If you moved to your present state less than two years ago, when you file bankruptcy can affect how much of your property is protected.
Even though bankruptcy is a federal procedure, the state where you are “domiciled” can greatly affect how much of your property you can protect in bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, this can determine whether you have to surrender any of your property to the bankruptcy trustee. In a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case, this can determine how much you need to pay to your creditors during your payment plan.
Property Exemptions Can Be Very Different State to State
The property exemption laws of one state can be radically different from those of another state, even if that state is right next door.
Take the example of the exemptions available to a person who lives in Mobile, on the southern tip of Alabama, and those available to someone who lives an hour drive to the east in Pensacola, on the Florida Panhandle.
First one similarity: both Alabama and Florida, like a majority of the states, require their residents to use their state property exemptions instead of a federal set of exemptions in the Bankruptcy Code. So a long-time resident of Mobile must use the Alabama exemptions in her bankruptcy filing, while a long-time resident of Pensacola must use the Florida exemptions.
These two states’ homestead exemptions—the amount of value in your home that you can protect from creditors—are a stark example how exemptions can be radically different. Alabama has one of the least generous homestead exemption amounts—$5,000 in value or equity, or $10,000 for a couple—while Florida has one of the most generous—unlimited value or equity. Simply put, if a person owned a $150,000 free and clear home in Mobile (or one with that much equity) and filed a Chapter 7 case, the Chapter 7 trustee would take that home, sell it to pay creditors, and give the person the $5,000 exemption amount (and possibly any left over after paying the creditors in full). That same valued house in Pensacola (or one with that much equity) would be completely protected, the trustee could not touch it, and the creditors would get nothing from it.
(Note that if you “acquired” your present homestead within 1,215 days (about 40 months) before filing bankruptcy—and the equity for it did not come from a prior principal residence in that same state—then your homestead exemption is limited to a maximum of $155,675, even if your present state’s exemption is more generous. (See Section 522(p) of the Bankruptcy Code.) The point of this law is to discourage people from moving to and buying a house in a state with a high or unlimited homestead exemption in order to shield their assets from bankruptcy.)
Choosing between Your Prior and Present States’ Exemptions
You may have an opportunity to take advantage of the difference in exemptions between your prior and present state because of the bankruptcy law that determines which state’s laws you must use. If you have lived in your present state for the last 730 days (2 times 365 days), then the property exemptions which will apply to your bankruptcy case are the ones allowed in your state. However, if you moved during these last 730 days from another state, then the exemptions of your prior state will apply.
(To be picky, you follow the law of the state where you had your domicile—generally, where you were living—“during the 180 days immediately preceding the 730-day period.” See Section 522(b)(3)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code for all the gory details.)
So if you moved from another state to your present state in less than two years, and you file a bankruptcy before the 730-day period expires, than you must use the exemptions of your prior state. But if you wait until immediately after that 730-day period expires, you must use the exemptions of your present state.
Find Out If the Different States’ Exemptions Matter to You
It is definitely possible that all of your property is protected by the exemptions available in EITHER state. The contrast in homestead exemptions above between Alabama and Florida is an extreme one. Most people who file bankruptcy do NOT lose any of their property. So the first thing you need to do if you have moved in the last two years from another state and are in financial trouble is talk to a local bankruptcy attorney. Find out if you have any assets which would be protected better by either of your two states. And if so, see if it is worthwhile in your particular situation to pick when you file your bankruptcy case based on which state’s exemptions are better for you. You certainly don’t want to be in the situation when you find out too late that you could have protected your property better by filing a few months or even a few days earlier.