Feb 15, 2011

Bankruptcy and Second-Mortgage Liens

If you file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, what happens to second or third mortgages and liens on your home? The real estate crash, and the resulting depreciation in home values, may mean that as a practical matter, many people won't have to worry about those liens. Here's why.

The Real Estate Crash Has Resulted in Many Unsecured Second and Third Mortgages

Because of the real estate crash, many people have second and third mortgages on their homes that are no longer secured by the home's value. For instance if your home is now worth $200,000 and you owe $200,000 on your first mortgage and $50,000 on your second mortgage, your home's value secures the first mortgage, but after that, there is no equity left to secure the second mortgage.

What Happens to Those Mortgages if You File for Bankruptcy?

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, your bankruptcy discharge will eliminate your personal liability on the second mortgage but will not eliminate the lien. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can eliminate both your personal liability and the lien in a procedure called lien stripping. The basic lien stripping rule is: You can eliminate a lien that has no security in the home, but you can't eliminate the lien if part of it is secured by the home's value.

Here's an example. Say your home is worth $210,000, your first mortgage is $205,000, and your second mortgage is $25,000. You can't strip off the second lien because it is secured by at least $5,000 of your home's value.

What if a Lien Remains on Your Home After Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?

Although you can't lien strip in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the lien may have very little effect on your future financial affairs. The Chapter 7 bankruptcy will discharge your personal liability for the second mortgage (meaning you can't be sued for money owed on it). And, absent value in the house securing the second mortgage, the holder wouldn't benefit from a foreclosure (since all the value of the home would go to the first mortgage holder in a foreclosure sale).

This means there won't be negative consequence from the lien remaining on the home after your bankruptcy -- unless of course your home's value comes back to a point that would allow you to sell the home or support a foreclosure action by the second mortgage lender. This is clearly less likely when your home is way underwater (50% is common) than when you are just a tad underwater.

The bottom line? Even though you might have a better result in Chapter 13 -- where you can lien strip -- from a practical standpoint, people with severely underwater second mortgages may do just as well in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

In some cases it needn't be one choice or the other. It used to be that you could file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, discharge your personal liabilities and then immediately file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy to strip off the lien. This was called a "Chapter 20" bankruptcy. Now it's not quite that simple. You are still entitled to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy right after your Chapter 7 discharge but you won't qualify for a Chapter 13 discharge. Still, at least one bankruptcy court said that you don't need a discharge to strip off a second lien in a Chapter 13 case filed on top of a Chapter 7 case, as long as you filed the Chapter 13 in good faith.