Giving a gift, or selling for less than true value, can cause problems when done before bankruptcy, but usually only if the amount is large.
“Fraudulent Transfers” Are Uncommon
So-called “fraudulent transfers” do not come up in most consumer or small business bankruptcy cases. But they can sneak up on you. And if one does, it can be a real headache. So it’s important to know what it is, its crucial timing factors, and how to avoid it.
What’s a “Fraudulent Transfer”?
A fraudulent transfer is a reflection of human nature. If someone in financial trouble has an asset or money she wants to keep from her creditors she may be tempted to give it to someone so the creditors can’t reach it. Or she may be tempted to sell it for lots less than its worth.
The gift or sale may be to someone who would give it back later. Or the gift or sale may be to a friend or relative, keeping it within the debtor’s circle. The point is that the asset would no longer be available for her creditors to seize to pay the debts.
It’s human nature that if you have something valuable and are afraid of losing it, you hide it. You keep it from those who could take it. But that doesn’t mean this impulse is legal or moral. Because it’s an understandable impulse, there have been laws against it for at least 400 years in the English law we inherited.
The Results of a Fraudulent Transfer
So, a fraudulent transfer is a debtor’s giving away of an asset to avoiding paying creditors the value of that asset.
Under both federal and state fraudulent transfer laws if you give away something of value within the last two years, then your creditors could require the person to whom you gave that gift to surrender it to the creditors.
Legal proceedings to undo fraudulent transfers can happen both in state courts and in bankruptcy court. In a bankruptcy case, a bankruptcy trustee acts on behalf of the creditors to undo the transfer.
Actual and Constructive Fraudulent Transfers
There are two kinds of fraudulent transfers, based on either “actual fraud” or “constructive fraud.”
The one based on “actual fraud” happens when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer “with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud” a particular creditor, or his or her creditors in general. (See Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) The debtor is acting with the direct intent to keep the asset or its value away from creditor(s).
Fraudulent transfers based on “constructive fraud” happen in consumer situations most often when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer receiving “less than a reasonably equivalent value in exchange,” AND the debtor “was insolvent on the date that such transfer was made. . . , or became insolvent as a result of such transfer.” (See Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) With a constructive fraudulent transfer the debtor does NOT need to intend to defraud anybody. Yet the transfer can be undone if the right conditions are met.
Why Fraudulent Transfers Are Uncommon
There are three practical reasons why most people filing bankruptcy don’t have to worry about fraudulent transfers.
First, most people in financial trouble simply don’t give away their things before filing bankruptcy. They usually need what they have. Plus most of the time everything they do own is protected in bankruptcy through property “exemptions.” So there’s usually no reason to give away or sell anything.
Modest Gifts Are OK
Second, the bankruptcy system doesn’t care about relatively modest gifts. And most people considering bankruptcy don’t have the means to give anything but modest gifts.
By “modest” the bankruptcy system generally means a gift or gifts given over the course of two years to any particular person with a value of more than $600. The Bankruptcy Code does not refer to that threshold amount. But the pertinent official form that you sign “under penalty of perjury” does so.
The Statement of Financial Affairs for Individuals (effective 12/1/15) includes the following question (#13):
Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts with a total value of more than $600 per person?
The next question (#14) is very similar:
Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts or contributions with a total value of more than $600 to any charity?
The Trustee Has to Consider Collection Costs
The third practical reason there usually isn’t a fraudulent transfer problem is what it costs the trustee to pursue one. The trustee has to pay attorney fees and other expenses to try to undo a gift or transfer. Or the trustee has to use his or her time or pay staff to do this. So the practical threshold value of the transferred asset is likely many hundreds of dollars. The trustee is not going to pay a lawyer or use his or her time when the likely benefits outweigh the costs.
This is important because there is a question in the Statement of Financial Affairs without a stated threshold dollar amount. This question (#18) asks:
Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you sell, trade, or otherwise transfer any property to anyone, other than property transferred in the ordinary course of your business or financial affairs?
Notice the lack of a $600 minimum threshold found in the two questions referred to above. So, every applicable transfer must be listed here regardless of value. But again, the bankruptcy trustee would likely not do anything about this unless the asset transferred was valuable enough to make the effort to undo the transfer worthwhile.
The trustee may be more inclined to try to undo a gift or transfer in one situation. If the trustee already has non-exempt (unprotected) assets to liquidate and distribute among the creditors, he or she may be more inclined to pursue a fraudulent transfer. That’s because then the trustee is not risking using his or her own money for the collection costs. The trustee knows there will likely be some money from liquidation of the non-exempt assets to pay those costs.