Bankruptcy is a process in which consumers and businesses can eliminate or repay some or all of their debts under the protection of the federal bankruptcy court. For the most part, bankruptcies can be divided into two types -- liquidation and reorganization.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy comes under the liquidation category. It's called liquidation because the bankruptcy trustee may take and sell ("liquidate") some of your property to pay back some of your debt. However, you may keep property that is protected (also called "exempt") under state law. There are several types of reorganization bankruptcies, but Chapter 13 is the most common type for consumers. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you keep all of your property, but must make monthly payments over three to five years to repay all or some of your debt.
Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy have many rules -- and exceptions to those rules -- regarding which debts are covered, who can file, and what property you can and cannot keep.
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Chapter 7 bankruptcy can be filed by individuals (called a "consumer" Chapter 7 bankruptcy) or businesses (called a "business" Chapter 7 bankruptcy). A Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically lasts three to six months.
Property liquidation. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, some of your property may be sold to pay down your debt. In return, most or all of your unsecured debts (that is, debts for which collateral has not been pledged) will be erased. You get to keep any property that is classified as exempt under the state or federal laws available to you (such as your clothes, car, and household furnishings). Many debtors who file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy are pleased to learn that all of their property is exempt. To learn more, check out Nolo's section on Bankruptcy Exemptions and Your Property.
Secured debt. If you owe money on a secured debt (for example, a car loan for which the car is pledged as a guarantee of payment), you have a choice of allowing the creditor to repossess the property; continuing your payments on the property under the contract (if the lender agrees); or paying the creditor a lump sum amount equal to the current replacement value of the property. Some types of secured debts can be eliminated in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Check out Secured Debt & Property in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy to learn more.
Eligibility for Chapter 7. Not everyone can file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. For example, if your disposable income is sufficient to fund a Chapter 13 repayment plan -- after subtracting certain allowed expenses and monthly payments for certain debts -- you won't be allowed to use Chapter 7 bankruptcy. For more on this and other requirements, see Chapter 7 Bankruptcy -- Who Can File?
Bankruptcy doesn't work on some kinds of debts. Though bankruptcy can eliminate many kinds of debts, such as credit card debt, medical bills, and unsecured loans, there are many types of debts, including child support and spousal support obligations and most tax debts, that cannot be wiped out in bankruptcy. For more information, see What Bankruptcy Can and Cannot Do.
Get step-by-step instructions on filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Nolo’s How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.
Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Chapter 13 bankruptcy is also known as "wage earner" bankruptcy because, in order to file for Chapter 13, you must have a reliable source of income that you can use to repay some portion of your debt.
Repayment. When you file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you must propose a repayment plan that details how you are going to pay back your debts over the next three to five years. The minimum amount you'll have to repay depends on how much you earn, how much you owe, and how much your unsecured creditors would have received if you'd filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. See our section on The Chapter 13 Repayment Plan to get in-depth information.
Debt limits. Your debts must be within limits set by the federal government: Currently, you may not have more than $1,149,525 in secured debt and $383,175 in unsecured debt.
Secured debts. If you have secured debts, Chapter 13 gives you an option to make up missed payments to avoid repossession or foreclosure. You can include these past due amounts in your repayment plan and make them up over time. To get a better understanding of how Chapter 13 can help with secured debts, see Nolo's sections on Your Home and Mortgage in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy and Reducing Loans and Non-Residential Mortgages in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.
For more information on Chapter 13 bankruptcy, see Chapter 13 Bankruptcy: Repay Your Debts, by Stephen Elias and Robin Leonard.
Other Types of Reorganization Bankruptcy
In addition to Chapter 13 bankruptcy, there are two other types of reorganization bankruptcy: Chapter 11 and Chapter 12.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is typically used by financially struggling businesses to reorganize their affairs. It is also available to individuals, but because Chapter 11 bankruptcy is expensive and time-consuming, it is generally used only by those whose debts exceed the Chapter 13 bankruptcy limits (rare) or who own substantial nonexempt assets (such as several pieces of real estate). If you are considering Chapter 11 bankruptcy, you'll need to talk to a lawyer.
Chapter 12 bankruptcy. Chapter 12 is almost identical to Chapter 13 bankruptcy. But to be eligible for Chapter 12 bankruptcy, at least 80% of your debts must arise from the operation of a family farm. Chapter 12 bankruptcy has higher debt ceilings to accommodate the large debts that may come with operating a farm, and it offers the debtor more power to eliminate certain types of liens. Very few people use Chapter 12 bankruptcy; if you want to join their ranks, you should consult with a lawyer. (To talk to a bankruptcy attorney in your area, visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory.)
For clear-cut answers, information, and strategies you need to figure out whether bankruptcy is the right choice, see The New Bankruptcy: Will It Work for You? by Stephen Elias (Nolo).
For more free legal information on bankruptcy and what it can do, start with Nolo's Bankruptcy Information Center.