I owe my dentist over $1,000 for some work she did on my teeth. This bill was included in my bankruptcy, but I'd like to pay her because I need her to do more dental work for me and my family. My bankruptcy case is not yet finished. Can I pay this bill? Do I have to?
You are under no obligation to pay your dentist for dental work she did prior to your bankruptcy filing. However, if you want to pay her, whether you are allowed to do so depends on what money you intend to use.
No Obligation to Pay Unsecured Debts That Will Be Discharged
Normally, the only debt payments that you make after you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy are on secured debts for property that you wish to keep, such as a mortgage payment or car loan. You do not make payments on unsecured debts with past due balances that will be discharged at the end of your Chapter 7 case. This category would include your dental bill. (Note that some unsecured debts, like taxes and child support, won’t be discharged in your bankruptcy.)
(To learn more about dischargeable debts, see The Bankruptcy Discharge: Which Debts Are Wiped Out?)
Can You Choose to Pay Your Dentist?
What if you want to pay your dentist so she will agree to provide more dental services to you and your family? Whether bankruptcy law permits you to pay your dentist while your case is pending depends on what money you intend to use to pay her.
Using nonexempt assets. If you intend to use pre-petition, nonexempt assets (such as funds from a savings account or tax refund that you had or had a right to receive as of the time of filing bankruptcy), then you may run into trouble. That is because those assets may be subject to a claim by your trustee. Using those assets to pay the dentist, at the exclusion of your other creditors, may be considered an illegal preference. (Learn more about preferential transfers in bankruptcy.)
Income you earn post-petition. However, you are permitted to pay the dentist from income you earn after you file. This is called post-petition income and is not part of your bankruptcy estate – so the bankruptcy trustee has no claim on it. Ideally, though, you should wait to pay your dentist until after you receive your discharge.
(To learn what happens to other debts, see What Happens to Your Debts in Bankruptcy?)