One of the major goals of the Chapter 13 debtor is the confirmation of the plan proposed to the Court and to the creditors. The plan, until it is actually confirmed by Court order, has no formal legal effect. The plan’s provisions must be found to comply with Bankruptcy Code §1322 and meet the other confirmation standards laid out in §1325. The creditors and the Chapter 13 trustee will have had the opportunity to review the plan and file any objections they wish to file. Once the plan is actually confirmed by a confirmation order, three effects come into play.
First, the provisions of the plan become binding on all the parties (debtor and creditors) pursuant to §1327(a). This is referred to as the “res judicata” effect of confirmation. As one judicial ruling said, once a plan is confirmed, it becomes binding on the parties, “warts and all.” This means that the confirmed plan has binding legal effect even if it happens to contain provisions that conflict with the Bankruptcy Code (there are some limitations on this rule; and a debtor cannot push it too far. Some things cannot be achieved by plan confirmation and must be separately litigated). The plan is still subject to postconfirmation modification in accordance with §1329. Furthermore, the Court does have the power to revoke a fraudulent confirmation under §1330(a).
Second, under §1327(b), the confirmation of a plan vests the property of the estate in the debtor unless the plan or confirmation order says otherwise. The Chapter 13 Trustee is not a liquidating trustee, unlike a Chapter 7 trustee. The extent to which the property of the estate vests in the debtor is an important issue when dealing with the issue of the postconfirmation application of the automatic stay under §362(a). Issues can also arise regarding the status of the debtor’s postconfirmation earnings or property that the acquires after confirmation.
Third, under §1327(c), property that vests in the debtor is held free and clear of any claim or interest of any creditor provided for by the plan, unless the plan or confirmation order says differently. If the plan modifies a secured claim, it must provide for the creditor to retain its lien until the value of the secured portion of the claim has been paid and the debtor has received a discharge.
Once the confirmation order is entered, the Chapter 13 Trustee begins to disburse funds paid by the debtor under the plan to the creditors in accordance with the plan provisions. There is usually a significant amount of money available to do this, since the debtor will have been making payments since the filing of the case, and these payments will have been held in trust by the trustee. Once the debtor has finished making the payments provided for under the plan, the debtor will be discharged for personal liability on all the debts (with some limited exceptions). If this payments are not completed under the plan, it may be converted to another chapter of the Bankruptcy Code (Chapter 7) or dismissed. If a case is converted or dismissed, a secured creditor retains its lien to secure the unpaid amount of the secured debt, regardless of the valuation of the encumbered property under the plan.
The binding effect of the plan’s terms requires creditors to apply payments in accordance with the plan, and limits their rights with regard to prepetition defaults. If the plan modifies a secured claim through a “cramdown” or otherwise, the plan’s provisions state the terms for the satisfaction of the claim and any lien that may secure the property. The plan is also binding on the debtor as well. Essentially, the court views a Chapter 13 plan as a new contract among the parties, and that this new contract replaces the old agreements. The doctrine of “claim preclusion” or res judicata applies. This doctrine of claim preclusion has even been interpreted by courts to prevent later adjudication of many different matters, including an objection to a proof of claim.
However, the creditor must have received notice of the plan and it must have had a chance to assert its due process rights. Due process is satisfied as long as the creditor has received adequate notice. It is in the best interests of debtors, of course, to draft plans carefully, so that the desired treatment of each claim or class of creditors is specifically detailed. Creditors, for their part, should review the plan carefully and address any issues that they may see contained therein. No matter how carefully the language is crafted, there will occasionally be disputes of interpretation and importance, and these disputes will continue to fuel much Chapter 13 litigation.