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A Fresh Start: The Bankruptcy Estate in Chapter 7

Most individuals who file for bankruptcy do so under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. Chapter 13 can be very powerful when a person falls behind in payments on secured loans, such as mortgages or car loans, because it permits you to set up a plan up to five years in length to pay off those missed payments. However, you still need enough income for your necessary expenses, which include current payments of the debts on which you had fallen behind and are included in the Chapter 13 plan. Meanwhile, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy generally focuses on discharging debts that are not secured by any specific property, with a goal of giving you a “fresh” start by getting rid of these debts while keeping as much property as possible. The process of defining what is in your “bankruptcy estate” is crucial in Chapter 7. A brief look at how this means follows.

A fresh start can have no beginning if you are not honest about what you own. All of your property must be disclosed, with exemptions (with amounts and categories defined by the bankruptcy laws) applied to as much of this property as possible. Any property that can’t be exempted or isn’t excluded by law becomes part of the bankruptcy estate, which a bankruptcy “trustee” controls until the bankruptcy ends.

A major part of the trustee’s job is to sell as much of the bankruptcy  estate as possible in order to pay off as much of your debt as possible. Due to the ability to exempt certain amounts of various categories of property, hiding property is not the answer to protecting what you own in order to have an opportunity to make a fresh start after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If and when hidden assets are discovered, this property will end up in the bankruptcy estate, and you may face more serious consequences that can include the loss of the property to creditors, the denial of a discharge of your debts, or even criminal penalties.

As you prepare to file under Chapter 7, you begin the process of defining the bankruptcy estate. This starts with making an inventory of all of the things that you own – this means that you have to list everything to which you have some ownership right. Some property that you receive after filing also would have to be included once a right to it exists. For example, property that you inherit within 180 days after filing must be listed in the appropriate schedule.

After an thorough inventory has been completed, you will have an idea of what might be in your bankruptcy estate. To further define your bankruptcy estate, you need to place realistic values on your ownership rights in this property. Sometimes, this may not be possible due to the type of property involved. A good example of this problem is a potential lawsuit that you might be able to bring against another party because you need to consider what the potential award would be if you win, the likelihood of success (which impacts the value of the estimated award), and even the likely ability to collect any judgment that you might be awarded (because a judgment that can’t be collected won’t have much value). In a situation like this, your best approach may be to describe what your cause of action in the lawsuit would be and list its value as “unknown” when you file.

You usually will be able to place a reasonable value on your property, though. This can seem difficult, but an experienced attorney can help you as you work through the list of property that will comprise your bankruptcy estate, unless the property is exempted or, possibly, excluded by law. However, before you can exempt property, you have to make a good-faith effort to value so you can use the exemptions, which are capped at certain dollar amounts.

Individuals often have trouble with this. Sometimes, they may tend to overvalue some property — for example, many things do not retain much value once they have been used. Clothing and furniture fall into this category, but people often tend to value these items closer to the prices at which they were purchased. One approach to start this process is to consider what you might ask for, and be able to get, for something at a garage sale or on eBay. There also are resources that can be used to value an older car while a house may need to be appraised in order to satisfy a trustee and the court. Once you have an inventory of property in which you have rights and have made a good-faith effort at valuing it, you are at the point in which your actual bankruptcy estate will be defined.

First, you look for property is not part of the bankruptcy estate. An ERISA-qualified pension, by statutory definition, never is part of the estate. Next, you consider possible exemptions, which could be state or federal exemptions in Pennsylvania (with the choice depending on which protects your property to a greater extent). This step essentially removes some property from a bankruptcy estate, depending on the property’s value and the amount of the exemption available. For instance, a vehicle with a market value of less than $3675 currently could be exempted from the bankruptcy estate so the trustee handling your property cannot touch it. It should be noted that federal exemptions are adjusted every 3 years — the next adjustment would occur on April 1, 2016.

Eventually, as you move through the steps in this process, what remains is the property that makes up the bankruptcy estate. In many cases, all property will be exempted – this is a “no asset” bankruptcy in which a trustee has no assets to administer to pay any of your debts; in these situations, there basically is no bankruptcy estate. You also could have a “nominal asset” case in which the bankruptcy estate’s value, at best, is little more than the cost of trustee’s administration of it; you may be able to get the trustee to abandon the property that remains because it can be seen as more trouble to sell it than it is worth. If abandoned, the property would return to you.

On the other hand, if your bankruptcy estate has assets that have more than a nominal value, you might be able to pay the value of the bankruptcy estate to the trustee in order to keep your property or the trustee may sell these items to third parties. In either situation, the trustee would use the proceeds to make payments to your creditors.

In the end, this is why the bankruptcy estate in Chapter 7 is of such importance. You want to retain as much property as possible in order to get a fresh start after going through bankruptcy. This requires that, prior to filing, you to pay attention to property that might be lost if it would be turned over to a trustee as part of your bankruptcy estate.