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Liquidation Under the Bankruptcy Code
A discharge releases the debtor from personal liability for discharged debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any action against the debtor or his property to collect the debts. The bankruptcy law regarding the scope of a chapter 7 discharge is complex, and debtors should consult competent legal counsel in this regard prior to filing. As a general rule, however, excluding cases which are dismissed or converted, individual debtors receive a discharge in more than 99 percent of chapter 7 cases. In most cases, unless a complaint has been filed objecting to the discharge or the debtor has filed a writ- ten waiver, the discharge will be granted to a chapter 7 debtor relatively early in the case, that is, 60 to 90 days after the date first set for the meeting of creditors. Bankruptcy Rule 4004(c).
The grounds for denying an individual debtor a discharge in a chapter 7 case are very narrow and are construed against a creditor or trustee seeking to deny the debtor a chapter 7 discharge. Among the grounds for denying a discharge to a chapter 7 debtor are that the debtor failed to keep or produce adequate books or financial records; the debtor failed to explain satisfactorily any loss of assets; the debtor committed a bankruptcy crime such as perjury; the debtor failed to obey a lawful order of the bankruptcy court; or the debtor fraudulently transferred, concealed, or destroyed property that would have become property of the estate. 11 U.S.C. § 727; Bankruptcy Rule 4005.
In certain jurisdictions, secured creditors may retain some rights to seize pledged property, even after a discharge is granted. Depending on individual circumstances, a debtor wishing to keep possession of the pledged property, such as an automobile, may find it advantageous to "reaffirm" the debt. A reaffirmation is an agreement between the debtor and the creditor that the debtor will pay all or a portion of the money owed, even though the debtor has filed bankruptcy. In return, the creditor promises that, as long as payments are made, the creditor will not repossess or take back the automobile or other property. Because there is a disagreement among the courts concerning whether a debtor whose debt is not in default may retain the property and pay under the original contract terms without reaffirming the debt, legal counsel should be consulted to ensure that the debtor's rights are protected and that any reaffirmation is in the debtor's best interest.
If the debtor elects to reaffirm the debt, the reaffirmation should be accomplished prior to the granting of a discharge. A written agreement to reaffirm a debt must be filed with the court and, if the debtor is not represented by an attorney, must be approved by the judge. 11 U.S.C. § 524(c). The Bankruptcy Code requires that reaffirmation agreements contain an explicit statement advising the debtor that the agreement is not required by bankruptcy or non- bankruptcy law. In addition, the debtor's attorney is required to advise the debtor of the legal effect and consequences of such an agreement, including a default under such an agreement. The Code requires a reaffirmation hearing only if the debtor has not been represented by an attorney during the negotiating of the agreement. 11 U.S.C. § 524(d). The debtor may repay any debt voluntarily, however, whether or not a reaffirmation agreement exists. 11 U.S.C. § 524(f).
Most claims against an individual chapter 7 debtor are discharged. A creditor whose unsecured claim is discharged may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the obligation. A discharge under chapter 7, however, does not discharge an individual debtor from certain specific types of debts listed in section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. Among the types of debts which are not discharged in a chapter 7 case are alimony and child maintenance and support obligations, certain taxes, debts for certain educational benefit overpayments or loans made or guaranteed by a governmental unit, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity, debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated from alcohol or other substances, and debts for criminal restitution orders under title 18, United States Code. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a). To the extent that these types of debts are not fully paid in the chapter 7 case, the debtor is still responsible for them after the bankruptcy case has concluded. Debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses, debts for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity, and debts arising from a property settlement agreement incurred during or in connection with a divorce or separation are discharged unless a creditor timely files and prevails in an action to have such debts declared excepted from the discharge. 11 U.S.C. § 523(c); Bankruptcy Rule 4007(c).
The court may revoke a chapter 7 discharge on the request of the trustee, a creditor, or the United States trustee if the discharge was obtained through fraud by the debtor or if the debtor acquired property that is property of the estate and knowingly and fraudulently failed to report the acquisition of such property or to surrender the property to the trustee. 11 U.S.C. § 727(d).