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What is a Chapter 12 Family Farmer or Family Fisherman Bankruptcy?

Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code provides for adjustment of debts of a "family farmer," or a "family fisherman" as those terms are defined in the Bankruptcy Code.

Background
Chapter 12 is designed for "family farmers" or "family fishermen" with "regular annual income." It enables financially distressed family farmers and fishermen to propose and carry out a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under chapter 12, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. Generally, the plan must provide for payments over three years unless the court approves a longer period "for cause." But unless the plan proposes to pay 100% of domestic support claims (i.e., child support and alimony) if any exist, it must be for five years and must include all of the debtor's disposable income. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. 11 U.S.C. § 1222(b)-(c).

In tailoring bankruptcy law to meet the economic realities of family farming and the family fisherman, chapter 12 eliminates many of the barriers such debtors would face if seeking to reorganize under either chapter 11 or 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. For example, chapter 12 is more streamlined, less complicated, and less expensive than chapter 11, which is better suited to large corporate reorganizations. In addition, few family farmers or fishermen find chapter 13 to be advantageous because it is designed for wage earners who have smaller debts than those facing family farmers. In chapter 12, Congress sought to combine the features of the Bankruptcy Code which can provide a framework for successful family farmer and fisherman reorganizations.

The Bankruptcy Code provides that only a family farmer or family fisherman with "regular annual income" may file a petition for relief under chapter 12. 11 U.S.C. §§ 101(18), 101(19A), 109(f). The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the debtor's annual income is sufficiently stable and regular to permit the debtor to make payments under a chapter 12 plan. But chapter 12 makes allowance for situations in which family farmers or fishermen have income that is seasonal in nature. Relief under chapter 12 is voluntary, and only the debtor may file a petition under the chapter.

Under the Bankruptcy Code, "family farmers" and "family fishermen" fall into two categories: (1) an individual or individual and spouse and (2) a corporation or partnership. Farmers or fishermen falling into the first category must meet each of the following four criteria as of the date the petition is filed in order to qualify for relief under chapter 12:

  1. The individual or husband and wife must be engaged in a farming operation or a commercial fishing operation.
  2. The total debts (secured and unsecured) of the operation must not exceed $3,792,650 (if a farming operation) or $1,757,475 (if a commercial fishing operation).
  3. If a family farmer, at least 50%, and if family fisherman at least 80%, of the total debts that are fixed in amount (exclusive of debt for the debtor's home) must be related to the farming or commercial fishing operation.
  4. More than 50% of the gross income of the individual or the husband and wife for the preceding tax year (or, for family farmers only, for each of the 2nd and 3rd prior tax years) must have come from the farming or commercial fishing operation.

In order for a corporation or partnership to fall within the second category of debtors eligible to file as family farmers or family fishermen, the corporation or partnership must meet each of the following criteria as of the date of the filing of the petition:

  1. More than one-half the outstanding stock or equity in the corporation or partnership must be owned by one family or by one family and its relatives.
  2. The family or the family and its relatives must conduct the farming or commercial fishing operation.
  3. More than 80% of the value of the corporate or partnership assets must be related to the farming or fishing operation.
  4. The total indebtedness of the corporation or partnership must not exceed $3,792,650 (if a farming operation) or $1,757,475 (if a commercial fishing operation).
  5. At least 50% for a farming operation or 80% for a fishing operation of the corporation's or partnership's total debts which are fixed in amount (exclusive of debt for one home occupied by a shareholder) must be related to the farming or fishing operation.
  6. If the corporation issues stock, the stock cannot be publicly traded.

A debtor cannot file under chapter 12 (or any other chapter) if during the preceding 180 days a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor's willful failure to appear before the court or comply with orders of the court or was voluntarily dismissed after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy court to recover property upon which they hold liens. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109(g), 362(d) and (e). In addition, no individual may be a debtor under chapter 12 or any chapter of the Bankruptcy Code unless he or she has, within 180 days before filing, received credit counseling from an approved credit counseling agency either in an individual or group briefing. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109, 111. There are exceptions in emergency situations or where the U.S. trustee (or bankruptcy administrator) (1) has determined that there are insufficient approved agencies to provide the required counseling. If a debt management plan is developed during required credit counseling, it must be filed with the court.

How Chapter 12 Works

A chapter 12 case begins by filing a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the individual lives or where the corporation or partnership debtor has its principal place of business or principal assets. Unless the court orders otherwise, the debtor also shall file with the court (1) schedules of assets and liabilities, (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures, (3) a schedule of executory contracts and unexpired leases, and (4) a statement of financial affairs. Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1007(b). A husband and wife may file a joint petition or individual petitions. 11 U.S.C. § 302(a). The Official Forms may be purchased at legal stationery stores or downloaded from OpenJurist's collection of Official Bankruptcy Forms. They are not available from the court.

As of October 17, 2005, the courts must charge a $200 case filing fee and a $39 miscellaneous administrative fee. Normally the fees should be paid to the clerk of the court upon filing. With the court's permission, however, they may be paid in installments. 28 U.S.C. § 1930(a); Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1006(b); Bankruptcy Court Miscellaneous Fee Schedule, Item 8. The number of such installments is limited to four and the debtor must make the final installment no later than 120 days after filing the petition. Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1006(b). For cause shown, the court may extend the time of any installment, provided that the last installment is paid not later than 180 days after the filing of the petition. Id. The debtor may also pay the $39 administrative fee in installments. If a joint petition is filed, only one filing fee and one administrative fee are charged. Debtors should be aware that failure to pay these fees may result in dismissal of the case. 11 U.S.C. § 1208(c)(2).

In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms which make up the petition, statement of financial affairs, and schedules, the debtor will need to compile the following information:

  1. A list of all creditors and the amounts and nature of their claims;
  2. The source, amount, and frequency of the debtor's income;
  3. A list of all of the debtor's property; and
  4. A detailed list of the debtor's monthly farming and living expenses, i.e., food, shelter, utilities, taxes, transportation, medicine, feed, fertilizer, etc.

Married individuals must gather this information for each spouse regardless of whether they are filing a joint petition, separate individual petitions, or even if only one spouse is filing. In a situation where only one spouse files, the income and expenses of the non-filing spouse are required so that the court, the trustee, and the creditors can evaluate the household's financial position.

When a chapter 12 petition is filed, an impartial trustee is appointed to administer the case. 11 U.S.C. § 1202. In some districts, the U.S. trustee appoints a standing trustee to serve in all chapter 12 cases. 28 U.S.C. § 586(b). As in chapter 13, the trustee both evaluates the case and serves as a disbursing agent, collecting payments from the debtor and making distributions to creditors. 11 U.S.C. § 1202.

Filing the petition under chapter 12 "automatically stays" (stops) most collection actions against the debtor or the debtor's property. 11 U.S.C. § 362. Filing the petition does not, however, stay certain types of actions listed under 11 U.S.C. § 362(b). The stay arises by operation of law and requires no judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally cannot initiate or continue any lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even telephone calls demanding payments. The bankruptcy clerk gives notice of the bankruptcy case to all creditors whose names and addresses are provided by the debtor.

Chapter 12 also contains a special automatic stay provision that protects co-debtors. Unless the bankruptcy court authorizes otherwise, a creditor may not seek to collect a "consumer debt" from any individual who is liable with the debtor. 11 U.S.C. § 1201(a). Consumer debts are those incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose. 11 U.S.C. § 101(8).

Between 20 to 35 days after the petition is filed, the chapter 12 trustee will hold a "meeting of creditors." If the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator schedules the meeting at a place that does not have regular U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator staffing, the meeting may be held no more than 60 days after the debtor files. During the meeting the trustee puts the debtor under oath and both the trustee and creditors may ask questions. The debtor must attend the meeting and answer questions regarding the debtor's financial affairs and the proposed terms of the debtor's repayment plan. 11 U.S.C. § 343; Fed. R. Bankr. P. 4002. If a husband and wife have filed a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors' meeting. In order to preserve their independent judgment, bankruptcy judges are prohibited from attending. 11 U.S.C. § 341(c). The parties typically resolve problems with the plan either during or shortly after the creditors' meeting. Generally, the debtor can avoid problems by making sure that the petition and plan are complete and accurate, and by consulting with the trustee prior to the meeting.

In a chapter 12 case, to participate in distributions from the bankruptcy estate, unsecured creditors must file their claims with the court within 90 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors. Fed. R. Bankr. P. 3002(c). A governmental unit, however, has 180 days from the date the case is filed file a proof of claim. 11 U.S.C. § 502(b)(9).

After the meeting of creditors, the debtor, the chapter 12 trustee, and interested creditors will attend a hearing on confirmation of the debtor's chapter 12 repayment plan.

The Chapter 12 Plan and Confirmation Hearing

Unless the court grants an extension, the debtor must file a plan of repayment with the petition or within 90 days after filing the petition. 11 U.S.C. § 1221. The plan, which must be submitted to the court for approval, provides for payments of fixed amounts to the trustee on a regular basis. The trustee then distributes the funds to creditors according to the terms of the plan, which typically offers creditors less than full payment on their claims.

There are three types of claims: priority, secured, and unsecured. Priority claims are those granted special status by the bankruptcy law, such as most taxes and the costs of bankruptcy proceeding. (2) Secured claims are those for which the creditor has the right to liquidate certain property if the debtor does not pay the underlying debt. In contrast to secured claims, unsecured claims are generally those for which the creditor has no special rights to collect against particular property owned by the debtor.

A chapter 12 plan usually lasts three to five years. It must provide for full payment of all priority claims, unless a priority creditor agrees to different treatment of the claim or, in the case of a domestic support obligation, unless the debtor contributes all "disposable income" - discussed below - to a five-year plan. 11 U.S.C. § 1222(a)(2), (4).

Secured creditors must be paid at least as much as the value of the collateral pledged for the debt. One of the features of Chapter 12 is that payments to secured creditors can sometimes continue longer than the three-to-five-year period of the plan. For example, if the debtor's underlying debt obligation was scheduled to be paid over more than five years (i.e., an equipment loan or a mortgage), the debtor may be able to pay the loan off over the original loan repayment schedule as long as any arrearage is made up during the plan.

The plan does not have to pay unsecured claims in full, as long as it commits all of the debtor's projected "disposable income" (or property of equivalent value) to plan payments over a 3 to 5 year period ,and as long as the unsecured creditors are to receive at least as much as they would receive if the debtor's nonexempt assets were liquidated under chapter 7. 11 U.S.C. § 1225. "Disposable income" is defined as income not reasonably necessary for the maintenance or support of the debtor or dependents or for making payments needed to continue, preserve, and operate the debtor's business. 11 U.S.C. § 1225(b)(2).

Within 45 days after filing the plan, the presiding bankruptcy judge decides at a "confirmation hearing" whether the plan is feasible and meets the standards for confirmation under the Bankruptcy Code. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1224, 1225. Creditors, who receive 20 days' notice, may appear at the hearing and object to confirmation. Fed. R. Bankr. P. 2002(a)(8). While a variety of objections may be made, the typical arguments are that payments offered under the plan are less than creditors would receive if the debtor's assets were liquidated, or that the plan does not commit all of the debtor's disposable income for the three-to-five-year period of the plan.

If the court confirms the plan, the chapter 12 trustee will distribute funds received in accordance with the terms of the plan.11 U.S.C. § 1226(a). If the court does not confirm the plan, the debtor may file a modified plan. 11 U.S.C. § 1223. The debtor may also convert the case to a liquidation under chapter 7. (3) 11 U.S.C. § 1208(a). If the debtor fails to confirm a plan and the case is dismissed, the court may authorize the trustee to keep some of the funds for costs, but the trustee must return all remaining funds to the debtor (other than funds already disbursed to creditors). 11 U.S.C. § 1226(a).

On occasion, changed circumstances will affect the debtor's ability to make plan payments. A creditor may object or threaten to object to a plan, or the debtor may inadvertently have failed to list all creditors. In such instances, the plan may be modified either before or after confirmation. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1223, 1229. Modification after confirmation is not limited to an initiative by the debtor, but may also be made at the request of the trustee or an unsecured creditor. 11 U.S.C. § 1229(a).

Making the Plan Work

The provisions of a confirmed plan bind the debtor and each creditor. 11 U.S.C. § 1227. Once the court confirms the plan, the debtor must make the plan succeed. The debtor must make regular payments to the trustee, which will require adjustment to living on a fixed budget for a prolonged period. Furthermore, while confirmation of the plan entitles the debtor to retain property as long as payments are made, the debtor may not incur any significant new debt without consulting the trustee, because additional debt may compromise the debtor's ability to complete the plan.11 U.S.C. §§ 1222(a)(1), 1227. In any event, failure to make the plan payments may result in dismissal of the case. 11 U.S.C. § 1208(c). In addition, the court may dismiss the case or convert the case to a liquidation case under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code upon a showing that the debtor has committed fraud in connection with the case. 11 U.S.C. § 1208(d).

The Chapter 12 Discharge

The debtor will receive a discharge after completing all payments under the chapter 12 plan as long as the debtor certifies (if applicable) that all domestic support obligations that came due before making such certification have been paid. The discharge has the effect of releasing the debtor from all debts provided for by the plan allowed under section 503 or disallowed under section 502, with limited exceptions. Those creditors who were provided for in full or in part under the plan may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the discharged obligations.

Certain categories of debts are not discharged in chapter 12 proceedings. 11 U.S.C. § 1228(a). Those categories include debts for alimony and child support; money obtained through filing false financial statements; debts for willful and malicious injury to person or property; debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated; and debts from fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement or larceny. The bankruptcy law regarding the scope of a chapter 12 discharge is complex, however, and debtors should consult competent legal counsel in this regard prior to filing. Those debts that will not be discharged should be paid in full under a plan. With respect to secured obligations, those debts may be paid beyond the end of the plan payment period and, accordingly, are not discharged.

Chapter 12 Hardship Discharge

The court may grant a "hardship discharge" to a chapter 12 debtor even though the debtor has failed to complete plan payments. 11 U.S.C. § 1228(b). Generally, a hardship discharge is available only to a debtor whose failure to complete plan payments is due to circumstances beyond the debtor's control and through no fault of the debtor. Creditors must have received at least as much as they would have received in a chapter 7 liquidation case, and the debtor must be unable to modify the plan. For example, injury or illness that precludes employment sufficient to fund even a modified plan may serve as the basis for a hardship discharge. The hardship discharge does not apply to any debts that are nondischargeable in a chapter 7 case. 11 U.S.C. § 523.

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