I am a lawyer, so it may be odd that I recommend to many people that they should try financial coaching as an option before filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. It is also, in many cases, an unpopular opinion with both consumers and some lawyers. I’ll get this out of the way upfront. Yes, I can take a bankruptcy matter, but I find there are many cases where it may do more harm than good. It is also tax refund season, and many people wait for their refund to file so they can afford the bankruptcy filing fees. In fact, I have received a few calls in my practice about it lately, so I thought I would get my rationale into an article.

First, a few bankruptcy basics. When most people think about filing bankruptcy, they are referring to a Chapter 7. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy (meaning filed under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code) wipes out or “liquidates” almost all of the debtors unsecured debt, but there are exceptions. As well as some rules regarding secured debt such as cars and mortgages. It’s not just a wave of a magic wand, and since 2008, requires the debtor “pass” means test, if the household income is below certain thresholds. There are of course special exceptions, and what law doesn’t have exceptions?

What if the consumer “fails” the means test? Then the bankruptcy code they are eligible to file under is a Chapter 13. A Chapter 13 is basically a court approved repayment plan to creditors. The bankruptcy filing creates an estate, and a bankruptcy trustee manages the repayment for three to five years until it is completed and the bankruptcy (estate) is discharged.

So now we know the basics, why coaching before filing? My top three reasons.

First, the consumer keeps control of his or her income while debt is paid. When a consumer files bankruptcy, all of the debts and all of the income are listed on various “schedules.” The consumer’s assets, meaning property, bank accounts, disposable monthly income, etc. become the “bankruptcy estate.” This includes the consumer’s income, because it is what the filer is promising the bankruptcy court he or she will use to repay the debts. A repayment plan is submitted to the court, and if approved, the estate (with the payment plan) will be managed by a bankruptcy trustee, who works for the court.

So, the consumer no longer gets to control his or her income. It is an asset promised to pay debts, and all debts are paid from this estate for the length of time that bankruptcy is in repayment. This also means that any income increase, such as a raise or bonus, at any time the estate still exists will belong to the trustee. The trustee may demand that more money be paid to the creditors, particularly if the increase exceeds 10% of the consumer’s current income. And you cannot lie to the court. Never a good idea. And most of the time the consumer must submit personal tax returns to the court annually anyway. This is for as long as the estate exists.

Only after discharge will the consumer regain control. While it is true a certain percentage of the debt can be discharged at discharge, most of the debt must be repaid. The general rule is that at least as much of the debt that would have been discharged if the consumer qualified for a chapter 7, and the court can order more based on disposable income and assets.

Another note, if the consumer owes family money, and pays some of it back in the months preceding a bankruptcy filing, the trustee, under what is known as a “claw back,” can demand the family member return the money so it can be added to the estate. This is because the court will presume that the money was paid to a “preferred” creditor.

Second, coaching can help change attitudes and habits, a bankruptcy often doesn’t. Consumers are already required to go through a credit counseling type personal finance class before filing any bankruptcy and again before it can be discharged. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of these courses. But you can potentially see the limited change in money habits these courses have by looking at the average of Chapter 13 bankruptcies that successfully make if the full five years to discharge.

Only about one in three approved payment plans makes it through to discharge. Yup. Only about 33%. Yikes. Another statistic? Approximately 8% of bankruptcies are from re-filers, which account for about 16% of annual filings. More than 1 in 20 filings each year are from consumers who already filed once before. Yes, life can happen to anyone, and I am not here to judge, but if the consumer worked with a Ramsey Preferred Coach, I would take a bet that there would have been an emergency fund prior to that second filing.

When someone works with a coach, the repayment of debt comes not from fear of the court or trustee, but from a sincere desire to change from habits that can be personally harmful, to those habits that give peace of mind. The “not owing a monthly payment to anyone who charges a $39.00 fee if you are one second late with a payment” peace of mind. Also, a coach can keep you accountable. How can you forget to budget if you meet with a coach each month for a while? What if something comes up and you have a question? There is a coach walking beside you for support. Coaching is not forever either, and many people don’t even need three to five years of coaching, unlike a Chapter 13.

Third, the consumer may be asked about filing a bankruptcy long after it is removed from a credit report, and it may affect future opportunities. I find this to be a heartbreaking fact that many people do not really consider prior to filing. Everyone is thinking about the credit report, the “ten years” hit in the “public records” section. But that is just one part. Consumers are often asked on a job application, mortgage loan application, security clearance application, “Have you ever filed bankruptcy?” Which is not the same as, “Have you filed bankruptcy in the last ten years?” And the “have you ever” question must be answered YES. This can lead to loss of some future opportunities that were never even thought of before.

Jobs in law enforcement, for example, are difficult to obtain after filing. Not to lie, even getting a license to practice law can be a challenge because an applicant may not pass the Moral Fitness requirement. Military or government jobs requiring a clearance may be an issue. So, while there is protection against losing your job during a bankruptcy, and protection from discrimination at your current employer, no such protection exists if you try to change jobs later in private industry.

And that’s it. My three biggest reasons for advising consumers to try coaching first, before filing a chapter 13 bankruptcy. If you or someone you know is in a financial situation where bankruptcy has been raised in conversation, you (or they) may want to have a chat with a financial coach, first.

This is the week that the IRS is estimated to process to filers. In the first quarter of every calendar year federal (and sometimes state) tax refunds are issued to qualified filers. In fact the average tax refund for the 2018 filing year (2017 return) was over $2,200.00. I’ve already spoken about how to ensure every dollar you can keep goes into your pocket each month, and not into the IRS coffers (until you file the next year’s return). Another issue, comes from the fact that the money received by many taxpayers is immediately spent paying down debt accrued the previous year. Some of that debt is from short-term overspending during the holidays, accounting for about 39% of Americans using the refund to clear that debt.

It is this cycle of annual debt that needs to be addressed, because if $1,000.00 of that refund was placed into a “baby” emergency fund, many Americans would not have to incur debt for “emergencies.” The stats are incredibly scary. The latest figure is that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Almost 8 in 10. Following the logic, everyone knows at least a few people who are unable to cover even the smallest of budget hits without putting another bill in jeopardy. Additionally, a full 70% of Americans are in debt.

The recent government shutdown highlighted that for many Americans just treading water with money, they are one missed payday from being in financial distress. And we all saw the comments and memes about how government workers should have something put away or should be able to cover one month of expenses. Based on the statistics, 8 out of 10 cannot.

So, why am I telling you this? If you have a tax refund coming, and do not have $1000.00 saved for an emergency, you are not taking full benefit of the Uncle Sam Savings Plan. $1,000.00 goes a long way for car or home repairs, unexpected expenses, and other hits to the budget that throw a wrench in how the bills are paid. And once you put $1,000.00 away, be diligent in keeping it that way. Refill it if it gets used. Seriously. Mike and I had a pipe burst recently during the Polar Vortex, and we mopped up the water, grumbled a little, and called the plumber, knowing it could be covered from the emergency fund. (For Ramsey listeners, we are finishing baby step 2.)

Of course, $1,000.00 isn’t a “full” emergency fund, which is three to six months of expenses saved, but it is a good start to cover many, many of the instances where Murphy moved into the spare bedroom for a week. Of course, my next piece advice is to get out of debt as fast as you can, so YOU control your income, not some credit card company or bank. When you commit to payments, you promise to give them a share of your income each month, no matter what life throws at you. And I would strongly urge anyone getting the “average” refund to apply the $1200.00 over that emergency fund starter towards any outstanding debt.

Somewhere around 80% of taxpayers get some sort of tax refund each year, and that was true again for 2017. The average refund amount was $2878.00. And while many people love to celebrate the lump sum when they get the check, the IRS shouldn’t be used as a savings account. Here are a few reasons why:

1. You could actually have the money to use throughout the year. If an employee paid every two weeks adjusted their withholding to be accurate as to what they really will owe, that average “refund” of $2787.00 becomes $110.00 in the paycheck every payday. This equates to roughly $220.00/ month into the household! With 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, that is a big addition to the monthly budget.

2. The IRS controls the overpayment until they give it back. The IRS doesn’t pay interest on the extra amount you paid or allow you to access your own money until tax time. Once you have it withheld, or you send it in for the self-employed, it is in the IRS coffers until you file your tax return. And the government isn’t paying you any interest on the money they get to use until they have to refund the excess you gave them. In reality, you are losing control of your own income.

3. The cycle of debt/ pay with return is expensive. Many Americans go into debt throughout the year and pay off balances with a tax refund. This allows lenders to charge interest, even short term, and the debt is much more expensive than if the money was in your budget every month to use. An extra $220.00 a month can prevent the need to take on short term and expensive debt, especially if you use that money for an emergency fund.

It’s too late to affect your 2018 tax return and refund, because the 2018 tax year closed about a week ago on December 31st. But you can make changes now to bring home more money in each check, and to prevent a huge sum being refunded in 2019. Check your withholding, by checking your paystub, or ask HR. If you had a change in dependents such as a new baby, kid graduated and moved out, or got divorced, make sure the number of people you are paying taxes for is accurate.

For example, a family of four should be withholding properly for a family of four. One special note for a two-income family-the higher earner should be withholding the proper number of dependents; the second earner should claim zero. This prevents under withholding and a tax bill at the end of the year.

After your adjustments, enjoy the new sum in your paycheck, and for the first few months, why not squirrel the extra away in an account? You haven’t seen it regularly anyway. Only once a year in that government tax refund.