As a Bankruptcy lawyer I can’t count how many times people have asked why Courts won’t reduce their mortgage debt to match the deflated value of their home, or why they should pay anything on that second mortgage, line of credit, or HELOC, when they’re underwater. I even discussed these questions and the state of the law concerning lien strips in this post. Now, the very cases referred to in that post have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the stage is set for the battle of the lien strip cases.
Of course this all started with the Supreme Court’s 1992 Opinion in Dewsnup v. Timm that the Bankruptcy Code does not permit the cramdown of a partially secured mortgage. Some Courts took this to mean that lien-strips are a no-no. Others interpreted it to mean that lien-strips were permissible under the right circumstances. So in some parts of the country a completely unsecured second mortgage can be stripped, but only in a Chapter 13 reorganization; while in other parts it can be stripped in a Chapter 7 liquidation, too.
So, with Courts in disagreement, what’s a home-owner to do? Remember, in Dewsnup the Court ruled the Bankruptcy Code doesn’t permit mortgages to be written down to the value of the home – even though that practice, known as the cram down, is acceptable as to vehicles. Ironically, one of the Court’s primary concerns in Dewsnup was to prevent windfall gains to home-owners who strip away their loans, then enjoy the profits as their homes rise in value.