Chapter 12 is designed for "family farmers" or "family fishermen" with "regular annual income." It enables financially distressed family farmers and fishermen to propose and carry out a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under chapter 12, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. Generally, the plan must provide for payments over three years unless the court approves a longer period "for cause." But unless the plan proposes to pay 100% of domestic support claims (i.e., child support and alimony) if any exist, it must be for five years and must include all of the debtor's disposable income. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. 11 U.S.C. § 1222(b)-(c).
In tailoring bankruptcy law to meet the economic realities of family farming and the family fisherman, chapter 12 eliminates many of the barriers such debtors would face if seeking to reorganize under either chapter 11 or 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. For example, chapter 12 is more streamlined, less complicated, and less expensive than chapter 11, which is better suited to large corporate reorganizations. In addition, few family farmers or fishermen find chapter 13 to be advantageous because it is designed for wage earners who have smaller debts than those facing family farmers. In chapter 12, Congress sought to combine the features of the Bankruptcy Code which can provide a framework for successful family farmer and fisherman reorganizations.
The Bankruptcy Code provides that only a family farmer or family fisherman with "regular annual income" may file a petition for relief under chapter 12. 11 U.S.C. §§ 101(18), 101(19A), 109(f). The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the debtor's annual income is sufficiently stable and regular to permit the debtor to make payments under a chapter 12 plan. But chapter 12 makes allowance for situations in which family farmers or fishermen have income that is seasonal in nature. Relief under chapter 12 is voluntary, and only the debtor may file a petition under the chapter.
Under the Bankruptcy Code, "family farmers" and "family fishermen" fall into two categories: (1) an individual or individual and spouse and (2) a corporation or partnership. Farmers or fishermen falling into the first category must meet each of the following four criteria as of the date the petition is filed in order to qualify for relief under chapter 12:
The individual or husband and wife must be engaged in a farming operation or a commercial fishing operation.
The total debts (secured and unsecured) of the operation must not exceed $3,237,000 (if a farming operation) or $1,500,000 (if a commercial fishing operation).
If a family farmer, at least 50%, and if family fisherman at least 80%, of the total debts that are fixed in amount (exclusive of debt for the debtor's home) must be related to the farming or commercial fishing operation.
More than 50% of the gross income of the individual or the husband and wife for the preceding tax year (or, for family farmers only, for each of the 2nd and 3rd prior tax years) must have come from the farming or commercial fishing operation.
In order for a corporation or partnership to fall within the second category of debtors eligible to file as family farmers or family fishermen, the corporation or partnership must meet each of the following criteria as of the date of the filing of the petition:
More than one-half the outstanding stock or equity in the corporation or partnership must be owned by one family or by one family and its relatives.
The family or the family and its relatives must conduct the farming or commercial fishing operation.
More than 80% of the value of the corporate or partnership assets must be related to the farming or fishing operation.
The total indebtedness of the corporation or partnership must not exceed $3,237,000 (if a farming operation) or $1,500,000 (if a commercial fishing operation).
At least 50% for a farming operation or 80% for a fishing operation of the corporation's or partnership's total debts which are fixed in amount (exclusive of debt for one home occupied by a shareholder) must be related to the farming or fishing operation.
If the corporation issues stock, the stock cannot be publicly traded.
A debtor cannot file under chapter 12 (or any other chapter) if during the preceding 180 days a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor's willful failure to appear before the court or comply with orders of the court or was voluntarily dismissed after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy court to recover property upon which they hold liens. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109(g), 362(d) and (e). In addition, no individual may be a debtor under chapter 12 or any chapter of the Bankruptcy Code unless he or she has, within 180 days before filing, received credit counseling from an approved credit counseling agency either in an individual or group briefing. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109, 111. There are exceptions in emergency situations or where the U.S. trustee (or bankruptcy administrator)1 has determined that there are insufficient approved agencies to provide the required counseling. If a debt management plan is developed during required credit counseling, it must be filed with the court.
In North Carolina and Alabama, bankruptcy administrators perform similar functions that U.S. trustees perform in the remaining forty-eight states. The bankruptcy administrator program is administered by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, while the U.S. trustee program is administered by the Department of Justice. For purposes of this publication, references to U.S. trustees are also applicable to bankruptcy administrators.