Homestead Exemption and Married Spouses

It is not uncommon for one spouse to seek bankruptcy relief under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code in a situation where title to the real property is held in both parties’ names. Generally, under such circumstances, the debtor typically claims a half interest in the property. Thus, the homestead exemption, under either New York law or federal bankruptcy exemptions, would be used to protect that interest. This creates an interesting legal issue  since under New York’s Real Property Law both spouses hold an undivided interest in the entirety of the property. If so, does the homestead exemption have to protect all of the equity in the property? 

In In re Naples, W.D.N.Y. Bk #14-10264, the bankruptcy trustee made precisely that argument. The trustee argued that since only one of the spouses had filed bankruptcy, and since the property was held by the parties as tenants by the entirety, creating undivided interest in each spouse, the debtor did not have sufficient homestead exemption to protect his equity in the property. The bankruptcy court disagreed. It held that under those circumstances, for purposes of valuing the debtor’s interest in the property, only one half interest needs to be valued and homestead exemption would be applied only to that half interest. The court reasoned that since the way the title is held creates limitations on each spouses to transfer title without consent of the other spouse, for the bankruptcy court’s valuation, only one half interest needs to be valued.

I think that this is a well thought-out result. If both spouses were filing for bankruptcy, each spouse would be able to apply their own exemption to any equity in the property, so if only one spouse files, that spouse should only need to protect that spouse’s half interest.

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.

Homestead Exemption and Multi-Family Residences in New York

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.

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.

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.