Category Archives: Bankruptcy and Assets

California Law and Record Title Presumption Versus Community Property Presumption and Bankruptcy

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What? I thought the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Summers case already held that the taking of title as joint tenants under California law is not subject to California community property transmutation laws? Then the California Supreme Court held the seemingly opposite result in the Valli case. Yes, that Frankie Valli. The law that counts is California State law. The issue here develops when real property is acquired during marriage and title is taken by a married couple as joint tenants. The title is taken as joint tenants and therefore the property is legally under California State law the married couple’s separate property. The taking of title in this form provides their intent. We also have California’s transmutation law and certain presumptions saying something else apparently. Now we have the Brace case decided by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel publishing a decision that discusses the interplay between the Summers and Valli cases.

Bankruptcy law is federal, which relies on applicable nonbankruptcy law, state law, to provide for many substantive and procedural rights under the bankruptcy code. If you did not know this please take a moment and do some research on this issue. Then you throw in that California is a community property state and we have a complicated interplay of law and who gets to decide who is right when applying these laws. There are also only 8 community property states with Alaska being an opt-in community property state. So I would say there are 8.5 community property states if being technical.

I believe the difficulties in interpreting this intersection of law is for good reasons and good intentions. The result has been far from good for a very long time. The issue really just comes down to trying to prevent litigation regarding what is community property versus separate property at the time of divorce in California.
Sadly when things go bad opinions change as to who owns what. When filing for bankruptcy protection what is community property of a married couple and separate property is also extremely important.

The 9th Cir. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Says The California Supreme Court Wins

The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel could have chose to not considered the California Supreme Court case and vice a versa. See Miller v. Gammie, 335 F.3d 889 (9th Cir. 2003). The 9th Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel cited a 9th Circuit decision that held when there is a irreconcilable issue between courts then any future three-judge panel of the court of appeals and district courts should consider themselves bound by the [California Supreme Court Valli Case] intervening higher authority and reject the prior opinion of this court as having been effectively overruled. This is some rare air right here. How many people can tell you exactly how intersections of law such as this are decided? Very few, but here is it and a case to read about it. Extremely interesting reading and the requirement of a three-judge panel is excellent.

Presumptions Under California Law Regarding Community Property and Taking Title During Marriage

Before moving forward there are certain presumptions under California community property law that need to be defined and understood.

CA Family Code Section 750

A husband and wife may hold property as joint tenants or tenants in common, or as community property, or as community property with a right of survivorship.

California law clearly provides a married couple can hold property as joint tenants. It issues is the title or evidence of this intent to overcome the presumption that all property acquired during marriage is community property. See CFC 760 below.

CA Family Code Section 760

Community Property: Except as otherwise provided by statute, all property, real or personal, wherever situated, acquired by a married person during the marriage while domiciled in this state is community property.

Okay, so when real property is acquired during marriage the presumption is the real property is community property. What could possibly rebut that presumption? Is it possible a recorded title signed at the time purchase providing title is as joint tenants can rebut this presumption?

CA Family Code Section 2581

Presumption Concerning Property Held In Joint Form: For the purpose of division of property on dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties, property acquired by the parties during marriage in joint form, including property held in tenancy in common, joint tenancy, or tenancy by the entirety, or as community property, is presumed to be community property. This presumption is a presumption affecting the burden of proof and may be rebutted by either of the following: (a) A clear statement in the deed or other documentary evidence of title by which the property is acquired that the property is separate property and not community property; (b) Proof that the parties have made a written agreement that the property is separate property.

Again, a recorded title is the legal document that provides how and who owns a piece of property. Again, is title taken as joints tenants during marriage then recorded with the county recorder’s office fulfills the requirements of CFC 2581? What other interpretation of a joint tenant title could be inferred? As with all questions of statutory interpretation we begin with the plain language of the statute. See Lamie v. U.S. Trustee, 540 U.S. 526, 534 (2004); Ariz. Health Care Cost Containment Sys. v. McClellan, 508 F.3d 1243, 1249 (9th Cir. 2007). But a recorded deed is not a statute. By the plan language of a recorded title without knowing anything else what conclusion would or could the recorded title result in? This is open to human interpretation? It says the married couple is married and bought the property as joint tenants regarding the property they acquired during marriage. The entire point of CFC 2581 is to provide guidance on a recorded title. What more does a title need say? It is difficult to balance what CFC 2581 actually says with with the recent decisions in Valli and now the Brace case.

Let us now bring this back to the Bankruptcy Code and why I am writing about this. Section 2581 applies “for the purposes of division of property on dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties,” and when filing for bankruptcy protection? The various decisions on this issue do discuss this issue in some detail and conclude there is nothing limiting the application of Section 2581. Section 2581 does not say for all purposes. It clearly provides for the purposes of division of property on dissolution of marriage or legal separation. Generally when the word “purpose” is used it is because it is possible for other “purposes” such as filing for bankruptcy protection Section 2581 is not applicable. This is not how California law has been interpreted though. “We give the language its usual and ordinary meaning, and ‘[i]f there is no ambiguity, then we presume the lawmakers meant what they said.’” See People v. Gutierrez, 58 Cal. 4th 1354, 1369 (2014) (alterations in original) (quoting Mays v. City of Los Angeles, 43 Cal. 4th 313, 321 (2008). When a married couple does file bankruptcy in a community property state, and only one spouse files for bankruptcy, only community property and filing spouses separate property become part of the bankruptcy estate pursuant to Section 541 of the Bankruptcy Code. So for purposes of filing for bankruptcy protection what is community property and separate property must be taken into account depending upon the circumstances. I now say depending upon the circumstances given many times there is no reason to even go down the road of should only one spouse file for bankruptcy protection and the other not. Many times one spouse just does not want to file at all. Or a couple has some misguided myth about bankruptcy that prevents them from even considering filing at all under any circumstance while the other spouse is all for it. Attorneys practicing bankruptcy law get a very bad wrap from the real world. This topic is a perfect example of the difficulties.

So the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Summers said the California transmutation laws are not applicable to the purchase of property during marriage as joint tenants. Even if the California transmutation laws are applicable the signed, notarized and recorded title meets the requirements of Section 852, right?

CA Family Code Section 852

Transmutation of Property: (a) A transmutation of real or personal property is not valid unless made in writing by an express declaration that is made, joined in, consented to, or accepted by the spouse whose interest in the property is adversely affected; (b) A transmutation of real property is not effective as to third parties without notice thereof unless recorded.

Third parties do receive notice given the title is recorded with the county. So simple.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Summers that California transmutation laws do not apply to the acquiring of real property during marriage under California law. CFC 2581 provides there should be an express declaration of the parties’ intent. Yes, that is the title record as joint tenants. But no, you have to go beyond what the letter of the title says and now comply with California transmutation laws as well? CFC 2581 is not good enough apparently.

California Evidence Code Section 662

Record title presumption: which provides generally that “[t]he owner of the legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the full beneficial title. This presumption may be rebutted only by clear and convincing proof.”
Wait a second here. California Evidence Code Section 662 says there is a presumption about how title is taken. What clear and convincing evidence has the Court discussed that the married couple in Valli or Brace did not want the property to be held as joint tenants? The title says that. So we now apparently have to ignore CFC 2581 and Cal. Evid. Code 662.

The Summers Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Case – Hanf v. Summers (In re Summers), 332 F.3d 1240, 1242 (9th Cir. 2003)

In Summers, the Ninth Circuit held that under California law, the community property presumption is rebutted when a married couple acquires property from a third party as joint tenants. In Summers the husband, wife and daughter took title to a piece of real property as joint tenants and each of the three parties eventually filed for bankruptcy protection. Citing several California Courts of Appeal decisions, the Ninth Circuit held that under California law the transmutation requirements applied only to interspousal transactions. The wrinkle here that threw everything sideways was the daughter, a third party, was also on titled in addition to the married parents. To get a result that was fair there had to be a way for the three to be joint tenants. The Summers court relied on the California courts’ definition of “transmutation” as “an interspousal transaction or agreement that works a change in the character of the property.” In re Summers, 332 F.3d at 1244 (citing In re Marriage of Cross, 94 Cal. App. 4th 1143, 1147 (2001) (emphasis added)).

As a result of Brace we arguably have to ignore the actual definition of a transmutation under California law. When a house is purchased there is no “interspousal transaction or agreement that works to change the character of the property.” Someone please explain to me how a purchase of a house, an agreement between a married couple during marriage, changes the character of property a married couple is purchasing? You have to own the property first to change the character of the ownership. Right? Some human being please explain to me how I can change the character of property I do not yet own? This bankruptcy attorney finds this confusing.

The purchase of a house is also NOT an “interspousal transaction.” The transaction is between the spouses and the seller. Now we have to ignore the California transmutation definition too. The California Supreme Court case Valli v. Valli (In re Marriage of Valli), 58 Cal. 4th 1396, 1400 (2014). The California Supreme Court did not agree with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals interpretation of California transmutation law in Summers. In Valli, the California Supreme Court held that California’s transmutation statutes are also applicable to transactions in which spouses acquired property from a third party. 58 Cal. 4th at 1405-06. The California Supreme Court noted that prior to California’s transmutation laws the alleged transfer of property by oral or implied agreement caused expensive litigation in divorces. This led to just a passing comment being interpreted or argued to be an agreement to transmute property. That is why we now must have a writing to transmute property. Okay, so there is plenty of merit to reducing litigation in divorces and not having one spouse upon divorce or dissolution say an asset is not a community asset. I get that. The problem is that I still have read nothing to lead me to believe a title saying a house purchased during marriage with title take as joint tenants does not meet the transmutation requirements anyway even though I do not believe the transmutation requirements are applicable to begin with. Nope. That is not the case according to Valli and Brace. This is a legislation issue and what various California laws say about this issue and the interplay with the Bankruptcy Code in a community property state.

Another wrinkle is: The California community property presumption applies to property acquired during marriage unless it is: (1) traceable to a separate property source; (2) acquired by gift or bequest; or (3) earned or accumulated while the spouses are living separate and apart. Valli, 58 Cal. 4th at 1400.

Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Brace Case

The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel declined to agree with the Summers case and followed the Valli case interpretation of California law. It is important to note that the 9th Circuit BAP provided that the presumption of community property was not overcome by the facts of the Brace case. Under other circumstances they may have held otherwise with more facts to overcome the community property presumption. It begs the question what evidence or recorded document or non-recorded document is clear and convincing evidence of the married couples intent to be joint tenants when purchasing property California? The 9th Cir. BAP instructs us that a specific statutory provision does prevail over a general one relating to the same subject. Pac. Lumber Co. v. State Water Res. Control Bd., 37 Cal. 4th 921, 942 (2006). This principle of statutory construction actually supports the conclusion that the community property presumption prevails over the title presumption. See Valli, 58 Cal. 4th at 1412-13. The community property presumption is a specific statutory presumption found within California’s community property law, not the more general presumption found in Section 662 of the California Evidence Code. Another piece of rare air regarding how the intersection of law is interpreted. They are saying that the transmutation laws are specific and the record title presumption is just a general statutory provision of the general transmutation laws that can be ignored if there is more specific law. That is interesting. Does a big umbrella stop the rain from every getting to the small umbrella under the big umbrella? In some circumstances yes and some circumstances no. It is open to interpretation on a issue by issue analysis and there is nothing uncomplicated about it.

What We Can Take Away From This?

There is no such thing as joint tenancy between a married couple under California law unless there is an additional writing in which you say something like, “WE TOOK TITLE TO OUR HOUSE AS JOINT TENANTS DURING MARRIAGE, SO THE PROPERTY IS EACH SPOUSES SEPARATE PROPERTY. IF THERE IS ANY QUESTION ABOUT OUR INTENT IN THE EVENT OF DEATH, DIVORCE DISSOLUTION OR BANKRUPTCY WE ARE MAKING THE EXPRESS DECLARATION REGARDING THIS PROPERTY WE NEVER OWNED BEFORE MARRIAGE AND ARE IN FACT INTENDING TO OWN THIS REAL PROPERTY AS OUR SEPARATE PROPERTY AND JOINT TENANTS AS THE RECORDED TITLE PROVIDES.” Then take that writing and record it with the county recorder’s office or have it notarized and tucked away with hope it is never needed. But then when you go to record this document after ten years an employee at a county recording office may say that the document was not notarized properly if the notary left out one word from the certificate notarizing the additional writing you created to make your intent clear. So do you now we need two writings or a writing about the writing witnessed by two disinterested parties? In today’s world possibly a video uploaded to the “cloud” of both spouses actually saying what there intent is regarding a property purchased during marriage? The point is where does it end? So how do you hold property as joint tenants if you are married when the actual recorded title is not enough to show the intent of the parties is the question?

Why Do Bankruptcy Filers We Care?

This issue arises when one spouse files for bankruptcy and the other does not. The issue for bankruptcy attorneys is whether only half the value of our client’s real property becomes property of the bankruptcy state when the title is taken as joint tenants. Half of the house is supposed to be the separate property of each spouse or half is the non-filing spouses separate property. This is a huge issue for bankruptcy filers in California and applying exemptions to protect client’s real property and obtain a discharge of their eligible debts. Community debts may only seek satisfaction from community assets.

Should I File Bankruptcy Jointly With My Spouse?

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I will give you my opinion right now and say yes, if possible. If your spouse and you do not own any separate property then please file bankruptcy jointly and receive an order of discharge with both of your names and social security numbers listed. Doing this makes it black and white to your creditors. All debts are discharged as to both spouses. If only one spouse files for bankruptcy and receives a discharge you have entered the gray as to the non-filing spouse. While bankruptcy is governed by Federal Law to determine certain asset issues the Bankruptcy Court has to look to state property marital law to determine separate property and community property.

The Community Discharge

So in a community property state only the community assets are liable for community debts. If there are no separate property assets brought into the marriage by the spouses then there is nothing other than community assets at the time of filing and then post-discharge. 11 U.S.C. § 524(a)(3). “[Section] 524(a)(3) treats the effect on the nondebtor spouse of a discharge of a debtor in a community property state when the nondebtor spouse is liable on the community claim, but has not filed a bankruptcy petition.” In re Karber, 25 B.R. 9, 12 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 1982). In summary, all actions to collect a “community claim” from section 541(a)(2) property acquired after the petition date is permanently enjoined unless timely objected to. A creditor is still free to seek collection against the non-filing spouse’s separate assets.

So What Is The Problem?

So you the issue is some of the debts are under one spouses name and social security number while some debts were incurred by the other spouse. Who files for bankruptcy then? All of the debts were incurred during their marriage too. If one spouse files for bankruptcy and receives a discharge will that discharge protect the spouse that did not file? Yes and no. This is the gray of only one spouse filing. What can a creditor do or not do to collect their debt against the non-filing spouse’s separate property? What is property of the bankruptcy estate or community assets after the spouse received a discharge? Can a judgment creditor suspend the non-filing spouses driver’s license? Is a driver’s license a community asset?

File Jointly If Possible To Avoid Confusion

As bankruptcy attorneys that have filed and been involved in thousands of b bankruptcy cases, if it is possible, we recommend spouses file jointly so that it is black and white post-discharge. Each spouse receives a discharge of all debts whether in their name and social security number or not. A creditor with a judgment can renew the judgment and then wait to collect. The entire time the judgment is also accruing interest. Also, once the judgment is renewed the total amount of the renewal will accrue interest. This accrual of interest will make the judgment increase significantly plus the cost of collection added in also. What is the judgment creditor waiting for? They are waiting for some separate property assets to be obtained by the non-filing spouse. If the non-filing spouse inherits assets from someone the inherited assets are arguably separate property of that spouse and now there are separate assets to collect from. Or the judgment creditor is waiting for the community to end via divorce or death. Once the community is terminated then the protection of the discharge of the filing spouse is also terminated.

We had a judgment creditor write us a letter once to explain their position and right to collect from the non-filing spouse. The judgment creditor argued that the community discharge pursuant to Section 524 is a “phantom discharge” since it only bars collection from community assets. Again, if there are no separate assets then how is the discharge merely a phantom discharge? If there are no separate assets then all assets are community assets and therefore protected. What procedure is there to make the determination that there are no separate assets? There really is none. If a creditor allegedly violates the order of discharge the only recourse is to seek sanctions from the bankruptcy court that signed the order of discharge. Litigating this issue will most likely cost more than what it cost to file the initial Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. No one really wants to have to deal with this after receiving a discharge and moving on. If you are married and do not file jointly this is a potential issue you will be creating by filing alone.

Prevent Possible Litigation

Again, the theme of this article is if you can file jointly then file jointly and eliminate the possibility of litigating whether a creditor is violating the order of discharge or not. It may not be possible though depending upon the circumstances. Bankruptcy attorneys have to look at all of the assets of clients and make a determination as to the best course of action. There are also circumstances in which a spouse refused to file for bankruptcy protection no matter what. The point of filing for bankruptcy is to discharge eligible debts or reorganize debts without causing additional stress or problems for the bankruptcy filer. Most bankruptcy filers do not have the means to litigate issues that sometimes arise. Like a creditor going after a non-filing spouse post-discharge. If you filed for bankruptcy protection you probably do not have thousands of dollars to litigate anything. In the event a creditor goes after a non-filing spouse and we are successful in obtaining sanctions there is no guarantee that the bankruptcy court will award attorneys’ fees and costs for seeking sanctions. It is usually a tough position to be in after the bankruptcy is long over and then a creditor decides to do some sort of collection activity against the non-filing spouse. So what then? To take this issue off the table completely and just file jointly.

How Do I Value My Stuff or Property When Filing Bankruptcy?

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Well, there really is no real good answer except do not intentionally undervalue the stuff you own. Value is in the eye of the beholder? Yes, sometimes that is true. Most of the time you just do the best you can and provide the fair market or replacement value of the asset. I do not know how much your used stapler that you bought in 1992 is worth. What about your house? The best we can do is look at comparable sales and how the market is at that moment in time. If the market is hot, like it is in San Mateo County, the listing price could be bid up by thousands of dollars. So was the house worth what it was listed for or what the house sold for?

Be Careful Filing A Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Case If The Client Owns A House

In the Bay Area and San Mateo County home prices are on the rise. So if you own a home and the value is close to what you owe be very careful filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. California has generous homestead exemptions to protect equity in primary residences, but what if there is a bidding war on the house and the price is bid up by twenty thousand dollars? Will you still be able to protect the equity and keep the house or will the house be sold out from under you in the chapter 7 bankruptcy case? The Chapter 7 Trustee assigned to the case will want to list the house for sale and let the market determine the value and see what happens. The Chapter 7 Trustee has a duty to administer the bankruptcy estate and liquidate unprotected assets for the benefit of creditors. Liquidating and disbursing funds to creditors is also how chapter 7 trustees make more money. Chapter 7 trustees get paid a percentage of the assets disbursed to creditors. So not only does the chapter 7 trustee have a duty to investigate your assets and liquidate them, but they have a financial interest in liquidating unexemptable assets also. If the chapter 7 trustee does seek to list the property for sale you can try and buyout the bankruptcy estate, oppose the listing of the property for sale or convert the case to Chapter 13 and pay the equivalent unprotected equity to creditors over 3 or 5 years to make sure you keep the home.

Do Not Intentionally Undervalue Your Assets

So after reading the preceding paragraph you may have the thought that you can just decrease the value of the asset to an amount that can be protected. Please delete that thought and never think it again. It is a dangerous game to play if you choose to manipulate the value of your assets. Just ask Jesus Bencomo. Mr. Bencomo filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code for the first time in May of 1998. No real property was listed in his first bankruptcy case. On January 16, 2013, Mr. Bencomo’s bankruptcy lawyers filed his second Chapter 7 bankruptcy case listing in Schedule A that he owned real property located in Norwalk, California. Mr. Bencomo valued the real property at $175,000 with secured debt totaling $145,879. So there is approximately $29,121 in equity to protect. After the conclusion of the 341(a) Meeting of the Creditors the duly appointed Chapter 7 Trustee Wesley Howard Avery filed a motion with the court to employ a real estate broker to list and sell Mr. Bencomo’s house.

The trustee’s motion provides the value of the Norwalk property as around $305k to $333k. Two weeks later Mr. Bencomo’s bankruptcy attorneys amended the Schedule A to list the value of the Norwalk property as $245,000 with secured debt now totaling $214,929.27. Eventually the court approved the employment of the real estate broker.

The Chapter 7 trustee also filed an adversary proceeding, lawsuit in conjunction with the main bankruptcy case, objecting under Section 727(a)(2)(A) and (a)(4)(A). Section 727(a)(4)(A) provides that the debtor’s discharge may be denied where: (1) the debtor made a false oath in connection with the bankruptcy case; (2) the oath related to a material fact; (3) the oath was made knowingly; and (4) the oath was made fraudulently. Retz v. Sampson (In re Retz), 606 F.3d 1189, 1197 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The adversary proceeding complaint alleges that Mr. Bencomo is an experienced real estate broker and therefore knew at the time of filing that the value of the Norwalk property was in the $300k range. Basically the Chapter 7 trustee is arguing Mr. Bencomo knowingly and intentionally undervalued the Norwalk property. Mr. Bencomo’s conduct in his first bankruptcy case became an issue in the second. Apparently Mr. Bencomo transferred the house out of his name, than back into his name, but failed to record the deed until 2002 and he failed to list the property in his first bankruptcy petition. Evidence of Mr. Bencomo’s prior bad conduct in the first case can be used in the second as impeachment evidence. So, the court ruled in the chapter 7 trustee’s favor and held that Mr. Bencomo knowingly made a false oath regarding the value of his house and that this is material. Mr. Bencomo was denied a discharge.

Potential Lawsuit Claims Need to be Listed When Filing Bankruptcy and Are Part of the Bankruptcy Estate

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Preparing a bankruptcy petition and filing for bankruptcy is actually a much more complicated process than most believe. Of course there are certain cases that really do not require too much work, but even those cases could have hidden landmines. One of the landmines I speak of is a bankruptcy filer’s claims or potential claims against a third party for damages (Money!!!). Most clients do not think about a potential claim as part of their assets. It is just the right to sue so . . . . . . . . The claim or potential claim could derive from an employment issue at work, slip and fall at a store or business, fraud, breach of contract or other way any of us can be hurt financially and potentially have a claim against a third party. Yes, your right to sue someone is a claim that should be listed in the bankruptcy petition schedules and could have value to be protected depending upon the circumstances. What happens if a claim is not listed in the bankruptcy petition schedules? A recent Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel case discusses the treatment of an unlisted claim when the bankruptcy filer, after discharge and the case was closed, attempts to enforce the claim by filing a lawsuit. Goldstein v. Alberta P. Stahl, Chapter 7 Trustee; Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.; Bank of America, N.A.; BAP No. CC-14-1346-TaDPa, March 3, 2015.

What are Claims?

A claim when filing for bankruptcy is defined as the right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured, or unsecured; or right to an equitable remedy for breach of performance if such breach gives rise to a right to payment, whether or not such right to an equitable remedy is reduced to judgment, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, secured, or unsecured.

So a potential claim is the potential right to payment for damages that you have not yet filed a lawsuit for and obtained a judgment is an unliquidated and most likely disputed claim. A claim no less though. Sierra Switchboard Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 789 F.2d 705, 707 (9th Cir. 1986)

Property of the Bankruptcy Estate

Section 541 of the Bankruptcy Code provides what is property of the estate. Part of the definition includes: Any interest in property that would have been property of the estate if such interest had been an interest of the debtor on the date of the filing of the petition, and that the debtor acquires or becomes entitled to acquire within 180 days after such date, by bequest, devise, or inheritance; as a result of a property settlement agreement with the debtor’s spouse, or of an interlocutory or final divorce decree; or as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy or of a death benefit plan.

As you can see this definition includes all property at the time the case is filed to be listed in the bankruptcy schedules. In the Goldstein case one of the issues was whether the right to sue their mortgage companies arose prior to the chapter 7 bankruptcy case being filed. Of course the Goldstein’s bankruptcy attorney argued the right to sue arose after the case was filed. The mortgage companies bankruptcy lawyers argued the claims arose before the chapter 7 case was filed.

Goldstein v. Alberta P. Stahl, Chapter 7 Trustee; Wells Fargo and Bank of America

Long story short the bankruptcy filer’s in this case, the Goldstein’s, applied for a loan modification prior to filing for relief under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. They fulfilled the terms of the temporary loan modification but their mortgage company never provided them a permanent loan modification. The Goldstein’s paid over $22,000 in mortgage payments in reliance upon their mortgage companies offer to modify their mortgage though. This is the claim the Goldstein’s allegedly had at the time their chapter 7 case was filed against their mortgage companies. For whatever reason the Goldstein’s did not list this claim in their bankruptcy schedules and their case was discharged and closed. The Goldstein’s then sued their mortgage companies for the mortgage payments and other causes of action. Their mortgage companies used the defense that the claim was not listed in their bankruptcy schedules so the claim was actually still property of the bankruptcy estate and could not be pursued by the Goldstein’s. The Goldstein’s then reopened their bankruptcy case to add the claim to their schedules. As part of reopening the bankruptcy case a chapter 7 trustee was appointed to the case again. The Goldstein’s mortgage companies then entered in to negotiations for the settlement of the claim with the chapter 7 trustee and sought to extend the deadline for the chapter 7 case to close again. Eventually the chapter 7 trustee filed a motion to compromise the claims or sell the claim free and clear. The Goldstein’s opposed arguing the claims did not become complete until their mortgage companies denied the permanent loan modification two weeks after the bankruptcy case was filed. Given that the claims should not be part of the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court held the alleged breach by the mortgage companies was before the bankruptcy case was filed when they failed to grant a permanent loan modification. To determine when a cause of action accrues, and therefore whether it accrued pre-bankruptcy and is an estate asset, the Court looks to state law.” Boland v. Crum (In re Brown), 363 B.R. 591, 605 (Bankr. D. Mont. 2007) Under California law a cause of action accrues upon the occurrence of the last element essential to the cause of action.” Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. v. City of La Habra, 25 Cal. 4th 809, 815 (2001) The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel upheld the bankruptcy court’s ruling that the claims are property of the estate. The panel noted that the third mortgage payment was made by the Goldstein’s prepetition and that is when they could have brought their lawsuit at that time.

Depending Upon Your Circumstances Your Tax Refund Can Be Protected When Filing for Bankruptcy

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It is that time of year again. It is time to get your income documents together and figure out how much you owe to the government or how much of a refund you will receive. If you receive a tax refund each year from the Internal Revenue Service or the Franchise Tax Board it can be protected when filing for bankruptcy whether your file a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy case.

When filing for bankruptcy protection the bankruptcy estate includes all legal or equitable interests in property. See Section 541(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code. Just because you have not received the tax refund yet does not mean it is not an asset of yours that should be listed in your bankruptcy petition in the schedule of assets, Schedule B. Whether you can protect the refund depends upon your other assets and the exemptions available to protect your assets. Exemptions protect your assets by exemption or removing your assets from the bankruptcy estate so that you can keep your assets to live life and continue to go to work and live. For example, California has a generous wild card exemption worth $26,925.00. This exemption can be applied to any combination of assets like bank account balances, tax refunds, high value household goods, vehicles or any other asset. Most state’s exemptions provide a limited amount for vehicles. If you have more than one paid in full vehicle in California you will most likely have to use some of the wild card exemption to protect both vehicles and remove them from the bankruptcy estate. So let us look at some numbers. If you have $12,000 in your bank accounts, a second vehicle that is paid in full and worth $7,500, a television worth $2,000 (just bought it on Black Friday), and an anticipated tax refund from the IRS and FTB of $5,300 you will max out the wild card exemption mentioned above. All of the assets just listed above will be exempted/protected/removed from the bankruptcy estate and you should keep all of it while still filing for bankruptcy protection. Different states have different limits to protect assets. So your state may not have as generous of exemptions. The bottom line is for your tax refund to be protected/exempted it should be listed in Schedule B and exempted by an applicable bankruptcy exemption so that you can keep the tax refund when you receive it.

Make sure you protect and keep your tax refund when filing bankruptcy.

Make sure you protect and keep your tax refund when filing bankruptcy.


In re Brittany Le’von Miller; Tax Refunds and Abandonment of Estate Property

Tax refund issues were just highlighted in a recent unpublished United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit case, Case No. AZ-13-1307-JuKiD, In re Brittany Le’von Miller. For starters the debtor in this case filed her bankruptcy petition in August 2012, on October 25, 2012 the Chapter 7 trustee filed the notice of no distribution, debtor received her discharge and the case was closed and on May 9, 2013, over six months after filing the notice of no distribution, the Chapter 7 Trustee received the debtor’s tax refund totaling $3,259.00 directly from the Internal Revenue Service.

In this case the debtor in her originally filed schedules listed her expected tax refund in Schedule B with a value of “unknown.” The Chapter 7 trustee subsequently filed their notice of no distribution and the Chapter 7 case was discharged and closed. The notice of no distribution provides some case details and it says there are no assets to distribute for the benefit of creditors in the case. After the deadline for creditors to object to the discharge of the debtor’s debts has run out the bankruptcy court will sign the order of discharge and the Chapter 7 case is closed. When the case is closed Section 554(c) says all property is abandoned to the debtor. This is what happened in this case, but then the Chapter 7 trustee received the debtor’s 2012 totaling $3,259.00 refund directly from the Internal Revenue Service. Before going further, there is a question that is unanswered and unexplained. Why did the Internal Revenue Service send the debtor’s 2012 tax refund to the Chapter 7 trustee at all?

After the Chapter 7 Trustee received the 2012 tax refund the trustee immediately tried to reopen the Chapter 7 case and revoke/withdraw the notice of no distribution of assets. The debtors bankruptcy attorney argued the tax refund was abandoned upon the closing of the bankruptcy case. The trustee argued that Section 544(d) applied or inadvertent mistake as to filing the notice of no distribution. Apparently the bankruptcy court granted the Chapter 7 trustee’s motion and the debtor appealed. For an asset to be abandoned under Section 554(c) four requirements must be met: (1) the tax refund must have been properly scheduled; and (2) not administered by the trustee; (3) debtor’s case must close; and (4) abandonment is to the debtor. See DeVore v. Marshack (In re DeVore), 223 B.R. 193, 197 (9th Cir. BAP 1998). The court also recognized in Devore that the court has discretion to modify or revoke and technical abandonment under Section 554(c).

In the this particular case the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel held that the bankruptcy court needed to make findings of fact and law that could be reviewed and not just make a ruling with no explanation as to how it was arrived at. That did not happen, so this issue was remanded back to the original bankruptcy court for further findings. Time will tell what the outcome will ultimately be.

What Could The Debtor Have Done Differently?

The debtor arguably could have listed an estimated value of the tax refund. Would this have prevented the resulting problems from arising? Who knows, but at least the Chapter 7 trustee would have had a number to work with and evaluate the if creditors could be benefited. The debtor’s filed Schedule C clearly provided only 60% of her expected 2012 tax refund could be protected.

What Could The Chapter 7 Trustee Have Done Differently?

The Chapter 7 Trustee could have continued the 341 meeting of the creditors for the debtor to amend the Schedule B and actually list a value of the expected 2012 tax refund. It is unclear whether the Chapter 7 trustee questioned the debtor at the 341 meeting of the creditors as to potential value of the expected 2012 tax refund. Also, the Chapter 7 trustee could have not filed the notice of no distribution and held the case open until the amount of the 2012 tax refund was known and certain.

Possible Benefit to Creditors of the Bankruptcy Estate?

For some additional perspective, the amount of the 2012 tax refund that is not protected and available to administer by the Chapter 7 trustee is a total of $1,303.60 (40% of the 2012 refund totaling $3,259.00), of which the Chapter 7 trustee is entitled to $325.90 (25% of the $1,303.60, of the unprotected assets to be distributed for the benefit of the debtor’s creditors). So without deducting additional administrative costs, like postage for example, the debtor’s creditors in this Chapter 7 case could potentially share a pro-rata distribution of around $977.70. That is if the bankruptcy court allows the case to be reopened and the revoking of the Chapter 7 trustee’s notice of no distribution. Time will tell.

Assets of the Bankruptcy Estate and Preservation or Use While the Case is Open

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When filing for bankruptcy protection all assets must be listed the bankruptcy petition schedules. This includes the amount of money the filer has in their bank accounts at the time the bankruptcy petition is filed. What if the bankruptcy filer wrote checks for their mortgage, car payment and cell phone before the bankruptcy petition was filed and the checks did not clear the bank account at the time the bankruptcy petition was filed? Does the amount listed in Schedule B for the balance of the bank accounts need to include the amount of the checks written but not cleared?

The answer is the amount listed in Schedule B should be the balance of the bank accounts at the time of filing. That is it. No deduction should be made for checks written but not cleared. In the Northern District of California many Chapter 7 trustees request bankruptcy attorneys provide their clients bank account statements that include the date the case was filed. The bankruptcy code does not specifically require this information be provided to the trustee, but there is a duty to cooperate with the trustee and they could easily obtain this information in a Fed. R. Bankr. P. 2004 examination. If the balance at the time of filing is significantly different in the bank account statement then what is listed in Schedule B you will have a problem. If there is no remaining exemption to protect the difference the trustee can request turnover of the unprotected funds.

What took place in a recently published 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case touches on this issue and whether a debtor must turnover property of the estate that is in their possession only at the time the motion for turnover is filed. Not what is originally listed in their bankruptcy schedules at the time the petition was filed. Please see, D.C. No. 2:10-cv-11726-ECR-GWF. In the Henson bankruptcy case, Ms. Henson had about $6,300 in her bank accounts at the time the case was filed with about $800 being protected by the applicable bankruptcy exemptions. So about $5,500 was not exempt and part of the bankruptcy estate for the benefit of creditors. Ms. Henson wrote a number of checks prior the petition being filed and transferred $3,239 to her bankruptcy lawyers account. Trustee Shapiro therefore filed a motion for Henson and her attorney to turnover the unexempt funds. At the time trustee Shapiro filed the motion for Henson to turnover the money she no longer had possessed it.

Assets of the Bankruptcy Estate and Preservation or Use While the Case is Open

Assets of the Bankruptcy Estate and Preservation or Use While the Case is Open

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a trustee’s turnover power pursuant to the plain language of Section 542(a) of the Bankruptcy Code is not restricted to property of the estate at the time the motion for turnover is filed. Section 542(a) provides that, “An entity . . . in possession, custody, or control, during the case, of property of the estate, or exempt property, shall deliver to the trustee, and account for, such property or the value of such property, unless such property is of inconsequential value or benefit to the estate.” During the case means the entire case and the statute states a trustee can seek turnover from a party that has or had possession of the asset. That is really pretty broad language. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals continues by pointing out Section 542(a) also provides the trustee can request turnover of the value of such property. So the party that is being asked to turnover the property does not necessarily have to be in possession of the property any longer. The 8th Circuit does require that a party being requested to turnover property of the estate must have possession, custody, or control of the property at the time the motion for turnover is filed. This issue may go Supreme Court of the United States given this split in application of Section 542(a). For now, if a debtor is in possession of assets of the bankruptcy estate that are not exempt, then the debtor should probably take care to preserve those assets until the case is closed or the court enters an order compelling the trustee to abandon all assets of the bankruptcy estate.

Assets and Bankruptcy

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There is a lot of confusion about assets and bankruptcy. Believe it or not most people that choose to file for bankruptcy protection keep all of their stuff. They even keep their house and cars. California has generous exemptions that protect the stuff you own and allow you to keep it. If filing bankruptcy left you barefoot and without a car how can you start over?

Houses and Bankruptcy

If you own a home and are current on the payments you can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and get rid of all your unsecured debts like credit cards, personal loans or medical debts. This is assuming you qualify to file a Chapter 7 case based upon your income, expenses and assets. What if your house has some equity? This means the house is worth more than what you owe. California allows you to protect up to $75,000 in equity if singe and $100,000 if married. If you are disabled or older than 65 years old you can keep $175,000 of the equity. You also need to include the cost of sale of the house and if there are any capital gains taxes you will have to pay when selling the house. So if the amount of your first mortgage, plus the applicable exemption, plus the cost of sale and plus any capital gains tax is the same or more than your house is worth there is no value to the bankruptcy estate or your creditors. You keep the house. Make sure you speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney in your area. Especially since home values are increasing in most California communities. If you are behind on your mortgage payments then you need to take a look at filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case to save your home.

Cars and Bankruptcy

If your car or cars are paid in full whether we can protect the vehicles depends upon their value. California just increased the vehicle exemption amount to $5,100 to be applied to one car. California also has the wildcard exemption which totals $26,425. So in theory you could have two or more vehicles worth a total of $31,525 and still keep them. Keep in mind if you are still making payments you need to deduct the amount you still owe on the loan from the value to figure out how much your vehicle is worth. If you do have payments still you just need to keep them current. If you are behind on your car payments or want to lower your monthly car payment you should look into filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. Speak with a bankruptcy lawyer in your area about how Chapter 13 can lower your vehicle loan amount and percentage rate.

Your Other Stuff

For the most part all of your used household goods are not worth much. Once you purchase most things the value decreases rapidly. The exception is jewelry and other collectibles. You may need to have your jewelry appraised to make sure it can be protected. The jewelry exemption under the California 703 exemptions is $1,525 and under the 704 exemptions $7,625.