Articles Posted in Debt

foreclosure

The Federal Reserve and Government forecasters agree: the Great Recession is over. But is it? Not for millions of Americans whose homes remain underwater thanks to the sub-prime mortgage scandal. Nor is it over for the millions more who lost their jobs and have only been able to secure part-time work with less pay and no benefits.

For many the ultimate insult is when their bank refuses to work with them and turns a few missed payments into a full-blown foreclosure. So here are a few options for those who want to know their options.

Alternative #1: Short Sale

When you sell your home, you pay off the current mortgage with the buyer’s loan. But what if your home’s value has plummeted below the face amount of your loan? In that case a buyer’s offer wouldn’t even retire your mortgage – much less provide the down payment on a new home. So you’re stuck, right?

Wrong. If you secure a bona fide offer your lender must take it seriously: it must decide whether to hang on to your home and potentially foreclose, or take a “short payoff.” And it turns out that virtually all banks are willing to take a short payoff under the right circumstances. The result is a short sale.

If your lender agrees to the short sale price it will release its mortgage lien – most times without asking you to make up the difference. But to convince the lender, you typically need to list your house for at least 90 days and meet a gauntlet of conditions. To enhance your chances of success, choose the right advisors. Experienced Real Estate Brokers and Attorneys make the process much easier and radically increase your chance of success.

Alternative #2: Deed in Lieu

As the name implies, it is possible to give your lender permission to take your home – that is, tender the deed– instead (“in lieu”) of making the lender foreclose. To qualify for this remedy a homeowner must submit a hardship letter and follow a battery of steps. Note: in order for a deed in lieu to work there cannot be junior liens on the property.

Advantages:

Unlike a short sale, lenders do not take steps to obtain a deficiency judgment when a deed is tendered in lieu of foreclosure. This is a difference and an advantage (in theory) over short sales. But in reality, short sales rarely generate deficiencies anyway.

The deed in lieu also permits the homeowner to avoid the publicity, expense, and time commitment involved in a foreclosure action.

Disadvantages:

The primary disadvantage of the deed in lieu is that homeowners lose their property, including all equity, immediately. On top of that, both the conveyance of the house to the lender and the forgiveness of the deficiency are taxable events that can generate thousands in unforeseen liability for the homeowner.

Alternative #3: Bankruptcy

Most people think of Bankruptcy as the end of the road: the last stop on the spiral to the bottom. But hold on! Bankruptcy isn’t the deep, dark hole many believe it to be. In fact, when it comes to saving your home, it may just be the best thing that ever happened to a homeowner. Here’s why.

First, Bankruptcy is tax neutral. Unlike all the options above, absolutely no tax liability arises when debts are written off in Bankruptcy.

Second, regardless of the type of Bankruptcy employed – liquidation or reorganization – the result is to stop the foreclosure freight train in its tracks. And if the homeowner can manage to repay what they’re behind, the foreclosure can be stayed indefinitely.

Third, for those who don’t realistically expect to catch up, a liquidation Bankruptcy will relieve them of the mortgage debt permanently, and without causing any unwanted tax repercussions.

In fact, Chapter 13 Reorganization enables homeowners pay down mortgage arrears via a payment plan over as many as 60 months (5 years). During that time, all foreclosure activity is stayed. Homeowners can file for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief right up until the confirmation of the Sheriff’s Sale of their home.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The short list in this post does not even get into the maze of regulations known as HAMP, HARP, and other government programs such as the Reverse Mortgage. These are also possible ways to go about saving your home from foreclosure. To learn more, drop us a line at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com or call for a confidential consultation. We are always happy to be of service.

Discharging Taxes in Bankruptcy

In response to questions we get over and over, here is our totally unofficial Guide to Discharging Taxes in Bankruptcy. We’ve gathered many of the tried-and-true rules on the topic but beware! The rules and decisions are constantly evolving, so take this guide with a grain of salt and always consult a competent Bankruptcy Attorney before making any decisions. Okay, enough disclaimers. Here it is:

Chapter 7 Liquidation

In a Chapter 7 liquidation Bankruptcy – whether an individual or a business entity – taxes can be discharged as long as:

(1) They relate to a return due 3+ years before a filing;
(2) That tax return was filed 2+ years before the filing;
(3) They weren’t assessed within 240 days before filing;
(4) That return was not fraudulent or frivolous; and
(5) Taxpayer/debtor not found guilty of evading tax laws.

Note: Even if the tax debt in question does not qualify under these criteria, penalties may still be discharged in Chapter 7 if the events that gave rise to the penalties occurred 3+ years before the filing date.

In such a situation the whole claim, including penalties and interest, would be listed on Schedule E and bifurcated into the non-dischargeable and dischargable portions.  The non-dischargeable portion would be listed in the “Amount Entitled to Priority” column of Schedule E, while the dischargable balance would be identified as “non-priority” and listed in the “Amount Not Entitled to Priority” column. The non-priority penalties do not get listed again on Schedule F.

Chapter 13 Reorganization

Taxes that do not qualify for discharge in Chapter 7 can stll be paid over 3 to 5 years in Chapter 13

(1) Interest stops accruing the moment the Chapter 13 bankruptcy is filed so payments are interest-free.
(2) Most tax penalties are treated as non-priority, unsecured debt and typically discharged or 10-15 cents on the dollar or less.
(3) In such case, tax penalties area still bifurcated from the priority tax claim and listed as “non-priority, unsecured” claims.

Note: If a tax lien has been recorded against the debtor’s real or personal property prior to the bankruptcy filing date, then the tax claim should be listed on Schedule D as secured – not on Schedule E as unsecured priority. That lien will be eliminated if there is no equity in the underlying property, or reduced to the present equity value of the debtor’s interest in that property as of the filing date of the case.

Want to know more about tax discharge strategies in Bankruptcy? Contact M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C. for your confidential consultation.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

[T]here are known knowns… known unknowns … and unknown unknowns… things we do not know we don’t know.—US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

When it comes to Bankruptcy, many Debtors don’t know what they don’t know about real estate taxes. Confused? So were the District Courts until the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the issue in the case of In re LaMont, Opinion 13-1187 (January 7, 2014).

The 7th Circuit began its analysis in LaMont by acknowledging the 2 kinds of real estate taxes with which Debtors must deal:

(a) Sold; and (b) Unsold.

The 2 are treated differently under State law and receive distinct treatment in a Plan of Reorganization as well:

Unsold taxes can be paid through the Plan in the same way that a Debtor would pay arrears to a secured creditor like a mortgage company. The rationale for such treatment is that the taxing body – the County – is presumed to have a secured lien in the subject property for its taxes. Moreover, those axes cannot be sold once a Bankruptcy Petition is filed. Such taxes generally get paid directly to the County Treasurer via the Plan.

Sold taxes are trickier. They can be paid through the Plan like unsolid taxes, but only so long as the “redemption period” has not expired. Even if the redemption period expires during the Plan, sold taxes can still be paid over the rest of the Plan period. And while that is taking place, the Automatic Stay will remain in effect to prevent Tax Buyers from redeeming the sold taxes or forcing a sale of the underlying property (the typical State law remedy).

In LaMont the issue was sold taxes. The LaMont Debtors owed real property in Minooka, Illinois on which the Village had levied a special assessment that they hadn’t paid. The Court noted that in this context a special assessment was deemed a property tax. Thus, the unpaid assessments were disposed of at a tax sale. Shortly afterwards the Debtors filed Chapter 13 and their Plan provided for payment of the assessment directly to the Village. However, the Plan did not identify. nor did notice go out to, the tax buyer. Nonetheless, the Plan was confirmed and the Debtors made payments to the Trustee who distributed them to the creditors including the Village.

But was the tax buyer bound by the terms of the confirmed Plan even though he had not been notified? In answering the questions the Court conducted a thorough analysis of the Illinois property tax system including tax sales and redemption periods – treating the sold special assessments the way they would sold property taxes.

The upshot of the analysis was that for the entirety of the redemption period – usually 2 to 2 ½ years, – a property owner could redeem his or her sold taxes by paying the County Clerk the past due amount, plus penalties and interest. Between 3 and 6 months before the expiration of the redemption period, a tax buyer had to file a Petition for Tax Deed with the Circuit Court, then take the resulting Order to the County Clerk to secure a Tax Deed, which then had to be recorded within a year. If those steps were not followed the tax buyer would lose his interest in the subject property. That is time enough for the property owners to act, but here the time period was tolled because of the Bankruptcy. Still, the Debtors neither identified the proper party to pay nor made adjustments to their Plan of Reorganization.

The LaMont the tax buyer filed his Petition for Tax Deed with the Circuit Court 3 years after the Debtors filed Bankruptcy and the Circuit Court denied it. The tax buyer then filed a Lift Stay Motion in the Bankruptcy Court, which denied the Motion because he was ostensibly being taken care of in the Plan. The tax buyer appealed, arguing that the Stay should not apply since he was not given notice of the case. But the District Court affirmed the Bankruptcy Court.

The tax buyer had also argued that his interest was in the real property, so it was not an interest against the Debtors. In other words he argued that his interest automatically divested the Debtors of their interest in the property after the redemption period expired. In response the 7th Circuit first examined whether or not the tax buyer had a claim, concluding that he did even though there wasn’t a traditional creditor-debtor relationship present. Nonetheless, the Court found that the tax buyer did not have an executory interest in the property itself: he merely had a tax lien on the property.

In reaching its decision the LaMont Court reviewed Illinois case law in concluding that, while there were differences, precedent favored the treatment of sold taxes as a lien. Since the tax buyer’s claim was deemed to be a lien, it could be modified under Section 1322(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code and the Debtors could force him to take payments even past the redemption date as long as the Plan was in effect.

In short, sold taxes can be addressed in a Plan of Reorganization but notice should be given to the payee or the Debtors risk paying into their Plan for 5 years only to end up with no credit towards their sold property taxes – and in the end stand to lose their home. Sad but true.

This piece from the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics site answers the question with charts galore! The short answer comes in 3 parts:

1) For working people, 2013 was more of the same slow, jobless recovery;
2) For high net-worth individuals and corporations it was a bonanza; and;
3) The housing sector underwent a slow, painful, and uneven half-recovery.

Check it out here.

WSJ Real Time Economics 2013 Graph

Business Opportunity Doctrine.jpgLet’s face it. Things are tough economically. Most talking heads agree the economy is undergoing a structural change that will affect everybody. Sadly it looks like not everyone is sharing the pain of the Great Recession, however. The rich are getting richer, while the rest of the population keeps on

sliding,

At a time like this who wouldn’t want to get everything they can? What if you were part of a company that wasn’t doing well and decided to make the best of it by jumping on opportunities unearthed by the company?

This is where the Corporate Opportunity or “Business Opportunity” Doctrine comes in. This equitable principal is employed by Illinois Courts and holds that:

a company fiduciary such as a director, officer. or majority shareholder may not develop an opportunity using company resources, or acquire an interest adverse to the company, or acquire property related to current or future company business, until they present that opportunity to the company and allow it to choose or decline the opportunity.

The hallmark of the Doctrine is the use of company assets to benefit the fiduciary. For instance, if a Director or Officer profited personally by acquiring property they have reason to know the company will need or intends to acquire, the Doctrine is violated. In other words, fiduciaries should not step in to grab things that the company could use.

The Doctrine itself is derived from the duty of undivided loyalty that comes with being a fiduciary. So while it goes without saying a fiduciary must act in the best interests of the company; Directors and Officers must do more: they must deal openly and honestly and exercise the utmost good faith. Levy v. Markal Sales Corp., 268 Ill. App. 3d 355, 364, 205 Ill. Dec. 599, 643 N.E.2d 1206 (1994).

While not codified by statute, the recognized elements of the Doctrine are:

a) The opportunity could benefit the company or benefit its future business;
b) The opportunity fits into the business model established by the company;
c) The company has an actual or in expectancy interest in the opportunity; and
d) The fiduciary has not presented the opportunity to the company yet; or
e) The fiduciary presented it, company chose it, but the fiduciary took it.

Using this analysis the Illinois Appellate Court pronounced in Graham v. Mimms, 111 Ill. App. 3d 751, 761, 67 Ill. Dec. 313, 444 N.E.2d 549 (1982) that the core principle of the Doctrine is that a fiduciary may not usurp a business opportunity developed through the use of corporate assets.

If corporate assets are used to develop an opportunity, the fiduciary cannot deny that the resulting benefit belongs to the company – even if the company couldn’t have pursued the opportunity itself or had no expectation interest. In Preferred Meal Systems v. Guse, 557 N.E.2d 506 (Ill. App. 1 Dist. 1990), the Court held that an officer was liable for breach of his fiduciary duty because, while still employed by the company, he failed to inform his employer that other employees were forming a rival company and soliciting customers and fellow employees to join that rival business.

The touchstone case regarding disclosure of corporate opportunities is Dremco v. South Chapel Hill Gardens, in which the Court enunciated the core principle that a fiduciary may not usurp an opportunity developed through the use of the company assets unless he first discloses and tenders the opportunity to the company – even if he believed that the company would not have been able to take advantage of the opportunity anyway. SEE ALSO Graham v. Mimms; Levy v. Markal.

Factors considered in this context include:

a) The manner in which the offer was communicated to the Corporation;
b) The good faith of the disclosing fiduciary;
c) The use of corporate assets to acquire the opportunity;
d) The degree of disclosure made to the Corporation;
e) Action taken by the Corporation with reference to that opportunity; and
f) The need or interest of the Corporation in the opportunity.

Lindenhurst Drugs, Inc. v. Becker, 154 Ill. App. 3d 61, 68, 506 N.E.2d 645, 650, 106 Ill. Dec. 845, 850 (Ill. App. 2 Dist. 1987).

So the basic tenet of the Corporate Opportunity Doctrine is that fiduciaries cannot compete with the company because they owe duties of loyalty, good faith, transparency, and fair dealing. The original conception of the Doctrine restricted fiduciaries from taking any opportunity that the company could have pursued: but more recent decisions have held that disclosure to the company and its decision not to pursue the opportunity relieves the fiduciary of further obligation. Still,  failure to disclose and tender the opportunity results in the fiduciary being prevented from exploiting the opportunity at all.

If you believe that you have experienced a violation of the Corporate Opportunity Doctrine, or that fiduciaries at your company may be violating their obligations, contact us in confidence to find out what you can do about it.

Battle Royale

A Little Light Reading

Are you excited to read about a dispute between competing secured creditors for the priority of their liens in property of the Bankruptcy Estate? Of course not.

Lucky for you issues such as these are generally heard in State court rather than in Federal Bankruptcy courts. Why? Because real property is considered a unique feature of the state and county in which it is located. Local features get local treatment.

But priority disputes can, and do, get played out in Bankruptcy court. For example take the case of In re Jones, 2011 WL 6140686 (Bankr. SD IL 2011) in which Debtors in a Chapter 11 case owned several pieces of property encumbered with mortgages cross-collateralized with other property of the Estate.

1st mortgage on Property #1 was taken by Bank #1, cross-collateralized, and provided that the maximum secured liability under its terms was approximately $214,000.

2nd mortgage on Property #1 was taken by Bank #2.

Both mortgages were timely recorded and Bank #2 did not contest its priority status. But then something happened.

1st mortgage on Property #2 was taken by Bank #1 and cross-collateralized with its mortgage on Property #1.

Since the interest of Bank #2 was not yet recorded when the additional loan from Bank #1 was taken, Bank #2 found itself in a tentative position.

Got all that? Because here is where it gets interesting…

As part of their reorganization, the Debtors sought lave to sell, and the Court agreed to permit the sale of, Property #1.  But by that time the Great Recession was in effect. Property #1 was not worth nearly what it had been when the loan was taken. In fact, it looked as if a sale of the property would not even generate enough to pay off all the lenders.

That’s when the fighting started.

Eventually Property #1 sold for $388,000. At that time Bank #1 was owed $115,000 under the terms of its 1st mortgage, plus more than $300,000 under the loan against Property #2. Bank #2 looked to be owed more than $300,000. But it was Bank #1 that sought all sale proceeds; so when Bank #2 objected, the battle was on!

Come Out Swinging

At the core of In re Jones was the distinction between 2 equally accepted concepts found in Illinois law:

  • Actual Notice; and
  • Record (“Inquiry”) Notice

There was no denying that Bank #1 and Bank #2 had actual notice of  claims on Property #1. Nor could it be denied that Bank #2 did not know of Bank #1’s claim on the 2nd Property until it was too late.

Rather, the question was whether Bank #2 should have known of the cross-collateralization clause and investigated further. In its opinion the Court noted that the cross-collateralization clause was on the first page of the mortgage document so even a cursory review of the title records would have revealed it. The Court also went through an analysis of Illinois case law and the recording statute in reaching its decision.

The opinion in Jones explains record notice: if a mortgage is properly recorded, then actual knowledge is no longer important. The burden of due diligence shifts to subsequent lenders who can, and should, search public records. The Court explains inquiry notice in a similar way. Where a lender has been made aware of facts or circumstances that lead it to believe there could be other liens on a property, that lender has a duty to perform a diligent inquiry.

The Decision and Appeal

Here, the Court found Bank #2 knew about the senior mortgage and cross-collateralization – the language was on the front page of the mortgage document, which was sufficient to put Bank #2 on inquiry notice that its borrower might have additional loans that could trigger the cross-collateralization. Finally, since Property #2 was in the same county as Property #1, the loan could easily have been discovered.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the Bankruptcy Court and found for Bank #1.

There are many instances where priority fights occur in bankruptcies. Cross-collateralization is a frequent case, but refinancing can also trigger such clauses. Generally, the lender who refinances will get a formal subrogation agreement to eliminate a potential priority fight, but even if it doesn’t, equitable subordination will allow it to keep its priority intact.  

Questions about your own situation? Contact us for a no-cost consultation.

House Underwater

Where Did the Equity Go?

If you’re an Illinois homeowner chances are any equity you had in your home disappeared between 2008 and 2011; and hasn’t been seen since. If you’re lucky that equity may start crawling back to “normal” levels in 2013; but if you haven’t seen it happen you’re not alone. Despite recent reports in the news about recoveries in California, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Illinois property values continue to languish. Of course it’s not all bad news. For instance, as of January the overall price of housing in the Chicago area was up 3.3% from a year ago, with condo prices up a robust 5.8%. Then again, the Illinois foreclosure rate has merely leveled off rathern than falling as it has in other States. And as the “jobless recovery” grinds on, a few basic truths are coming to light:

The value of real estate is still well below pre-crash levels and many people borrowed against those inflated values. These people owe well more than their homes are worth.

Result: These borrowers can afford to keep paying, but they know that doing so is tantamount to throwing good money after bad. They don’t really want to keep making monthly payments on loans valued at 2 or 3 times they market price of their homes.

Moreover, many who who managed not to over-borrow still find themselves in trouble because they have suffered irreversible job loss or were forced to take a lower-paying position. Often these jobs come without benefits like insurance.

Result: This leaves many with no option but to make payments on excessive loans with high interest rates until something unexpected happens and their system crashes.

Are Write-Downs The Solution?

Members of Congress, Administration officials, analysts, and pundits, have all speculated that if mortgagees adjusted homeowner indebtedness down to the value of their homes, the result would be a tide of debt forgiveness that would lift all boats. In other words, they advocate a write down of mortgages by banks to match the value of the underlying real estate. The result would be the one-time elimination of billions in phantom real estate value. Of course banks would be left holding the bag… but the last time that happened the government came to the rescue. Could it work again?

Is DeMarco the Bad Guy?

The consensus on the feasibility of write downs has been growing for some time. Now even quasi-government enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac support these kinds of mortgage loans now. So why aren’t write-downs being used more? Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan puts the blame on one man: Edward DeMarco, the head of the agency that regulates Fannie and Freddie. DeMarco has stated on the record that he does not believe write-downs would resolve the nation’s foreclosure problems, and that on the contrary, their use would force banks to write down billions in non-performing loans then turn around and seek another bailout at taxpayer expense.

The Controversy Over Write-Downs

In March 2013 Attorney General Madigan and 8 other State Attorneys General called for DeMarco to resign because he had impeded the best chance that most homeowners would ever have to get on track. Whether or not that allegation is true, the controversy raises troubling questions. No place is this more apparent than Illinois, where home values remain low.

According to the Illinois Assistant Attorney General for Consumer Fraud, borrowers will be forced to struggle with their mortgages for years because of DeMarco’s refusal to permit Freddie and Fannie to accept write-downs. Attorney General Madigan echoed those sentiments in her own statement on the subject.

Arguing With The Administration

The position espoused by the AG’s has garnered support from Washington heavyweights like Tim Geithner, former Treasury Secretary, who wrote to DeMarco in July 2012 to say suppressing write-downs was not in the best interests of the nation. Secretary Geithner also noted that strategic principal reductions, as they are known in Washington, are effectively the only way for homeowners to escape crushing subprime mortgages, and that the economic rebound resulting from widespread write-downs would benefit taxpayers far more than it would cost them..

DeMarco Remains Intransigent

In October 2012 Bank of America analysts predicted that DeMarco would resign his position or be forced out. Some analysts even thought that if President Obama were reelected he would fire DeMarco by December of that year. When that didn’t happen, 45 members of the House of Representatives called for DeMarco’s removal. Attorney General Madigan made her demand a few months later. Despite everything however, DeMarco has retained his position and continues to stand fast in his refusal to allow mortgage write-downs as a legitimate means of extinguishing mortgages owned by, or backed by, Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae.

What will happen in 2013? If write-downs are not an option, many will find themselves looking at programs like HAMP and HARP to manage payments while others will find that Chapter 13 is the most expedient way to deal with their situation.

To find out which route might work for you, feel free to call for an appointment or contact us directly using the form on this page. We look forward to speaking with you in confidence.

About the Author
Robin Lewis is a business development professional with a real estate background. She is currently a senior writer at Mortgageloan.com, which covers trends in real estate, financial stability, and economics.

Thumbnail image for Chapter 20 (To Strip or Not to Strip).png

Yes Virginia, it is possible to both discharge unsecured debts forever (Chapter 7) and strip down secondary mortgages (Chapter 13). The result is a so-called “Chapter 20.” But should Debtors file two cases when it’s hard enough to put themselves through one? Read on and find out.

When Is Chapter 20 a Good Idea?

There are situations that fairly cry out for Chapter 20 treatment:

Situation #1: Debtor is burdened with priority unsecured obligations like IRS debt, that must be completely retired in Chapter 13. But that would yield unsustainably high monthly payments. By contrast, once the Debtor’s unsecured obligations are discharged, the resulting Chapter 13 plan payments become downright manageable. Chapter 20 is the solution.

Situation #2: Debtor’s mortgage exceeds the value of the Debtor’s home (i.e. the property is “underwater”). Chapter 7 cannot help the Debtor ameliorate their high payments or deal with their delinquent second mortgage. All Chapter 7 can do is give the Debtor an opportunity to reaffirm the mortgage(s) on the same outrageous terms. Chapter 20 is the solution because it permits the Debtor to treat its second mortgage like an unsecured debt and pay only pennies on the dollar to retire it.

How Does Chapter 20 Help, Exactly?
Chapter 20 works by reducing the overall amount of debt to be paid, then stretches that smaller sum over as many as 60 months. Practically speaking, Chapter 13 plan payments are determined by 2 factors:

  • The Means Test imposed by the 2005 BAPCPA Amendment to the Code; and
  • The amount of secured claims, arrears, and priority debts the Debtor must pay

This is where Chapter 13 Debtors may take advantage of the lien strip – an option not available in Chapter 7 – that allows them to treat secured loans on owner-occupied property as unsecured, and pay down those loans at far less than face value.

What is Lien Stripping, Again?

Lien stripping is the process of treating some “secured” loans as unsecured: it applies only when the property in question is “underwater” – i.e. its market value is exceeded by the face value of the primary mortgage. In that case the 2nd mortgage or home equity line of credit (HELoC) is really unsecured and may be paid under the plan of reorganization at the same rate as other unsecured debt – $.10 on the dollar, $.50 on the dollar, etc. And Boom! goes the dynamite.

Are People Using Chapter 20 Successfully?

In re Davis, 4th Cir., slip opinion 12-1184 (2013), the latest case to discuss the legitimacy of Chapter 20 lien strips, points out that Chapter 7 eliminates personal liability but leaves in rem interests like mortgage liens undisturbed. It goes on to point out that an interest is “secured” only to the extent of the creditor’s interest in the
underlying real estate. See Code §506. Thus, if a house is worth
less than its primary mortgage then 2nd and 3rd liens are
unsecured by definition. And since §1322
of the Code permits the modification of the rights of unsecured creditors, a lien strip is both warranted by the facts and supported by the law. Finally, the Davis Court points out that while not every circuit has explicitly ruled
on lien stripping, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, and 11th Circuits have, and all have permitted it.(Id.

at 7). 

Last But Not Least…

The
only remaining question is whether a Debtor must receive a discharge at the end of its
Chapter 13 case in order to complete a lien strip; or if the mere
completion of its plan of reorganization is sufficient. The issue
arises here because the BAPCPA mandates that once  a discharge is received in a Chapter 7 case the Debtor must wait 4 years to file Chapter 13 and obtain another discharge. Realistically however, a Debtor that has received a Chapter 7 discharge does not need a Chapter 13 discharge on top of it. Unfortunately, there is no consensus in this area.  Even in the Northern District of Illinois the answer
may depend on your Judge (cf In re Fenn, 428 B.R. 494 (Bankr. ND Ill. 2010) with
In re Anderson,
10-B-45294 (unreported)).

Conclusion

Bankruptcy discharges affect only personal (in personam“) liability: a discharge does not simply cause liens on property to disappear. As set forth in Sec.1322(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code, a plan of reorganization may only modify the rights of unsecured creditors. A lien strip exposes the wholly-unsecured lien on real property and, under the auspices of Code Section 506, allows the Debtor to pay off that “secured” interest for pennies on the dollar, as if it were merely an unsecured interest (which it really is).

Sure, a Chapter 20 lien strip is just the thing for homeowners with too much unsecured debt and a lousy second mortgage or HELoC hanging over their heads. But is it right for you. Call us in confidence to find out. Happy stripping!

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Everything Was Going Fine Until…

Your customer or borrower has been paying like clockwork and you, the creditor or vendor, have been dispensing goods and services as promised. Then your customer starts to pay a little later, then later still. Why not? Times are tough. So you do the decent thing and take their payments without complaining. Next thing you know, your customer seeks bankruptcy protection, leaving you holding the bag for thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods and services. Money you’ll never see again. 

The Worst Part Is (Not) Over

You’re out a lot of material, and now you’ll never get paid. Sure that’s tough to take, but at least the worst part is over, right? Wrong.

All sums paid by customers or clients in the 90 days before a bankruptcy is filed are de facto preferences. In other words, sums paid in the 3 months before a bankruptcy case is filed can be recouped by the Bankruptcy Estate without a guaranty of ever getting that money, or any portion of it, back.

Most creditors think that once a payment is received, all is good and they can move on. This is not the case if a customer filed bankruptcy. Sections 547 and 550 of the Bankruptcy Code allow a Trustee (in Chapter 7 cases) or Debtor in Possession (DIP) in Chapter 13 or 11 cases to recover preferential transfers

Will you have this problem? Was your customer’s payment a preferential transfer? Short answer: “Yes it was” if

  • payment was for the creditor’s benefit    See 547(b)(1)
  • on account of antecedent debt   (i.e. bought on credit)
  • for goods or services that were received  See 547(b)(2)
  • while a Debtor was insolvent as defined  See 547(b)(3)
  • within 90 days before a bankruptcy filing See 547(b)(4)

Note: It is immaterial whether the vendor or creditor knew, had reason to know, or suspected a borrower or customer was about to file for bankruptcy or was insolvent. Once the case is filed the 90-day look-back is automatic. See 547(f)

Taken literally these rules mean creditors ought to stop lending, and vendors stop selling, if there is any concern about the financial health of the borrower or customer. Of course if that happened creditors and vendors could fail themselves. So what should creditors really do? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, here is a list of 3 Don’ts and 1 Do If a Customer or Borrower Files Bankruptcy:

Don’t 

  • Volunteer to return sums paid by your Customer or Borrower. The case Trustee or DIP must first calculate what is due, decide whether to attempt to recoup it, and file a motion with the Court. 
  • Contact your customer and raise hell – that will only make things worse.
  • Represent your own interests in Bankruptcy Court. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery on yourself, would you?

Do 

  • HIRE A LAWYER 

Why only a single “Do?” And why put it in all caps? Because Bankruptcy Courts already favor the Trustee or DIP. Failing to hire a good lawyer to argue on your behalf if like bringing a knife to a gunfight, partner.

Defenses to a Preference Action

All doom and gloom aside, there are defenses that creditors can use when confronted with a motion to recover preferential transfers.The 2 most common defenses are 

  • Contemporaneous Exchange for Value; and 
  • Payment in the Ordinary Course of Business

A so-called Contemporaneous Exchange is essentially a COD arrangement. The creditor will supply goods and is paid on delivery or within a few days thereafter – functionally at the same time. These payments can be defended as non-preferential transfers.

The Ordinary Course of Business defense is more subjective: it relies on the way the parties treat each other. For instance if a vendor supplies goods to the buyer on a standard basis like Net-30, and the buyer pays as envisioned, then the payments made according to those terms can be defended as non-preferential transfers.

The Limits of the Ordinary Course Defense

Several recent cases have weighed in on the Ordinary Course of Business defense and shed light on the limits of this theory. 

In In re Universal Marketing, 481 B.R. 318 (Penn. E.D. 2012) the Chapter 7 Trustee sought to recover two $25,000 payments made to the Debtor’s financial advisor. An Engagement Letter had been executed before the bankruptcy providing for 7 months worth of service at the rate of $25,000. The Debtor had made its monthly payments, but some had been late: opening the door for for the claim that no ordinary course defense existed. The Court disagreed, and found that the subject payments were made in the ordinary course of business. In its Opinion, the Universal Marketing Court considered the following facts:

  • the existence of an agreement (the engagement letter)
  • the services offered were of the type the debtor needed
  • the creditor was in the business of providing such services
  • length of time during which the arrangement was in place
  • that the payments were typical for such an arrangement
  • that the creditor did not exert undue influence to get paid.

The Court found the payments under consideration to be consistent and proportional to fees charged by the creditor for like services to other customers. This only left the occasional late payment. But the Court noted that this amounted to just a few days: too small of a divergence to transform them into preferential transfers. 

In re Mainline Contracting, 2012 WL 5247173 (N.C. BK 2012) was a Chapter 7 case involving not only late payments by the Debtor but lax collection tactics by the vendor. To begin with, Invoices clearly labeled “Net 30″ had seldom been paid within 30 days by the Debtor. What’s more, in the year leading up to the bankruptcy filing the Debtor took an average of 79 days to pay, with the number creeping up as the Debtor neared its bankruptcy filing date. Then there was testimony that the Debtor actually never paid before 90 days, unless the creditor called or emailed to inquire. There had also been a number of instances in which the Creditor put the Debtor on a COD basis due to its poor payment history, the Debtor would catch up, and the whole process started over. Eventually the Debtor filed for bankruptcy and the Trustee sought to recover certain payments.

The Marine Contracting Court found that the payments in question were not preferences, and thus not avoidable. In reaching its decision the Court noted that

  • although the invoices read “Net 30,” that was not the practice of the parties
  • the creditor would continue to supply materials on credit even when not paid
  • it was only after invoices were 60+ days overdue the creditor demanded payment
  • it was only after invoices were 90+ days overdue that the creditor switched to COD
  • such behavior was consistent over both the baseline period and the preference period 

The weightiest factor in the Court’s analysis was the behavior of the parties during and before the the 90-day preference period.The consistency of that treatment indicated that these were truly payments made in the ordinary course of business.

Take-Away:What Does It All Mean?

The takeaway from this discussion is that creditors should strive to be consistent in the way they treat customers. Talk to cistp,ers about past-due payments. Follow up consistently and in a timely fashion. If payment terms are “Net 30″ for instance, send reminders at 45 and 60 days. And if a customer is a bad payer consider COD or a prepayment arrangement. After all, if credit is not extended there can be no preference action.