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Ten Things You Need to Know About Assets and Exemptions in Bankruptcy

Most of the time, you get to keep whatever you own when you file bankruptcy. These 10 truths tell you how it works.

Truth #1.  Exemptions can be trickier than they seem to be:  There is much more to protecting your assets than just matching assets to exemptions. Although some exemption categories are straightforward, important ones often are not. Some require knowing prior court decisions, and/or how the local trustees and judges are informally interpreting them.

Truth #2.  Federal and state exemption schemes:  Congress has left it up to each state whether to use a federal set of exemptions in the Bankruptcy Code for bankruptcies filed in that state, or instead a set of exemptions created by the state, OR even to allow each debtor to choose to use either the federal or state set of exemptions

Truth #3.  Which exemption scheme you must use can depend on how long you’ve lived in your present state:  If you have not been “domiciled” in your current state for two full years before filing bankruptcy, you cannot use the set of exemptions available to residents of your state. You must use the state you were “domiciled” in during the 6-month period immediately before those two years. And if you were “domiciled” in  during that 6-month period, you must use the exemptions available to the residents of the state where you were domiciled the longest during that 6-month period.

Truth #4.  If you have assets that exceed the applicable exemptions, you stand a much better chance of protecting them with pre-bankruptcy planning:  This is one of the most important reasons to meet with a highly competent attorney well before you are pushed into filing bankruptcy. What you do with your assets before filing bankruptcy can be scrutinized by the trustee and/or creditors afterwards, so you must get thorough legal advice beforehand. Doing so can make all the difference in protecting what is important to you.

Truth #5.  Some trustees are more aggressive than others, and asset values are matters of opinion:  Therefore, while usually there will be no surprises, be aware that the trustees—who are responsible for determining whether your assets are exempt—are human. They must follow the law, but sometimes the law is not perfectly clear, and the value of an asset can certainly be anything but clear.

Truth #6.  It is crucial to be thorough in listing assets AND exemptions:  Failing to be thorough in listing your assets in your bankruptcy documents can jeopardize your entire case, and in extreme cases even lead to criminal charges against you by the U.S. attorney. Also, failing to list an asset which would have been exempt can result in losing the right to claim that exemption later, and then losing that asset.

Truth #7.  Just because you have an asset that’s worth more than the exempt amount, doesn’t necessarily mean the trustee will take it:  Trustees can decide not to pursue an asset that is either partly or completely not exempt because 1) the asset is not worth enough to justify the trustee’s efforts to collect or liquidate it; 2) the trustee is not willing to bear the costs to collect or liquidate it (such as the attorney fees needed to pursue a claim of the debtor); or 3) the asset’s detriments arguably outweigh its benefits (such as a parcel of land polluted by hazardous waste).

Truth #8.  If you have an asset that you want to keep that is not exempt, you can usually “buy it back” from the trustee as long as you have the money to do so within a few months:   It may seem like a bad deal to have to pay a Chapter 7 trustee to keep something you already own (such as a vehicle). But if the alternative is doing without a vehicle, or risking getting an unreliable one, or filing a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 case to save your vehicle, buying it back from the trustee could be by far the best way to go.

Truth #9:  You don’t ALWAYS want to avoid having the trustee claim an asset:   Sometimes you may actually want the trustee to take a particular non-exempt asset or two. You may not need them—such as the leftover assets of a closed business—and may appreciate handing the liquation hassles over to the trustee. This could especially be true if the trustee will be paying a significant part of the proceeds of sale to a debt you want paid, such as taxes or back child support.

Truth #10.  The difference in exemptions under Chapter 7 and 13:  Although the set of exemptions used in filing under both chapters is the same, the exemptions are used for a different purpose. In Chapter 7, the exemptions determine whether you have any non-exempt assets for the trustee to take from you, and distribute their proceeds to your creditors. In Chapter 13, the exemptions are applied in the same way but for the purpose of imagining whether there are any non-exempt assets that a hypothetical Chapter 7 trustee would have taken, and if so paying the estimated amount to the creditors over the life of the Chapter 13 plan.

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