Chapter 7 often protects you from creditors well enough. But if need be, Chapter 13 protects you longer.
The “Automatic Stay” in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy”
The automatic stay is the power given to you through federal law to stop virtually all attempts by creditors to collect their debts against you and your property as of the moment you file a bankruptcy case. It stops creditors the same at the beginning of your case whether you file a Chapter 7 case or a Chapter 13 payment plan. (An exception is the extra protection for your co-signers under Chapter 13, which was discussed in detail in a blog about a month ago.)
The benefits of the automatic stay last as long as your Chapter 7 case lasts—usually about three months or so. In many situations, that’s just long enough. The bankruptcy judge generally signs the discharge order just before the end of the case, writing off all or most of your debts. After that point those creditors can no longer pursue you or your assets, so you no longer NEED the automatic stay for your protection.
However, you may have some debts which you will continue to owe after the completion of your case, either 1) voluntarily, such as a vehicle loan on a vehicle you are keeping, or 2) as a matter of law, such as a recent unpaid income tax obligation.
In either of these situations you may well not need protection from these kinds of creditors beyond the length of a Chapter 7 case. You will likely enter into a reaffirmation agreement with the vehicle creditor, purposely excluding its debt from the discharge of your other debts so that you can keep the vehicle and continue making the payments. If you owe for last year’s income taxes, then before your Chapter 7 case is finished you could enter into a reasonable monthly installment payment plan with the IRS—if the amount is not too large and your cash flow has improved because of your bankruptcy case.
The “Automatic Stay” under the Chapter 13 Payment Plan
Simply stated, the automatic stay protection under Chapter 13 potentially lasts so much longer than under Chapter 7 because a Chapter 13 case lasts so much longer—3 to 5 years instead of 3 months. This can creates some significant advantages with certain kinds of debts where you need more time, and need protection during that extended time.
Take the two examples above—the vehicle loan and the recent tax debt.
If you had fallen significantly behind on the vehicle loan and had no way to bring it current within a month or two after filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, most creditors would not allow you to keep the vehicle. In contrast, under Chapter 13 you’d likely have several years to bring the account current, regardless of the creditor’s objection. In fact in some situations you would not need to catch up the missed payments at all. And as long as you made your payments as required by your court-approved plan, you would be protected from the creditor throughout this time.
In the case of the recent income taxes, if you owed more than what you could pay in an installment plan set up with the IRS, Chapter 13 would likely give you more time and more flexibility. For example, you would likely be able to delay paying the IRS anything for a number of months while paying debts that were even more important—say, arrearage on a house mortgage or back child support—as long as you paid the taxes off within 5 years. Plus most of the time you would not need to pay any ongoing tax penalties or interest, saving you a lot of money. Again, throughout this time you’d be protected from any collection action by the IRS through the continuous automatic stay.
So, the automatic stay stops creditors in their tracks when either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case is filed. The relatively short life of the automatic stay in Chapter 7 will do the trick either if you don’t still owe any debts when the case is done, or if you will be able to make workable arrangements on any that you do still owe. But if you need automatic stay protection to last longer, then Chapter 13 may well be able to give you that along with much more time and more flexibility in dealing with special creditors.