Property You Can Protect When You File for Bankruptcy (Interview Part 2 of 3)

Retirement accounts are exempt from creditors when filing for bankruptcy, but an inherited IRA is not. A recent ruling extending the time to cure arrearage might help you save your house after a tax sale.

Editor: We recently discussed the changes in the bankruptcy laws with Christopher Holmes, Jess M. Smith, III, partners at Tom Scott & Associates, P.C., along with associate attorney Andrew DeYoung. Below is Part 2 of 3 of the transcript of the conversation.

Q: Can you mention some of the things you can protect and some that you cannot protect when filing for bankruptcy?

Chris Holmes: Real estate. If it is your residence, you can protect up to $19,300 of equity. If it’s a joint filing and the property is owned jointly by a husband and wife, they can protect up to $38,600. Sometimes, when only one of them files, the property owned by a husband and wife is totally off limits to the creditors. That comes in handy sometimes.

Q: Based on cases you’ve dealt with, what are examples of the types of property people will include in their bankruptcy filing?

Jess Smith, III: The cash value of life insurance polices.

Andrew DeYoung: 401k accounts. IRA accounts. It can be as general as the clothing on your back. It’s what the exemptions apply to.

CH: But inherited IRAs are not exempt.

JS: It’s complicated and that’s why you should consult with an attorney.

CH: In general, retirement accounts—IRAs, 401Ks, defined benefit pension plans—are exempt, off-limits, no matter how much money is in there. But there was a recent decision where someone inherited a person’s IRA. The person who had the IRA died; someone inherited the IRA. The person who died could have protected that in its entirety from his or her creditors, but when it was inherited by the recipient—the debtor— it wasn’t off-limits to the creditors. It became subject to being taken and liquidated for the benefit of the debtor’s creditors.

Q: Was this decision a case you worked on or a precedent-setting case?

CH: It was a precedent-setting case in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013, Clark (debtor) v. Rameker (trustee), in which a decision was made by the judges that an inherited IRA is not exempt in certain circumstances. (ed., The Supreme Court affirmed this decision by unanimous vote in 2014: Funds held in inherited Individual Retirement Accounts are not “retirement funds” within the meaning of 11 U.S.C. §522(b)(3)(c) and therefore not exempt from the bankruptcy estate.)

JS: And there was the case of someone buying a new car on the eve of bankruptcy to protect the lien, or affecting the lien. If the creditor does not affect the lien on the title, sometimes the trustee can take the car itself.

CH: Right. I recently had a case where right before the people came in to sign the paperwork, just two days before, they went out and bought two cars. So I had to change the paperwork and their list of creditors, but then the problem was that we had to know for certain that the creditor had put their lien on the title to each vehicle—and they had to do that within 30 days of whenever the people got the car. Otherwise, in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or even in a Chapter 13, the trustee could void the lien, take the car and liquidate it. Unless we did something else to prevent that, we would have to wait 91 days from the transfer of the title to file the bankruptcy. Otherwise, it creates what’s called a “preferential transfer.” With that situation, a trustee could set aside that preferential transfer and try to confiscate and liquidate that car.

There is another recent precedent-setting case that has changed in bankruptcy law. Previously, when a house had been sold by the county treasurer for delinquent taxes, the debtor had one year to redeem the property—pay the taxes plus a rate of interest—to keep the house from going to the tax sale purchaser. In the bad old days, we would have to tell people, "You’ve got to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy before the tax sale to get the benefit of the three- to five-year Chapter 13 plan, to cure that real estate tax arrearage and save the house. If the tax sale had occurred, we couldn’t use a Chapter 13 plan to give them three to five years to cure that problem. They still had this one-year statutory redemption period, but luckily one of our judges, Judge Carr, ruled that you can now use a Chapter 13 plan after the tax sale has taken place to force everyone to back off for three to five years, to give that debtor ample time to cure that arrearage. So that is a new development we can use to save houses after tax sales.

Part 1 of Interview: What’s New in Bankruptcy Law in Indiana

Part 3 of Interview: Accruing Post-Petition Interest on Unpaid Federal Taxes


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*Disclosure required by 11 U.S.C. § 528(a)(3): We, the law office of Tom Scott & Associates, P.C., are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code.