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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Stripping Second Mortgages in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

For many years, it has been well settled law that a Debtor who owns real estate with more than one mortgage can file a Motion with the Bankruptcy Court to eliminate, or “strip,” the second mortgage or equity line from that property. More specifically, “[t]o the extent that a lien secures a claim against a debtor that is not an allowed secured claim, such lien is void.” 11 U.S.C. § 506(d). The caveat to this rule, however, it is that the law was just as well settled that only those consumers in a Chapter 13 case could take advantage of 506(d). Up until recently, a Debtor who filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and wanted to discharge all unsecured debt was not allowed to strip a second lien. The reason for this rule was that, in a Chapter 13 case, the Trustee retains an interest in the property for the bankruptcy estate. Conversely, in a Chapter 7 case, presuming the Trustee abandons any exempt asset, there is no interest in the property by the estate and section 506(a) does not apply. As a result, the court cannot bifurcate the debt into secured and unsecured debt, and without this bifurcation there is no unsecured debt to discharge. Additionally, a Chapter 7 discharge does not extend to an in rem claim against property; the discharge is limited to a discharge of personal liability. Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410 (1992).
However, the rule that lien strips cannot take place has changed in the Middle District of Florida. In Re: McNeal, Case: 11-11352, Lorraine McNeal v. GMAC Mtg. held that, at least in the 11th Circuit, even though a Debtor still cannot cramdown the value of an investment property as clearly noted in Dewsnup, a Debtor can strip a junior lien from a primary residence. The Court reasoned that because the United States Supreme Court in Dewsnup disallowed only a “strip down” of a partially secured mortgage lien and did not address a “strip off” of a wholly unsecured lien, it is not “clearly on point” and as such, the issue was not intended to be addressed by that Court.
The court essentially held that, where the Supreme Court only discussed a cramdown in a Chapter 7 case under 506, entirely stripping a junior lien was not addressed. As such, the 11th Circuit Court reasoned, there is no restriction on lien stripping. Under this ruling, a Debtor cannot reduce the principal owed to a Creditor, but that Debtor can completely eliminate it. If this holds up, though, it could be very helpful to many Debtors who meet all of the criteria for a Chapter 7, but find themselves in a Chapter 13 for no other reason then to file a Motion to Avoid a Lien.  If you believe you may be a candidate to strip off your second lien and have a significant amount of unsecured debt, you should consult with a local bankruptcy attorney who can advise you of your rights.

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