Chapter 7 bankruptcy isn’t available to everyone. It’s for people who don’t have funds left over after paying necessary monthly bills. To determine whether you fit into this category, you must pass a test called the means test. If the results show that you can pay back some or all unsecured debt—for instance, credit card balances, overdue utility payments, and medical bills—you’ll have to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and pay into a five-year repayment plan. If you don’t have much left over, you’ll have met the requirements to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
It’s a bit misleading to say that you’re eligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy if you “pass” the means test because it’s a two-part calculation. The first part of the means test compares your family income to the median income for your state. If yours falls below the median for the size of your family, you’ve passed and don’t need to complete the second part. You’ll have met the Chapter 7 requirements.
You can access a median income chart on the Department of Justice website.
All isn’t lost if your family income is higher than the median—you get another chance to pass. The second part of the means test lets you deduct reasonable and necessary expenses from your family income. Any amount left over is your disposable income. If you don’t have enough disposable income to pay into a Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan, you meet the Chapter 7 income requirements (more below).
The standard expenses are predetermined amounts that represent national and regional averages. You’ll find them in charts developed by the Internal Revenue Service. The purpose of the standardized values is to help ensure that a filer living an extravagant lifestyle can’t take advantage of a Chapter 7 filing. Here are a few examples:
You’ll be able to use some of your real expenditures, as well, including:
The amount remaining after deducting all these expenses from your income is your disposable income for the month. You’ll multiply that figure by 60 to determine your total disposable income for a 60-month plan.
Next, you’ll compare your total disposable income to the means test amounts (these figures are due to be adjusted in 2019):
Example. Your monthly disposable income is $175 or $10,500 for 60 months. Your total nonpriority unsecured debt is $48,000. Twenty-five percent of $48,000 is $12,000. Because your disposable income ($10,500) is less than $12,000, you’ve passed the means test.
The court presumes that a debtor who fails the means test is abusing the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. But you might be able to overcome the presumption of the abuse. To do so, you’ll have to show that you have exceptional circumstances that the test doesn’t account for, that you have a good reason for expenses that are higher than typically allowed, or that your future income will be less than the amount used for the means test.
An example of exceptional circumstances would be the higher than usual expenses experienced by the victims of catastrophic storms. The courts must consider these costs and make other reasonable accommodations for victims filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy when possible, such as waiving particular document requirements.
Many debtors don’t realize that you still might not qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after passing the second portion of the means test. Here’s why.
The means test is based in part on national and regional averages for certain expenses. In a separate part of your bankruptcy paperwork, you'll provide a list of your actual expenses. If your actual expenses are much less than the means test, you could have more disposable income than the calculation would suggest. Here are two scenarios to illustrate:
If you fail the means test, you have three options:
Not everyone. For instance, business entities and certain members of the military are exempt. Individuals whose total debt is primarily business debt (debt incurred while engaging in profit-making activities) also don’t need to meet Chapter 7 means test requirements.
A simple way to see if you fit into one of these categories is to read the descriptions on the official bankruptcy form Statement of Exemption from Presumption of Abuse Under § 707(b)(2) (Form 122A-1Supp).