Often, debtors come to the bankruptcy lawyer's office after already having made costly mistakes that could easily have been avoided, including:
- Borrowing against a home to pay down credit cards. Now the debtor has turned what, in many cases, was unsecured debt, which could have been wiped out completely, into secured debt that the debtor must pay off or lose the house. Worst yet are predatory loans where the payments are so onerous as to make foreclosure almost a certainty.
- Borrowing against a 401K plan. The debtor takes a loan out against a 401K plan and then finds he can't make the payments. If the debtor defaults, a distribution of the full loan proceeds will be declared for that tax year. The debtor will now have a tax liability (that cannot be discharged) equaling about a third to a half of the loan taken out to pay debt that was probably dischargeable in the first place.
- Moving debt around to take advantage of low-interest credit card offers. If the debtor files bankruptcy within a short time after this transfer, lenders left "holding the bag" often move in court to block the discharge claiming fraud for incurring the debt when the debtor knew he would not be able to pay it back.
- Playing the "ostrich." Unable to face his or her financial problems, the debtor avoids getting help. For persons with back tax debts, the delay permits interest on priority taxes (that you must pay off) to build and also gives the IRS time to file a tax lien, again making what may have been a dischargeable tax debt into secured debt the debtor must now pay off.
- Getting help from the "one trick pony." When shopping for help, pay attention to 1) the range of solutions, and 2) the effectiveness of the solutions the debt professional offers. Ask questions of the following persons you approach for help:
- Credit counselors. How much of my debt will be completely wiped out? Will I have to pay income taxes for the debt that is wiped out? (You probably will, especially if the creditor reports "cancellation of debt" income for you to the IRS.) How much will I have to pay in total? How many months will it take to be debt free? How much total principal and how much total interest will I pay? Will my interest rates go up?
- Accountants and enrolled agents. For debtors with tax debts, be aware that neither one of them can offer the bankruptcy option unless they have a license to practice law. Usually they will offer only an offer in compromise, which may not be the best option for your case, or an installment agreement which is almost no relief at all. Ask: Would this tax debt be dischargeable in bankruptcy? Are you making a guarantee that my offer will be approved? What amount will be accepted as an approved offer by the IRS? How long will it take? As for an installment agreement, it's just that: Pay over time while interest and penalty charges continue to grow.
- Attorneys who practice only Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This is a bit like going to a doctor who can prescribe only one type of medicine. Your specialist should be able to perform a full diagnosis and then prescribe a range of treatments. Ask: Does the attorney prepare, file and represent debtors in Chapter 13 or Chapter 11? What are the local Chapter 13 trustee's preferences as to the type of plans he or she will accept? How much of his or her practice is devoted to bankruptcy? How long has he or she been practicing this area of the law? For tax problems, does the attorney practice before the IRS? What options does he or she offer?
If you think you may be facing a debt problem, get some advice. The earlier, the better.