Your debts are either secured by something you own, or they are unsecured. Unsecured debts are either “priority” or “general unsecured.”
Debts that are unsecured are those which are not legally tied to anything you own. The creditor has no “security” attached to the debt, no “security interest” in anything. It has no right to repossess or seize anything of yours if you don’t pay the debt. It can only pursue the debt itself.
It’s usually easier to deal with unsecured debts than secured ones in bankruptcy. Most unsecured debts can be discharged—legally written off—through either Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” or Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”
An Unsecured Debt Can Sometimes Turn into a Secured One
Under some circumstances an unsecured debts can become secured if you don’t pay it.
For example, you could be sued by the creditor on a debt, resulting in a judgment against you. The creditor may be able to turn that judgment into a lien against your home and other possessions. The debt would then be secured by your home and/or other possessions. (The details of this depend on your state’s laws.)
Another example: if you get behind on income taxes the IRS can record a tax lien against your real estate and personal property. It does not need to sue you.
Filing bankruptcy can stop a lawsuit from turning into a judgment lien. It can often stop the recording of an IRS tax lien. In these and similar situations it’s much better to file bankruptcy before creditors can turn unsecured debts into secured ones.
Also, Sometimes a Secured Debts Can Turn into an Unsecured One
After a secured creditor repossesses or seizes its “security,” and sells it, any remaining debt would then be unsecured.
A secured debt could become unsecured in various other ways. The “security” could be lost or destroyed, leaving the creditor with nothing to seize. Another secured creditor with prior rights could seize the “security,” leaving the creditor with the “junior” position no longer secured. There are various tools in bankruptcy for turning secured debts into unsecured ones.
Seemingly Secured Debts May Actually Be Unsecured
Creating a “security interest”—a creditor’s rights over its “security—takes specific legal steps. If the creditor fails to take those steps appropriately, a debt that seemed to be secured actually isn’t. Your bankruptcy lawyer may ask you (or the creditor) for documentation to find out if a certain debt is really secured.
Two Kinds of Unsecured Debts
There are two kinds of unsecured debts: “priority” and “general unsecured.”
“Priority” debts are those that the law treats as special for various reasons. Past-due child support and unpaid recent income taxes are “priority” debts. The law treats them as special, mostly by putting them ahead of other unsecured debts. Generally, “priority” debts have to be paid in full in bankruptcy before other unsecured debts receive anything.
“General unsecured” debts are simply the rest of the unsecured debts, those that aren’t “priority.” “General unsecured” debts include most unsecured ones. Examples are almost all medical and credit card debts, retail accounts, personal loans, many payday and internet loans, unpaid utilities and other similar bills, claims against you arising out accidents or other bodily injuries, damages arising from contracts and business disputes, overdrawn checking accounts, bounced checks, the remaining debt after a vehicle repossession or real estate foreclosure, and countless other kinds. If the debt is not secured, and isn’t “priority,” then its “general unsecured.”
Unsecured Debts in Bankruptcy
In the next blog posts we’ll look at how Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 treat “priority” and “general unsecured” debts. Depending on which kinds of debts you have, these will help you understand and choose between these two options.