Imagine that you sit down with your bankruptcy attorney for an initial consultation. You have worked hard all of your life and have acquired some personal property and real estate. You are scared and have important questions to ask. You start with the most pressing: “What will the trustee take if I file bankruptcy?”
The lawyer on the other side of the table leans back and smugly relies, “It depends.”
That weasel-answer is, of course, technically correct, but it doesn’t even begin to answer your question. Let’s take a few minutes and begin to actually start answering your question.
Chapter 13 Trustee
A debtor does not generally lose property to a bankruptcy Chapter 13 trustee. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a repayment rather than liquidation bankruptcy. Consequently, the trustee may not seize or compel the sale of the debtor’s property, although in some cases a debtor may choose to voluntarily sell or surrender an asset for liquidation.
Chapter 7 Trustee
Unlike a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, a Chapter 7 is a liquidation proceeding. The bankruptcy trustee is appointed to sell assets and pay unsecured creditors with the debtor’s property. Every debtor is able to protect certain property using legal exemptions – in many cases the debtor loses nothing. Legal exemptions are simply laws that protect a debtor’s equity in property, such as household furniture, clothing, and limited equity in a house.
A Chapter 7 trustee may compel the sale or turnover of property to reach “non-exempt” equity. The determination of non-exempt equity can be complex, but it always starts with a valuation of the property. Next, secured debts are subtracted. Finally, legal exemptions are applied to protect the unsecured equity. Anything remaining is the non-exempt equity that the Chapter 7 trustee can reach.
To illustrate, suppose you have a car worth $10,000, you owe $2,000 to a secured creditor (e.g. Ford Credit), and you have $3,000 in available legal exemptions. The calculation to determine any non-exempt equity is the fair market value of the car minus the amount you owe minus the legal exemption, or
$10,000 – $2,000 – $3,000 = $5,000 in non-exempt equity
The Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee can demand turn-over of the car or payment of $5,000. The trustee may take and sell the car, pay the lender, pay you the $3,000 exemption amount, and pay the costs of the sale. The trustee keeps a percentage as his fee and divides the remaining amount among your unsecured creditors.
While it is unusual to disagree over the amount of exemptions, the debtor and trustee often have disagreements regarding the fair market value of property. In some cases the bankruptcy judge is asked to decide the value of an asset.
Non-exempt assets can be found in many sources. However, some assets are less attractive to the trustee because of the difficulties of selling the asset (e.g. a horse). Additionally, the non-exempt equity in an asset may be too little to bother. Here are a few of the easiest non-exempt targets for the trustee:
• Cash money or bank deposit
• Commissions earned but not paid
• Lawsuit settlement or judgment
• Income tax refund
• Property transferred fraudulently, especially to a family member
• High dollar unsecured property, like a house or vehicle
It is important to determine an accurate value of all property and to calculate all legal exemptions before filing bankruptcy. Then you and your attorney can discuss strategies for protecting your property.