Bankruptcy Articles

1)   Which Debts Must You Repay?

Republished with Permission © 2009 Nolo

Some debts should be paid before others. Learn which debts should be your top priority.

Some debts are more important than others. If you are having trouble paying your bills, take the time to prioritize your debts. Make a list of essential and nonessential debts -- and always pay the essential debts first. Read on to learn which debts are essential and which aren't.

Essential Debts

An essential debt is one that you should put at or near the top of your list for payment. If you let an essential debt slide, you could face serious consequences.

Rent. Unless you know you are going to move and have a place to live, make paying your rent a top priority.

Mortgage. If you've lost your job or had another financial setback, carefully consider the pros and cons of selling your house.

  • Reasons to sell. You might be better off selling your home, renting a moderately priced place, and using what's left over to pay your other essential bills.

  • Reasons not to sell. Consider the housing market. If your house will be worth more in a year than it is today, you might wait and sell later. That would give you more money to pay your creditors.


Child support. Failing to pay child support can land you in jail. What's more, a child support debt never goes away -- it doesn't expire, and you can't wipe it out in bankruptcy. You'll have to pay this money sooner or later, so you should try do it when it will help your kids the most.

Utility bills. Being without gas, electricity, heating, water, or a telephone is not safe -- put these bills near the top of your list.


Car payments. If you need your car to keep your job, make the payments. If you don't, consider selling it or voluntarily turning it over to avoid repossession. You may be able to use any leftover money to buy a cheaper car.


Other secured loans. A debt is secured if a specific item of property (called collateral) is used to guarantee repayment of the debt. If you don't repay the debt, most states let the creditor take the property without first suing you and getting a court judgment. If the property is something you cannot live without, stay current on your payments.

If you don't care whether the property is taken, or are confident that the creditor doesn't really want it, don't worry about missing a payment or two. But a default on a loan or a repossession of property will appear on your credit report for seven years and will affect your ability to get credit in the future.

Unpaid taxes. If the IRS is about to take your paycheck, bank account, house, or other property, immediately contact the IRS to set up a repayment plan.


Nonessential Debts


A nonessential debt is one with no immediate or devastating effects if you fail to pay. Paying these debts is a desirable goal, but not a top priority. Just remember that failure to pay any debt will cause it to stay on your credit report for seven years.


Department store and gasoline charges. If you fail to pay these bills, you'll probably lose your credit privileges and, if the debt is large enough, you may be sued.


Loans from friends and relatives. You may feel a moral obligation to pay, but these creditors are most likely to be understanding of your predicament. See if you can defer making payments until you are back on your feet or agree on an alternate repayment plan.


Newspaper and magazine subscriptions. These debts aren't essential, but failure to pay will lead to collection actions.


Legal and accounting bills. These debts are rarely essential, but may lead to threatening letters and lawsuits if they remain unpaid.


Other unsecured loans. An unsecured debt is not tied to any specific item of property -- in other words, there is no collateral for the debt. This means that a creditor cannot take your property without first suing you in court.

Essential or Nonessential?


Some debts straddle the line between essential and nonessential. Not paying won't cause severe consequences in your personal life, but could prove painful nonetheless. In deciding whether or not to pay these debts, consider your relationship with the creditor and whether the creditor has initiated collection efforts.

Some of these debts include:

  • Auto insurance. In some states, you can lose your driver's license if you drive without insurance. In California, you cannot register your car without proof of insurance.

  • Medical insurance or bills. If you let your health insurance lapse, you may have difficulty getting new insurance. Especially if you are currently under a physician's care, you'll want to continue making payments.

  • Credit and charge cards. If you don't pay your credit card bill, the worst that will happen before the creditor sues you is that you will lose your credit privileges. But penalties and interest add up quickly.

  • Car payments for a car that is essential for your job. The inconvenience of not having a car may justify making these payments.

  • Court judgments. Once a creditor has a judgment, the creditor can collect it by taking a portion of your wages or other property. If a particular judgment creditor is about to grab some of your pay, the fact that the original debt may have been nonessential is irrelevant.

  • Student loans. Paying an old student loan isn't essential if the holder of your loan isn't hassling you. But paying the loan may become essential if the IRS is about to intercept your tax refund, the holder of your loan threatens to garnish your wages, or you are making payments under a "reasonable and affordable" repayment plan to rehabilitate your loan and get out of default.


Stick to Your Debt Paying Plan


Do not make payments on nonessential debts unless you have money left after paying the essential ones. Don't lose sight of your priorities if nonessential creditors are breathing down your neck.


Solve Your Money Troubles: Get Debt Collectors Off Your Back & Regain Financial Freedom, by Robin Leonard and attorney John Lamb (Nolo) is a comprehensive debt guide that includes information on budgeting, controlling debt, and dealing with debt collectors.