How Bankruptcy Affects Co-Signors
Clients are often pleased to learn about one of the bankruptcy law’s most powerful protections: the automatic stay. When a bankruptcy case is filed, the debtor receives immediate protection from creditor collection actions. This relief is known as the “automatic stay” because it immediately stops lawsuits, telephone harassment, and other attempts to collect on a debt. The automatic stay continues throughout the bankruptcy case until either the stay is modified by the court or the case ends.
But what about co-signors?
Most co-signors are considered “jointly and severally liable” for the debt. That means that each party is liable up to the full amount of the debt. If you file bankruptcy, your co-signor is typically on the hook for 100% of the outstanding debt. Contrary to a popular misunderstanding, the bankruptcy discharge does not “erase” a financial obligation. The discharge is a legal injunction that prohibits your creditors from enforcing your debts against you individually. The debt still exists, and can be collected from others who are not protected by the bankruptcy laws.
Filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case will not stop a creditor from collecting against a co-signor or co-debtor. However, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case contains a protection known as the “Co-Debtor Stay.” This protection is meant to protect a debtor by insulating him from indirect pressures from his creditors exerted through friends or relatives. The Co-Debtor Stay stops all collection actions against any individual who is obligated on a consumer debt owed by the debtor. This protection continues until the Chapter 13 case has concluded, or the Co-debtor Stay is modified or lifted by the bankruptcy court. Typically, the Co-Debtor Stay will last the duration of the debtor’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, or three to five years.
There are limits to the Co-Debtor Stay. The Co-Debtor Stay only prohibits collection on personal debts, not business obligations. Additionally, if your co-signor actually received the benefit of the debt, and your Chapter 13 plan proposes not to pay the debt, the creditor can seek to lift the stay. This is often the case when the bankruptcy debtor co-signed a loan so that a friend or family member could purchase a car. Of course, if the creditor is receiving timely payments on the loan, there is usually no issue or impact to the co-signor.
If you need bankruptcy relief, but are worried that your co-signors will be harmed, discuss the issue with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Your attorney can recommend several options to consider when dealing with co-signors.