You can put a “preferential payment” to work for you if you owe a “priority” debt—back child or spousal support, or recent income taxes.
Our last blog post was about how you can benefit from a “preference” in your bankruptcy case. A “preference” is a payment you made to a creditor (voluntarily or involuntarily) during the 90-day period before filing (or sometimes the 1-year period), which, under certain circumstances, your trustee can force the creditor to repay. The creditor doesn’t pay the preferential payment back to you but rather to your bankruptcy trustee. The trustee then distributes that money among your creditors. The way you benefit is when most of that money going to a debt that you need and want to be paid.
Last time our focus was on how a payment to a creditor qualifies to be a “preference.” That is, what it takes for the trustee to be able to force that creditor to give back the payment. Today is about how that money goes to where you want it to go.
All debts are not created equal under the law. Not by a long shot. There is a short list of debts that are treated especially well in bankruptcy law. They are the “priority” debts. (See Section 507 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)
There are ten types of “priority” debts, but only two that are common in consumer bankruptcy cases:
- “domestic support obligations”—essentially unpaid child and spousal support
- newer income tax debts—must meet certain conditions
A Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee must pay all “priority” debts in full before paying anything on the ordinary debts. Also, the trustee pays a higher-priority “priority” debt in full before paying anything on another, lower, “priority” debt.
For example, assume you owe $2,500 in back child support, $3,000 in recent income taxes, and $100,000 in credit cards and medical debts. If the trustee would have $4,500 to distribute (after trustee fees), this is where it would go:
- $2,500 back child support paid in full
- the remaining $2,000 would go towards the income taxes, leaving $1,000 still owing
- nothing would be available for the $100,000 in credit cards and medical debts
“Preference” Money Going to “Priority” Debt(s)
Simply put, any preference funds that your trustee receives will first go to your “priority” debt(s). Since back child/spousal support and recent income taxes are debts you would otherwise have to pay out on your own, you directly benefit from the trustee chasing down the preference money.
What could be better that having one of your creditors pay the debt owed to another creditor?! Even better, a creditor whose debt you are writing off, in effect pays all or part of a debt that you would have to pay yourself.
The Trustee’s Discretion
However, be aware that you have no real say about whether your bankruptcy trustee will pursue a preferential payment. The trustee has a lot of discretion about this. It’s not always easy to make a creditor disgorge a preferential payment. The trustee may decide that the costs of attempting to do so are too high compared to the anticipated benefit.
The Trustee’s Costs and Fees
Speaking of costs, the trustee usually gets to pay his or her costs of pursuing the preferential payment(s) out of the preference money recovered. That of course reduces the money available for the “priority” debt you want paid.
Also, as mentioned in passing above, the trustee gets a fee for his or her efforts (beyond the out-of-pocket costs). That fee is usually (unless the bankruptcy court disapproves):
- 25% of the first $5,000 collected
- 10% of the amount collected larger than $5,000 and up to $50,000
- 5% of the amounts collected larger than $50,000 and up to $1,000,000
This fee also reduces the amount available to pay the “priority” debt(s).
Added to Funds from Non-Exempt Assets
Creditor-reimbursed preferential payments are just one potential source of money that a bankruptcy trustee distributes to “priority” and other debts. In some consumer bankruptcy cases the debtor has one or more assets that are not “exempt” (protected from the trustee). The proceeds of the trustee’s liquidation of such assets also get distributed to the creditors, “priority” and otherwise. Again, this is only after the trustee pays his or her own costs and fees.
If you have a “priority” debt, the trustee’s pursuit of a “preferential” payment may result in that “priority” debt being paid so that you don’t have to pay it. But there are hurdles to this working out to your benefit. Your trustee may or may not decide to pursue the “preference.” And if the trustee does pursue and get the preference money back, his or her costs and fees will reduce any amount going to your “priority” debt. On the other hand, the trustee may also be distributing the liquidation proceeds of any non-exempt assets.
In any event, it’s a good thing if as a result some or all of a support or tax obligation gets paid for you.