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1. What is the rationale for making the bankruptcy discharge of student loans very difficult?
2. Petitioner argued that she should be able to use a postdischarge event (the auto accident) as a basis for establishing that she could not maintain a “minimal” standard of living, and thus she should get a retroactive discharge of her student loans. What benefit is there to her if she could successfully make the argument, given that she could—as the court noted—file for Chapter 13?
3. The court cites the Coleman case. That was a Chapter 13 proceeding. Here were the facts: Debtor had not yet completed her payments under her five-year repayment plan, and no discharge order had yet been entered; one year into the plan, she was laid off work. She had been trying to repay her student loans for several years, and she claimed she would suffer hardship in committing to the five-year repayment plan without any guarantee that her student loan obligations would be discharged, since she was required to commit all of her disposable income to payments under the plan and would likely be forced to pursue undue hardship issue pro se upon completion of the plan.” In Coleman,the court held that Debtor could, postfiling but predischarge—one year into the five-year plan—bring up the hardship issue. Now, in the case here, after the auto accident, the petitioner “subsists” on Social Security disability payments, and she has almost $150,000 in debt, yet the court prohibited her from claiming a hardship discharge of student loans. Does this result really make sense? Is the court’s concern that allowing this postdischarge relief would mean “that a bankruptcy discharge is a perpetual license to discharge student loans based on events that occur years after the bankruptcy discharge is granted” well founded? Suppose it is scheduled to take thirty years to pay off student loans; in year 4, the student-borrower, now Debtor, declares Chapter 7 bankruptcy, student loans not being discharged; in year 6, the person is rendered disabled. What public policy is offended if the person is allowed to “reopen” the bankruptcy and use the postbankruptcy event as a basis for claiming a hardship discharge of student loans?
4. The court suggests she file for Chapter 13. What if—because of timing—the petitioner was not eligible for Chapter 13? What would happen then?
Dischargeability of Student Loans under Chapter 7
In re Zygarewicz
423 B.R. 909 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Cal. 2010)
MCMANUS, BANKRUPTCY JUDGE.
Angela Zygarewicz, a chapter 7 debtor and the plaintiff in this adversary proceeding, borrowed 16 government-guaranteed student [sic] loans totaling $81,429. The loans have been assigned to Educational Credit Management Corporation (“ECMC”). By September 2009, the accrual of interest on these student loans had caused the debt to balloon to more than $146,000. The debtor asks the court to declare that these student loans were discharged in bankruptcy.
The Bankruptcy Code provides financially distressed debtors with a fresh start by discharging most of their pre-petition debts.…However, under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8), there is a presumption that educational loans extended by or with the aid of a governmental unit or nonprofit institution are nondischargeable unless the debtor can demonstrate that their repayment would be an undue hardship. See [Citation]. This exception to a bankruptcy discharge ensures that student loans, which are typically extended solely on the basis of the student’s future earnings potential, cannot be discharged by recent graduates who then pocket all of the future benefits derived from their education. See [Citation]. The debtor bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to a discharge of the student loan. See [Citation]. That is, the debtor must prove that repayment of student loans will cause an undue hardship.
The Bankruptcy Code does not define “the undue hardship.” Courts interpreting section 523(a)(8), however, have concluded that undue hardship [and] is something more than “garden-variety hardship.” [Citation.] Only cases involving “real and substantial” hardship merit discharges. See [Citation.] The Ninth Circuit has adopted a three-part test to guide courts in their attempts to determine whether a debtor will suffer an undue hardship is required to repay a student loan: First, the debtor must establish “that she cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a ‘minimal’ standard of living for herself and her dependents if forced to repay the loans.”… Second, the debtor must show “that additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans.”… The third prong requires “that the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.…”
(Pena, citing Brunner v. N.Y. State Higher Educ. Servs. Corp., [Citation]).
Debtor must satisfy all three parts of the Brunner test before her student loans can be discharged. Failure to prove any of the three prongs will defeat a debtor’s case. When this bankruptcy case was filed in September 2005, the debtor was a single woman and had no dependents. She is 39 years old. Schedule I reported that the debtor was unemployed. The debtor’s responses to the Statement of Financial Affairs revealed that she had received $5,500 in income during 2005 prior to the filing of the petition. Evidence at trial indicated that after the petition was filed, the debtor found work and earned a total of $9,424 in 2005. In 2004 and 2003, she earned $13,994 and $17,339, respectively. Despite this modest income, the debtor did not immediately file an adversary proceeding to determine the dischargeability of her student loans. It was almost three years after the entry of her chapter 7 discharge ‘on January 3, 2006 that the debtor reopened her chapter 7 case in order to pursue this adversary proceeding.’
In her complaint, the debtor admits that after she received a discharge, she found part-time work with a church and later took a full-time job as a speech therapist. During 2006, the debtor earned $20,009 and in 2007 she earned $37,314. Hence, while it is clear the debtor’s income was very modest in the time period immediately prior to her bankruptcy petition, her financial situation improved during her bankruptcy case. The court cannot conclude based on the evidence of the debtor’s financial circumstances up to the date of the discharge, that she was unable to maintain a minimal standard of living if she was required to repay her students [sic] loans. However, in January 2007, the debtor was injured in an automobile accident. Her injuries eventually halted the financial progress she had been making and eventually prevented her from working. She now subsists on social security disability payments.
The circumstance creating the debtor’s hardship, the automobile accident, occurred after her chapter 7 petition was filed, indeed, approximately one year after her discharge was entered. The debtor is maintaining that this post-petition, post-discharge circumstance warrants a declaration that her student loans were discharged effective from the petition date. When must the circumstances creating a debtor’s hardship arise: before the bankruptcy case is filed; after the case if filed but prior to the entry of a discharge; or at anytime, including after the entry of a discharge?
The court concludes that the circumstances causing a chapter 7 debtor’s financial hardship must arise prior to the entry of the discharge. If the circumstances causing a debtor’s hardship arise after the entry of a discharge, those circumstances cannot form the basis of a determination that repayment of a student loan will be an undue hardship.… [T]here is nothing in the Bankruptcy Code requiring that a complaint under section 523(a)(8) [to discharge student loans] be filed at any particular point in a bankruptcy case, whether it is filed under chapter 7 or 13. [Relevant Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure] permits such dischargeability complaints to be brought at any time, including after the entry of a discharge and the closing of the bankruptcy case.…While a debtor’s decision to file an action to determine the dischargeability of a student loan is not temporally constrained, this does not mean that a debtor’s financial hardship may arise after a discharge has been entered. [The] Coleman [case, cited by debtor] deals with the ripeness of a dispute concerning the dischargeability of a student loan. [The Ninth Circuit held that it] is ripe for adjudication at any point during the case. The Ninth Circuit did not conclude, however, that a debtor could rely upon post-discharge circumstances to establish undue hardship. In fact, the court in Coleman made clear that the debtor could take a snapshot of the hardship warranting a discharge of a student loan any time prior to discharge. [Coleman was a Chapter 13 case.] Here, the debtor was injured in an automobile accident on January 17, 2007, almost exactly one year after her January 3, 2006 chapter 7 discharge. Because the accident had no causal link to the misfortune prompting the debtor to seek bankruptcy relief in the first instance, the accident cannot be relied on to justify the discharge of the student loans because repayment would be an undue hardship. To hold otherwise would mean that a bankruptcy discharge is a perpetual license to discharge student loans based on events that occur years after the bankruptcy discharge is granted. If a discharged debtor suffers later financial misfortune, that debtor must consider seeking another discharge subject to the limitations imposed by [the sections of the code stipulating how often a person can petition for bankruptcy]. In the context of a second case, the debtor could then ask that the student loan be declared dischargeable under section 523(a)(8). In this instance, the debtor is now eligible for a discharge in a chapter 13 case. Her chapter 7 petition was filed on September 19, 2005. Section 1328(f)(1) bars a chapter 13 discharge when the debtor has received a chapter 7 discharge in a case commenced in the prior four years. She would not be eligible for a chapter 7 discharge until September 19, 2013. This is not to say that post-discharge events are irrelevant. The second and third prongs of the Pena test require the court to consider whether the circumstances preventing a debtor from repaying a student loan are likely to persist, and whether the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the student loan. Postdischarge events are relevant to these determinations because they require the court to look into the debtor’s financial future.
Unfortunately for the debtor, it is unnecessary to consider the second and third prongs because she cannot satisfy the first prong.
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1. What is the rationale for making the bankruptcy discharge of student loans very difficult?
The Congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2005 to exclude student loans from bankruptcy.
That is, as per the law, no student loan can be discharged or waived off even if the student files for bankruptcy, until and unless the student can prove that paying the loan would cause him undue hardship.
This is because it was found that until 2005, many students were abusing the leniency given to get their student loans discharged by filing for fake bankruptcy.
This led to huge losses for banks and the government. The students had started applying for more loans, studying, getting degrees and then filing for bankruptcy and walking away free.
In order to prevent this abuse from increasing, the Congress made the bankruptcy discharge of student loans very difficult, as the students can always find themselves good jobs after getting their degrees and can hence pay off their loans.
1. What is the rationale for making the bankruptcy discharge of student loans very difficult? 2....
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