Monday, October 03, 2011

"Means test" standards vs. actual expenses

It sounds like a cliché, but here at Shenwick & Associates, every bankruptcy case really is different. Every debtor has their own unique story of how they got into debt, what type and amount of debt they have, their living conditions and many other factors, which we need to apply the law to so we can provide them with the relief they seek.

In one recent case, we had a young single man (let's call him "Doug") who lived in Brooklyn and earned a substantial income. He had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy a few years ago, but the case was dismissed because he was earning too much to qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

In 2005, Congress radically amended the bankruptcy laws through the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA), which introduced a new form, Form 22, the "Statement of Current Monthly Income." There are actually three different forms, depending upon whether the debtor is filing for relief under Chapter 7 ( Form B22A) (the "Means Test"), Chapter 11 ( Form B22B) or Chapter 13 ( Form B22C) of the Bankruptcy Code. For Chapter 7 debtors, Form B22A includes a means-test calculation, which is a complex six page calculation of expenses and disposable income that a debtor must complete if he or she is above the median income for their state and family size. If their disposable income is above $11,725 over a 60 month period, the presumption of abuse arises, which means that it would be presumptively abusive to allow them to liquidate their debts under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. In this case, they must file for relief under Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. Form B22C includes calculations to determine the length of a Plan (36 or 60 months) and the amount of disposable income the debtor must pay into the Plan each month.

Doug came to us to determine what his disposable income would be in a Chapter 13 Plan. Although he had a condo, it was "underwater" (the liens on the condo exceeded the fair market value of the apartment), so he was going to have to surrender the unit to his secured creditors and rent an apartment. However, the rents he was being quoted by brokers far exceeded the IRS mortgage/rent standard for one person living in Brooklyn ($1,297). The question was-could we also deduct the differen between the actual rent he was going to have to pay and the mortgage/rent standard?

There is very scant case law on this question, and no appellate courts appear to have considered the issue yet, but according to the Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky, the answer is no, not without special circumstances. In , 382 B.R. 85 (2008), the debtors filed a joint Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition that reported annualized current monthly income of $83,022.36 on their Means Test. The applicable median family income for 2 persons in Kentucky was $41,560. The allowable mortgage/rent standard for 1 or 2 persons living in Boone County, KY was $842/month, but the Shinkles' actual rent was $1,500/month.

So, the Shinkles claimed an adjustment of $658 on Line 21 of their Means Test, which allows debtors to claim an additional expense if they contend that the process set out in Line 20 of the Means Test does not accurately compute the amount they are due under IRS Standards. Without this adjustment, their Chapter 7 case would have been presumptively abusive. The legal issue before the Court was if the Shinkles should be entitled to claim their actual rental expenses on the Means Test, in excess of the IRS standards.

In its discussion, the Court looked to the plain language of § 7070(b)(2)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides:

"In any proceeding brought under this subsection, the presumption of abuse may only be rebutted by demonstrating special circumstances, such as a serious medical condition or a call or order to active duty in the Armed Forces, to the extent such special circumstances that justify additional expenses or adjustments of current monthly income for which there is no reasonable alternative. In order to establish special circumstances, the debtor shall be required to itemize each additional expense or adjustment of income and to provide - documentation for such expense or adjustment to income; and a detailed explanation of the special circumstances that make such expenses or adjustment to income necessary and reasonable."

The United States Trustee contended that the Shinkles had not demonstrated such special circumstances. The Shinkles argued that allowed amounts for rent or mortgage expenses are guidelines and not "set in stone," that a condition of Mrs. Shinkle's employment was that she reside in Boone County, and that any slight reduction in rent they could derive from moving would be offset by the costs of moving and forfeiting their opportunity to own the house they were renting.

The Court cited two cases where special circumstances were found–In re Scarafiotti, 365 B.R. 618,631 (Bankr. D.Colo. 2007) (debtors' son needed to be in a specific school to address mental and emotional difficulties, which justified a modest increase in the debtors' housing allowance) and In re Graham, 363 B.R. 844,847 (Bankr. S.D. Ohio 2007 (the debtor husband had to move 800 miles from his wife and her two children from a previous marriage in order to find gainful employment, but the debtor wife could not join her husband because of the constraints of her shared custody agreement. These debtors were allowed to claim a second set of housing expenses for the husband). The Court found no such special circumstances in the Shinkles' case.

For more information about the Means Test in Chapter 7, disposable income to fund a Plan in chapter 13 and getting relief through the bankruptcy process, please contact Jim Shenwick.

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