Chapter 7 bankruptcy can provide immediate relief if you are in danger of a utility shut-off, including your gas, electricity, water, or even telephone. But to keep the lights on, within 20 days of your filing you must provide proof that you will be able to pay future utility bills.
If you're facing a utility shut-off, other less drastic options might solve the problem. It's a good idea to explore all avenues before filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
If you owe back payments on utility services and you file for bankruptcy, the utility company cannot alter, refuse, or discontinue your service. This prohibition, although similar to bankruptcy's automatic stay, is found in a different section of the bankruptcy code. (11 U.S.C. §366.) It also prohibits utility companies from shutting off or refusing to provide service just because you filed for bankruptcy.
Although the prohibition on a utility shut-off kicks in as soon as you file for bankruptcy, it won't last forever without further action from you. Within 20 days of your filing, you must provide the utility company with "adequate assurance" that you will pay future utility bills. In other words, the utility company can require a deposit.
If you don't comply with this requirement, the utility company can terminate your service. If you do provide adequate assurance of payment, the utility must continue your service, even if the bankruptcy discharges (wipes out) back utility payments.
To prevent a shut-off, you'll either want to get the utility company to agree that your payment assurance is adequate, or get the court to order the utility to accept your form of payment assurance. The bankruptcy law isn't clear about whether the utility can cut-off your service after 20 days without asking for court permission first, and your jurisdiction might operate under the assumption that utilities can do this. So don't let the deadline pass without addressing the adequate assurance issue head-on.
Adequate assurance can be in the form of a letter of credit, cash deposit, certificate of deposit, surety bond, prepayment, or another form of assurance that both the utility and you (or the trustee agree) will be satisfactory.
What form of assurance a particular utility will accept varies. Check with a local bankruptcy lawyer to find out what your court and local utility have accepted in the past.
There are other programs and laws that might help you prevent a utility shut-off. For example, many states prohibit utility cut-offs in extreme weather. And some states have programs that offer utility discounts to certain people, like senior citizens or low-income families. To learn more, see Preventing a Utility Shut-Off.
If you decide that bankruptcy is your best option for preventing utility termination, you might have to file quickly. If you don't have time to complete all of the required bankruptcy forms, you can file the petition and a few other items to start the process and stop the shut-off, and then file the remaining documents within 14 days. To learn more, see Emergency Bankruptcy Filing.