Thursday, February 28, 2008

Surprise!!! You've earned a discharge and a foreclosure

(Credit Slips) Tomorrow, the Senate is expected to vote on the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, Title IV of which would permit bankruptcy courts to modify home mortgages in certain ways if the loan and the debtor met specified criteria. We've described that idea before, but the bill has crucial implications for bankruptcy that are not related to loan modification. Specifically, take a look at section 421, which proposes a solution to a problem with current bankruptcy law. Many Chapter 13 debtors pay for 3 to 5 years on a repayment plan, doing everything the law requires of them, and only a week or two later, face a foreclosure. How does this happen? Because the mortgage servicers frequently assess charges during a bankruptcy case, but fail to disclose these fees. Courts don't approve them; trustees don't adjust the debtor's payments to account for them; and debtors aren't even given notice that these charges are piling up. Instead of emerging from bankruptcy with a fresh start, homeowners find themselves defending a foreclosure or having to immediately pony up hundreds or thousands of dollars. Just last week, Judge Brendan Shannon of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court addressed this issue, challenging lenders to disagree that these undisclosed "surprise" fees don't "frustrate" bankruptcy's home-saving purpose. The Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 tackles this problem by requiring mortgage companies to disclose all fees within the earlier of 1 year of assessing the charges or 60 days before the end of the bankruptcy. The law also specifies that a lender may only charge such fees if they are lawful, reasonable, and provided for in the contract. It's sad that this latter requirement is even necessary--it essentially just prohibits mortgage servicers from violating existing law by overcharging consumers, a problem that an increasing body of case law and research suggests occurs with alarming regularity. I see lots of reasons why permitting bankruptcy courts to modify mortgages may be the best comprehensive solution to the foreclosure crisis, but I also hope Congress takes a hard look at the rest of the bill and considers its overall importance. If consumers do their part in bankruptcy and make every payment required by law, the system should honor its promise to give them a financial fresh start.

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