What is a Hardship Discharge in a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Case?

By Ryan C. Wood

If you are currently having problems making your Chapter 13 plan payments each month due to circumstances that you cannot control there may be some help for you. If you currently have a bankruptcy attorney you should seek his or her advice immediately before your case is dismissed for nonpayment. Most Chapter 13 trustees have a quick trigger finger when plan payments become delinquent. If you do not have a bankruptcy attorney you need to consult with one immediately to see what your options are. There are generally three main options if you are unable to make your Chapter 13 plan payments. The first one is to modify your Chapter 13 plan to a lower payment you can afford either temporarily or permanently depending upon the circumstances. Some Chapter 13 trustees will enter into a stipulation to repay the missed payments without filing a motion to modify and obtain court approval. Another option is to convert your case to a Chapter 7. The third option is to obtain a hardship discharge. All three of these options are dependent on court approval and would depend on your particular circumstances. Today we are going to discuss the hardship discharge.

Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1328(b), a hardship discharge is available for people that cannot modify their Chapter 13 plans in a practical manner and had circumstances come up that they could not be held accountable for that made them unable to continue their Chapter 13 plan payments. Additionally, they need to have paid into the plan not less than what they would have paid to their Chapter 7 creditors if their bankruptcy estate was liquidated. It is also important to note that the hardship discharge is only available to people whose Chapter 13 plan was confirmed or approved by the bankruptcy court. If your plan was not confirmed you are not eligible for the hardship discharge. See Toste v. Smedberg (In re Toste), BAP 9th Cir., 2014).

So what exactly does the hardship discharge cover? Does it discharge all your debts or only some of them? To truly understand the hardship discharge we need to know about what is dischargeable or not in a regular Chapter 7 bankruptcy and what is dischargeable in Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy your general unsecured debt is dischargeable unless it fits into a category under 11 U.S.C. §523(a). These are debts such as those incurred through false pretenses or fraud, priority tax debt, student loans, domestic support obligations, death or personal injury caused by operation of motor vehicle while driving under the influence, restitution, unscheduled debts, and much more. For a complete list you should review the exceptions to discharge under §523(a). Be sure to provide your bankruptcy attorney detailed information about how your debts and how they were incurred if there are any not so good circumstances.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy discharges are broader than Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharges. There are certain debts that are non-dischargeable under §523(a) that are dischargeable in a Chapter 13 case. Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1328(a), you are entitled to a full discharge of your debt except for the following debts: debts that provided for a cure for any defaults on any secured or unsecured debts (for example: if you were behind on your mortgage or car payments and the Chapter 13 plan provided for the cure amount), debts for priority taxes, student loans, money obtained by false pretenses or fraud, unscheduled debt, fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny, domestic support obligations, death or personal injury caused by person filing for bankruptcy who was driving under the influence. Additionally, debts for restitution included in the sentencing of a conviction of a crime or restitution awarded in a civil action against the person filing for bankruptcy as a result of willful or malicious injury that caused personal injury or death to someone is also non-dischargeable in a Chapter 13. Thus, if you successfully complete the Chapter 13 plan, the non-dischargeable debt in §523(a) other than the debts enumerated in the above paragraph will be dischargeable. Some issues pursuant to Section 523(a) may require an adversary proceeding to be filed to prove the grounds for a debt to be not discharged.

So what happens if you initially filed a Chapter 13 case but circumstances occurred where it was no longer feasible for you to continue making payments in your Chapter 13 plan? You can obtain the hardship discharge, but the discharge is narrower than the normal Chapter 13 bankruptcy case discharge if you complete the plan and receive a §1328(a) discharge given all of the regular §523(a) exceptions to discharge provisions apply. See Toste v. Smedberg (In re Toste), BAP 9th Cir., 2014). You can look at it as you are receiving a Chapter 7 discharge rather than a Chapter 13 discharge.