Is Atlantic City The Next Big Municipal Bankruptcy?

Is Atlantic City The Next Big Municipal Bankruptcy?Two prominent Wall Street rating firms recently downgraded Atlantic City to near-junk status, after Gov. Chris Christie appointed an emergency management team to handle the finances of America’s Favorite Playground.

Last month, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s rating services dropped Atlantic City’s credit rating several notches, from BB to BBB+. The downgrade makes it more difficult for Atlantic City to borrow money, as it tries to stave off bankruptcy. An S&P analyst called the management team a “draconian” action that “has a greater likelihood of being detrimental to bondholders.” Moody’s said that Gov. Christie’s action may have ramifications for other financially-challenged New Jersey cities, including Newark and Patterson.

Four of Atlantic City’s 12 major casinos have closed in the last year, leaving the city with a greatly reduced tax base and nearly $400 million of debt.

Handling Bankruptcy

Atlantic City may hold a common misconception about bankruptcy, which goes back to the days of seemingly endless “Monopoly” games played out on the kitchen table, the living room floor, or a folding card table in the den. As you moved your racecar, iron, thimble, or battleship around the board, the worst thing you could do was file bankruptcy. That was the end of the game, and there was no hope of recovery.

Fortunately, the real thing works a bit differently. For one thing, a house on James Place may cost a little more than $50. More to the point, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy gives you a fresh start. Imagine that you have to take the red plastic hotel off of Pacific Avenue, but you keep the card face up and are soon able to start building it back up again. That, in a nutshell, is bankruptcy.

If you have more debt than you can pay, you can take the Atlantic City approach, and try to keep your head above water for a few more months and hope that things get better somehow. Or, you can take control of the situation and reach out to a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy attorney in Barrington. The experience may be somewhat uncomfortable in the short term, but you’ll be back at the financial starting line is as little as a few months, with little or no unsecured debt, more manageable secured debts, and a much brighter financial outlook.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Congress To Reconsider Student Loan Dischargeability

A Maryland Democrat wants to turn back the clock to the disco days of the mid-1970s, at least as far as student loans are concerned.

Last month, Maryland Democrat John Delaney introduced House Resolution 449, which would remove paragraph 8 from Section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code, making school debt dischargeable in bankruptcy just like any other unsecured loan. Most likely, an institution could still withhold transcripts and take other punitive action against delinquent borrowers.

Congress To Reconsider Student Loan Dischargeability

In a press release, Rep. Delaney maintained that “there is effectively a huge student loan loophole in bankruptcy law that’s hurting real people.” The second-term lawmaker supported similar legislation in the previous Congress, including expansions to the Pell Grant program and caps on student loan interest rates.

The Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act is currently pending before the House Judiciary Committee.

How We Got Here

Prior to 1976, student loans were on par with credit cards, medical bills, signature loans and all other forms of unsecured debt. Then, for some reason, Congress began to change the rules. Some Nixonians may have suspected that 1960s student radicals attended school on the government’s nickel and then refused to pay. Indeed, many people viewed Chapter 7 debtors as individuals who had recklessly piled up debts they knew they could not pay, and were undeserving of a fresh start.

Whatever the motivation, the rule changes continued. Later, in 1987, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided Brunner v. New York State Higher Education Corporation. Most other jurisdictions quickly adopted the so-called Brunner Rule, which made student loans dischargeable only in limited circumstances. Specifically, in order for the debt to be eliminated:

  • The debtor must have made a good faith effort to repay the loans,
  • Continued repayment would be a hardship on the debtor or the debtor’s family, and
  • The hardship was expected to last for the entire period of repayment.

The much-criticized Brunner Rule eventually found its way into Section 523(a)(8), which currently stipulates that any educational loan is nondischargeable “unless excepting such debt from discharge under this paragraph would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.”

Outlook

That was then, and this is now. The average borrower from the Class of 2014 owes about $33,000, or nearly three times as much as the average Brunner-era debtor. The number of borrowers has almost tripled as well.

Interest rate caps and other stopgap measures are a much-needed source of relief, but they may not effectively address the crisis. Congress should seriously consider passing H.R. 449, because far too many individuals begin their working life already playing catch-up.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Of Chapter 7 And Security Clearances

Of Chapter 7 And Security ClearancesWorkers at Fort Dix, Fort Monmouth, the FBI in Newark, and other employers in The Garden State sometimes hesitate to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy because they’re afraid of losing their security clearances. While bankruptcy debtors may face some increased scrutiny, there are some very important legal protections in place.

Federal Law

11 U.S.C. 525 prohibits discrimination against those who file a voluntary petition. Subsection (a) states that “a governmental unit may not deny, revoke, suspend, or refuse to renew a license, permit, charter, franchise, or other similar grant. . . solely because such bankrupt or debtor is or has been a debtor under this title or a bankrupt or debtor under the Bankruptcy Act.”

The key phrase is “solely because.” A bankruptcy filing does create some very serious questions about a person’s fitness to hold a security clearance, and if you were on the other side of the desk, you would probably ask the same questions about one of your employees. Fortunately, there are also some very good answers to these questions.

As a brief aside, subsection (b) applies the same prohibition to private employers and subsection (c) forbids bankruptcy discrimination in student loan matters.

Department of Defense Guidelines

Financial responsibility is one of several considerations, along with foreign preference, alcohol consumption, sexual behavior and a few others, in a security clearance. There is no automatic disqualification in any of these areas. Plenty of people have friends or relatives overseas, drink beer on the weekends or are unfaithful to their partners, but these individuals retain their status.

DoD Directive 5220.6, Guideline F, works the same way. The concern, at least where bankruptcy is concerned, is that a person with money problems may turn to illegal acts as a way to generate funds. Some additional considerations include:

  • History of Unmet Financial Obligations: If this matter is your first filing and it can be traced to divorce, illness or a sudden financial trauma, as is generally the case, this question is arguably inapplicable.
  • Deceptive Financial Practices: Very few consumer bankruptcies involve embezzlement, fraud, income tax evasion and other financial crimes.
  • “Issues of Security Concern”: Similarly, very few filings are directly attributable to gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse.

There is more good news. Directive F goes on to list several “mitigating factors” which usually can be found in a Chapter 7:

  • Isolated Incident: Most bankruptcies do not involve a pattern of reckless spending or prolonged financial irresponsibility.
  • Lack of Control: On the contrary, most bankruptcy filings do involve divorce, business downturn, illness, job loss and other similar incidents.
  • Debt Counselling: All debtors receive debt counselling and debtor education, and most seek financial advice from other sources as well.
  • Good Faith Effort to Resolve Debt: If you lack the funds to pay your debts, bankruptcy is the best way to legally resolve them.

People file bankruptcy to get a fresh start, and it is impossible to get that fresh start if you lose your job. That may be the main reason that most debtors get to keep their security clearance.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Exceptions to the Automatic Stay

Exceptions to the Automatic Stay under the Bankruptcy Laws

When you file for protection under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, the automatic stay under the Bankruptcy Code immediately goes into effect, prohibiting your creditors from calling, writing or taking other legal action to collect a debt from you. There are, however, specific types of legal actions that will not be affected by the stay.

Exceptions to the Automatic Stay under the Bankruptcy LawsTax Actions

The Internal Revenue Service, as well as state tax authorities, can still take certain actions, such as demanding payment of an assessment, requiring a tax return, conducting a tax audit or issuing a deficiency notice.

Family Law Obligations

Generally, child support and spousal support/alimony arrearages are not affected by a bankruptcy filing, and state enforcement agencies are not prohibited from collection efforts. Accordingly, if you have a child support or spousal maintenance deficiency, the collecting agency may engage in a wide range of actions in an effort to collect the amount past due, including:

  • Withhold money through your employer to pay current and past due child support
  • Attach any refunds from state or federal revenue agencies
  • Report your overdue support obligations to a credit reporting agency

The filing of a bankruptcy petition will have no impact on your obligation to pay ongoing support, or on custody or visitation determinations. The court may also modify your support order.

Pension Loans

If you borrowed money from a 401(k) or other company retirement plan, the imposition of the automatic stay won’t prohibit your employer from deducting an amount from your paycheck to repay the loan.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

‘Real Housewife’ Changes Addresses

Erstwhile reality TV star Teresa Giudice surrendered to federal authorities in Connecticut to begin her 15-month prison sentence for bankruptcy fraud. After she completes her term, her husband, Giuseppe Giudice, will begin serving a 41-month sentence.

Last year, the couple pleaded guilty to charges that they concealed assets in their Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. Mr. Giudice also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, loan fraud and mortgage fraud. He will serve an 18-month sentence for presenting a false identification concurrently with the federal prison term. Mr. Giudice, who is not an American citizen, also faced possible deportation proceedings.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Ms. Giudice is not eligible for release until December 2015.

Bankruptcy Fraud

‘Real Housewife’ Changes AddressesWhen filing your voluntary petition, it is important that you be completely upfront with your attorney about all your assets. Most of them are exempt, and the trustee normally only seizes nonexempt assets if there is a benefit to the creditors or the bankruptcy estate. So, there is a good chance that you may be able to keep your used fishing boat, because by the time the trustee pays off the loan balance, prepares the boat for sale, and stores it until a buyer is found, the creditors may see very little money, if any.

Bankruptcy fraud is a very serious charge that carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. In addition, the court will normally order that your debts will not be discharged. A prosecutor must prove that:

  • A bankruptcy case was pending: It may be a defense if amended schedules were filed prior to the date of the indictment.
  • The property was part of the bankruptcy estate: All nonexempt property is part of the bankruptcy estate.
  • The debtor concealed property: This can mean hiding assets, preventing discovery, withholding information or transferring property. The concealment does not have to be successful.
  • With intent to defraud: A jury will normally infer intent if the prior three elements are clearly established, unless the debtor has a really convincing explanation.

The government normally adds mail fraud and/or wire fraud charges, as well as other allegations, which significantly increases the potential penalties.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

When Do I Start Receiving Bankruptcy Benefits?

When Do I Start Receiving Bankruptcy Benefits?In some ways, your financial fresh start occurs the moment you file for bankruptcy, as your creditors are immediately prevented from taking actions against you or your property to collect their debts. The debts are then officially wiped out when you receive a discharge order in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.

When Can I Get A Home Loan?

Many of our clients ask how long they must wait before they can apply for a residential mortgage after filing for bankruptcy. Specific requirements may vary between lenders, so it is best to shop around. But, there are some general industry standards:

  • Fannie Mae: Lenders are eligible for a loan as little as two years after a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 discharge, although some borrowers may have to wait four years after a Chapter 7. Either way, that is considerably less time than the seven year wait after a foreclosure.
  • Freddie Mac: The same general waiting periods apply, but Freddie may be a bit more rigid.
  • FHA: These loans are generally the most forgiving when it comes to past credit problems. Borrowers with a Chapter 7 must wait a maximum of two years, while Chapter 13 debtors can be eligible in only one year.
  • VA: Borrowers are eligible for a loan under $417,000 within two years after a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.
  • USDA: The waiting period after a Chapter 7 is three years, and a borrower who is still in Chapter 13 can qualify after a year of on-time trustee payments.

These values may be changing, as Congress and the White House may consider unwinding the government’s control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the coming year.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Stopping a Home Foreclosure with Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy and Foreclosure Proceedings

Stopping a Home Foreclosure with BankruptcyIf you are struggling to meet your financial obligations, and have fallen behind on your mortgage payments, you may be worried about a foreclosure proceeding and the loss of your home. You may be considering filing for bankruptcy to prevent or stop foreclosure proceedings. Here’s what you need to know.

The most important thing to understand is that bankruptcy won’t terminate a foreclosure proceeding—it will only suspend a foreclosure action. Once your bankruptcy is complete, your lender can move the process forward again.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a bankruptcy filing won’t help you keep your home. Upon the filing of a bankruptcy petition, an automatic stay will go into effect, preventing your creditors from calling, writing or taking any other legal action to collect debts from you. The automatic stay can get you some relief from the constant outflow of cash. In addition, by discharging other debts, you may be able to free up the funds to make your monthly mortgage payment affordable.

It is also important to understand that you cannot seek to discharge the debt on your home in a Chapter 7 proceeding and still keep the house. Both state and federal bankruptcy laws grant you a certain dollar amount exemption in your home in a Chapter 7 filing, but it’s an exemption in the equity in your home. Unfortunately, you can only recognize the equity in your home when you sell it.

The best way to save your house through bankruptcy is to file Chapter 13 reorganization and work out a new payment plan with your mortgage lender. You will still get the benefit of the automatic stay, and will have that benefit for a three-to-five-year period. In many instances, when you reorganize, you can get your lender to waive late fees and penalties, and fold any arrearages into the principal balance of your note.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

The Means Test

The Means Test in Bankruptcy

The Means Test in BankruptcyBefore 2005, persons seeking to file bankruptcy could generally choose between a Chapter 7 liquidation proceeding and a Chapter 13 reorganization. However, as a part of the revisions to the federal Bankruptcy Code in 2005, Congress set limits on who may qualify to discharge debts under Chapter 7. To be eligible, you must now submit to what is known as the “means test.”

The purpose of the means test is to determine whether you reasonably have the capability to repay your creditors rather than having your debts discharged. The means test is designed to keep persons with high incomes from discharging debt and immediately having substantial discretionary income that could have gone to creditors. Under the means test, however, you don’t have to be without income to qualify for Chapter 7. Here’s an overview of the how the means test works.

Determining Your Eligibility for Chapter 7

The first question the bankruptcy court will ask: Is your income less than the median income in your state for a household of your size? If so, you don’t have to go any further—you qualify.

If, however, your income exceeds the median income, you must document your expenses to determine whether you have enough income left after paying “allowed expenses” to pay some portion to your creditors. If your income exceeds your total expenses by a specified amount (which varies from state to state), you fail the means test and must file a Chapter 13 petition if you choose to use bankruptcy to get a fresh financial start.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Special Asset Issues

Bankruptcy and Special Assets

Bankruptcy and Special AssetsIf you have decided to file for bankruptcy as a way to get a fresh financial start, you may have concerns about how the bankruptcy filing will affect certain articles of property. What about any money you have received or are eligible for through an inheritance? What about your retirement plan assets? Will you have to reclaim property given to friends or family, or that you’ve recently sold or given away?

Inheritance and Bankruptcy

Whether or not the proceeds of an inheritance will be accessible to the bankruptcy trustee in a Chapter 7 proceeding depend on two issues:

  • Whether your state allows you to claim an exemption on an inheritance—the law varies from state to state
  • When you received the inheritance—if you have already received the inheritance when you file, or if you receive the inheritance within 180 days of filing, it must be included in a Chapter 7 proceeding

Retirement Plan Assets and Bankruptcy

As a general rule, money put into a retirement plan is exempt from access to pay creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding. This includes profit-sharing plans, defined benefit plans, 401(k)s, IRAs and money purchase plans. The only retirement assets that may be taken by the bankruptcy court are Roth and traditional IRA plan assets in excess of $1,245,475.

Gifts to Friends or Family or Items Recently Sold

A significant gift to a friend or family member within two years (under federal rules) of a bankruptcy filing can qualify as a fraudulent transfer. Some states will look back as far as seven years. As a general rule, if the bankruptcy court finds a transfer to be fraudulent, it will require that the property or its value be returned to the bankruptcy estate. It may also prohibit you from completing the bankruptcy.

Items sold at fair market value typically don’t qualify as a fraudulent transfer, but a sale for less than market value may have the same consequences as a gift.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.

Dealing with an Aggressive Creditor

Protecting Yourself from Creditor Harassment

Protecting Yourself from Creditor HarassmentMost of us want to pay our bills in a timely manner, and we often try hard to work with creditors when we get behind. But some creditors are relentless, calling and writing incessantly in an attempt to collect a debt. Some will call at all hours of the day or night. Some will call your friends and neighbors. Some will badger and berate you over the phone. There are ways you can deal with overly aggressive creditors.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

In recognition of the abuses of debt collectors, Congress enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, empowering the Federal Trade Commission to monitor and regulate for abusive, unfair or deceptive practices. The FDCPA prohibits a wide range of actions perceived as harassment or misrepresentation, including:

  • Calling outside of specific hours
  • Communicating information about a debt to a third party
  • Threatening actions that the creditor or collection agency cannot take
  • False statements about a debt owed

Taking Legal Action

If a creditor or collection agency violates the law, and refuses to stop doing so after a written request, you can take legal action in court. In many instances, if you can successfully show violation of the law, you can get attorney fees and court costs, in addition to statutory and other damages. However, the legal action will not necessarily make the debt go away. Even if you can demonstrate that a creditor or collector violated federal law, you will still owe the debt until you pay it or the creditor/collector discharges it.

Contact John Hargrave and Associates

We have provided comprehensive counsel to individuals in and around Barrington, New Jersey, since 1977. To schedule a free initial consultation, contact our office by e-mail or call us at 856-547-6500.