With home ownership and rental costs on the increase, many people are choosing alternatives such as residing in a mobile home, RV or houseboat. When it comes to filing for bankruptcy we always need to analyze if your property is exempt from the trustee. Ordinarily anything recreational such as an RV, boat, jetski, etc. would be considered a luxury item that would not be exempt.
Florida law has established certain criteria for determining if an RV or boat qualifies as homestead. There is a six-prong test used by the courts to determine the abode is exempt:
Debtor’s intent to make a non-traditional abode his homestead.
Whether the debtor has no other residence.
Whether evidence establishes continuous habitation. Are you going back and forth between a house up north then coming back and using the RV temporarily or is it a permanent home?
Whether the debtor maintains a possessory right associated with the land establishing a physical presence. For example, renting a lot to keep the RV parked.
Whether the non-traditional abode has been physically maintained to allow long-term habitation verses mobility. Is the RV taken on vacations or is it parked and set up with utilities.?
Whether the physical configuration of the abode permits habilitation. If it is set up for full-time use for example, it has a bathroom, kitchen, etc.
Florida has a specific exemption for mobile homes. Please reach out if there is any question on whether your property is exempt.
It is quite a bit of work for both the client and our office to make sure we have all the proper documentation to analyze your case and prepare the bankruptcy petition. The bankruptcy petition is not a “simple” or “basic” form. Clients are surprised to learn that the petition is between 50-60 pages. It has to be filled out accurately and completely.
There is a burden on both you as the client, as well as myself, as the attorney to do our due diligence to make sure we do not miss any information. We need six months of payroll, or if self-employed, you would need to provide six months of profit and loss statements by month; two years of income tax returns; two years of corporate returns if you own a business; vehicle titles and/or car registrations; identification, three months minimum of all bank statements for every account, including retirement accounts such as IRAs, ESOP plans, FRS plans if working for the government.
If you are on social security we need the social security benefits letter confirming your monthly payment. The same is true for pensions, annuities, or veterans benefits to confirm the amount of your monthly payment. Additional information that we may need to review are: a martial settlement agreement if you have been divorced within the last two years, payoff statements for your mortgage and vehicles, paperwork for any lawsuits, deeds to any real property, trust documents, HUD or bill of sale for any home or vehicle sales or trade ins for the last two years.
We also need information regarding the value of all of your assets and we go through questions also to make sure you are an eligible bankruptcy candidate. That is why people hire an attorney. It can definitely be a daunting task without help. There are many aspects of analysis to evaluate if you have non-exempt property, is there anything the trustee could make you pay back such as insider payments to family members, or friends. Having legal guidance will prove to be valuable and make the process go much more smoothly.
There is no minimum threshold amount of debt to be able to file for bankruptcy. My personal recommendation is that it’s probably not worth it for a debt amount under $5,000. If you have debt over $5,000, your minimum monthly payments are causing you a hardship, and you have been paying high interest and minimum payments with little, or no progress in reducing the principal amount of the debt you are a potentially good bankruptcy candidate.
There is no maximum amount of debt to file a Chapter 7, so that amount can be unlimited. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, be assured that the trustee will ask how that money was spent. Some people have over hundred thousand dollars just in student loan debt alone. Even though there is no debt limit to file a Chapter 7, there are income requirements which should be addressed during your consultation. Our first analysis is whether you will qualify for a Chapter 7.
There are caps on debt in a Chapter 13 case which might seem illogical because you are actually paying your creditors, through the trustee for 36-60 months and in a Chapter 7 you are not making a monthly payment to the trustee. For a Chapter 13 you are permitted to have $465,275 in unsecured debt. Unsecured debt includes credit cards, personal loans, medical debt, and student loan debt.
You are allowed to have up to $1,395,875 in secured debt which would include items such as a home mortgage or financed vehicle.
If you have been living in Florida for over 2 years, the homestead exemption can be used as long as there is less than $189,050 in equity for each person filing. For example, if there are two married people filing a joint bankruptcy, then you can double the exemption amounts so that amount would be less than $371,100 in equity you would be allowed to protect. You can have unlimited equity in your home if you have owned it for 1215 days prior to filing your petition.
This includes another home if you have bought and sold another homestead property within those 1215 days. Typically, this is not an issue since the home equity is usually lower than the allowed statutory amount. If you have moved from another state in the last 2 years, we cannot use the Florida exemptions and would have to perform an analysis on which exemptions apply. Some states allow non-residents to use their exemptions. Other states will require non-residents to use federal exemptions. Most states would not allow you to exempt property in Florida after you have moved from another state.
You must also be residing in your home to be able to claim homestead exemption. The homestead exemption would not protect or apply to an investment property or a property where you are on the deed but are not living in the residence. There are exceptions if you are away from your home temporarily but have full intention of returning. Some examples are being away for medical treatment or being active duty in the military. As long as you intend to return to your home and you are not renting out the property, it can continue to be exempt as your homestead.
With inflation hitting record highs, people are looking to cash out the equity in their homes, sell their vehicles, and liquidate their retirement accounts to pay off their debts. This can be problematic for a few reasons.
First, if home values go down then you are stuck with a debt that exceeds the value of your home. If you run into a situation where you now have a higher payment that you cannot afford due to a loss of job, divorce, or medical issues the lender would foreclose on the property and potentially make you responsible for the deficiency. Property values fluctuate up and down.
Second, it’s not advisable to pay off unsecured debts with secured property. If you can eliminate 100% of your unsecured debt in a bankruptcy, while still having the ability to keep your home, that is going to be a better option than increasing or extending your mortgage payment for years and risking a future default on the mortgage loan.
Similarly, it’s always best to preserve your exempt assets such a 401k, rather than liquidate them to pay debts. The bankruptcy would allow you to eliminate your unsecured debt while still preserving the money in your 401K for your retirement without an adverse tax consequence. Furthermore, there are also costs associated with the refinance such a mortgage origination fees, appraisals, recording fees associated that can be up to 3-5% of the loan which you are paying for years. This cost typically far exceeds the cost of filing for bankruptcy.