Chapter 12 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code: Reorganization of a Family Farmer or Fisherman
CRS Report for Congress
Chapter 12 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code:
Reorganization of a Family Farmer or
American Law Division
Chapter 12 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code dealing with “family farmer”
reorganization, temporarily extended 11 times since its original enactment, is made
permanent by enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection
Act, P.L. 109-8. It is amended to include “family fisherman” as well. This report
surveys the highlights of this chapter.
Background. In 1986, Congress added chapter 12 entitled “Adjustments of Debts
of a Family Farmer with Regular Annual Income” to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.1 It was
modeled after chapter 13, which governs consumer reorganization. Chapter 12 was
created to provide farmers with the opportunity to reorganize and thus to preserve their
farms through a streamlined and expeditious bankruptcy process. Intended to respond to
the downturn in the farm economy in the 1980s, it was considered “experimental.”2
Originally enacted as a temporary measure with a sunset date of October 1, 1993,3 it was
extended 11 times.4 With enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer
1 P.L. 99-554 (Oct. 27, 1986).
2 H.Rept. 103-32, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. 3 (1993).
3 P.L. 99-554, §302(f).
4 P.L. 103-65 (extension through Sept. 30 1998); P.L. 105-277 (extension through April 1, 1999);
P.L. 106-5 (extension through October 1, 1999); P.L. 106-70 (extension through July 1, 2000);
P.L. 107-8 (extension through June 1, 2001); P.L. 107-17 (extension through October 1, 2001);
P.L. 107-170 (extension through June 1, 2002); P.L. 107-171 (extension through January 1,
2004); and P.L. 108-369 (extension through July 1, 2005). With the exception of P.L. 107-377
and P.L. 107-171, which applied the extension prospectively, other extensions applied
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Protection Act (BAPCPA) it became a permanent chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.5
The BAPCPA made additional changes to chapter 12, which are discussed below.
In the absence of chapter 12, insolvent farmers’ bankruptcy options included
reorganization under chapter 11 or 13, or liquidation under chapter 7.6 Chapter 11
governs business reorganization and is more expensive and procedurally cumbersome
than chapter 12 or 13. Chapter 13 was designed for “individuals with a regular income”
or wage earners. The nature of farming is such that many farmers did not realize income
on a “regular” schedule comparable to that of wage earners. Also, many farms were not
individually owned, but are operated as corporations or partnerships. And, when chapter
12 was enacted in 1986, chapter 13 had a jurisdictional debt limit of $350,000 in secured
debt and $100,000 in unsecured debt. Farmers’ indebtedness often exceeded that limit,
so chapter 12 provided a jurisdictional debt limit of $1,500,000.
The BAPCPA made major revisions to chapter 13, which make it even more
unsuitable for farmers than it was previously. A new requirement for chapter 13 debtors
is that disposable income reasonably necessary for living expenses (retained by a debtor
and deducted from the amount allocated to repayment of creditors) be calculated
according to national and local living standards calculated by the Internal Revenue
Service (IRS). This requirement alone would appear to make chapter 13 wholly unsuited
for family farmers and fishermen.
Procedural Overview. The goal of chapter 12, indeed of all the operative
bankruptcy reorganization chapters, is to offer a debtor a means of financial rehabilitation
outside of liquidation. Historically, the quid pro quo for reorganization is the debtor’s
obligation to commit postbankruptcy income to prebankruptcy indebtedness.7
Definition of “Family Farmer” and “Fisherman.” Previously applying only
to “family farmers,” the BAPCPA amended the chapter to include fishermen. For chapter
12 purposes, a family farmer includes an individual and spouse, or a family-owned
partnership or corporation, with debts of less than $3,237,000, 50% of which arises from
the farming operation. The debtor must derive at least 50% of gross annual income from
A “family fisherman” is an individual and spouse, or a family-owned partnership or
corporation, engaged in a commercial fishing operation whose debts are less than
$1,500,000, 80% of which arises from the fishing operation. The debtor must derive at
least 50% of gross annual income from fishing.9
5 P.L. 109-8, § 1001 (2005).
6 Farmers may not be forced into bankruptcy involuntarily. 11 U.S.C. § 303.
7 Under chapter 7, prebankruptcy assets are liquidated to pay off prebankruptcy debts. A chapter
7 liquidation does not generally commit the debtor’s postbankruptcy assets and/or income, nor
will it discharge postbankruptcy debts.
8 11 U.S.C. § 101(18).
9 11 U.S.C. § 101(19).
Expedited Time Frame. A chapter 11 debtor has at least 120 days (four months)
after filing to submit a proposed reorganization plan. A chapter 12 debtor must submit a10
proposed plan within 90 days of filing, and the court must hold a confirmation hearing
within 45 days.11 Only the debtor may propose the reorganization plan, which must be
completed within a specified three to five-year time frame. The debtor’s plan must meet
the statutory requirements for chapter 12, but, unlike chapter 11, creditor committees are
not appointed, and the plan is not voted on by creditors. The debtor receives a discharge
of indebtedness upon completion of all payments under the plan.
Appointment of a Standing Trustee. A trustee is rarely appointed under
chapter 11. Although chapter 12 requires the participation of a standing trustee, the
trustee’s duties are administrative and the debtor retains possession and control of the
farm or fishing operation throughout the reorganization.
Benefits of Chapter 12. As noted above, chapter 12 borrowed many debtor-
friendly features from chapter 13 (prior to the BAPCPA amendments) and adapts some
provisions specifically to the needs of chapter 12 debtors. Among these provisions are:
!Prebankruptcy credit counseling. Although individual chapter 12
debtors must undergo credit counseling from an approved nonprofit
agency within 180 days prior to filing, their ability to receive a discharge
is not conditioned upon completion of an instruction course on personal
financial management (as required of chapter 13 debtors);12
!Contents of the plan: nonpriority treatment of certain priority claims.
The plan may treat certain claims owed to the government that might
otherwise be considered “priority” claims under § 507 as nonpriority,
namely, claims owed to a governmental unit that arise as a result of the
sale or transfer of any farm asset used in the farming operation.
Likewise, priority claims for domestic support that have been assigned
to a governmental unit may be paid in less than full amount so long as the
plan provides that all of the debtor’s projected disposable income for five
years will be applied to payments under the plan. Specified interest
payments on unsecured claims that are nondischargeable may also be
!Liberalized “cramdown.” Cramdown is a term used in bankruptcy law
to refer to the procedure which enables a debtor to modify a creditor’s
claim over the creditor’s objection. Chapter 12 debtors are not bound to
“the absolute priority rule” which applies in chapter 11. Hence, secured
creditors of a chapter 12 debtor, despite objections they may harbor, have
less ability to influence or reject the reorganization plan than chapter 11
creditors. Dissenting creditors may object to the debtor’s reorganization
10 11 U.S.C. § 1221.
11 11 U.S.C. § 1224.
12 11 U.S.C. § 109.
13 11 U.S.C. § 1222.
plan. The objection triggers the Code’s requirement that all of the
debtor’s projected disposable income be applied to plan payments.
Creditors must receive at least as much payout on their claims in chapter
!Bifurcation of liens or “lien stripping.”15 A family farmer is permitted
to reduce — or “strip” — the value of a lien on secured property.16
Hence, in situations where there is deflation in the value of the farm
property, the debtor may reduce the amount owed to the secured lender
and discharge the unsecured portion. Lien stripping is not generally
permitted in chapter 7.17 Although lien stripping is permitted under
chapter 11, creditors whose security interests are bifurcated into secured
and unsecured claims have greater power to shape and/or veto the
debtor’s reorganization plan. Chapter 12 also permits repayment of
reformed secured claims over a period of time exceeding the plan period.
Because chapter 12 provides the debtor with expanded authority to
renegotiate with lenders, its influence may extend to informal
renegotiations outside of bankruptcy as well.
!Adequate protection and tax requirements. Any bankruptcy debtor who
retains collateral must provide the creditor “adequate protection” for the
value of the collateral subject to the debtor’s use.18 Chapter 12 has its
own standards for awarding “adequate protection”19 and a provision
governing “special tax provisions.”20
Although chapter 12 was enacted as a temporary measure, it was continuously
extended prior to becoming a permanent chapter in the Code. It has received significant
support in the Congress. The chapter, however, is not without its critics. They question
whether the benefits of chapter 12 outweigh its costs; whether it encourages economic
inefficiency in the farm sector; and whether the ability of farmers to write off secured debt
has a positive impact on agricultural lending.21
14 11 U.S.C. § 1225.
15 When a secured creditor holds a claim in which the value of the collateral is less than the
contractual amount owed the creditor, the Bankruptcy Code splits or “bifurcates” it. It is treated
as a secured claim up the value of the collateral, and an unsecured claim for the amount which
constitutes the discrepancy between the collateral’s value and the contractual amount of the
claim. 11 U.S.C. § 506. In other words, the claim of a secured creditor is legally protected up to
the value of the collateral which secures the claim.
16 Harmon v. United States Through Farmers Home Admin., 101 F.3d 574 (8th Cir. 1996).
17 Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410 (1992).
18 11 U.S.C. § 361.
19 11 U.S.C. § 1205.
20 11 U.S.C. § 1231.
21 Jerome Stam, “Do Farmers Need a Separate Chapter in the Bankruptcy Code,” Information
Bulletin No. 724-09, Economic Research Service, USDA (October 1997).