Filing for Bankruptcy: What Happens When You File?


Colleen Cosgrove


Reviewed by


May 17, 2023

This article is Tax Professional approved


Bankruptcy, a term often associated with financial failure, is actually a legal procedure designed to provide relief to individuals or businesses drowning in debt. The mere mention of bankruptcy may stir up feelings of trepidation or discomfort, but understanding its purpose and function can help remove the stigma and illuminate its role as a financial tool designed to offer a fresh start.

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Bankruptcy isn’t about financial irresponsibility or moral failing; instead, it can be a necessary solution to circumstances often beyond one’s control, such as a medical emergency, job loss, or a failed business venture due to market forces. Whether it’s from a place of curiosity, academic interest, or because you or someone you know might be considering it, understanding how bankruptcy works is essential.

This post will provide an in-depth look at bankruptcy, dissecting its history, the types, the process, and its effects. We will discuss misconceptions, how to decide if it’s the right path, the alternatives, and life after bankruptcy. We aim to equip readers with a comprehensive understanding of bankruptcy and its role in the financial world.

Understanding bankruptcy

Brief history of bankruptcy

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of bankruptcy is not a modern construct but rather has its roots in ancient times. Dating back to the Old Testament, debt forgiveness (even the IRS has one) was an integral part of society. In early Roman law, creditors could seize the debtor’s assets, and even the debtor himself, as payment for debts. Modern bankruptcy law, designed to balance the interests of both debtor and creditor, has evolved significantly from these draconian measures.

The concept of bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a legal process where an individual or business unable to meet their financial obligations can seek relief from some or all debts. Governed by federal law, specifically Title 11 of the United States Code, bankruptcy is designed to allow the debtor a fresh start while providing fair treatment to creditors. This fresh start takes the form of a discharge, which releases the debtor from personal liability for specific debts, essentially wiping the slate clean.

The role of bankruptcy in the financial system

Bankruptcy plays a crucial role in the financial system by enabling the efficient functioning of credit markets and encouraging entrepreneurial risk-taking. By providing a structured way for borrowers to eliminate or repay their debts, bankruptcy prevents creditors from independently taking actions that could be detrimental to the borrower or other creditors. This system fosters trust and enables the provision of credit, which is essential for economic growth and development.

Misconceptions about bankruptcy

Despite its importance, bankruptcy is often misunderstood. Many view it as an admission of failure or as the end of the financial road, filled with permanent consequences. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Bankruptcy is not the end, but a new beginning – an opportunity to eliminate crushing debts and rebuild one’s financial foundation. While it does have significant implications, including an impact on credit scores and the ability to obtain new credit, these consequences are not insurmountable and can be mitigated over time.

By understanding bankruptcy’s purpose, role, and impact, individuals and businesses can make informed decisions about their financial health. In the following sections, we’ll delve into the different types of bankruptcy, the process, and its effects to further demystify this often misunderstood financial tool.

Types of bankruptcy

When it comes to bankruptcy, one size does not fit all. Different circumstances call for different types of bankruptcy, each tailored to specific financial situations. We’ll be focusing on three primary forms that apply to most cases: Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13.

Chapter 7: liquidation bankruptcy

Chapter 7 bankruptcy, often referred to as “liquidation bankruptcy,” is the most common form. Under Chapter 7, a debtor’s non-exempt assets are sold by the bankruptcy trustee, and the proceeds are used to repay creditors. After the assets are sold, most of the debtor’s remaining debts are discharged, with certain exceptions like student loans, child support, and taxes. While this may seem drastic, the fact is, many debtors filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy have few or no non-exempt assets and end up keeping most of their property.

Chapter 11: reorganization bankruptcy

Chapter 11 bankruptcy, commonly known as “reorganization bankruptcy,” is typically used by businesses and some high-debt individuals. Instead of selling assets to pay creditors, the debtor (usually a business entity) proposes a plan to restructure its debts and operations to enable repayment over time while continuing operations. This can include renegotiating contracts and leases, liquidating some assets, and downsizing operations to reduce expenses.

Chapter 13: wage earner’s plan

Chapter 13 bankruptcy, or “wage earner’s plan,” is designed for individuals with regular income who want to pay their debts but are currently unable to do so. The debtor proposes a repayment plan, typically spanning three to five years, to pay off all or part of the debts from their future income. Unlike Chapter 7, the debtor can prevent foreclosure on their home or car and can spread out missed payments over the life of the plan.

Each type of bankruptcy serves a specific purpose and fits a particular set of circumstances. The chapters are not interchangeable, and the consequences of filing under each are different. In the next section, we’ll outline the general bankruptcy process and then delve into the specific processes for each bankruptcy type.

The bankruptcy process

The journey through bankruptcy is not a simple one. However, understanding the step-by-step process can help demystify this journey and show how it facilitates an orderly handling of debts and assets.

The bankruptcy petition and filing process

Initiating bankruptcy proceedings begins with the filing of a bankruptcy petition with the court. This petition includes detailed information about the debtor’s finances, including debts, income, expenses, and assets. The debtor may also have to complete credit counseling within 180 days before filing the petition. There are court costs associated with filing for bankruptcy, but in some cases, they can be waived or paid in installments.

The role of the bankruptcy trustee

Upon filing the petition, the court appoints a bankruptcy trustee. This trustee plays a central role in the bankruptcy process. In Chapter 7 cases, they are responsible for selling non-exempt assets and distributing the proceeds to creditors. In Chapter 13 cases, they administer the repayment plan, collecting payments from the debtor and disbursing them to creditors. The trustee also reviews the debtor’s financial information and can challenge any aspect of the case in court, such as the discharge of a particular debt.

The meeting of creditors

A key event in the bankruptcy process is the meeting of creditors, also known as the 341 meeting. During this meeting, the trustee and creditors can ask the debtor questions under oath about their financial affairs and property. While this might sound intimidating, it’s important to remember that this is a procedural part of the process and is not a court hearing.

The discharge of debts

Discharge of debts is the ultimate goal of filing for bankruptcy. This occurs when the court formally absolves the debtor from their obligation to pay certain debts. The timing of the discharge varies depending on the chapter of bankruptcy filed. In Chapter 7, discharge typically occurs a few months after the bankruptcy petition is filed. In Chapter 13, discharge occurs after the completion of the repayment plan.

The process may differ slightly depending on whether you’re filing under Chapter 7, Chapter 11, or Chapter 13. However, the above steps give a general overview of what to expect when navigating the bankruptcy process. In the next section, we’ll explore the impact of bankruptcy, including its effect on credit, the social stigma, and the long-term financial implications.

Impact of bankruptcy

Understanding the impact of bankruptcy can be crucial when considering this financial path. Here, we will discuss some key effects, including the impact on unsecured debt, credit card debt, and overall financial implications.

Effect on unsecured debt

One of the primary advantages of bankruptcy is the ability to eliminate unsecured debts. Unsecured debt is a type of debt that is not backed by an underlying asset—credit card debt, medical bills, and personal loans fall into this category. When you declare bankruptcy, particularly under Chapter 7, most of your unsecured debts can be discharged, meaning you’re no longer legally required to pay them.

Impact on credit card debt

Credit card debt, a common form of unsecured debt, is often a significant factor leading people to consider bankruptcy. As with other unsecured debts, credit card debt can often be discharged through bankruptcy. However, it’s important to note that fraudulent charges, or charges for luxury goods or services made just before filing for bankruptcy, may not be dischargeable.

The social stigma and emotional impact

While the financial benefits of bankruptcy can be substantial, it’s essential not to overlook the social stigma and emotional impact. Many people feel a sense of shame or failure when they declare bankruptcy. But remember, bankruptcy is a legal mechanism designed to help, not to punish. Furthermore, the stigma associated with bankruptcy has lessened over the years as more people recognize it as a legitimate tool for financial recovery.

Long-term financial implications

Bankruptcy also has long-term financial consequences. It will likely impact your credit score and remain on your credit report for seven to ten years, depending on the chapter filed. This can make it harder to obtain new credit, buy a home, or sometimes even get a job. However, with careful planning and responsible financial behavior post-bankruptcy, you can rebuild your credit over time.

Bankruptcy is a complex process that has far-reaching impacts on a debtor’s financial and personal life. However, understanding these effects is crucial to making informed decisions about whether to declare bankruptcy. In the following sections, we’ll discuss alternatives to bankruptcy, how to decide if it’s right for you, and life after bankruptcy.

Alternatives to bankruptcy

While a bankruptcy filing can provide a fresh start, it’s important to note that it’s not the only way to address overwhelming debt. Here are a few alternatives that might be more suitable or preferable depending on the situation.

Debt consolidation

Debt consolidation involves taking out a new loan to pay off multiple debts. This strategy simplifies your debt management by merging multiple payments into one and can potentially lower your interest rate, especially for high-interest unsecured debt like credit card debt. However, it’s essential to remember that you are not reducing your debt but merely reorganizing it.

Debt settlement

Debt settlement is a negotiation process where a debtor or a third party negotiates with creditors to allow the debtor to pay off a lump sum that’s less than the total amount owed. This can be a viable option if the debtor has access to a significant amount of cash that can be used to pay the settlement. However, debt settlement can have a negative impact on your credit report and score.

Credit counseling

Working with a reputable credit counseling agency can help you create a debt management plan (DMP). Under a DMP, the agency negotiates with creditors to lower interest rates or monthly payments. The debtor then makes a single payment to the credit counseling agency each month, which the agency distributes to the creditors. This option can help protect your credit score and help you avoid having to file for bankruptcy.

Making a personal budget or debt management plan

Sometimes, creating a personal budget or a debt management plan and sticking to it can help you work your way out of debt. This may involve reducing expenses, increasing income, or both. This option requires discipline and consistency but can help you avoid the impacts of bankruptcy on your credit report.

These alternatives are not one-size-fits-all solutions, and what works best depends on your financial circumstances, discipline, and personal preferences. The Bankruptcy Code provides debtors with various ways to deal with debt, and understanding these alternatives can help you make a more informed decision about whether to file for bankruptcy. In the next section, we’ll delve into the process of deciding whether to declare bankruptcy.

Deciding whether to declare bankruptcy

Deciding whether to declare bankruptcy is a significant decision that can impact your life for years to come. It’s essential to thoroughly understand your situation and explore all your options before making this decision. Here are a few factors to consider.

Factors to consider

Analyzing your debt

Firstly, you should assess the type of debt you have. Bankruptcy can discharge most unsecured debts, such as credit card debt and medical bills, but certain debts are generally non-dischargeable, including most student loans, child support, and many tax obligations. Moreover, if the majority of your debt is secured debt, like a mortgage or car loan, bankruptcy may not provide the desired relief as these debts are tied to assets that you may want to retain.

Considering alternatives

As discussed earlier, alternatives like debt consolidation, debt settlement, credit counseling, or crafting a personal budget could help you manage your debt without resorting to a bankruptcy filing. Each of these alternatives comes with its own set of pros and cons and their suitability will largely depend on your specific circumstances.

Understanding the impact on your credit report

Bankruptcy can significantly impact your credit score and remain on your credit report for seven to ten years. This can affect your ability to secure new credit, rent a home, or even affect your employment prospects. While it’s possible to rebuild your credit post-bankruptcy, it’s a process that requires time and diligent financial management.

Seeking professional advice

Given the complexity and potential ramifications of filing for bankruptcy, it’s often beneficial to seek professional advice. A credit counselor can help you understand your financial situation and explore alternatives to bankruptcy. Consulting with a bankruptcy attorney can also provide valuable insight into the process and consequences of bankruptcy, as well as help you navigate the intricacies of the Bankruptcy Code.

The Importance of financial literacy and planning

Having financial literacy can be an invaluable asset when dealing with debt and considering bankruptcy. Understanding how to budget, save, and invest can help you manage your money effectively, possibly avoid bankruptcy altogether, or recover faster if you do decide to file.

The decision to file for bankruptcy should not be taken lightly. It’s crucial to explore all options, understand the process, and seek professional advice to ensure that you’re making the best decision for your financial future. If you decide to proceed, you’ll need to prepare to file a petition with the bankruptcy court, which we’ll explore in more detail in the next section.

Preparing to file for bankruptcy

Once you’ve made the decision to file for bankruptcy, it’s important to understand the steps involved in the process. Filing for bankruptcy is a legal process that requires careful preparation and understanding of the Bankruptcy Code. Here’s a general guide to preparing for a bankruptcy filing.

Consult with a bankruptcy attorney

Navigating the complexities of bankruptcy law can be challenging. Consulting with a bankruptcy attorney can provide valuable guidance. They can help you understand the specific implications of bankruptcy, choose the right type of bankruptcy, and navigate the filing process.

Complete credit counseling

Before you can file for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code requires that you complete credit counseling with an agency approved by the U.S. Trustee’s office. This must be done within 180 days before your bankruptcy filing.

Gather your financial information

A crucial part of the bankruptcy process is providing a detailed picture of your financial situation. You’ll need to gather information about your income, debts, and assets. This includes pay stubs, bank statements, tax returns, and details about your secured and unsecured debts.

File your bankruptcy petition

To initiate the bankruptcy process, you or your attorney will need to file a bankruptcy petition with the bankruptcy court. This petition is a detailed document that includes information about your finances, including your debts, income, expenses, and assets.

Understanding the automatic stay

Once you file for bankruptcy, an automatic stay goes into effect. This stay is a court order that temporarily stops most creditors from pursuing collection activities against you, including lawsuits, garnishments, and even contact by phone or mail. This stay provides debtors with a period of relief during the bankruptcy process.

Prepare for the meeting of creditors

After the bankruptcy filing, the bankruptcy court will schedule a meeting of creditors, which you are required to attend. During this meeting, the bankruptcy trustee and any attending creditors can ask you questions about your financial situation and the information in your bankruptcy petition.

Filing for bankruptcy is a significant decision and a complex process, but with the right preparation and guidance, it can offer a path to financial recovery. In the final section, we will discuss life after bankruptcy and how to rebuild your financial future.

Life after bankruptcy and conclusion

Bankruptcy proceedings can feel like a significant life event, and indeed, they can result in substantial changes to your financial situation. However, filing for bankruptcy isn’t the end of your financial journey—it can be the beginning of a fresh start. After emerging from bankruptcy, it’s crucial to take steps to rebuild your financial health.

Fulfilling all your obligations under the bankruptcy process, such as repaying a portion of your secured debts under a Chapter 13 plan, is just the first step. The next phase involves repairing your credit and rebuilding your financial security. Start by carefully reviewing your credit record for any inaccuracies or discrepancies. Timely payment of your bills, responsible use of credit, and maintaining low balances can all contribute to improving your credit score over time. Be patient—it’s a gradual process.

Consider creating a realistic budget that includes saving a portion of your income. This can help ensure you live within your means and avoid falling into future debt traps. Seek professional financial advice to guide you through the process of building a healthy financial future.

One situation where professional help can be particularly beneficial is in dealing with unpaid taxes, especially if you’re years behind. Bench can step in and help you catch up on your bookkeeping and prepare tax-ready financials. Even if you’ve secured a debt consolidation loan or managed to hold onto some assets through bankruptcy proceedings, understanding where your money goes is critical. Bench’s professional team can reconcile past transactions, provide income statements, balance sheets, and visual reports, allowing you to understand your financial situation better and plan accordingly.

Declaring bankruptcy can be a daunting experience, but remember, it’s designed as a tool to help individuals and businesses get out of insurmountable debt and make a fresh financial start. The key is to take the lessons learned during the process to heart—practice prudent financial management, and seek professional advice when needed. Bankruptcy is not the end—it’s a new beginning. With careful planning and disciplined execution, you can rebuild your financial health and work towards a secure financial future.

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.
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