It seems that the leadership of our Minnesota state legislature is considering slapping a sales tax on legal services. If they have to do that, I would suggest that there be an exception for legal services connected with bankruptcy filings. I just sent the following email to Minnesota State Representatives Kelliher, Sertich, Lenczewski and Benson; and to State Senator Bonoff:
A few weeks ago I bookmarked an article posted on Twin Cities Daily Planet which indicated that bankrupty filings in Minnesota are up almost 30% for May and June of 2008 as compared to May and June of 2007. I thought it has seemed to be pretty busy around here, but I still thought the percentage was surprisingly high. Had someone told me in January of 2006, right after the “reform” legislation had gone into effect that this was going to happen, I don’t think I would have believed it. The standard wisdom at that time was that bankruptcy lawyers might be about out of business. In fact, many lawyers quit practicing bankruptcy law at that time. The new law was called BAPCPA (Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act). In my opinion, the only abuse that was going on was that perpetrated by the credit industry, and the only protection provided was for them and not consumers.
Earlier this week I received a copy of Consumer Bankruptcy News, one of those old fashioned publications that is still printed on paper. In the lower right corner of page 7 was an item stating that nation-wide bankruptcy filings were up 48% in July 2008 as compared to July 2007. There were 94,124 consumer filings in July and 82,770 in June this year. That would be as if everybody in Bloomington, Minnesota and in Duluth Minnesota combined had filed for bankruptcy in June or July. If that keeps up, I would assume that for August it would be as if everybody in Rochester, Minnesota had filed for bankruptcy.
If you should feel a need to come see me to talk bankruptcy, there’s sure no reason to feel alone.
Can’t help myself. I have to share this.
I’m on an email list where I get all sorts of updates concerning bankruptcy law. My email this morning brought me news of a North Carolina bankruptcy court decision where the case was dismissed as having been brought in bad faith. What was the bad faith?
It seems that the petitioner, a woman who had just finished a divorce process, was filing the petition in bankruptcy primarily to make her attorney fees for the divorce go away. Through the divorce process she had obtained exempt assets in excess of $250,000 in value; and the lawyer’s bill was about $42,000; but the lawyer had already expressed a willingness to settle for $20,000.
The court appears to have reasoned that as this person went ahead with her contentious divorce, the lawyer had a reasonable expectation to be paid from the “equitable distribution recovery” of assets in the divorce case, and the filing of bankruptcy right after the divorce was in bad faith.
This is an example of what I hear referred to as the “smell test.” There is probably no specific provision in the bankruptcy code that says you can’t list your attorney fee bill in a bankruptcy right after the divorce. But under these particular circumstances, the bankruptcy court judge clearly did not like the way it smelled.
I have had several clients who have listed attorney fees in their bankruptcy petitions. However, that was not the only debt they had and that was not the reason why they filed. In addition, there had been a respectable period of time that had passed since the divorce was final; and it would have been something my client felt bad about and only listed because my advice was that all debts had to be listed.
Typically I find that my clients are very reluctant to list a debt that was for a personal service, where they have a relationship with the provider of the service. They really hate to list their doctor, dentist or plumber. If they need a bankruptcy, however, there’s no choice. All debts must be listed.
Yesterday, before that walk at the nature center, I spent a few hours in the office. I had brought a shirt, tie and jacket, as well as my Flip Video camera. I have been posting to a Youtube channel for almost a year, and I felt yesterday that I might be motivated to record a few new comments on video. Once I got started, I surprised myself about how much I had to say. I grabbed a few I items that were loose on my desk, and found that these made a more than full agenda of things to talk about.
I set up the Flip Video, punched record and walked around to sit in front of it. When I reviewed what I had when I was done, it was almost half an hour of stuff. This time it was all on the subject of bankruptcy. My idea was to supplement and update what I’ve already said on earlier videos. Now what I recorded is so long that I will have to edit it down into manageable pieces. By the time I’m done editing it will be a whole series of clips. The first of them is embedded here:
I just got off the phone with a gentleman who is in extreme debt, lives with his parents, and is essentially unemployed. He works part time odd jobs from time to time. His credit is apparently still good, since he is borrowing from one card to pay for another, even though his debt exceeds $50,000. I told him that he certainly qualifies for a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and probably needs one; but with no income and no assets, what was his plan to pay for the bankruptcy?
“I have been told that I can do that with cash advances,” said he without hesitation. I questioned him more trying to determine exactly who had said that or where he got that idea. He side-stepped and never really answered my questions. I explained that if a lawyer had told him that, it was a violation of every code of ethics I ever heard of. It would also be fraud if not theft, and if it preceded the actual filing of a bankruptcy, it would also be bankruptcy fraud. Bankruptcy fraud, I explained, is a federal felony. It is investigated by the FBI. I would like to stay as far away from that sort of thing as possible.
I would not have thought much of this call, and would not find it worthy of mentioning, except that this was the second such discussion I have had in the last ten days or so. Since it has now come up twice, I am wondering if someone on a web site, blog or other media source has been either promoting or at least discussing the idea.
Let me see if I can spell something out. If a creditor can show that a debt was incurred at a time that the debtor intends to not pay it, but intends instead to run it through a bankruptcy, that is bankruptcy fraud. The person who does that will at least be subject to an objection to the discharge brought by the creditor, and at worst possibly be subject to criminal charges. If the debt is more than $600 or so, and it is incurred within 90 days before filing, it will be presumed to be for luxury goods – which also makes the debt nondischargeable if the creditor objects. Even if all the specific rules for the bankruptcy filing are satisfied, there is still a possibility that the case won’t pass the “totality of the circumstances” test. Essentially it’s a smell test. If it doesn’t smell right, the court can dismiss it.
About a week ago BankruptcyLawNetwork.com reported that the Executive Office of the U.S. Trustee has suspended auditing of debtors filing for bankruptcy because Congress did not fund the audits in the 2008 appropiration. This is good news. Under the 2005 changes to the bankruptcy law, the U.S. Trustee could engage the services of outside accounting firms to audit the records of bankrupt debtors. At least until they find some funding somewhere, and they are looking for alternative sources, this auditing activity will come to a stop.
This does not mean that the Trustees themselves cannot continue requesting detailed information, documents and records from bankrupt debtors; and going over it with a fine tooth comb. It just means that they can’t hire outside accounting help to do it. When these audits were in progress, they only involved a very small percentage of the bankruptcy cases being filed. A much higher percentage of cases were investigated directly by U. S. Trustee personnel without outside help.
It is my hope that the failure to appropriate funds represents the beginning of a backlash against the so-called Bankruptcy Reform Act.
When the same thing keeps happening over and over again, I feel I should say something. Yesterday I met with a well-dressed, obviously educated and intelligent man. We talked about filing bankruptcy. He brought in and deposited on my desk a stack of documents that I usually request for such meetings. As I looked them over I said something that referred to him as having two mortgages. He seemed surprised and stated that he had only one mortgage.
At this point I had to take a breath and explain that a home equity line of credit is a mortgage, usually a second mortgage – but a mortgage. When you use a line of credit like that, it is like withdrawing money from a bank account – only it’s not money in a bank account, it’s the equity in your home. It always disturbs me to see people doing this because:
- Most don’t seem to realize that a home equity line of credit creates a lien on their home and therefore eats away at their home equity.
- Under Minnesota law the equity in our homes is one of the few things that most creditors cannot take away, except of course for a creditor holding a mortgage.
- Unlike a credit card debt or a medical bill, amounts owing on home equity lines must be paid, even in the event of a bankruptcy filing, unless the debtor is willing to let the home be foreclosed upon.
It seems to me that the loan officers do their best to make sure that consumers don’t understand the true nature of these credit lines. Not only don’t they explain it, but they can be downright deceptive about it. They talk as if it is free money, and encourage that kind of unhealthy thinking. Then they give the consumer an incomprehensible stack of papers that nobody understands, and say “sign here.”
I strongly suggest that if you need to go into debt for any reason, be sure you are doing it in a way that does not diminish the equity in your home. Beware of paperwork that puts a mortgage on your home in exchange for a favorable interest rate. That deal is not as good as it looks.
This past Monday Governor Pawlenty signed into law a revision to the Minnesota homestead exemption which does two things. First it increases the amount of equity in a homestead which is exempt from the current $200,000 to $300,000. Second, it increases the amount of land which is considered exempt from half an acre for the usual homestead located in a city to 160 acres.
When this new law goes into effect, which should be on August 1st, it should be much easier to claim a homestead as exempt in a bankruptcy or in any proceeding where a creditor is going after a homeowner in this state.
2022 update: Minnesota statutes now exempt homestead equity up to $480,000. This has resulted from incremental adjustments for inflation since the big jump in amount described here.