Consumer Bankruptcy Changes in the CARES Act

The massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief law provided through the CARES act also includes some legal relief for both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 consumer debtors. 

Cares Act
Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

If you’re thinking about filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, the CARES law may help, at least slightly. If instead, you’re thinking about a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case, the new law helps in more significant ways. That’s also true if you already are in a Chapter 13 case.

$1,200 Relief Checks Excluded as Income for the Means Test

To qualify to file a consumer Chapter 7 case, you have to pass the “means test.” Part of that test is a rather complicated calculation of your “current monthly income.” That is the average of the last six full calendar months of income from virtually all sources. A single large payment—such as a $1,200 coronavirus relief payment—could pump up your “current monthly income” and make you fail the “means test.” Then you could be forced to file a multi-year Chapter 13 case instead of a 3-4 month Chapter 7.

The new CARES law solves that problem neatly. It merely excludes any coronavirus relief money from the definition of “current monthly income.” To be precise, the law eliminates the following:

Payments made under Federal law relating to the national emergency declared by the President under the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) with respect to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID–19).

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES”), Section 1113(b)(1)(A).

What Payments Are Included under the CARES act?

This statutory language is broad. It doesn’t refer only to the one-time $1,200 (or so) relief payments. It’s clearly broad enough that it could include other “Payments made under Federal law” related to the coronavirus national emergency. That is, “current monthly income” for purposes of the means test may exclude other such payments.

For example, CARES provides unemployment benefits of $600 per week extra beyond the usual state-calculated weekly amounts. (See our last blog post about the unemployment benefits under CARES) These $600 weekly extra benefits sure sound like they’re “Payments made under Federal law” related to [this] national emergency.” Since these $600 payments can last up to 39 weeks, they can amount to way more money than the one-time $1,200 payments. So if these $600 payments are also excluded in applying the means test, that would be quite significant.

But the law may not be clear on this. At this writing, CARES is just a month old. How congress’s application of the act may shift quickly, as in so many things related to the pandemic. Different parts of the country may apply the law somewhat differently. Contact your local bankruptcy attorney for current information as it applies to you.

$1,200 Relief Checks Also Excluded in Confirmation of Chapter 13 Plan

Chapter 13 generally requires you to pay all of your “projected disposable income” into your 3-to-5-year payment plan. This monthly amount goes through the Chapter 13 trustee to your creditors under the terms of your plan. Then at the end of the plan, you are usually debt-free (except sometimes for certain agreed long-term debts).

Your “projected disposable income” is based on virtually all your income, minus certain legally allowed expenses. The income side of this is your “current monthly income” as discussed above—based on your last 6 months of income. If that income would include a one-time coronavirus relief payment, it would greatly increase your “disposable income” and thus your required Chapter 13 plan payment.

The new CARES law solves that problem in a way similar to the above section about the Chapter 7 means test. Using the exact same language, it excludes any coronavirus relief money from the Chapter 13 definition of “current monthly income.” To again be precise, the following is excluded:

… payments made under Federal law relating to the national emergency declared by the President under the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) with respect to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID–19).

CARES, Section 1113(b)(1)(B).

As in the section above on Chapter 7, it’s not yet clear what federal payments are excludable. Besides the $600 weekly unemployment payments mentioned above, there may be other future coronavirus stimulus payments approved by Congress. Again, talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to get current information and advice.

Changes to Ongoing Chapter 13 Plans

During the course of Chapter 13 you can change, or “modify” your approved payment plan under certain circumstances.  The CARES act added a new circumstance: if you are “experiencing or [have] experienced a material financial hardship due, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID–19) pandemic.” CARES, Section 1113(b)(1)(C).

The bankruptcy judge still has to approve the modified plan, after the usual notice to creditors and opportunity for objection. The modified plan must comply with the usual requirements. (“Sections 1322(a), 1322(b), 1323(c), and the requirements of section 1325(a) shall apply to any [such plan] modification… .” CARES, Section 1113(b)(1)(C).)

It’s unclear what this all adds to the plan modification rights you already have, except for one huge change. The law has been clear for a long time: Chapter 13 plans cannot last longer than 5 years. CARES extended this to a new maximum of 7 years for applicable modified plans.

Although you’d think you would want to finish your plan as fast as possible, longer plans often allow you to reduce your monthly plan payments. It can give you more opportunities to preserve certain assets or collateral—keep a vehicle, save a home. Given the financial challenges so many of us are facing, this greater flexibility can make the difference between completing your case successfully or not.

Important: The Cares Act Applicability to Cases

First, the Chapter 7 means test change and the Chapter 13 plan confirmation change “apply to any case commenced before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act.” CARES, Section 1113(b)(1)(D(i). But those changes have a sunset provision—they are deleted from the Bankruptcy Code effective “on the date that is 1 year after the date of enactment.” CARES, Section 1113(b)(2).

CARES was enacted on March 27, 2020. That means that these two changes apply to all cases filed any time before that date but only through March 26, 2021. Be careful about this deadline.

Second, the Chapter 13 plan modification change applies “apply to any case for which a plan has been confirmed… before the date of enactment of this Act.” CARES, Section 1113(b)(1)(D(ii). But, same as above, this change has a sunset provision—it is deleted from the Bankruptcy Code effective “on the date that is 1 year after the date of enactment.” CARES, Section 1113(b)(2).

So this change applies to Chapter 13 cases which had a confirmed plan before March 27, 2020, and then successfully modified its plans by March 26, 2021. Be careful about this deadline as well.

Notice that by this language this change does not apply to cases either not filed, or already filed but not yet confirmed, as of March 27, 2020. This means that people in these situations appear unable to take advantage of the 7-year provision.

The bottom line all these changes to the Bankruptcy Code are temporary, currently lasting only this one year. Then they will be deleted and the Bankruptcy Code will revert to its prior language.

 

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