Bankruptcy Planning, Debt and 401(k)

Once in a while, I hear from debtors who tells me that they expended all or nearly all of their retirement savings trying to avoid bankruptcy.  Unfortunately, if you spend your retirement funds trying to avoid bankruptcy, you cannot get it back.  If, ultimately, the use of those retirement funds was insufficient to avoid bankruptcy, that money was simply wasted if the debtor still needs to file either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

As I have written previously, 401(k) and most other retirement plans are exempt in bankruptcy. What that means is that if the debtor engaged in some bankruptcy planning and filed bankruptcy before withdrawing retirement funds, the debtor would be able to keep those retirement funds and discharge his or her debts.

I understand why debtors spend their retirement money on debts that would otherwise be dischargeable in bankruptcy. Usually, they want to repay their debts and they will employ any available means to do so. While most debtors are aware of bankruptcy as an option, most debtors try to avoid it.

Since bankruptcy gives you a chance to discharge your debt and protect the assets such as retirement funds, it may be foolish to spend all of your retirement money, and I advise debtors to explore their options before making these decisions.  The most important question that the debtors should ask and answer is whether their necessary and reasonable living expenses and debt payments exceed their take home income on a regular basis. If so, is this going to change because of increased income or decreased expenses in the foreseeable future?

If the debtor is left with a permanent deficit and does not expect it to change, then it does not make sense to withdraw retirement funds to continue to pay down that deficit until there is no retirement money left. The bankruptcy system, both New York and federal exemptions, protects your retirement funds.

If you are contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, New York, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Should 401k Loans Be Used to Avoid Bankruptcy?

Once in a while I am asked whether 401k loans should be used to pay off credit card debt and, therefore, avoid bankruptcy. In my opinion, it is a bad idea.

Filing for bankruptcy under either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, is a difficult decision, and most of the time debtors will try to do just about anything to avoid filing. However, if you earn $50,000 in gross income, and you are $50,000 in debt, because of interest and other carrying costs, it is unlikely that you will be able to pay off that debt within a reasonable period of time. Thus, a debtor may think that whatever money he has in his 401k will save him from having to file bankruptcy. Unfortunately, for most people, this is unlikely to come true.

Initially, if 401k loan is used to pay off credit card debts, there is now a significant debt owed to the 401k plan. Usually, 401k loans carry lower interest rates than credit cards. However, while having a lower interest rate, 401k loans have to be paid back over a shorter period of time.

If a loan is taken out and not repaid, it is treated as income, and debtor will incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty since it is a distribution from a tax-deferred plan, and also will have to pay income taxes on the unpaid amount.  Unpaid amount of the loan is treated as additional income, and it is likely to increase debtor’s income tax rates as well.

If you quit working or change employers, the loan must be paid back right away. It’s not uncommon for plans to require full repayment of a loan within 60 days of termination of employment. If you can’t repay the loan, it is considered defaulted, and you will be taxed on the outstanding balance, including an early withdrawal penalty if you are not at least age 59 ½.

However, if the debtor decides to file bankruptcy, under either Federal exemptions or New York exemptions, 401k is completely exempt. If you file for bankruptcy, the credit card debt will be gone, and you will be able to retain the money in your 401k plan.

If you are contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Tax Refunds and Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

It is that time of the year again. Starting in the beginning of the year and until April 15, debtors are filing their federal and New York State income tax returns.  For those debtors who are thinking about filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, it is usually a good idea to receive and use their income tax refunds prior to filing for bankruptcy. For those debtors who filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy during the past year, it maybe the time to provide copies of their income tax returns to the bankruptcy trustee.

Debtors who filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy usually learn during their meeting of the creditors whether the bankruptcy trustee will want to see their income tax returns for the past year. The reason that the bankruptcy trustee will want to see the income returns because it will allow him to figure out what portion of the income tax refunds, if any, is the property of the bankruptcy estate.

Tax refunds are probably the largest single type of asset which debtors lose in bankruptcy.   In New York, the tax refund may protected by your cash exemption up to $2,500, if the bankruptcy was filed prior to January 24, 2011, and up to $6,000, if Chapter 7 Bankruptcy was filed after January 24, 2011, and if you are not claiming a homestead exemption.

The trustees’ goal is to see whether or not  a portion of the income tax refund can be pro rated from the beginning of the year to the date of filing bankruptcy. If this prorated portion of the income tax refund is large enough, the trustee may make a demand that a portion fo the refund be turned over to the trustee. If only one spouse is filing for bankruptcy, and they file a joint tax return, Rochester Chapter 7 trustees usually take position that one half of the refund belongs to the trustee, subject to the applicable exemption.

It is important to disclose the tax refund to your lawyer and the bankruptcy trustee, since a bankruptcy trustee can simply write to the Internal Revenue Service and have it send the tax refund directly to the trustee, and a deliberate failure to disclose information can be a basis for a denial of discharge. Some of the Rochester bankruptcy trustees will ask debtors to sign a stipulation at the meeting of the creditors, requiring the debtors to provide copies of their income tax returns as well as a portion or all of the income tax refunds to the trustee. If debtors fail to do so, their bankruptcy discharge may be revoked.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Under the New Law, Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions Are Available In New York

As I have written previously, the new exemption law permits New York residents to choose between the New York exemption statutes and the Federal Exemption that are set forth in Section 522(d) of the Bankruptcy Code.

The federal exemptions have never been available to debtors filing Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in New York before because New York chose to opt out of the federal exemptions statute in the past.

The federal exemptions have different provisions that may be more favorable for individual debtors than New York’s statutory exemptions. They may allow debtors and their bankruptcy attorneys to protect certain assets that may not be available under New York’s statutory exemptions, provided that debtors do not need to take advantage of their homestead exemption.

The federal exemptions contain a “wild card” exemption that enables consumers to protect a substantial amount of cash, well in excess of New York’s statutory limit.

Specifically, the federal exemptions are as follows:

(1) The debtor’s aggregate interest, not to exceed $21,625 in value, in real property or personal property that the debtor or a dependent of the debtor uses as a residence, in a cooperative that owns property that the debtor or a dependent of the debtor uses as a residence, or in a burial plot for the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.

(2) The debtor’s interest, not to exceed $3,450 in value, in one motor vehicle.

(3) The debtor’s interest, not to exceed $550 in value in any particular item or $11,525 in aggregate value, in household furnishings, household goods, wearing apparel, appliances, books, animals, crops, or musical instruments, that are held primarily for the personal, family, or household use of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.

(4) The debtor’s aggregate interest, not to exceed $1,450 in value, in jewelry held primarily for the personal, family, or household use of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.

(5) The debtor’s aggregate interest in any property, not to exceed in value $1,150 plus up to $10,825 of any unused amount of the exemption provided under paragraph (1) of this subsection.

(6) The debtor’s aggregate interest, not to exceed $2,175 in value, in any implements, professional books, or tools, of the trade of the debtor or the trade of a dependent of the debtor.

(7) Any unmatured life insurance contract owned by the debtor, other than a credit life insurance contract.

(8) The debtor’s aggregate interest, not to exceed in value $11,525 less any amount of property of the estate transferred in the manner specified in section 542(d) of this title, in any accrued dividend or interest under, or loan value of, any unmatured life insurance contract owned by the debtor under which the insured is the debtor or an individual of whom the debtor is a dependent.

(9) Professionally prescribed health aids for the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.

(10) The debtor’s right to receive–

(A) a social security benefit, unemployment compensation, or a local public assistance benefit;

(B) a veterans’ benefit;

(C) a disability, illness, or unemployment benefit;

(D) alimony, support, or separate maintenance, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent of the debtor;

(E) a payment under a stock bonus, pension, profitsharing, annuity, or similar plan or contract on account of illness, disability, death, age, or length of service, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent of the debtor, unless–

(i) such plan or contract was established by or under the auspices of an insider that employed the debtor at the time the debtor’s rights under such plan or contract arose;

(ii) such payment is on account of age or length of service; and

(iii) such plan or contract does not qualify under section 401(a), 403(a), 403(b), or 408 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.

(11) The debtor’s right to receive, or property that is traceable to–

(A) an award under a crime victim’s reparation law;

(B) a payment on account of the wrongful death of an individual of whom the debtor was a dependent, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent of the debtor;

(C) a payment under a life insurance contract that insured the life of an individual of whom the debtor was a dependent on the date of such individual’s death, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent of the debtor;

(D) a payment, not to exceed $21,625, on account of personal bodily injury, not including pain and suffering or compensation for actual pecuniary loss, of the debtor or an individual of whom the debtor is a dependent; or

(E) a payment in compensation of loss of future earnings of the debtor or an individual of whom the debtor is or was a dependent, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent of the debtor.

(12) Retirement funds to the extent that those funds are in a fund or account that is exempt from taxation under section 401, 403, 408, 408A, 414, 457, or 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.

Here is an example of how a typical debtor may benefit from using Federal exemptions. If debtor owns a motor vehicle that has $6,000.00 in equity, under the New York exemptions, debtor can only protect $4,000.00 of that equity (plus the New York wildcard exemption, if available). However, if debtor uses the Federal Exemptions, debtor can COMBINE the wildcard exemption with the standard Federal auto exemption of $3,450.00, and use an additional $2,550.00 of the wildcard exemption to protect the remaining equity in that vehicle. As long as debtors do not need to use homestead exemption in excess of the Federal Homestead Exemption of $21,625.00, debtors are likely to benefit from the Federal Exemptions.

If you are contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, New York, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.