Chapter 13 “Adjustment of Debts”
Speaking very generally, Chapter 7 buys you some time with your home while Chapter 13 buys you much more time.
So the questions are: how much more time to do you need and will Chapter 7 buy you enough?
How Chapter 7 Helps
As to your home, your filing of a Chapter 7 case:
1. Stops a pending foreclosure sale of your home, at least temporarily, through the “automatic stay.” Your bankruptcy filing stops “any act to… enforce any lien against property of the estate.” “Property of the estate” includes essentially everything you own at the time of filing, including your home. See Section 362(a)(4) and (5) and of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. How much time Chapter 7 buys depends on your situation, as we’ll get into a bit below.
2. It also at least temporarily stops not just foreclosures by your mortgage company, but also by other lienholders. This includes foreclosures for unpaid property taxes, homeowner assessments, or judgment lien creditors. In the case of judgment liens, Chapter 7 may also get rid of them, and the debt underlying it.
3. Prevents, at least for a few months, most kinds of new liens from attaching to your home. So an income tax debt does not turn into a tax lien. A pending lawsuit does not turn into a judgment lien against your home. This is particularly helpful if that tax is old enough to qualify for discharge (legal write-off). And most likely the debt underlying the lawsuit can be discharged. In these situations Chapter 7 protects your home from those debts and anticipated liens.
Situations When Chapter 7 May Be Enough
Here are some of the main situations when it’s worth filing a Chapter 7 case for your home.
A Scheduled Mortgage Foreclosure
You already have a scheduled foreclosure date, and it’s coming very soon. Your Chapter 7 filing will very likely cancel it. The “automatic stay” protection lasts throughout the 3-4 months that your case is open. So your mortgage lender can restart the foreclosure after that. But the delay may be much shorter if your lender asks the bankruptcy court for permission to restart the foreclosure while your Chapter 7 case is still open. So it depends on the aggressiveness of your lender. Filing under Chapter 7 may buy you an extra few weeks or an extra few months.
- If you are selling your home and are close to selling it, those extra weeks or months may be all you need to finish the sale and pay off the mortgage. This only works if the net sale proceeds—your money from the sale—are fully covered by your homestead exemption. Then you keep those proceeds. Otherwise the Chapter 7 trustee would have a right to any proceeds in excess of the homestead exemption.
- You’re surrendering your home but need to buy more time to gather funds for moving and rental expenses. Your lender might possibly even pay you to move faster (to save itself foreclosure expenses).
An Anticipated Mortgage Foreclosure
A foreclosure sale date has not yet been scheduled but you think it’ll happen soon. Your Chapter 7 filing will postpone it. As stated above, your mortgage lender can ask the court for permission to proceed with the foreclosure. So how much time your bankruptcy filing buys depends on your lender.
A Debt Expected to Turn Into a Lien
You’re not concerned about a mortgage foreclosure, but rather about a debt turning into a lien on your home. As discussed above, if this is a debt that would be discharged in bankruptcy, Chapter 7 can be hugely helpful. Your Chapter 7 filing stops the placing of the lien, discharges the debt forever, and thus avoids the lien forever.
Even if the underlying debt cannot be discharged—such as a relatively recent income tax debt—your Chapter 7 filing stops the lien at least temporarily. Your bankruptcy case then discharges most or all of your other debts. At that point you can focus your financial efforts on paying the tax. Entering into a formal payment plan may prevent a tax lien from being recorded.
A Chapter 7 case filed through your bankruptcy lawyer may give you less power than a Chapter 13. It usually only buys you a relatively short amount of time. But the limited power and time it does give may be enough in your particular situation. And it may enable you to discharge a debt, preventing that debt from resulting in a lien on your home.