If a debt collector contacts you after you've filed your bankruptcy case, you'll first want to make sure they know about your case. If it's been less than two weeks since you filed, they may not have been informed yet. If they weren't aware, let them know. If they indicate they know you filed bankruptcy but they refuse to stop trying to collect the debt, you can notify the bankruptcy court or speak with an attorney. Creditors aren't allowed to contact you after you file your case because of the automatic stay.
Written by Attorney Curtis Lee.
Updated May 17, 2022
Getting a fresh start through bankruptcy begins with filling out forms, taking a credit counseling course, and submitting your petition to the bankruptcy court. While this takes some time and effort, you’re rewarded with the automatic stay. This stops creditors from contacting you during the bankruptcy proceeding. It’s meant to give you some breathing room and make sure the playing field is level for all your creditors.
If a creditor contacts you after you file, you want to see if it’s an honest mistake or if something more is going on. This article explains why creditors can’t contact you after you file and what to do if they do.
Creditors Can’t Contact You After You File Because of the Automatic Stay
One of the biggest benefits of filing a bankruptcy petition is the automatic stay. With a few exceptions, the automatic stay stops creditors from trying to collect debts from the bankruptcy filer while their case is pending. As its name implies, the automatic stay is a court order that goes into effect automatically as soon as you file bankruptcy.
The automatic stay stops most debt collection activities, including:
Wage garnishments (although it might not apply to child support or alimonywage garnishments)
Debt collection letters and telephone calls
Exceptions to the Automatic Stay
Not all attempts to collect a debt must stop because of the automatic stay. There are some exceptions. For example, the automatic stay won’t protect you in an eviction action if the landlord already has an eviction judgment against you. It also may not apply if a court ordered you to pay money as a result of criminal prosecution or in some child support and alimony cases.
Additionally, creditors may ask the bankruptcy judge to grant exceptions to the automatic stay. If the bankruptcy judge approves the request, the creditor can continue trying to collect the debt. If the judge doesn’t approve the request and the creditor keeps trying to collect the debt, this is likely against a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Also, the automatic stay doesn’t necessarily mean a creditor or debt collector can’t contact you at all, especially if your case involves secured debts like a car or home loan. Some state laws require secured creditors to send regular notices and statements to account holders. So even after filing bankruptcy, you may receive such notices or statements. If you get one, look it over carefully. You’ll likely see the phrase, “this isn’t an attempt to collect a debt,” or something to that effect.
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How To Respond to a Creditor Who Contacts You
If a creditor or debt collector continues to contact you to collect a debt after you file bankruptcy (and they haven’t been granted an exception from the automatic stay), you should:
Tell them you filed for bankruptcy and ask them to stop contacting you.
If the creditor or debt collector still tries to collect a debt from you, you should notify the bankruptcy court.
If they still won’t stop, then you can look into filing a lawsuit to recover monetary damages.
The timing of a creditor’s contact with you is important. If they contact you soon after you file, they may not know about your bankruptcy case yet.
When you file your bankruptcy paperwork with the court, you’ll include a creditor matrix. This is a list of your creditors and their contact information. After you submit your petition to the bankruptcy court, it will notify your creditors about your bankruptcy by sending them Form 309A. But it could take up to two weeks for your debt collector to receive and process this form. Until that happens, they might try to call you, send you a debt collection letter, or start a debt collection lawsuit against you.
If that happens, how should you respond? It depends on when the contact takes place.
If a Creditor Calls You Within 2 Weeks of Filing Bankruptcy…
If you receive a debt collection phone call within two weeks of filing bankruptcy, assume it’s because the creditor isn’t aware of your bankruptcy. Then, politely tell the person calling that you filed bankruptcy. Ask the caller for their name and who they work for. Have your bankruptcy case number nearby in case the caller asks for it. If you have an attorney handling your bankruptcy case, let the caller know and give them your attorney’s contact information.
After hanging up, make a note of who called you and the date and time of the telephone call. Also, write down what you told them and anything they told you. Once the creditor learns about your bankruptcy, any further attempts to contact you to collect a debt are illegal. This is true whether they learn about the bankruptcy from you or through Form 309A.
This is why telling the creditor about your bankruptcy case should be enough to stop them from contacting you. But keep the information about your call with them safe in case you need to take legal action later on.
If You Receive a Debt Collection Letter Within 2 Weeks of Filing Bankruptcy…
If you receive a letter within two weeks of your bankruptcy filing, first check to see when it was sent. If the postmark is before you filed bankruptcy, it’s probably an honest mistake. Place the letter with your other bankruptcy documents as it was sent before the automatic stay went into effect.
If the letter was postmarked within two weeks after you filed for bankruptcy, it may be a mistake. But it’s a good idea to double-check your bankruptcy documents and confirm that the debt was properly listed. Depending on the types of debt you’re trying to discharge in Chapter 7 bankruptcy or reorganize into a repayment plan in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, it should be listed on Schedule D, E, or F.
Next, see if you properly identified the creditor (or their attorney, if they have one) in your bankruptcy filing and included their correct contact information. You can find this information on your bankruptcy filing creditor matrix.
If the information in your filing is complete and correct, you probably don’t need to do anything. Remember, you received the letter within two weeks of filing bankruptcy. This most likely means it was prepared and mailed before your creditor received Form 309A and updated the account information concerning your debt. But just to be safe, don’t throw this letter away. Note the date you received the letter and put the letter with the rest of your bankruptcy documents.
If you receive a phone call or letter more than two weeks after filing bankruptcy, you’ll need to take extra care in handling the situation.
If a Creditor Contacts You Several Weeks After Filing Bankruptcy…
When a creditor reaches out to you even though they were properly listed in your bankruptcy filings and it’s been at least two weeks since you filed your case, you need to take action to protect your rights. There’s no need to panic, but you need to call the creditor and remind them of your bankruptcy.
Before making the call, make sure you have two pieces of information close by:
Your bankruptcy case number, and
Information relating to the creditor’s earlier attempts to contact you after you filed bankruptcy (if applicable).
During the call, make note of the person you’re speaking with, the time and date, and what you discuss. Make it clear to the person you’re speaking to that you’ve filed bankruptcy and that their collection actions must stop.
What you do after the telephone call depends on how the call went. If it seemed like the creditor made an honest mistake, you don’t need to do anything else. The creditor will update their information and stop contacting you.
But if they tell you they’re going to ignore the automatic stay or that they believe they still have a right to collect a debt from you, it might be a good idea to talk to a bankruptcy lawyer. There’s a chance the creditor is right and they have an exception to the automatic stay. But they could also be wrong, which means you may need to take action against them.
This can be difficult to know without getting legal advice. Initial consultations with bankruptcy lawyers are often free, and during that consultation, they can likely give you an idea about whether that creditor is allowed to contact you or not.
Taking Action Against a Debt Collector for Violating the Automatic Stay
Under the Bankruptcy Code, filers can directly sue creditors that violate the automatic stay. But before you file a lawsuit, notify the bankruptcy court. It has the power to impose sanctions on the creditor for willful violations of the automatic stay. The term “willful” applies to the intent of the creditor to collect a debt, not to violate the automatic stay. So a creditor that contacts you to collect a debt from you has acted willfully, even if they never intended to violate the automatic stay.
If the bankruptcy court concludes the creditor has willfully ignored the automatic stay, it can hold the creditor in contempt of court. The court could order the creditor to pay damages, legal fees, and fines. If the collection efforts continue, you can file a lawsuit and recover actual damages (such as money improperly garnished from your paycheck), as well as court costs. In some cases, punitive damages are also recoverable. And if you have an attorney helping you with this lawsuit, you can recover attorney’s fees, too.
Even if you don’t have money to hire an attorney to sue the creditor, a lawyer might still take your case because they know if they win, they can recover their legal fees. If you decide not to use a lawyer, a good first step is to call the bankruptcy court clerk’s office to ask how these cases are handled. They might give you a rough idea of what you need to do. They might also refer you to a self-help center or website for pro se filers (filers without an attorney). These resources could have information concerning automatic stay violations.
After filing bankruptcy, an automatic stay goes into effect. This stops most, if not all, debt collection activities during the bankruptcy proceeding. But creditors need to be aware of the bankruptcy before they can stop their collection efforts.
If a debt collector contacts you after filing bankruptcy, the first thing you should do is see if the debt collector knows about your bankruptcy. If they don’t, let them know. If they do know but they refuse to stop trying to collect the debt, notify the bankruptcy court. They may impose sanctions on the creditor until they stop. If this doesn’t work, talk to a bankruptcy attorney about filing a lawsuit against the creditor.