Who Can File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?

Learn about eligibility rules for Chapter 7 -- including the new "means test."

Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy can be a powerful tool for dealing with overwhelming debt. But it isn't available to everyone. Here are some situations in which you will not be allowed to file for Chapter 7.

You Can Afford a Chapter 13 Plan

Under the old bankruptcy rules, the bankruptcy judge had the power to dismiss a Chapter 7 case if he or she thought the debtor had sufficient disposable income to fund a Chapter 13 repayment plan. There were no hard and fast rules dictating when a judge should dismiss a case on these grounds -- it depended on the facts of the case and the attitude of the judge.

Now that the new bankruptcy law has gone into effect, however, there are clear criteria that dictate who will be allowed to stay in Chapter 7 -- and who will be forced to use Chapter 13, if they choose to file for bankruptcy. Disabled veterans whose debts were incurred during active duty and people whose debts come primarily from the operation of a business get a fast pass to Chapter 7. All others must meet the requirements set out below.

How High is Your Income?

Under the new rules, the first step in figuring out whether you can file for Chapter 7 is to measure your "current monthly income" against the median income for a family of your size in your state. Your "current monthly income" is not your income at the time you file, however: It is your average income over the last six months before you file. (You don't have to include Social Security retirement and disability payments.) For many people, particularly those who are filing for bankruptcy because they recently lost a job, their "current monthly income" according to these rules will be much more than they take in each month by the time they file for bankruptcy.

Once you've calculated your income, compare it to the median income for your state. (You can find median income tables, by state and family size, at the website of the United States Trustee, www.usdoj.gov/ust; click "Means Testing Information.")

If your income is less than or equal to the median, you can file for Chapter 7. If it is more than the median, however, you must pass "the means test" -- another requirement of the new law -- in order to file for Chapter 7.

Can You Pass the Means Test?

The purpose of the means test is to figure out whether you have enough disposable income, after subtracting certain allowed expenses and required debt payments, to repay at least a portion of your unsecured debts over a five-year repayment period.

To find out whether you pass the means test, you start with your "current monthly income," calculated as described above. From that amount, you subtract both of the following:

  • certain allowed expenses, in amounts set by the IRS. Generally, you cannot subtract what you actually spend for things like transportation, food, clothing, and so on; instead, you have to use the limits the IRS imposes, which may be lower than the cost of living in your area.
  • monthly payments you will have to make on secured and priority debts. Secured debts are those for which the creditor is entitled to seize property if you don't pay (such as a mortgage or car loan); priority debts are obligations that the law deems to be so important that they are entitled to jump to the head of the repayment line. Typical priority debts include child support, alimony, tax debts, and wages owed to employees.

If your total monthly disposable income after subtracting these amounts is less than $100, you pass the means test, and will be allowed to file for Chapter 7. If your total remaining monthly disposable income is more than $166.66, you have flunked the means test, and will be prohibited from using Chapter 7, with one exception: If you can prove to the court that you're facing special circumstances that aren't reflected in the calculations above, and that effectively decrease your income or increase your expenses to bring your disposable income below the $166.66 figure, you will be allowed to use Chapter 7.  

So what about those in the middle? They have to do some more math. If your remaining monthly disposable income is between $100 and $166.66, you must figure out whether what you have left over is enough to pay more than 25% of your unsecured, nonpriority debts (such as credit card bills, student loans, medical bills, and so on) over a five-year period. If so, you flunk the means test, and Chapter 7 won't be available to you. (Again, if you are facing special circumstances that alter these figures, you may be able to convince the court to allow you to use Chapter 7.) If not, you pass the means test, and Chapter 7 remains an option.

You Previously Received a Bankruptcy Discharge

You cannot file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy if you obtained a discharge of your debts in a Chapter 7 case within the last eight years, or a Chapter 13 case within the last six years.

A Previous Bankruptcy Was Dismissed Within the Previous 180 Days

You cannot file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy if a previous Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case was dismissed within the past 180 days because:

  • you violated a court order
  • the court ruled that your filing was fraudulent or constituted an abuse of the bankruptcy system, or
  • you requested the dismissal after a creditor asked for relief from the automatic stay.
You Defrauded Your Creditors

A bankruptcy court may dismiss your case if it thinks you have tried to cheat your creditors or concealed assets so you can keep them for yourself.

Certain activities are red flags to the courts and trustees. If you have engaged in any of them during the past year, your bankruptcy case may be dismissed. These no-nos include:

  • unloading assets to your friends or relatives to hide them from creditors or from the bankruptcy court
  • running up debts for luxury items when you were clearly broke and had no way to pay them off
  • concealing property or money from your spouse during a divorce proceeding, or
  • lying about your income or debts on a credit application.

In addition, you must sign your bankruptcy papers under "penalty of perjury" swearing thateverything in them is true. If you deliberately fail to disclose property, omit material information about your financial affairs, or use a false Social Security number (to hide your identity as a prior filer), and the court discovers your action, your case will be dismissed and you may be prosecuted for fraud.

Copyright 2005 Nolo