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Washington, D.C. Bankruptcy Exemptions and Law
If you are a Washington, D.C., resident who can't pay your bills and do not see your debt problems getting better in the future, bankruptcy may be an option. Bankruptcy will protect you from creditors and bill collectors while you pay off or eliminate much of your debt. At the end of the bankruptcy proceeding, you should be nearly debt-free and ready to move on with your life without the stress of bills that you know you can never pay.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia is a federal court governed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. However, federal law allows states and the district to write their own rules about what property their residents can protect from creditors. This protected property is known as “exempt property".
While exemptions are available under federal law, the District of Columbia has opted to implement its own exemption system. The district's residents can choose either the District of Columbia's exemptions or the federal exemptions, but they need to stick with one for all of their exemptions. You cannot pick and choose between the two on an exemption-by-exemption basis.
To better understand the role exemptions play in the bankruptcy process, it helps to be familiar with the two types of personal bankruptcy:
- Chapter 7 bankruptcy is often called “liquidation" bankruptcy because you must turn over the property you cannot protect with an exemption to a bankruptcy trustee who will sell it and use the proceeds to repay your creditors. Exemptions can play a large role in Chapter 7 filings because you can lose most of the property not protected by an exemption. In return for giving up all of your nonexempt property, you will usually exit bankruptcy free from nearly all of your debt. However, you must meet strict income thresholds to qualify under Chapter 7.
- Chapter 13 bankruptcy lets people who have a steady income reorganize most of their debt and pay it off in three to five years. The payments are made under a court-approved plan that usually eliminates some of your debt. Chapter 13 is popular with homeowners because they can often keep their homes.
One of the most important benefits you will enjoy if you file under either chapter is the automatic stay issued by the court when you file. The stay stops all creditor collection activity, including foreclosures and court cases. Collection agencies cannot harass you, giving you the breathing room necessary to resolve your debt problems.
When you declare bankruptcy, your debts will usually be categorized as secured or unsecured. The designation is important because the two types of debt are treated differently in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which will dictate how much you can eliminate.
Debt is considered unsecured when a creditor has no right to repossess your property for failure to pay. Credit card debt, court judgments, and medical debt are among the most common types of unsecured debt. Since unsecured creditors hold no collateral for their debt, those debts are the most likely to be eliminated during bankruptcy. But some priority unsecured debts, like unpaid child and spousal support, can't be discharged.
A secured creditor has the right to repossess your property if you do not repay what you owe. Secured debt is usually the result of a loan transaction where you sign a contract giving the lender the right to seek a lien on your collateral if you don't pay. Since creditors retain their right to repossess the property in bankruptcy, you will usually need to give up the property or work out a repayment plan with the creditor. Home mortgages and car loans are the most common types of secured debt.
If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you can usually discharge most of your unsecured debt. But secured debt is treated differently and can rarely be eliminated in a Chapter 7 proceeding. Usually, you will need to choose from one of the following options:
- Return the property to the creditor. If you choose this option you will lose the property, but you will usually be free from making additional payments.
- Keep the property and continue making payments. This is sometimes possible when an exemption covers the equity you have in the item.
- Purchase the property outright. This is rare in Chapter 7 cases because you usually need to turn most of your cash assets over to the trustee.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy lets you create a plan to repay your creditors over three to five years. The court must approve your plan and it may force your creditors to reduce or restructure your debt. Mortgage payments are not included in the plan, but the trustee may negotiate a payment agreement with the lender if you are behind on your payments. Unsecured creditors are paid with the disposable income left over after you have repaid your secured creditors. Any unsecured debt that is not paid under the plan is discharged when the plan has finished.
To file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the District of Columbia, you must show that your income is low enough to qualify. This is usually done through one of two means tests.
The first test is simple: if your household income is less than the median household income for a similarly sized household in the district, you qualify. For example, U.S. Census data shows that the median household income for a three-person household in the District of Columbia was $130,524 in November 2020. If you live in a three-person household with an income below $130,524, you qualify to file under Chapter 7 in the district.
If your household income is above the district median, you can still qualify under Chapter 7 based on your disposable income. Your monthly disposable income is calculated by subtracting your monthly expenses from your monthly income. If the calculation shows that you have little to no disposable income each month, you can file under Chapter7.
To file under Chapter 13, you will need to show that you have a steady income and unsecured debt of no more than $419,275. Your secured debt cannot total more than $1.26 million.
The District of Columbia's exemption system can be used by anyone who resides in the district before filing for bankruptcy. As we've noted earlier, you can also choose to use the federal exemptions if they are more beneficial to you. If your property falls within one of the exemptions, you can protect it from creditors during bankruptcy and use it to start over when you are finished.
If you are married and filing for bankruptcy jointly, you may take advantage of the “doubling rule" that allows you to each claim an exemption for property you own together. This effectively doubles the size of the exemption for married couples. However, the rule does not apply to the homestead exemption.
The Homestead Exemption
The District of Columbia gives its residents one of the most generous homestead exemptions in the country. If you own your home, you will be allowed to exempt 100% of your equity as long as you and/or your dependents are living in it. You can claim the exemption regardless of your home's value. That means if you are living in a $1 million Georgetown townhouse that you own outright when you declare bankruptcy, your creditors cannot force you to sell.
To claim the full exemption, you must have owned the home for at least 1,215 days before filing for bankruptcy (roughly three years, four months). If you have not owned your home for that length of time, your exemption is limited to $155,675. However, if you moved to your current home from somewhere else in the District of Columbia, the $155,675 limit does not apply to any value transferred from your previous residence. To exempt the transferred value, you must have acquired your previous home more than 1,215 days before filing for bankruptcy.
The District of Columbia's homestead exemption may be applied to your home, condominium, co-op, or other real property. Additionally, deposits on residential condominiums are exempted.
You are allowed to exempt at least 75% of your unpaid wages or pension payments each month if you are the head of your family. The bankruptcy judge may allow you to protect a higher percentage of your wages if you can show you are low-income.
The District of Columbia will also allow you to exempt non-wage earnings or pension payments of up to $200 per month if you are the head of a family. For those who are not the head of the family, the exemption drops to $60 a month for up to two months.
Motor Vehicle Exemption
You are allowed an exemption of no more than $2,575 for your equity in one motor vehicle.
The District of Columbia will allow you to apply an $850 wildcard exemption to any of your property. If you do not take advantage of the homestead exemption, that amount increases to $8,075.
Personal Property Exemptions
The District of Columbia allows residents to exempt the following personal property:
- Clothing, household furnishings, appliances, household goods, animals, books, and musical instruments that do not exceed $425 per item, or $8,625 combined.
- Provisions for three months
- Prescribed health aids
- Family pictures and a family library of not more than $400 in value
- Higher education savings accounts
- A burial plot
Tools of the Trade Exemption
The tools that you need to earn a living, including implements and books, are exempt up to $1,625.
Public Benefits Exemptions
The following public benefits are exempt in the District of Columbia:
- Social Security benefits
- Unemployment compensation
- Veterans' benefits
- Workers' compensation
- Disability benefits
Payments you receive as a dependent to an insured individual under a life insurance contract are exempt to the extent necessary to support you or your dependents. Any unmatured life insurance contract you own is exempt if it is not a credit life insurance contract.
Pension and Retirement Plan Exemptions
Payments made under a pension, annuity, stock bonus, or profit-sharing plan based on your age, length of service, disability, illness, or death are usually exempt to the extent reasonably necessary to support you or your dependents. Additionally, payments from retirement accounts like 401Ks and IRAs are typically exempt.
The retirement benefits of police, firefighters, and teachers are exempt. The pensions paid judges and public school teachers are also exempt.
The District of Columbia provides an exemption for any payments you receive for the following purposes:
- Alimony or child support to the extent it is reasonably necessary to provide you or your dependents with support
- The wrongful death of someone who claimed you as a dependent to the extent it is reasonably necessary
- Compensation for a loss, including pain and suffering
- Loss of future earnings to the extent the payments were reasonably necessary
Need Help Filing for Bankruptcy in Washington, D.C.?
If you live in the District of Columbia and are having trouble paying your bills, hiring an attorney to represent you in bankruptcy may seem like an expensive luxury when you can file on your own. However, even simple bankruptcy cases can involve complex court filings and strict deadlines. An experienced local bankruptcy attorney will help guide you through the filing process, represent you in court, and negotiate with creditors to ensure that you retain as many of your assets as the law allows.
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.