By Ryan C. Wood
Let the insanity begin. What I will be discussing today are mortgage payments that include property taxes and insurance. The property tax and insurance have been “impounded” as part of the normal monthly mortgage payment and is traditionally called an escrow account. So this type of mortgage payment includes principal, interest, property tax and insurance. Before discussing how this has become extremely frustrating when filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case in the Northern District of California let us look at why this situation exists to begin with.
Why Are Property Taxes and Insurance Not Paid Directly By The Borrower
Lenders need to protect their investment. Fine, so as part of that lenders need to ensure property taxes are paid timely and the home is insured. No problem. Here in California lenders cannot force an impound escrow account unless the borrower’s loan to value ratio exceeds 80 percent. I believe this is the most common reason why impound accounts exist. A house is purchased via some favorable program that allows less than a 20% down payment at the time of purchase resulting in a ratio 80% or more. So if you put 20% or more as a down payment then the mortgage company cannot force you into an escrow or impound account. A lender or loan officer could also suggest the borrower have an impound escrow account and the borrower then would voluntarily agree to it.
Also here in California servicers and lenders are required to pay 2% interest to borrowers on funds held in escrow accounts. See Cal. Civ. Code Section 2954.80.
Pursuant to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) the servicer or mortgage company must review the property taxes and insurance each year to make sure they are not holding a surplus. At the same time RESPA allows the servicer or lender to collect up to two additional months of escrow payments as a cushion or reserve to protect the servicer or lender in the event a borrower misses monthly mortgage payments. See 12 U.S.C §2609(a)(1).
This is where the problem is created.
How Can A Borrower Have A Projected Escrow Shortage If They Paid All Mortgage Payments When Filing a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Case?
The key words here are “projected escrow shortage” at the time the chapter 13 bankruptcy case is filed by the bankruptcy attorney of the borrow. So yeah, property taxes change and so do insurance premiums, but not that much. When a borrower files for relief under chapter 13 and is current with all mortgage payments at the time of filing the petition the bankruptcy filer normally just keeps paying the servicer or mortgage company directly just like prior to the filing of the chapter 13 since there are no missed mortgage payments. If no missed payments then no problem; life goes on regarding the loan even though the chapter 13 petition is filed. The chapter 13 should have no effect on the servicer or mortgage lender or the borrower as the bankruptcy filer. The servicer or mortgage lender is a secured creditor and normally files a proof of claim in the chapter 13 bankruptcy case providing the amount of the total secured debt owed and that there are no mortgage arrears or missed payments prior to the case being filed.
Here is when there are more and more problems because of escrow or impound accounts and alleged shortages. Proof of claims are being filed for escrow shortages or projected escrow shortages even though the bankruptcy filer has paid the servicer or mortgage lender all mortgage payments as required.
If the shortage is projected the shortage does not yet exist until some future date? If it does not exist how can this projected shortage be part of a proof of claim? Or if there is future projected escrow shortfall the only way for the servicer or mortgage company to obtain the shortfall is supposed to be by increasing the future escrow payments after the bankruptcy case is filed just like if no chapter 13 had been filed in the first place.
But wait just a second. So now this touches on what is a “claim” in bankruptcy? The Supreme Court of the United States provides “right to payment” in the definition of “claim” meant “nothing more nor less than an enforceable obligation[.]” Johnson v. Home State Bank, 501 U.S. 78, 83, 111 S.Ct. 2150, 115 L.Ed.2d 66 (1991). “Congress intended by this language to adopt the broadest available definition of `claim.'” Id; see also FCC v. NextWave Pers. Commc’ns Inc., 537 U.S. 293, 302, 123 S.Ct. 832, 154 L.Ed.2d 863 (2003). So applying these definitions to a projected escrow shortage we can all agree the shortage is a “right to payment” pursuant to RESPA and the cushion of two escrow payments and can be part of a proof of claim.
Why is this happening though? The servicer of mortgage company is not properly calculating their RESPA cushion prior to the chapter 13 being filed. After the servicer or mortgage company pays a borrower’s property tax there should be a balance in the escrow account representing two escrow payments, the RESPA cushion. This is not happening and when the chapter 13 case is filed it triggers a review of the escrow account and behold there is a projected shortage.
I am not sure why this has become an issue when this dynamic of escrow accounts and RESPA cushion have existed for a very long time, but it is a problem now. Creditors referring to other Circuit opinions that provide that the collecting of pre-petition projected escrow shortages through post-petition mortgage payments is a violation of the automatic stay and arguably opens the creditor to possible sanctions for the violation of the automatic stay. There are a number of potential solutions to the problem, but the one that makes the most sense is that servicers and mortgage companies just properly calculate the RESPA cushion upon review of escrow accounts like they are supposed and this should never be a problem upon the filing of a bankruptcy case. After all, the borrower has made all payments as required by the servicer or mortgage loan company. What more can the borrower to make sure this is not a problem but make the payment requested each month on time?
Another solution is the include language in the chapter 13 plan that provides the service or mortgage lender may collect a pre-petition escrow shortfall from post-petition payments and not be in violation of the automatic stay. This will most likely trigger the necessity of having a confirmation hearing regarding the chapter 13 plan when a hearing would not normally be necessary. This is a waste of judicial resources, the chapter 13 trustee’s time and the attorney for the debtor’s time given the servicer or mortgage loan company did not properly calculate the escrow payment prior to the chapter 13 being filed.
Another solution is to stipulate that the creditor may collect pre-petition projected escrow shortages from post-petition mortgage payments. There is no guarantee that the trustee’s office will sign-off on this stipulation and again could end up with a hearing regarding confirmation of the chapter 13 plan that normally would not have to take place.
To be fair I could also provide any number of scenarios that a debtor or their bankruptcy attorney creates in the course of seeking confirmation of a chapter 13 plan that creditors, the Court and trustee’s office believe to waste their time over and over again so ………… I am just writing about this issue from a bankruptcy filer’s perspective and their attorney.
Why Is It Difficult to Project Escrow Account Funds?
Here in California we have Proposition 13 that limits how much property taxes can increase each year. You would think this would allow servicers and mortgage companies to easily estimate future property taxes and property insurance payments year after year so that there are no issues. Again, I get how sometimes getting numbers right is difficult even when a good faith effort is made to get the numbers right.
It just appears the escrow analysis that is required by law is not happening until the chapter 13 case is filed and the projected escrow shortage is created. If the chapter 13 case was never filed the servicer or mortgage lender would just continue to send statements with a monthly dollar amount owed and the borrower would just keep making the payment each month and there would be no issues. The part of the monthly escrow payment would increase or decrease depending upon the whim of the servicer or mortgage company ……….