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Friday, January 10, 2014

When Considering Filing Bankruptcy Should I Use My Retirement Funds to Pay My Debts Instead?

        I heard it again from a prospective bankruptcy client that he cleaned out his retirement funds to pay his high medical bills despite having been just laid off from his job. He still has $40,000 in other debts and needs to file bankruptcy. When he comes in for his consultation next week I will have to tell him the disheartening news that he could have kept his retirement funds and included his medical bills in his Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. 401ks, 403bs, IRAs and similar retirement plans are all exempt assets which Debtors can keep and the bankruptcy trustee cannot seize these funds for the benefit of creditors. The laudable public policy decision behind this exemption is that debtors should not be stripped of their retirement savings when filing bankruptcy. If debtors were to lose their retirement savings by filing bankruptcy the whole idea of a fresh start would be defeated since they would be left with nothing to fall back on during their retirement years. So I cannot stress enough to anyone with debt problems please consult with a bankruptcy attorney before using retirement funds to pay debt. Not only may Chapter 7 Bankruptcy be the answer, but in addition to depleting your retirement funds by paying delinquent bills you will also incur the income tax liability for redeeming these funds prior to your retirement age.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Can I Keep My Car if I File Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Connecticut?

                   Most of my Chapter 7 Bankruptcy clients own a car and one of the first questions they ask me is can they keep their car if they file bankruptcy.  In most cases the answer is yes whether they own their vehicles outright or they are secured by auto loans. Debtors in Connecticut are entitled to use either the Federal or Connecticut asset exemptions in Connecticut.  The Federal exemptions under the Bankruptcy Code which are the most common exemptions my clients use provide a motor vehicle exemption up to $3,675 of the car’s value which by itself may appear to pose a problem to some debtors who own their vehicles outright. This problem of excess value above the $3,675 figure is usually solved by application of the "wild card" exemption which provides an additional $1,225 plus up to $11,500 of the unused portion of the $22,975.00 federal homestead exemption. This automatically means that for all renters they have $16,400.00 to apply to their vehicle(s) and bank accounts with their household items, jewelry and retirement assets(if any) covered by other asset exemptions. Most homeowners who consult with me to file bankruptcy either have no or so little equity in their homes that there are sufficient exemptions available to them to allow them to keep their cars as well.

For those clients with car loans most vehicles are under secured and no exemptions are needed and if there is some equity there are more than enough exemptions to cover same. In most cases this holds true whether they rent or own their homes. For individual homeowners with equity in excess of $22,975 or joint homeowners in excess of $45,950 who wish to retain their homes they have to use the Connecticut exemptions which provides an exemption up to $75,000 for the equity in their homes. Unfortunately the motor vehicle exemption is only $3,500 with a wild card exemption of only $1,000. They are instances when faced with this situation and a client who owns a car with a value in excess of the $3,500 to $4,500 filing bankruptcy puts the car's equity at risk. When it's close I have had clients file and negotiate a buy out of the difference above the exemption with the trustee. With cars that have more significant value this may not be an option.
The second issue concerning the retention of your motor vehicle has to do with the reaffirmation of auto loans. In 2005 the Bankruptcy Code was amended in an attempt to remove what is known as the "ride through" or "retain and pay" option with regard to car loans in bankruptcy. Per the amended code your options were limited to surrendering  your vehicle or retaining via redemption(payoff) or reaffirmation as listed on a form entitled "Statement of Intention" to be filed with the court for service on your creditors with your Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. I have yet to meet with a bankruptcy client who is in a position to redeem their vehicle. For those who want to retain their vehicles the issue of reaffirmation usually must be addressed. In simple terms when a reaffirmation agreement is signed by the debtor and lender it is filed with court and the auto loan debt is not discharged by the bankruptcy and is paid and reported on debtor's credit report as if no bankruptcy were filed. For auto loans other than those from credit unions the reaffirmation agreement form requires that the debtor's attorney to sign off that the reaffirmation agreement does not impose an undue hardship on the debtor. In most cases this is not possible due to the fact the secured debt exceeds the value of the vehicle and/or the debtors' current income and expenses. In recognition of this dilemma the Connecticut legislature in 2009 came to the rescue with a revision of CGS section 36a-785 clearly stating the filing of a Chapter 7 by itself does not constitute a default of an auto loan allowing a lender to repossess a secured vehicle. The practical effect of this revision was to take the teeth out of the 2005 code amendment and allow for the continuance of the “retain and pay” option without reaffirmation of car loans in Connecticut. This fact seems to have been acknowledged by all auto lenders who have been educated about this state statute by the bankruptcy attorneys in this state. Therefore, in practically all my cases my clients keep their cars with the debts discharged and have the option to continue to pay their car loans and keep their cars. If their loans become too difficult to pay in the future or their cars break down they can stop paying and let the lender take back their cars without any liability for the loan balance due. At this point this post is already longer than I intended and I will leave the issue of leased cars in bankruptcy which is less cut and dry for a future post to my blog.