Once in a while, I represent debtors who own a multi-family properties. In the past, the local Rochester rule has been to allocate the homestead exemption solely to the portion of the property that is used as the debtor’s residence.
However, in In re McCarthy; W.D.N.Y. Bk #11-31499, Syracuse Bankruptcy Court Judge Margaret Cangilos-Ruiz has ruled that a bankruptcy debtor can claim a homestead exemption in Chapter 7 bankruptcy on an entire parcel or residential property, even if the debtor only resides in part of the property. In McCarthy, the debtor owned property containing a two family house, both units of which were rented out, and a smaller building in the back where the debtor both worked and lived. The creditor argued that the homestead exemption should only be allocated to that portion of the lot that is used as the debtor’s residence. The court ruled that the debtor could exempt the entire parcel.
McCarthy in part relied upon an earlier decision of Judge Cangilos-Ruiz, In re Ford, 415 B.R. 51 (Bankr. W.D.N.Y. 2009), aff’d. on appeal, Cmty. Bank, N.A., v. Ford, Civil Case No. 5:09-cv-633 (GLS) (N.D.N.Y Dec. 4, 2009). In Ford, the debtor lived on one parcel, an the septic and well water for the homestead parcel came from an adjoining vacant parcel. The parcel with the residence also included two sheds used by the debtor for both personal and commercial purposes. The court allowed the debtor to apply the homestead exemption to the vacant land parcel as well as the property with the residence.
The McCarthy decision also relied on a decision of Western District of New York Bankruptcy Judge Michael J. Kaplan, In re Rupp, 415 Br.R. 72 (Bankr. W.D.N.Y. 2008). In Rupp, Judge Kaplan allowed the owner of a two family residence to exempt the entire parcel as a homestead.
McCarthy decision did not address an unpublished 1992 decision of the Hon. Michael A. Telesca, District Court Judge for the Western District of New York in Randall v. Mastowski, CIV-92-6049T. Mastowski was an appeal of a decision by former Rochester Bankruptcy Judge, Hon. Edward D. Hayes, In re Mastowski, 135 B.R. 1 (Bankr. W.D.N.Y. 1992). The debtor in that case owned two double houses, and only lived in one of the four units. Judge Telesca held that the debtor could only claim a homestead exemption “on that part of the property . . . that she occupies as her primary residence.”
In Rupp, Judge Kaplan acknowledged the Mastowski district court decision, but held that “the binding effect of the decision of a district judge of this district upon all bankruptcy judges of this district depends on whether the district judge published the decision.”
Whether the McCarthy decision will be followed in Rochester by Judge Paul R. Warren is not quite clear at this time. This issue has not been extensively litigated in the recent years perhaps because New York’s homestead exemption was so limited. Since the homestead exemption has been increased to $75,000 in Western New York, and up to $150,000 elsewhere in the state, I anticipate more litigation involving homestead exemption claims for multi-family properties in the foreseeable future.
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