The automatic stay is a powerful tool

Don’t take for granted the extraordinariness of bankruptcy’s automatic stay. That’s the federal law that stops creditors from pursuing you, your money, and your other possessions the moment your bankruptcy case is filed.

In my last two posts, I discussed the relatively rare situations in which the automatic stay does not apply—situations in which certain special creditors, or sometimes even all creditors, can continue collecting their debts. But let me re-emphasize–most of the time, once your bankruptcy case is filed, all creditor efforts against you and your property stop immediately.

The automatic stay is powerful because it is 1) fast and 2) broad in what it covers.

Very Fast

Few legal procedures work as quickly as the automatic stay. To get anything done in most courts usually takes weeks, months, or years. A complaint or motion of some sort needs to be filed, the other side usually has the opportunity to respond, then there’s often a hearing, and finally a judge makes a decision.

But not with the automatic stay. It operates as a one-sided and immediate court order, made effective by the very act of filing the bankruptcy case.  A judge isn’t even involved. The creditors have no immediate say about it. There IS a procedure for creditors to object and ask the judge for “relief from the automatic stay,” in other words, for permission to continue or start pursuing you or your money or property, but that’s after the fact. The automatic stay gives you an immediate breathing spell, whether your creditors like it or not.

Broad Coverage

This breathing spell protects you from your creditors in almost every way. It stops all phone calls and letters—“any act to collect, assess, or recover” a debt. Except for those situations spelled out in my prior posts, the automatic stay stops all court and administrative proceedings against you from starting or continuing. It does not matter if your bankruptcy is filed two minutes before the start of a civil lawsuit trial or the foreclosure of your house, the trial or foreclosure should not happen. If there is a judgment against you and the creditor is about to garnish your wages or levy on your checking account, these collection efforts are stopped. If you’ve fallen a couple of months behind on your vehicle loan payment and the repo man is looking for your car in the employee parking lot, the automatic stay sends him away empty-handed. If the IRS is about to record a lien against your home and vehicle to collect an income tax debt, the automatic stay stops the tax lien. Or if you already have a recorded tax lien and the IRS is about to grab your vehicle to pay the debt, your bankruptcy filing stops this enforcement of the tax lien.

This IS powerful medicine. 

As with other strong medicine, it should be administered with the right guidance and with help for handling any potential side effects. Stopping your creditors with a bankruptcy would essentially be the end of the story for many of them. But for other creditors—those with rights against your home or vehicle, or with special kinds of debts such as taxes and student loans—the breathing space gives us the opportunity to address each of these special creditors.

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