March 2011 Archives

March 28, 2011

Reestablishing Credit During the Recession

CreditCardsIStock.jpgA number of the people I counsel want to know how soon they can restore their credit after bankruptcy. The prerecession standard advice was two years for a credit card with decent interest and four years for a mortgage with indecent interest.

But that was then. Now, because so many people have bad credit because of foreclosures, late payments, and bankruptcies, it's hard to say what decisions the credit issuers will be making in the next several years. Will they be more forgiving because of the need to pull in people who might not have qualified a few years ago, or will they get tighter and not give credit at all until more time has elapsed after the bankruptcy? Only Fair Isaac (FICO) knows for sure, sort of.

For sure, if you want to reestablish credit, the old ways are probably still the best ways. Get a major credit card, periodically make purchases, scrupulously make your payments on time, get a second card, same thing, work to build your credit line, never max-out your cards, and so on. There are a number of other tips on the Fair Isaac website at that will help you lift your credit score to the maximum extent possible. The more you follow that advice, the better off you'll be. You can get Nolo's Credit Repair, by Robin Leonard and Margaret Reiter (Nolo) for even more on this subject. Or check out the free articles and FAQs in Nolo's Credit Repair for Bad Credit area of its website.

But should you even try to get your credit back? I often tell people I'm counseling that working to get your credit back is like an alcoholic learning how to drink better. Credit is simply the opportunity to go into debt, and once in debt it's really hard to get out. When you've received your bankruptcy discharge you will usually be completely solvent (except perhaps for debts like student loans and recent income taxes). Why spend energy for the privilege of going back into debt? There are lots of reasons why people feel it's a rational thing to do, but all you're really doing is preparing to live beyond your means.

Sure it's nice to have credit for an emergency, but people would be much better off reigning in their spending and saving as much and as fast as possible, and using their savings if necessary for an emergency. You may not feel like you're addicted to credit or spending (same thing), but chances are you are and are just in denial. Now I would never say this to your face because you would just deny it and be angry at me. Well, maybe you're still angry at me but at least I don't have to see it. Please accept the fact that my intentions are good -- to keep you solvent and out of debt.

March 16, 2011

Same Sex Couple Files Joint Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Petition

On February 24, 2011, a same-sex couple filed a joint Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in Los Angeles, California. Why is this big news?

Bankruptcy is one of the many (thousands, actually) areas in which same-sex couples are treated differently from opposite-sex couples. Even if a same-sex couple is legally married (for example, the couple lives and marries in Massachusetts) or has formed a domestic partnership in a state that provides such partnerships with the same benefits as marriages (as in California), because federal law does not recognize the marriage or partnership, the couple must act as if they are not married when it comes to bankruptcy. That means filing separate bankruptcies, even if filing a joint bankruptcy would make more sense or confer legal benefits. And filing two separate bankruptcy petitions is always more expensive than filing a joint petition. Not only does the couple have to pay two filing fees, but same sex couples also pay double attorneys fees since the attorney must prepare not one, but two, petitions. (Some bankruptcy attorneys waive the fees incurred in preparing the second petition because they recognize and loathe the unfairness of the system. Of course, this means that the attorney must eat those fees.)

In some instances couples who are not considered married under DOMA are better off filing separately in that they each are able to independently claim exemptions on their property --which may lessen the amount required to be paid under the plan -- and aren't required to include all "marital" property in one petition, as is the case with community property belonging to a married couple. Still, if called on to choose between a better result in the bankruptcy and equal treatment currently being denied under DOMA, most filers would likely opt for equal treatment.   

Amidst this backdrop comes big news in the bankruptcy world: On February 24, 2011 a same sex couple filed a joint petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the Los Angeles bankruptcy courts. The filing came on the coattails of the Obama administration's announcement that it would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court (although it will continue to enforce DOMA unless and until the courts rule it unconstitutional). Many bankruptcy attorneys and same-sex couples are waiting to see how the court treats this bankruptcy case.

By Guest Blogger Kathleen Michon

March 5, 2011

MERS: The Elephant in the Foreclosure Room

If you are a homeowner, chances are that the current owner of your mortgage is an entity known as MERS (Mortgage Electronic Recording System). This is true even though you are making your payments to one of the major banks or a dedicated mortgage servicing company. Nobody borrows from MERS in the first instance but somewhere in the chain of title the likelihood is that MERS became (and continues to be) the owner despite a series of transfers to banks, trusts, and investment vehicles. In legal parlance, MERS will be identified in your mortgage documents as the "mortgagee of record," and will also be identified as the "nominee," or agent for the purpose of making future transfers to other entities. 

What Is MERS and How Does It Work?

Like a lot of what has transpired in the mortgage industry, it's hard to get a handle on how MERS works and what exactly is wrong with it. Fortunately, very-readable testimony offered by Professor Christopher Peterson before the House Judiciary Committee casts much light on the subject and is available for your reading pleasure.    

MERS is essentially a large electronic database of mortgages and mortgage transactions. It was invented in the mid 1990s as a legal device to replace the county land title recording system. It is MERS that made the real estate boom feasible by (supposedly) allowing electronic transfers of mortgage ownership among bank and investors in a variety of forms known as real estate trusts, securitized mortgage bonds, and other miscellaneous financial derivatives -- all backed by packages of mortgages consisting of various risk levels.

The lion's share of the financial entities dealing with mortgages were and are members of MERS, and under the MERS rules are also agents which are authorized to effect transfers to other members. These transfers have seldom been recorded in county land records offices -- since ownership never (supposedly) changed but rather remained with MERS. Thus, not only does MERS facilitate transfers of real estate interests, it saves the real estate and banking industries millions if not billions of dollars in recording fees by eliminating all those recording transactions that would otherwise have to be made, at an average pop of $35 per transaction. Avoiding these fees was a major reason that MERS was created in the first place.

Problems Created by the MERS System

The most profound problem that the courts and commentators have with MERS is that it purports to replace the way in which land transaction records have been created and stored since the beginning of the country -- all without  the benefit of authorizing legislation. Under the traditional (and legally authorized) method of keeping track of who owns what, any person is free to walk into a land records office and search the entire historical record of who bought and sold any particular piece of property. This is what is known as a "title search." Under the MERS system, however, no such search is possible. MERS Members are not required to report transfers to the database and so there is no real way to be sure about who owns what.

One Court Says: MERS Doesn't Deliver Clear Title

In In re Agard, a bankruptcy judge analyzed MERS for the purpose of deciding whether a bank seeking foreclosure could prove that it owned the promissory note accompanying the mortgage -- a prerequisite in bankruptcy court when asking the court for permission to proceed with the foreclosure. Previously, MERS had attempted to assign the mortgage and promissory note to the foreclosing bank and the question was whether it successfully did so. 

Although for procedural reasons the Court allowed the bank to proceed with the foreclosure, the Court went on to analyze the role of MERS in the chain of title for the debtors' home. It concluded that MERS, as currently structured, did not deliver clear title to the foreclosing bank. Although the court's analysis does not, strictly speaking, count as precedent because it wasn't necessary to the court's ultimate decision (that is, it was dicta only), it should still prove persuasive with other courts dealing with cases involving MERS ownership.  

MERS Announces Some Changes

Because of the various problems it faces in the Courts, MERS has recently announced that it is changing one of its membership rules (Rule 8) to require that members no longer foreclose in MERS name. MERS has also told its members that assignments out of MERS's name should be recorded in the county land records even if the state law doesn't require it. In short, MERS is on the defensive. These are welcome changes for the future, but the degree to which MERS past practices have placed clouds on current real estate titles remains to be seen. 


March 2, 2011

Bankruptcy and Foreclosure

The most common question I get these days is whether filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy will stop a foreclosure.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and Foreclosure

The simple answer is, Chapter 7 bankruptcy can keep you in your home for an additional two to three months, and that's about it. But, and it's a big "but," because you will be getting free shelter when you aren't paying your mortgage, a three month delay can be worth three times what you would be paying for a monthly rental, or a total of between $4,000 and $6,000 for the typical family.

To learn more about what happens to your home when you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, read Nolo's article Your Home in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy and Foreclosure

If you file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and can propose a feasible repayment plan, you may be able to stave off the foreclosure for up to five years. Just how long will depend on your income and basic living expenses, and how far behind you are on your payments.

Even if can't propose a feasible plan, you may be able to put off the foreclosure for a much longer time than would be the case under Chapter 7. The rub is that you will probably need an attorney to achieve this result. But because you aren't paying your mortgage you can divert some of your "shelter money" to hiring an attorney, who will typically charge between three and four thousand dollars to handle a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. While this may seem like a lot, it likely will be only two or three months worth of mortgage payment and you'll likely come out ahead in terms of the total amount saved by staying in your home payment free.

To learn more about what happens to your home in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, read Nolo's article Your Home in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy can have other advantages over Chapter 7. Bankruptcy attorneys are starting to successfully use Chapter 13 procedures to challenge the very validity of the mortgage, which means you may have a shot either at never having to pay the mortgage or at least being able to negotiate lower principle and payment amounts. You also can use Chapter 13 to get rid of second mortgage liens when your home's value is not enough to provide security for the amount owed on the second mortgage (called mortgage lien strip-offs).

To learn more about the interplay between bankruptcy and foreclosure, read Nolo's article How Bankruptcy Can Help With Foreclosure.