Bankruptcy attorneys are good at hyping the bankruptcy discharge. Terms like “Erase Your Debts!” and “Start Fresh!” abound in consumer bankruptcy advertising. You may know that at the end of your bankruptcy case the court will enter an order discharging certain debts. But what exactly happens to debts that are discharged?
The bankruptcy discharge does not “erase” or “eliminate” the debt. The discharge is a permanent order injunction against certain creditors. The discharge forbids all action to collect the debt from the discharged debtor. This injunction applies to the original creditor, any collection agency or subsequent creditor, and to any attorney or other representative who may attempt to collect the debt.
The discharge injunction prohibits collection action against the discharged debtor. For instance, if a credit card debt is included in your discharge, then the creditor is barred from attempting to collect on the debt from you, personally. The debt still exists, but the creditor cannot take any legal action against you to collect.
A creditor may still have options to collect on a discharged debt. The bankruptcy discharge only applies to the individual debtor, so any co-debtor (who has not also filed bankruptcy) is fair game. In most cases, a co-debtor will be 100% liable for the entire remaining debt. The creditor cannot sue you for payment, but it can sue your co-debtor. Your co-debtor is also prevented from suing you for payment.
A creditor may also seek to collect from any property that was used as collateral for the discharged debt. Often property that was not acquired through financing (called “non-purchase money security”) can be protected, but the general rule in bankruptcy is that secured property must be paid for or returned. After the bankruptcy case is closed, a secured lender can repossess collateral that secures a discharged debt without violating the bankruptcy discharge injunction. Repossession after bankruptcy is actually very rare. There are several ways to protect property (especially a vehicle) during and after bankruptcy, including redemption, a Chapter 13 cram-down, or reaffirmation. If you have secured property you would like to keep, discuss your options with your attorney.
Many debts that are “forgiven” or “charged-off” can be taxed against the debtor. The IRS sees the forgiven debt as taxable income. Fortunately, the federal law contains an exception to this rule for debts discharged by bankruptcy. Discharged debts are not taxable as income by the IRS.
Since the debt still exists after the bankruptcy case, the discharged debtor may choose to make voluntary payments. The discharge injunction only applies to the creditor, and there is nothing that prohibits voluntary payments. Voluntary payments do not “revive” the debt, and it does not negate or suspend the discharge. The creditor is forever and always barred from contacting the debtor regarding the debt, and cannot call or even send reminder notices to pay.
If you have bills that you cannot afford to pay, contact an experienced attorney and discuss your options under the federal Bankruptcy Code. Bankruptcy is a powerful defense that can shield you from the negative effects of overwhelming debt.