Priority v. Nonpriority Claims in Bankruptcy

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When you file for bankruptcy, whether an unsecured debt is a priority debt or a nonpriority debt will affect how that claim is treated. Read on to learn which debts are priority, which are nonpriority, and how they are treated in bothChapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

What Is an Unsecured Debt?

The two main types of debts are secured debts and unsecured debts. Secured debts are debts that are backed by collateral; car loans and mortgage loans are the most common types of secured debts. Unsecured debts are debts that are not backed by collateral. Unsecured debts basically include all other debts, such as credit card debt and medical bills.

In bankruptcy, unsecured debts are separated even further into two categories -- priority and nonpriority.

Priority Debts in Bankruptcy

Priority debts are debts that the Bankruptcy Code has given priority over all other debts. Priority is granted to a certain debt either because the money is owed to the government or because public policy requires it, meaning that Congress has determined that giving the debt priority status suits the public good. The most common priority debts are:

  • child support
  • spousal support
  • certain income taxes
  • payroll taxes and sales taxes
  • money you owe for causing the personal injury or death of another person because of intoxication with drugs or alcohol
  • criminal fines, and
  • overpayment of government benefits.
Priority debts are nondischargeable in bankruptcy, which means that even after you receive your bankruptcy discharge, you will still be responsible for any remaining balance due on priority debts.

Nonpriority Debts in Bankruptcy

Nonpriority debts are all unsecured debts that do not have priority. Most unsecured debts are nonpriority debts, such as:

  • credit card debtc
  • medical bills
  • personal loans, and
  • student loans.
Nonpriority debts are usually dischargeable, but not always. For example, student loans are nonpriority debts, but most people cannot discharge them in bankruptcy. (To learn what happens to specific types of debts in bankruptcy, see Your Debts in Chapter 7 and Your Debts in Chapter 13.)

Paying Priority and Nonpriority Claims in Bankruptcy

Priority debts must be paid ahead of all other debts in a bankruptcy after the trustee pays administrative claims (trustees fees, attorney fees, and other costs of administering the bankruptcy estate).

Payment of priority debts in Chapter 13. If you have priority debts in a Chapter 13 case, they must be paid in full, sometimes with interest, through your Chapter 13 plan. (To learn how unsecured nonpriority debts get paid in Chapter 13, see What Happens to Unsecured Debt in Chapter 13.)

Payment of priority debts in Chapter 7. If you have priority debts in a Chapter 7 and the trustee has recovered money to repay creditors, the priority creditors must be paid first; if there isn't enough money to repay priority debts, nonpriority debts will not be paid at all. If there is money left over after priority debts are paid in full, it will be distributed pro rata to the nonpriority creditors.

Example 1. John filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He owes $30,000 in back child support and $40,000 in credit card debt. He has assets he cannot exempt, and the Chapter 7 trustee has sold them and obtained $20,000. The trustee's fees and costs for selling the property add up to $3,000. The remaining $17,000 is paid toward the back child support, and the entire $40,000 in credit card debt is discharged. John will still owe $13,000 for the child support after the bankruptcy is over.

Example 2. Michael filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He owes the IRS $15,000 in back taxes. He also owes $20,000 in medical bills and $10,000 in credit card debt. The Chapter 7 trustee recovers $25,000 for the estate. After the trustee's fees and costs of $4,000, there is $21,000 available for creditors. The trustee will pay the IRS in full. The remaining $6,000 will be distributed pro rata to the remaining creditors -- each credit card debt and medical bill will receive 20% of what they're owed (because $6,000 is 20% of $30,000, which is the total unsecured debt).

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