What if the Trustee Wants My STUFF?

I explain to my clients that a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is a deal. If you (the debtor) have any non-exempt property of any value that the Trustee wants, the Trustee is entitled to it; and my clients are expected to put it on the front porch, with a red bow on it and invite the Trustee in for a celebratory drink when he comes by to pick it up. Why? Because, in exchange for whatever non-exempt property the Trustee chooses to administer, you get out of that pile of debt that drove you to my office in the first place. That’s the deal, and if that deal isn’t worth doing – then, don’t file. Bankruptcy is the old Pearl of Great Price story told in a different setting.

Sound harsh? It really isn’t. I practice exclusively in Oklahoma, and Oklahoma has very generous exemptions. Remember, the deal is only for non-exempt property and most of what we own is exempt in Oklahoma. The vast majority of all people who file for Bankruptcy in Oklahoma have no non-exempt property of any real value; and when they do there are generally enough legitimate pre-bankruptcy planning techniques to protect those assets.

Sure, occasionally, a client loses something. They always know the risks. We go over that extensively and in great detail. Sometimes, though, when going over the possibilities, I can’t quite get past the, “BUT THAT’S MINE” response.

So, here is the story I tell. I had a client who had a $2,000 red toolbox. It held specialized tools that really didn’t qualify as household goods (which are exempt), and they were from a former career, so they didn’t qualify as tools of the trade (which are also exempt), but the toolbox was red, and it was really spiffy. Client loved this toolbox, and he really didn’t want to think about any mean, old Trustee taking it. Now, this client also had over $70,000 in unsecured debt that he needed to get out of.

So, I asked him. “If someone offered you $70,000 for that tool box, would you take it?” He looked at me like I was crazy. Seventy grand for a $2,000 tool box? Well, of course, he would take it. That is a fabulous deal! Then his brain made the connection, and the previous look of worried panic turned into a grin.

Turns out his Trustee wasn’t nearly as impressed by that toolbox as the debtor was, and the debtor wound up getting out of the $70,000 in debt and keeping the toolbox; but I have used this story (details have been changed, of course) for years.

So, first of all, remember that most people who file for bankruptcy in Oklahoma lose no assets. Just about everything that any of us owns of any real value is exempt if you are using Oklahoma exemptions, but even if you do own something that isn’t exempt – is it worth a discharge of all of your debt? If yes, then congratulations on driving such a great bargain – $70,000 in debt in exchange for a shiny, red toolbox. If, on the other hand, it isn’t the best deal you’ve had in a long time; then, talk to your lawyer about other options. Remember, you always have choices; and it is your lawyer’s job to help you find them.

Elaine

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