Congratulations! You have received your bankruptcy discharge at the end of your Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case. You are anxious to get a fresh start. What should you do next? Here are a few steps you should take to rebuild your credit, ensure financial future, and make sure you get the most from your new debt-free status:
YOUR BANKRUPTCY DOCUMENTS
Keep copies of your bankruptcy paperwork. It is important to keep copies of your bankruptcy petition, schedules, and order of discharge for your records. You can retrieve these documents from the court if you lose them. However, it may cost you and can be a bit of a hassle.
Why should I keep my paperwork? Although it does not happen every day, creditors have been known to try to collect on debts discharged in bankruptcy. As I tell my Philadelphia area bankruptcy clients, if any creditors attempt to collect after your bankruptcy, you can beat them into submission with the discharge. Moreover, as we will discuss below, you may need your paperwork to correct any issues with your credit report.
How long should I keep my petition, schedules, discharge, and related documents? I advise my clients to keep copies with their permanent records. (I provide clients with PDFs, which they can store and print as necessary.) In a few rare instances, you may need a certified copy of the case documents, for example, if you are applying for a professional license in some states. In that case, you can obtain a certified copy from the court through Pacer for a fee.
CREDITOR HARASSMENT AFTER DISCHARGE
What if a creditor tries to collect on a debt discharged in my bankruptcy? If a creditor or debt collector contacts you after your bankruptcy discharge to collect on a discharged debt, it is a serious violation of the Bankruptcy Code. It may also violate the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), the Pennsylvania Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act (“PFCEUA”), and other state and federal consumer protection laws. If a creditor contacts you, inform the creditor that the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. If contact continues, let your attorney know. For a more in-depth discussion of creditor harassment during bankruptcy, see my post on the subject.
What if I forgot to list a debt in my bankruptcy? In most instances in this district, if you unintentionally fail to list a debt in a no-asset Chapter 7 case, the debt is still discharged. However, if you forget to list a debt in Chapter 13 or in a Chapter 7 case where the trustee sold some of your assets, the debt may not be discharged. Regardless, if you believe you forgot to list a debt, you should ask your attorney about it.
CREDIT REPORTING AFTER DISCHARGE
Keeping track of your credit is a crucial step in rebuilding your credit profile. Here are some answers to some common questions about credit reporting after bankruptcy:
When should I check my credit report? Check your credit report about three months after you receive your bankruptcy discharge. (It takes a while for the credit-reporting agencies to update your report.) You can get a free copy of your report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com.
When will the bankruptcy drop off my credit report? Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically shows on your credit report for ten years from the date that your bankruptcy case was filed, not the date of discharge. Chapter 13 bankruptcy should drop off your report seven years from the date you filed your case. However, the impact of the bankruptcy on your credit rating will diminish over time, even while it is still on your credit report, as long as you work on rebuilding your credit.
How should my discharged debts be listed on my credit report? Every debt discharged in your bankruptcy should be noted as “discharged in bankruptcy” or something similar with a balance of $0 unless the debt was reaffirmed. If a debt does not show as discharged in bankruptcy, you can dispute the listing by sending a copy of your discharge to the credit-reporting agency along with the schedule (D, E, or F) that lists the debt.
What if I did not reaffirm a secured loan but continue to pay it? Many debtors keep property secured by a loan (typically a house or car) and continue to pay on the loan after bankruptcy without reaffirming the debt. If you did not reaffirm the debt during the bankruptcy, it should be listed as discharged, even if you are keeping the property and continuing to pay on the loan. Post-bankruptcy payments and delinquencies on such debts will not show on your credit report.
How should the credit bureaus report reaffirmed debts? In many bankruptcy cases, there are no reaffirmed debts. However, if you reaffirmed a debt, post-bankruptcy payments or missed payments should show on your credit report. The debt should be listed as if you had not filed for bankruptcy. Reporting of these payments can help improve your credit rating, although any late payments will be listed on your report as well. (There are significant disadvantages to signing reaffirmation agreements, which you should discuss with your attorney.)
Quick Note: How do you know if you reaffirmed a debt? To reaffirm a debt, you must sign a reaffirmation agreement provided by the creditor, which is filed with the court and approved by the judge. If you are unsure if you reaffirmed a debt, ask your attorney. Reaffirmation agreements will be in your case file as well, which you can obtain from the court.
What if a creditor reports incorrect information on my credit report? If a creditor fails to report the discharged debt correctly or places any other false information on your credit report, it is a violation of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). To sue under the FCRA, you must first dispute the debt with the credit bureaus. However, both the creditor and the credit bureaus could end up paying significant damages and your attorney’s fees, if the false information is not corrected. Speak to your attorney, if you find incorrect information on your credit report.
REBUILDING YOUR CREDIT AFTER BANKRUPTCY
To start rebuilding your credit, you must (1) get any non-dischargeable debts back on track, (2) start building a history of regular on-time monthly payments and responsible use of a credit account, and (3) avoid taking on unnecessary credit.
Make arrangements to pay any non-dischargeable debts. If you have non-dischargeable debts, such as student loans or certain taxes, you will need to contact the creditor to make arrangements to pay them. If you do not arrange to pay these debts, the creditors can begin collection action and report delinquencies on your credit report.
Paying student loans. As to student loans, you should receive a forbearance for the time that you were in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the loans would have been paid the same as other unsecured creditors but would also continue to accumulate interest. In either case, you need to make arrangements to get these loans back on track after bankruptcy. Fortunately, there are various programs to lessen the burden of federal student loan payments, including income-based repayment and occupation-related and public service loan forgiveness,, which you may wish to explore. Some private lenders have hardship programs of some kind. Try to avoid deferments, as the accumulating interest cause the debt build to an unsustainable level.
Paying non-dischargeable taxes. Regarding non-dischargeable income taxes, contact the IRS, state revenue department (e.g., the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue), or the local taxing authority to make payment arrangements. (The IRS will typically accept a monthly payment of around 2% of the total.) However, if you have a substantial tax debt, you may need the assistance of an attorney to work out a settlement. If you can pay off these tax debts in a lump sum at some point, you will likely save substantial interest and fees.
Quick Note: If you discharged taxes in bankruptcy, you might need to contact the taxing agency, if your tax statement does not reflect the amount discharged after a month or so. (See my blog post on discharging income tax in bankruptcy.)
Consider using a secured credit card to help rebuild your credit. To begin rebuilding your credit, you may wish to obtain a secured credit card. A secured credit card uses money deposited in a bank account as collateral for the credit card. The creditor can take the money in the account only if you default. Some banks offering secured cards do not require a credit check and may be easier to obtain. However, do shop around. Some secured card providers charge excessive fees and interest. Also, you should make sure the provider reports to all three credit reporting agencies (not all do).
Quick Note: A secured credit card is not the same thing as a prepaid credit card. Although very convenient and useful, pre-paid credit cards do nothing to improve your credit.
It is important to use no more than 10% to 20% of your available credit on your secured card (or any credit card). Thus, if you have a limit of $500, avoid running a balance of more than $100 on the card at any one time. The purpose of this card is to rebuild your credit, so responsible use is essential. I do not recommend getting multiple cards. If you are a couple, it is a good idea to have a separate card for each of you. However, one credit card should be enough for anyone.
Avoid unnecessary post-bankruptcy debt. In some instances, other post-bankruptcy loans and credit accounts may be available. However, avoid any credit that you do not need. Some post-bankruptcy debtors believe that the more accounts they open, the faster they will rebuild their credit. That mindset is a recipe for disaster. With few exceptions, debt is not your friend. (See below for information on vehicle loans and home loans after bankruptcy.)
Understand the income-to-debt ratio and debt-to-available-credit ratio: One reason debtors often see their credit rating rise after bankruptcy is the reduced income-to-debt ratio. In other words, the amount of debt that they have compared to their income is now much lower. The income-to-debt ratio is a significant factor in credit scoring. Therefore, you want to keep this ratio low. Just as important is the debt-to-available-credit ratio, which measures the percentage of debt you use compared to your available credit. Limiting your use of credit to about 10% to 20% of each account’s available credit will show that you are a responsible user of credit. Maxing out credit is a sure way to damage your credit rating.
Credit repair is a scam. You may receive solicitations from “credit repair” companies. They are scammers. Concentrate on rebuilding your credit systematically over time. There is no quick fix when it comes to credit issues.
YOUR HOUSE AND OTHER REAL PROPERTY AFTER BANKRUPTCY
Make timely payments, if keeping a house. If you did not reaffirm your home mortgage loans in Chapter 7 but plan to keep your property, just continue to make your house payments on time. The bank still has a lien on your home. Therefore, it can foreclose if you fall behind on the payments. Note, as mentioned above, if you did not reaffirm the debt, your payments (or non-payments) it will not be reported to the credit bureau.
Can I walk away from my home after my Chapter 7 bankruptcy? Not reaffirming a mortgage loan in Chapter 7 gives you options you would not have if you reaffirmed the loan. (There is no reaffirmation in Chapter 13.) If you do not reaffirm your mortgage loan and decide at a later date that you no longer wish to keep your home, you can simply stop making the payments. Eventually, the property will go into foreclosure, but the bank will not be able to obtain a deficiency judgment against you. Note that in Chapter 13, your secured loans are not discharged in most cases.
Must I maintain a house that I surrendered in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13? If you surrendered a house in bankruptcy or decide to walk away from your home that you did not reaffirm, you are responsible for any post-filing homeowners association fees and for keeping the property up to code until the property transfers to a new owner. If the grass gets too high or trash pile up, you could be fined. Therefore, it is often best to live on the property as long as possible.
Should I keep homeowners insurance a house that I surrendered in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13? You still have potential liability for injuries to persons and other properties arising from your property until ownership transfers. If you stop paying for your homeowners insurance, the bank may purchase insurance on the property. However, such insurance may cover the bank’s interest only. Therefore, you should consider keeping your own policy in place until the deed transfers.
Quick Note: If you move out of the property before the deed transfers, keeping homeowners insurance on an empty house can be much more expensive than when occupied. Therefore, if you must move out before the foreclosure process is complete, you may consider renting the property. However, you would need to inform the renter that the house is in foreclosure and notices will come to the house. Any lease would need to terminate upon the sale of the house.
Can I obtain a mortgage modification after my discharge? Many banks will offer a modification to your mortgage after your bankruptcy discharge. (A modification is a change to the terms of your current loan.) I have had several clients over the years who have obtained mortgage modifications after bankruptcy, even on loans they did not reaffirm. However, there are no guarantees, and you will have to go through the bank’s process. Note that in most instances, modifying a loan that was not reaffirmed will not cause it to show on your credit report.
Can I refinance my home after discharge? It depends on several factors, including the bank’s policies. (Refinancing replaces your current loan with a new loan.) The standards for refinancing are higher that for a modification. As such, it will typically take some time after bankruptcy to rebuild your credit to the point where refinancing is possible. If you refinance rather than modify your loan, the new loan should begin to show on your credit report.
Quick Note: Some banks will not refinance loan for a current customer if the homeowner did not sign a reaffirmation agreement. Therefore, in some circumstances, you may need to seek to refinance from another bank or look at a modification instead.
YOUR VEHICLES AFTER BANKRUPTCY
Make timely payments, if keeping a vehicle. If you have a car loan that you did not reaffirm, just continue to make timely payments, if you wish to keep the car. The lender retains a lien on your car and can repossess if you get behind. If you did not reaffirm the loan, it is unlikely that your credit report will reflect your post-bankruptcy payments.
Can I return my car after bankruptcy? If you did not reaffirm your car loan and no longer wish to keep your vehicle, you can arrange to turn it over to the lender (a voluntary repossession). As long as you did not reaffirm the debt in your bankruptcy, the creditor cannot obtain a deficiency judgment. However, if you reaffirmed the loan in bankruptcy, the lender would be able to secure a deficiency judgment.
Can I get a car loan after bankruptcy? Yes, but first let me say that the best car is a paid-off car. Even if you are putting a couple of thousand dollars a year into maintaining an old car, it is still far less than the monthly cost of purchasing a car on credit. (Not to mention the increase in insurance rates that will likely accompany the purchase.) If you can pay cash for your car, that is almost always the best option. Therefore, I am not suggesting that you take out a vehicle loan unless you need to do so.
That being said, if you need a car and cannot pay cash, financing a vehicle can help you rebuild your credit. Vehicle financing is often more available after bankruptcy than other types of credit, although you will need to shop around for a reasonable interest rate.
Quick Note: If you already have a car loan, avoid rolling the remainder of the current loan into another car loan. Rolling over an old loan is one of the worst financial mistakes someone can make when purchasing a car. It will result in both larger balance and increased payments. Essentially, you are tacking on the remaining balance of your loan to the price of the new car. It’s a good deal for the dealer and bank, but a bad deal for you.
If you must buy a car on credit, keep your new car payment low. I cannot stress this point too much. A $500 or $600 a month car payment may become a millstone around your neck very quickly. Keep the payment at a level that you could afford even if you lost a substantial part of your income. Moreover, try to avoid loans that extend beyond 3 or 4 years. Consider whether you want to be making payment on a depreciating asset 5, 6, or 7 years from now.
Finally, buy used. New cars are a horrible investment. In fact, I cannot think of a good reason for an individual to buy a new car unless it is a business tax write-off. So, it is best to limit your purchase to an inexpensive used car.
***Very Important: Debts Discharged In Bankruptcy Are Not Taxable. I cannot emphasize this point enough. You do not have to pay taxes on debts discharged in bankruptcy, even if you receive a 1099C form from the creditor. However, if you get a form 1099C form that does not have the discharged-in-bankruptcy box checked, do not ignore it. You will need to file IRS form Form 982 with your taxes to inform the IRS that the debt was discharged in bankruptcy.
As to real property surrendered in bankruptcy, you may receive a form 1099A form from your mortgage lender if the property is vacant, and the lender secured the property. However, the 1099A does not create taxable income.
Quick Note: If you sell your home or other secured property for a profit, the gain may be taxable, even if you did not reaffirm the underlying debt.
For more on post-bankruptcy tax issues, see my post on this topic. If you are unsure about how to handle a 1099C or 1099A form, speak to an experienced CPA, who understands that discharged debts are not taxable (not all do), or call your attorney.
PLANNING FOR A BETTER FINANCIAL FUTURE
Set up a savings plan. In other words, pay yourself first. Even if it is only a few dollars per pay period, try to put back a little for emergencies (as well as fun things, like vacations) as soon as you are able. For many people who have been out of work or otherwise financially devastated, it can be hard to imagine being able to save again. However, even a small amount can add up over the long run. Ideally, you would eventually save about six months of living expenses. However, even having a modest amount saved can help when the unexpected comes up. If you can have this money transferred directly from your pay to your savings account, so you never see it, it will make it easier to save.
Quick Note: If you have a savings plan, you can avoid one of the most destructive financial habits: using credit as an emergency fund. It is better to take a little money out of savings to replace the washing machine that died suddenly, than taking on new debt.
Contribute to a retirement plan. If you already have a 401k or other retirement plan, try to contribute as much as possible. At the very least, kick in as much as your employer matches. (An employer’s matched contribution is free money that you will lose by not contributing to the plan.) Of course, if you can max out your contributions, so much the better. However, as with general savings, even small contributions add up over time.
If you do not have an employer-based retirement plan (or you wish to save more), consider opening a no-fee or low-fee traditional or Roth IRA. Make regular contributions that come out of your account automatically on the day you are paid. As with other savings, the key to retirement savings is to set up the account, so you never see the money.
Update your will. Because your financial situation has changed, I recommend that you review your will to see if it needs revision. If you do not have a will, you may wish to have an attorney draft one. In my Philadelphia area bankruptcy practice, I am always happy to refer my clients to an estates attorney who can revise a will or write a new one at a minimal cost.
If you take care of these few items after your bankruptcy, you will be well on your way to a better financial future.