In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy if you want to keep your assets and belongings, they have to be claimed as exempt under an applicable exemption law. In Minnesota there are two exemption laws to choose from, the federal list and the state list. I have written a lot elsewhere about why one would choose one list or the other. That is not my topic here. I just want to talk about how most of the state exemptions are going up in a few days. The federal exemptions were increased on April 1st this year. I covered that in a recent blog post.
On July 1st in even numbered years, certain parts of the Minnesota state exemptions are updated to keep up with inflation. Since this year is even numbered, we are about to have another update. I am glad to see that all the numbers which can be changed are going up.
Summary of Minnesota Exemption Increases
Household furniture, household goods increased from $11,250.00 to $11,700.00.
Wedding rings increased from $3,062.50 to $3,185.00.
Tools of the trade increased from $12,500.00 to $13,000.00.
Life insurance benefits increased from $50,000.00 to $52,000.00.
Additional dependent insurance benefits increased from $12,500.00 to $13,000.00.
Motor vehicle increased from $5,000.00 to $5,200.00.
Insurance policies increased from $10,000.00 to $10,400.00.
Employee benefits (retirement accounts) increased from $75,000.00 to $78,000.00.
Homestead (limited to 160 acres) increased from $450,000.00 to $480,000.00.
Homestead used primarily for agriculture increased from $1,125,000.00 to $1,200,000.00.
Our Minnesota State Exemptions Remain Far from Perfect
For a more complete rundown on how this all works, take a look at my exemptions page. These state exemptions leave a lot to be desired. They have a lot of gaps which seem to always allow the bankruptcy trustees to require my clients to buy back some of their stuff. Most jewelry is not exempt. Most electronics are not exempt. There is no exemption that covers tax refunds, and there are issues with money in bank accounts. I have ranted about this on this blog before. The legislature needs to fix it but they don’t.
The Minnesota state exemptions are primarily good for one thing. They allow you to protect lots of equity in your homestead, unlike the federal exemptions which are very limited in that area. I don’t think any of the increases here have kept up with the real rate of inflation; so in fact we seem to be loosing ground.
If you don’t properly claim any asset as exempt, you risk losing it to the trustee. It’s tricky and risky and should not be attempted without a lawyer.
Easier Qualifying for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Minnesota
The primary requirement for being able to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is to have your income below a certain level. Stated most simply, to qualify for Chapter 7 you want your income to be lower than the median income for your household size in your state. These levels are set by the Department of Justice, US Trustee’s Office; and new, higher numbers came out recently on April 1st. If your income is slightly above the median, there is a means test that you might be able to pass which would allow you to still file a Chapter 7. Doing the means test, however, can sometimes be an invitation to a close scrutiny of the case. Being below the median is best. Here are the April 2022 numbers and how much they just went up.
Minnesota Median Household Income April 2022
One person: $ 65,514 — Up $2,490
Two people: $ 86,358 — Up $3,875
Three people: $ 106,445 — Up $4,776
Four people: $ 125,753 — Up $5,533
Five people: $ 135,653 — Up $6,543
Six people: $ 145,553 — Up $7,443
More information at https://mn-bankruptcy.com/chapter7.html
Easier Protection for Your Stuff in Minnesota Chapter 7
As soon as you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the court appoints a trustee whose job it is to find assets that can be used to pay all or part of your debt. You really want the trustee to not be able to find any assets, or certainly not much for assets. The way to keep your assets away from the trustee is to claim them as exempt. What you can claim as exempt and how much is obviously very important. In Minnesota you have a choice between a state exemption list and a federal exemption list. In this post I am only talking about the federal list. The federal exemptions just went up in every category. Here are a few typical items and how much they went up. These are just a few examples. It is not anywhere near a complete list.
April 2022 Federal Exemptions
Household goods $14,875 - Up $1,475
Car $ 4,450 - Up $ 450
Tools of Trade $ 2,800 - Up $ 175
Cash value of
Life Insurance $14,875 - Up $1,475
Catch-all $15,425 - Up $1,525
More information at https://mn-bankruptcy.com/exemptions.html
There is now word on the street that a round of increases to the Minnesota state exemption list is being contemplated for July 1, 2022. Watch my blog for news about that.
This is the sixth in a series of posts about the top seven things I recommend you avoid if you are considering a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Paying extra on your mortgage or car loan might ordinarily be a prudent thing to do. You might even have been advised to do so by a financial adviser or guru. But if you are thinking about a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or even a Chapter 13, this is probably a bad idea. You are not sure to have trouble with your case if you have been making some extra payments, but the risk that something might go wrong is probably higher because of this. In the old and clanking gears of my legal mind, I can see three ways you could have a problem with this.
The assumption that I am making in this discussion is that you have a car or a homestead which is going to be exempt in your bankruptcy case, and there has been some action by you which increases the amount of the equity in the exempt car or exempt home.
Intent to Defraud, Hinder or Delay a Creditor
I’m talking here about the provisions of 522(o) of the bankruptcy code. It has an intent element. It only applies to your homestead, not your car; and it only applies if you have put extra money into your homestead with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor. If you are only making a few small extra payments on your mortgage, I would expect it would be very difficult to prove this intent element. But if you are putting a relatively large amount into the house, either by paying the mortgage or by doing a home improvement, you need to have your lawyer screen for a possible problem with this.
To the extent that your trustee can prove that 522(o) applies to a portion of your homestead, that portion is not exempt. That portion will be an asset that the trustee in a Chapter 7 can claim for the creditors. If you can’t figure out any other way, a sale of your home might be required to make this equity available.
Examples I see in the case law include using money from the sale of stock and using money form a large tax refund. Of the various reasons I can see that you might run into trouble for making an extra payment on your mortgage, this is the least likely one on the list. Still I am concerned about the possibility – it’s my job to be concerned.
Fraudulent Transfer – Effort to Hide Assets from Creditors
This is a more likely source of trouble. If you have money or another asset which you take and use to make an extra payment on your mortgage or car loan, a bankruptcy trustee might claim that this is the same as if you gave it to your brother to hold for you so that creditors would not get it. It can be considered hiding money from your creditors. The legal term for this is “fraudulent transfer.”
I have a whole list of questions which I ask potential clients to try and screen for fraudulent transfer problems. There’s a lot more ways this can come up than just extra payments on mortgages or car loans. In Minnesota we have two distinct fraudulent transfer statutes that we have to be concerned about. One provision is in the bankruptcy code itself – this one seems to have no intent element, and the lookback is two years. The other provision is the state fraudulent transfer statute – which looks back six years but at least has an intent element: intent to hinder or delay or defraud creditors.
You are most likely to have a fraudulent transfer problem involving something that happened shortly before the bankruptcy case was filed. Events from more than two years back might not be as much of a problem.
With Homes or Cars that are Upside Down, your Payment could be a “Preference.”
You might want to take a look back at my blog post about item 3 on my list of things to avoid – large payments to unsecured creditors. The bankruptcy code makes some attempt to treat all the unsecured creditors equally, and this involves clawing back large payments which favor one unsecured creditor over another.
So what’s this got to do with a mortgage or car loan? Those are secured, not unsecured. Well if you are upside down on your loan, meaning that you owe more than the security is worth, the loan might be considered unsecured or partially unsecured. In this event the trustee might try to claw back from the creditor ALL the payments made in the 90 days before the bankruptcy is filed. If you’ve been paying extra, it just makes it that much more tempting.
Once the trustee has taken the payments back from the creditor, the creditor will very likely add that amount back in to what you owe. And if you want to keep the car or keep the house, you will eventually probably have to pay it. If this problem arises, you might want to try making a deal with the trustee where you pay in the money so he or she doesn’t go after the creditor.
These are problems that I am always trying to find in advance before filing a case. In many cases I see something that could be a problem, but probably won’t be. Other times it looks pretty serious. If you have been paying extra on your car or home, make sure you give all the details to your lawyer. Your lawyer should be able to advise you how much of a problem it might be.
This post is for general information purposes and is not legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship. Small details in your case can make a big difference. Consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case. I practice in Minnesota. Laws and practices may be a lot different in your state.
If you’ve been reading my stuff, you know that I have a list of what I consider the top seven things you should avoid before filing a bankruptcy, either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. This is the third in a series and is about item three on my list – making large payments to unsecured creditors.
The bankruptcy code follows the general principal that all your creditors are supposed to be treated equally – damaged equally in proportion to the amount of each debt. To try and level the playing field among the unsecured creditors, a limit is set on how much you can pay each one within the 90 days before the filing of your case. If you have paid a total of over $600 to any one unsecured creditor in the 90 days prior to filing the case, this is considered what they call a “preference.” Having a preference can slow down the administration of your case, not to mention that making those payments is a waste of your money. Save the money to pay your attorney fee and court filing fee.
A preference is considered to be one of your assets, but it’s not one you can claim as exempt. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case having a preference means that the trustee can claw the money back from the one creditor and distribute it equally to all the creditors. While this process is going on, your court file remains open and you are not able to start rebuilding your credit. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy it means you may have to pay extra in your payment plan to make up for what the creditors would have received had it been a Chapter 7. In Chapter 13 they call that the best interests of the creditor rule. You can’t give the unsecured creditors less in a Chapter 13 than they would have received in a Chapter 7. Either way, whether it’s Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, the result is undesirable.
Once a case is filed, my goal is always to get out of the case as quickly as possible. So a preference is usually something I want to avoid. They way to avoid the issue to quit paying the unsecured creditors and wait until you have a 90 day period free of preferences. There are always exceptions. The preference might not be the worst thing in the world. For example, if there is a wage garnishment in progress I might say let’s get the case filed ASAP anyway.
When asked my clients almost always say that they have not paid over $600 to any unsecured creditor in the last 90 days. But then I point out that all you have to be doing is paying over $200 per month, and that will always add up to over $600 in 90 days. At that point a light bulb seems to come on and I learn that there is a preference hiding there somewhere.
Keep an eye out for the next episode – Item Four – Drawing Down your 401K.
If you’ve been reading any of my musings, you know that when you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, ownership of all your stuff is temporarily and theoretically transferred to a trustee appointed by the court. I say “theoretically” because normally the trustee doesn’t get to keep any of it, or at least gets to keep very little. The reason why the trustee can’t keep your assets is that – with the help of somebody like me – you are going to claim all or most of your stuff as exempt. There are two sets of exemptions in Minnesota to choose from: the federal exemptions and the Minnesota state exemptions. The federal exemptions tend to be much better than the Minnesota state exemptions, except in one area: equity in a homestead. If you own your home and you have more than just a little equity in your home, the Minnesota state exemptions are for you.
Several of the Minnesota exemptions are indexed for inflation. The resulting increases are only applied every few years. 2018 was one of those years. The new indexed numbers went into effect on July 1st. For example: the household goods exemption increased from $10,300 to $10,800; for wedding rings the exemption increased from $2,817.50 to $2,940 in value; for life insurance proceeds it increased from $46,000 to $48,000; and the tools of the trade exemption went from $11,500 to $12,000. The most significant increase in my opinion was the homestead exemption which went from $390,000 of equity to $420,000 of equity.
When you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, ownership of all your assets all the way down to your socks passes to a trustee appointed by the court. The only way to avoid losing your shirt and most everything else you own is to claim the assets as exempt. If you qualify to use the federal exemptions, it is very likely that everything you own will be exempt and you will keep all your assets. That’s the result I always want to see – my client gets rid of his or her debts but keeps all his or her stuff.
The only problem with the federal exemption list is that it has a low number for the amount of homestead equity which can be exempted. If someone has more equity than can be protected by the federal exemptions, the only other choice is to use the state exemptions. The Minnesota state exemptions will protect up to $$390,000 of equity in a homestead, but other than that those exemptions leave a lot to be desired. They are hopelessly out of date in many respects.
For example, the only electronics clearly allowed as being exempt are a radio, a phonograph and television receivers. Notoriously, computers are not exempt. Neither are cell phones, tablets, game machines, printers, monitors or any other device that isn’t a TV, radio or phonograph.
There’s no exemption for jewelry, unless it’s a wedding ring that was actually present at the wedding ceremony. There’s no exemption for guns, sporting goods such as bicycles or exercise equipment, or collectibles of any kind. Household furnishings, clothing and appliances are exempt, but a riding lawn mower is not considered to be an appliance. Money in your checking account or savings account is not exempt unless it can be traced to a pay check from employment which was deposited within the last 20 days. There’s no exemption for any kind of a tax refund which may be owing or which may have accumulated as of the date of filing the bankruptcy. Bankruptcy trustees routinely present my clients with a form which signs over their tax refunds.
Several weeks ago two bills were introduced at the state legislature in St. Paul to try and correct some of this. One of them added exemptions for the following, all of which currently are absent from the exemption list:
Computers, tablets, printers and cell phones as part of the household goods exemption
Jewelry up to a value of $2,817.50 – replacing the existing wedding ring exemption
A new section exempting $3,000 of tools, snow removal equipment and lawnmowers
A wild card exemption which could be used for up to a $1,250 value of property not fitting into any other exemption; and
Health savings accounts (HSA) and medial savings accounts up to a value of $6,500.
When I heard last week that the legislature had passed an amendment to the exemption statute, I got quite excited. I thought it must be the bill I just described above. I was quite disappointed to learn that it was another bill which only added one provision: an exemption for health savings accounts and medical savings accounts up to a value of $25,000. It’s nice that the amount of the exemption is so high, but I almost never see anyone with an HSA which has any more than a few hundred dollars in it.
So except for the new exemption for the HSAs, we are still stuck with all the same old problems with the Minnesota state exemptions. Oh well, at least the antique radio in my office is exempt.
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.