Gambling with Bankruptcy Exemptions

In bankruptcy cases, individual debtors have the privilege of retaining certain amounts or types of property that otherwise would be subject to LIQUIDATION or SEIZURE by creditors in order to satisfy debts. Laws protecting these forms of property are called exemptions. Consistent with the goal of allowing the debtor a ''fresh start,'' exemptions in bankruptcy cases help ensure that the debtor, upon emerging from bankruptcy, is not destitute. Exemption statutes generally permit the debtor to keep such things as a home, a car, and personal goods like clothes. Although exemptions inhibit the creditor's ability to collect debts, they relieve the state of the burden of providing the debtor's basic needs.       
The bankruptcy code provides a list of uniform exemptions but also allows individual states to opt out of (override) these exemptions (11 U.S.C.A. § 522 [1993 & Supp. 2003]). Thus, the types and amounts of property exemptions differ greatly and depend upon the debtor's state of residence.       
A debtor residing in a state that has not opted out is entitled to the exemptions described in the bankruptcy code. Examples of code exemptions are the debtor's aggregate interest of up to $15,000 in a home; up to $2,400 in a motor vehicle; up to $8,000 in household furnishings, household goods, clothes, appliances, books, animals, crops, and musical instruments; up to $1,000 in jewelry; up to $1,500 in professional books or tools of the debtor's trade; and certain unmatured life insurance policies owned by the debtor. The debtor also may claim an exemption for professionally prescribed health aids, such as electric wheel-chairs.        
The majority of states have chosen to opt out of the uniform federal exemptions, replacing them with exemptions created by their own legislatures. Homestead exemptions, which excuse all or part of the value in the debtor's home, are the most common state-mandated exemptions. These are not uniform across states. For instance, Missouri mimics the federal government by placing a dollar limit on the exemption, but at $8,000, its cap is meager in comparison (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 513.475 [Vernon 2002]). The bordering state of Iowa limits the homestead exemption by acreage rather than dollar amount (Iowa Code Ann. §§ 561.1, 561.2 [West 1992]). Florida allows a homestead exemption without limits (Fla. Const. art. X, § 4(a) (1)). This lack of uniformity raises the question of fairness: bankruptcy laws are federal in nature, yet a debtor in Florida may have a significant financial advantage over a debtor in Missouri, owing to different exemption laws.       
Despite the broad variance among states when it comes to bankruptcy exemptions, critics charge that even the uniform federal system can be grossly unfair. For example, assume two debtors, Arlene and Ben, each have estates valued at $28,000. Arlene, a dentist, has $15,000 of EQUITY in her home. She has $8,000 worth of furniture and household goods. Her car is worth $4,000, and she owns dental tools valued at $1,000.      
Ben is an art lover. He owns no car, no furniture, and no house, having chosen instead to spend his money on paintings and sculptures that are now worth $26,000. His clothes, musical instruments, and other household goods are worth $2,000.       
Arlene and Ben have states of equal value, but when the federal exemption statute is followed, Arlene can claim $27,200 in exemptions, whereas Ben can claim only $16,300. Arlene receives exemptions worth $15,000 for her homestead, $8,000 for her household goods, $2,400 for her car, and $1,000 for her dental tools, and an $800 general exemption for property not covered by other exemptions. Ben may claim an $8,000 exemption for his art and other household goods, as well as a general exemption worth $8,300, which replaces his unused homestead exemption.       
Critics suggest that one problem with exemption laws is that legislators must determine the property that will best enable the average debtor to remain self-sufficient following a bankruptcy. Unconventional debtors, such as Ben, frequently are penalized as a result. In addition, laws that place monetary limits on exemptions often do nothing to help the debtor achieve a fresh start. When the value of certain property is worth more than the exemption, it is said to be only partially exempt and must be completely liquidated. Following liquidation, the debtor receives the value of the exemption in cash from the liquidation proceeds. Thus, in the case of Arlene's $4,000 car, the bankruptcy TRUSTEE would sell the car and from the sale proceeds give Arlene $2,400, the amount of the exemption. Arlene could then spend the money on a tropical vacation instead of a replacement car, rendering the vehicle exemption law virtually meaningless.       
Debtors may also take advantage of exemption laws by transferring assets before filing for bankruptcy protection. For example, Ben could sell nonexempt artwork and, with the proceeds, purchase a small condominium. He could then file for bankruptcy and claim a homestead exemption, increasing by $7,500 his post-bankruptcy estate.       
Congress actually supports this type of pre-bankruptcy planning, permitting the debtor ''to make full use of the exemptions to which he is entitled under the law'' (S. Rep. No. 989, 95th Cong., 2d Sess. [1978]). Still, courts view some pre-bankruptcy asset transfers as fraudulent, particularly when they involve large dollar amounts and there is evidence of intention to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors. Upon a finding of FRAUD, the bankruptcy court may deny discharge of the debtor's debts. But what constitutes a fraudulent transfer is often unclear and seemingly arbitrary.       
Two bankruptcy cases from Minnesota exemplify the confusion surrounding fraudulent and nonfraudulent prebankruptcy transfers. The debtors in both cases were doctors who lost money in the same investment and who hired the same ATTORNEY to help them with their pre-bankruptcy planning. The outcomes of the cases differed significantly. Before filing for bankruptcy, Omar Tveten liquidated most of his nonexempt assets, including his home. With the proceeds, he purchased life insurance and annuities valued at almost $700,000.        
Both the life insurance and the annuities were considered exempt under Minnesota law; however, the bankruptcy court held that the large amount converted was an indication of fraud and therefore refused to discharge Tveten's bankruptcy debts (Norwest Bank Nebraska v. Tveten, 848 F.2d 871 [8th Cir. 1988]).        
Robert J. Johnson also transferred assets before filing for bankruptcy. Johnson converted nonexempt property into property exempt under Minnesota law: he purchased $8,000 in musical instruments, $4,000 in life insurance, and $250,000 in annuities from fraternal organizations, and he retired (paid off) $175,000 of the debt on his $285,000 home. The court focused on Johnson's claim for homestead exemption and in particular on the $175,000 MORTGAGE payment made just before filing for bankruptcy. As the court in Tveten demonstrated, an unusually large asset transfer can indicate fraud. But in Johnson, the court held that the homestead exemption was valid, stating that the value of an asset transfer to homestead property, unlike the value of an asset transfer to property in another exemption category, is of little relevance because ''no exemption is more central to the legitimate aims of state lawmakers than a homestead exemption'' (Panuska v. Johnson, 880 F.2d 78 [8th Cir. 1989]). Legal commentators have criticized the Tveten and Johnson decisions as being arbitrary and as providing no clear lines to assist debtors in pre-bankruptcy planning.        
Critics charge that the different outcomes are simply a result of different judges presiding at the initial bankruptcy court level, because the facts of the cases were so similar. Bankruptcy attorneys are frustrated by a lack of uniformity among court decisions that apply similar principles but reach different results, and also a lack of uniformity in exemption laws among states.       
Indeed, forum shopping (searching for the most advantageous jurisdiction in which to file bankruptcy) is prevalent because of the wide diversity of state exemption laws. In re Coplan, 156 B.R. 88 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 1993), illustrates the problem. The debtors, Lee Coplan and Rebecca Coplan, incurred substantial debt in their home state of Wisconsin before moving to Florida. After residing in Florida for one year and purchasing a house for $228,000, they sought bankruptcy relief and a homestead exemption under Florida law(West's F.S.A.Const.Art. 10, § 4(a)(1)), which allows an exemption for the full value of the homestead. The court found that the Coplans had engaged in a systematic conversion of assets by selling their home in Wisconsin and paying cash for their new home in Florida. This action was conducted, according to the court, solely for the purpose of placing the assets out of the reach of creditors. As a result, the bankruptcy court in Florida allowed a homestead exemption of only $40,000, the extent provided by Wisconsin law (W.S.A. § 815.20(1)). Yet other bankruptcy decisions have held that a conversion of nonexempt property to exempt property for the purpose of placing such property out of reach of creditors will not alone deprive the debtor of the exemption (see, e.g., In re Levine, 139 B.R. 551 [Bankr. M.D. Fla. 1992]).       
Exemption is an integral part of bankruptcy law but a difficult area to navigate. Courts and legislatures must constantly determine whether exemptions constitute fair and just vehicles by which debtors can achieve a fresh start without getting a head start at the expense of creditors. Unfortunately for attorneys, debtors, creditors, and trustees, the laws regarding exemptions are inconsistent. Attempting to maximize the benefits granted by bankruptcy exemptions can be more of a gamble than a science.

Epstein, David G. 2002. Bankruptcy and Related Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.
Resnick, Alan N. 2002. Bankruptcy Law Manual. Eagan, Minn.: Thompson West.


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