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Jingle Bells or Jingle Blues?

The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by Thomas Rovito, who is pursuing his Juris Doctorate at the Ohio State University.

How Holiday Credit Card Debt Could Impact Your Kentucky Bankruptcy

The consumer advocate news outlet NerdWallet estimates that the average American will spend $660 for holiday gift transactions. Two other statistics to note include that the number of Americans in credit card debt after the holiday season has been increasing, from 48% of shoppers in 2015 to 56% of shoppers in 2016, and that 27% of Americans did not have a holiday shopping budget in 2016; of those who did have a budget, 24% exceeded it. These statistics beg the question on what would happen if a shopper stocks up on Christmas presents using his credit card, and then subsequently files for bankruptcy. Will those retail store creditors turn into the Grinch and seek the return of gifts from family and friends, or would something else happen?

The answer is in the Bankruptcy Code. But before jumping headlong into the primary source material, secondary sources can provide guidance on this topic. For instance, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts has provided an overview of Bankruptcy Basics to introduce lay people to the topic. The Ohio State Bar Association and the Kentucky Bar Association both have pamphlets on bankruptcy. In addition, third-party sites, such as Findlaw and Nolo, have easy-to-use resources.

While the Bankruptcy Code is full of legal terms of art and abstract legal concepts, they can be broken down to individual and applicable ideas. For instance, there are six different forms of bankruptcy, but in most cases only Chapter 7 Liquidation or Chapter 13 Adjustment of Debts of an Individual with Regular Income would apply to individual consumers with credit card debt. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is means-tested to prevent abuse, a trustee liquidates the debtor’s assets for cash to pay creditors, unless the specific piece of property is exempt, to give the debtor a fresh start. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a debtor may retain valuable assets, such as his home or vehicle, and structure payments to creditors in accordance with his income. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is typically quicker, taking about four months to obtain discharge, to Chapter 13’s duration of three to five years. All Northern Kentucky bankruptcies are filed in federal court in Covington, Kentucky.

The objective of the debtor should be to obtain a discharge, which “releases the debtor from personal liability for certain specified types of debts.” But not all debts are created equal. There is also a material difference between secured debt (“[d]ebt backed by a mortgage, pledge of collateral, or other lien; debt for which the creditor has the right to pursue specific pledged property upon default,”) and unsecured debt (“debt for which a creditor holds no special assurance of payment, such as a mortgage or lien; a debt for which credit was extended based solely upon the creditor’s assessment of the debtor’s future ability to pay”). For more information on this distinction, please refer to 11 U.S.C. § 506. While most credit card debt is unsecured, it is important to note that some credit card companies and department store cards retain a security interest, or purchase money security interest, within their contracting agreement with the consumer, often in the fine print of the bottom of the credit card agreement. This security interest would act like collateral on outstanding transactions, and would give the credit card company or department store the right to repossess the property if it was not paid in full. While most credit card debt is unsecured, larger luxury purchases such as televisions, are likely covered by a security interest, and can be repossessed.

So how do these concepts apply to a consumer who builds up debt during the holidays? First, the consumer should look at the distinction between secured and unsecured debt. If the consumer has secured debt, or debt with collateral, then potential creditors could attach the property (like a home, car, or improvements on a vehicle) in the event of default. On the other hand, If the consumer has unsecured debt, which is the category of most consumer credit card purchases, then the creditor cannot attach the assets in event of default; however, the creditor may use a debt collector to compel payment, report the failure to credit agencies–reducing the debtor’s credit score and increasing the cost of future loans, or go to court to garnish the wages of the debtor. In addition, the ultimate disposition of the debtor’s credit card issues would also depend on whether the credit card company or department store retained a security interest in the property; if so, there is the possibility the property could be repossessed.

There is a matter of timing for debts to be considered dischargeable. Under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(2)(C), “debts owed to a single creditor and aggregating more than $675 for luxury goods or services incurred by an individual debtor on or within 90 days before the order for relief under this title are presumed to be nondischargeable.” In plain English, this means that debts to a single company that add up to more than $675 for goods not necessary for the support of the debtor (for example, food, water, shelter), are presumed to allow the creditor to collect against the debtor. Thus, if you exceed more than $675 in holiday credit card debt on luxuries, and not essentials, it may impact future bankruptcy proceedings.

In addition, it is important to note that the bankruptcy court may deny discharge in a case if there are fraudulent conveyances, or an attempt to shift assets from the debtor to third-parties for the purpose of avoiding paying creditors. To learn more about this topic, please see 11 U.S.C. § 727; Fed. R. Bankr. P. 4005. In addition, the trustee of the estate or a creditor may petition the bankruptcy court to revoke a discharge “if the discharge was obtained through fraud by the debtor.” See 11 U.S.C. § 727(d).

Ultimately, a decision to file for bankruptcy is serious, as it may place your assets in jeopardy and drastically impact your credit rating. On the other hand, if it is structured correctly, bankruptcy can provide you with relief from creditors, especially after the holidays with consumer credit card debt, while preserving your most precious assets, such as your home or car. It is important to note the distinction between secured debt (secured by collateral) and unsecured debt (that is not secured by collateral) before engaging in holiday transactions, in addition to determining whether your credit card company retains any security interest in your transactions by reading the fine print of the credit card agreement. This information, when coupled with sound budgeting, fiscal discipline, and adequate financial disclosure, can make the difference between jingle bells or jingle blues this holiday season.

Lawrence & Associates has offices in West Chester, Ohio and Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. We’re Working Hard for the Working Class, and we want to help you!