Kentucky Bankruptcy Law

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Where Science Fiction and Bankruptcy Meet: The time traveling statute

When one files a bankruptcy, an estate is created. Essentially, everything the person filing (the debtor) owns goes into that estate so that at that moment, the moment of filing, they owe nothing and they own nothing. Now, certain debts cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy so it is not entirely accurate to say the debtor “owes nothing”. And, in fact, the discharge does not happen until the end of the process. Also, it is not entirely accurate to say one “owns nothing”.

It is true that an estate (basically a legal fiction – something that only exists as a matter of law) is created and nearly all the debtor’s possessions go into it. However, there are exemptions available (either state law exemptions or federal exemptions depending on your state of residences and some timing issues if you’ve moved – see this site for details by Attorney Max Garner). These exemptions allow you to retain property through the bankruptcy process.

This post is actually about an oddity in the law where there are certain assets that the debtor actually does not possess at the moment of filing that, nevertheless, become part of the estate. This provision is like legal time travel and causes an asset that was non-existent at filing to be sucked back into the bankruptcy as if it did exist. I am talking about 11 U.S.C. 541(a)(5). There are three assets that time travel from the future back to the filing date of the bankruptcy: 1) an inheritance, 2) assets from a property settlement subject to a divorce action, and 3) life insurance proceeds.

There is a limit to the time traveling capabilities of Section 541, and that limit is within 180 days. Some folks may be tempted to skirt around this tricky statute by avoiding actually receiving the asset until 181 days have passed, but the statute has thought of that in advance, as all time travelers should. The provision says “entitled to receive” rather than just receive. So, if your soon to be ex-spouse dies AFTER the settlement agreement is reached in the divorce that has not been finalized AND has not changed his or her life insurance beneficiary designation NOR changed his or her will AND it is only 179 days after you filed your bankruptcy, then you best contact your lawyer. Hopefully, you will have enough exemptions left to cover it all.

Now, you are astute and noticed that I said 181 days is safe and 179 days is not safe, but what if they die exactly on the 180th day? Well, that is where lawyers make their money – arguing over the definition of a single word: “within”. Does “within” include the day it references or refer to the day up until that day. Hmmm, I suppose I should research that.

It is also worth mentioning, because I am certain someone has wondered, “Well what if I just don’t mention the asset I became entitled too within 180 days?” (as if anyone thinks that way). There is a duty created by Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 1007(1) to update your schedules (where assets and other stuff is reported) if your circumstances change. Failure to do so could have worse results than just losing a few assets.

January 16, 2012 Posted by | Bankruptcy, Chapter 13, Chapter 7, Exemptions, The estate | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment