6th Circuit Says Michigan Debtors Can Use Bankruptcy-Only Exemptions

On August 20, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that people filing for bankruptcy in Michigan may use Michigan’s set of bankruptcy-only exemptions. The decision (in In re Schafer, 2012 WL 3553294 (6th Cir. August 20, 2012)) is good news for those filing for bankruptcy in Michigan.

The issue first hit the courts in 2011, when the Sixth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel held that Michigan’s bankruptcy-specific exemptions (found in Mich. Comp. Laws §600.5451) were unconstitutional.

Here’s what this all means.

What Are Bankruptcy Exemptions?

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, exemptions allow you to keep certain types of property, often up to certain amounts of equity. For example, if the law provides you with a motor vehicle exemption up to $5,000, it means you can protect up to $5,000 in equity in your car. If your car is worth $3,000, the bankruptcy trustee cannot take it since all of the equity is covered by an exemption. Exemptions play a role in Chapter 13 bankruptcy too.  To learn more, see our Bankruptcy Exemptions area.

Bankruptcy-Only Exemptions

Federal bankruptcy law provides a set of exemptions. (You can find them in our Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions article.)  Each state has a set of exemptions as well.  Usually, those exemptions can be used in bankruptcy and to protect property from judgment creditors. But some states, like Michigan, have a set of state exemptions that apply only in bankruptcy. They cannot be used to protect property from judgment creditors. These are referred to as bankruptcy-only exemptions.

 The Constitutionality of Bankruptcy-Only Exemptions

In 2011, the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel in the 6th Circuit (which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) held that Michigan’s bankruptcy-only exemptions were unconstitutional.  But four days ago, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed that decision – ruling that bankruptcy-only exemptions are constitutional. This means that once again, bankruptcy filers in Michigan can choose from three sets of exemptions:  the federal exemptions, Michigan’s regular exemptions (those that also apply to judgment creditors), and Michigan’s bankruptcy-only exemptions.

What Does This Mean for Michigan Bankruptcy Filers?

For bankruptcy filers, this is good news. It’s always better to have more options, and for many filers, the bankruptcy-only exemptions will protect more property.  For example, the homestead exemption in Michigan’s bankruptcy-only exemptions is significantly higher than the homestead exemption in Michigan’s general exemption scheme. So for filers that have a home, the bankruptcy-only exemptions may help those filers keep their home.

(Find more information on filing for bankruptcy in Michigan.)