#palmbeachbankruptcylawyer

Debtors generally file a bankruptcy petition seeking a fresh start, free from their personal debts.  Debtors have the option to agree to pay certain debts to retain a car or other property through reaffirmation agreements and lease assumption.  Reaffirmation or lease assumption may seem like a good option at the time – when for instance a debtor wants to keep his current car.   However, whether he should enter into such an agreement should be given careful consideration as to the debtor’s ability to make payments going forward.  Once a pre-petition debt is reaffirmed or a lease is assumed, a debtor is bound to make the payments and if the debtor defaults, the debt is not included in the debtor’s fresh start – the coveted discharge.

By example, the debtor in a recent South Florida bankruptcy case,  entered into a assumption agreement for his leased vehicle.  At some point thereafter, the debtor determined that he could not continue to make the lease payments and turned the car over to the lessor.  Not wishing to be personally liable for the remainder of the payments under the lease, the debtor argued that he should not have any personal liability under the lease because he did not reaffirm his obligations under the lease in accordance with subsection 524(c) and thus the personal liability will be discharged when he receives his discharge.  Alternatively, he argued that because he “rescinded assumption” prior to discharge, his personal liability under the lease should be discharged.

The bankruptcy court considered in its decision on the matter, whether the safeguards contained within 11 U.S.C. 524 must be satisfied when a debtor assumes a lease pursuant to subsection 365(p) in order for a debtor’s personal liability under the assumed lease to survive the debtor’s discharge.

The court held that in personam liability under an assumed lease is not dependent on adherence to the reaffirmation provisions of subsection 524(c) and that Toyota may proceed against the car and has the right, subject to the provisions of the lease and applicable non-bankruptcy law, to seek from the debtor any remaining amounts due under the lease.  However, the lessor could not proceed against the debtor until after the debtor received his discharge, or the lessor sought stay relief against the debtor.

Whether to assume a lease or reaffirm a debt in bankruptcy requires careful consideration!  Debtors should ask themselves – can I foresee having any trouble making the payments going forward?  If the answer is maybe – just say no to assumption and reaffirmation!


  Heather L. Ries is an attorney with the Financial Restructuring and Bankruptcy Department of the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP. Heather focuses her practice in matters related to bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, commercial workout and foreclosure disputes, and commercial litigation. You can contact Heather at 561-804-4419 or hries@foxrothschild.com.

My November, December, and February posts, discussed details of homestead protection in Florida including requirements, benefits and pitfalls.  If you are married, another asset protection and estate planning tool available to you is Tenants by the Entirety (“TBE”) ownership.  In Florida, a married couple may own several types of property TBE, including, but not limited to, bank accounts, real property (including their homestead) and personal property.   In fact, Florida law presumes that property acquired by a married couple is TBE property if the “six unities” of TBE ownership are present.  The six unities required for TBE ownership are (1) unity of possession (joint ownership and control); (2) unity of interest (the interests in the account must be identical); (3) unity of title (the interests must have originated in the same instrument); (4) unity of time (the interests must have commenced simultaneously); (5) survivorship; and (6) unity of marriage (the parties must be married at the time the property became titled in their joint names).

Under Florida law, the benefit of owning property TBE is that it is exempt from process to satisfy debts owed to individual creditors of either spouse.  This is because an interest in TBE property is not equivalent to one half of the equity in the property, but rather, an inseverable interest in the whole owned by both spouses.

However, TBE is not a perfect asset protection tool as it can be broken, severed, and/or create unwanted liability.

  •  TBE property is not exempt from process to satisfy joint debts of both spouses;
  •  TBE protection dissolves if one of the spouses passes away;
  •  TBE protection is broken by divorce; and
  •  TBE ownership of cars, boats and/or other recreational vehicles could result in liability for both spouses under the dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

TBE ownership is not right for everyone or every situation, but it is worth considering if it is available to you.


  Heather L. Ries is an attorney with the Financial Restructuring and Bankruptcy Department of the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP. Heather focuses her practice in matters related to bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, commercial workout and foreclosure disputes, and commercial litigation. You can contact Heather at 561-804-4419 or hries@foxrothschild.com.

In the case of Mantiply v. Horne (In re Horne), 876 F.3d 1076 (11th Cir. 2017) the Eleventh Circuit decided an issue of first impression in the Circuit: Whether the Bankruptcy Code authorizes payment of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by debtors in successfully pursuing an action for damages resulting from the violation of the automatic stay and in defending the damages award on appeal.

The stay violator argued on appeal that the debtors were not entitled to appellate fees as a matter of law under Section 362(k)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code because the statute only provides for mandatory fees for damages and attorneys’ fees incurred in ending a stay violation, not incurred in pursuing a damages award nor fees incurred in defending a damages award on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the stay violator and held that Section 362(k)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code specifically departs from the American Rule and authorizes costs and attorneys’ fees incurred by the debtor in ending a willful violation of an automatic stay, prosecuting a damages violation, and defending those judgements on appeal.

Specifically, the Court reasoned that, unlike Section 330, Section 362(k) specifically and explicitly provides for the recovery of “costs and attorneys’ fees” in the measure of damages arising from a willful violation of the automatic stay, allowing for a departure from the American Rule.  Moreover, nothing in the text of Section 362(k)(1) limits the scope of attorneys’ fees to solely ending a stay violation.  Instead, Section 362(k)(1) speaks to full recovery of damages including fees and cost incurred from violating the stay.  The Court noted that this result makes sense in the context of bankruptcy litigation where the lion’s share of damages from violations of the automatic stay are attorneys’ fees and the debtors are least able to afford them.

The Takeaway?  While there are always exceptions to the rule, it is generally best to attempt to settle “willful” stay violations early on.  The damages in what may seem like a simple matter, escalate quickly.  If you choose to litigate and lose, you could be responsible for paying “actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees” to the debtor(s) for all the proceedings related to the stay violation dispute and, to add insult to injury, your own attorneys’ fees and costs.


 

  Heather L. Ries is an attorney with the Financial Restructuring and Bankruptcy Department of the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP. Heather focuses her practice in matters related to bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, commercial workout and foreclosure disputes, and commercial litigation. You can contact Heather at 561-804-4419 or hries@foxrothschild.com.

In my November post, I discussed the basics regarding protection of your Florida Homestead from forced sale by creditors and alluded to exceptions to the rule.  Let’s discuss some of those exceptions as it relates to a bankruptcy filing.

If you have acquired an ownership interest in your Florida Homestead within 1,215 of the date you file for bankruptcy, your exemption is subject to a homestead exemption cap under section 522(p) of Title 11 (the “Bankruptcy Code”).  If you bought a house for the first time within the 1,215 day period, your Florida Homestead exemption is limited the amount of $160,375.00 for single debtors and $320,750.00 for married Debtors.  If you bought a new residence within the 1,215 day period, you may add any equity transferred to the previous residence to the exemption limit.  For instance, if you are a single Debtor, sold your home, and used $100,000.00 of equity from your old home to buy your new one, your allowed exemption would be $260,375.00.  As you can see, if you have more than the exemption limit in your Florida Homestead, it is important to consider and calculate the length of time you have owned your home before contemplating a bankruptcy filing.  In addition, if you have been chased by one or more creditora for several years prior to contemplating bankruptcy, you should consider what, if any, funds you have used to purchase the property, prepay your mortgage or improve the property.  Creditors may look to 522(o) of the Bankruptcy Code to attempt to recover those funds based on your intent to hinder, delay or defraud them.

Another risk to your Florida Homestead exemption is the dreaded “Ponzi Scheme”.  In a June, 2017 decision from the Middle District of Florida Bankruptcy Court, the Court awarded an equitable lien and constructive trust on the homestead of a Ponzi scheme investor’s Florida Homestead.  The Ponzi scheme investor, who had filed for bankruptcy and was not involved in or aware of the fraud, “passively received the fraudulent transfers” which he used to purchased the Florida Homestead.  The Court held that the Ponzi scheme investor’s lack of participation in the fraud was not determinative; the focus must be on the fraudulent nature of the funds and unjust enrichment.  The Ponzi scheme investor had been unjustly enriched by the receipt of the fraudulent transfers that he and his wife invested in their home.  Accordingly, the Court determined that an equitable lien and constructive trust should be imposed on the Florida Homestead to the extent the Ponzi scheme distributions were traceable into the Florida Homestead.   The take away – be wary of investment schemes (if it is too good to be true, it probably is) and be thoughtful about the source of funds you invest in your homestead.


  Heather L. Ries is an attorney with the Financial Restructuring and Bankruptcy Department of the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP. Heather focuses her practice in matters related to bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, commercial workout and foreclosure disputes, and commercial litigation. You can contact Heather at 561-804-4419 or hries@foxrothschild.com.