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Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Exemptions and Law

COVID-19 Update: Pennsylvania's bankruptcy courts have issued some of the most comprehensive coronavirus operation guidelines in the country. These rules allow court services, such as clerk and records services, to stay open, with some major accommodations.

All hearings and meetings are conducted by telephone or virtually. Drop boxes are available for paper document filing. In some cases, they can be file-stamped received the same day. Official rules have been modified to accommodate Chapter 5 small business bankruptcies. Finally, although courts are open, they are subject to masking and social distancing restrictions. Click here for updated information.

How Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Can Help

Most families live from paycheck to paycheck. About two-thirds of Pennsylvanian households do not have the cash to pay a $400 emergency expense. So, they are incredibly vulnerable to the financial storms of life. These storms include things like business downturn, divorce or separation, sudden illness, and job loss.

Bankruptcy offers these families shelter from these financial storms. A bankruptcy attorney can build something much more secure than a temporary shelter. Lawyers show debtors how to maximize the law's limited property exemptions. Furthermore, attorneys help you quickly rebuild your credit score, so you can make the most of your fresh start.

Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Law

Bankruptcy law is a combination of state and federal law. State laws determine a number of things, such as bankruptcy exemptions. Federal laws control most other parts of bankruptcy.

The Constitution authorized Congress to create a uniform bankruptcy law that applied in all states. After several false starts, lawmakers enacted the Bankruptcy Code. Its provisions protect debtors who, through no fault of their own, are experiencing financial duress.

The automatic stay is a big part of this protection. Theoretically, a judge could protect you if you prove lender fraud or some other misbehavior, but that takes legal action on your part and requires you proving your case. Section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code, on the other hand, automatically stops adverse actions like:

  • Foreclosure
  • Creditor harassment
  • Eviction
  • Wage garnishment
  • Repossession
  • Bank account levy

In some cases, the automatic stay remains in effect for up to five years. This period gives distressed debtors time to eliminate mortgage arrears and other past-due secured debts.

Furthermore, bankruptcy eliminates debts. In both kids of consumer bankruptcy, this discharge usually applies to:

  • Medical bills
  • Payday loans
  • Credit cards
  • Signature loans
  • Back taxes (in some cases)

Bankruptcy's protections go even further. As outlined below, most debtors get to keep most of their property as they take advantage of the automatic stay and debt discharge.

There are basically two forms of consumer bankruptcy. Chapter 7 is the fastest and easiest way for debtors to obtain fresh starts. Typically, the judge discharges most unsecured debts in as little as six months. Chapter 13 is normally ideal for families struggling with past-due mortgage payments and other delinquent secured debts.

Am I Eligible for Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?

Most people qualify for the bankruptcy of their choice. The few qualifications are basically designed to prevent people from taking advantage of the system.

Formal Eligibility

All debtors must cooperate with the bankruptcy trustee (the person who oversees the bankruptcy for the judge). They must provide requested documents, honestly answer the trustee's questions, and come to all meetings as scheduled.

Furthermore, Chapter 7 bankruptcy debtors must pass the means test. Your annual income must be below average. The exact amount changes every few months. Generally, a Pennsylvania family of four cannot earn more than $104,000.

Chapter 13 debtors cannot exceed the debt ceilings. You cannot have more than $1.4 million in secured debt and $400,000 in unsecured debt. These numbers are subject to change as well.

These qualifications are usually not a problem. If they are an issue, a Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyer can offer some alternatives, such as non-bankruptcy debt negotiation. Frequently, the mere possibility of filing bankruptcy convinces creditors to renegotiate debt terms.

Practical Eligibility

The formal qualifications are fixed by law. They are the same in all three Pennsylvania bankruptcy courts. Practical eligibility can vary.

Usually, Chapter 7 debtors should have a negative monthly cash flow. If that's not the case, the trustee often concludes that you do not need to file Chapter 7.

Chapter 13 debtors have the opposite informal qualification. They must have high disposable incomes. They must have sufficient funds to make a monthly debt consolidation payment. This payment amount varies. But it's usually about the size of a mortgage or rent payment.

Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Exemptions

In Monopoly and other board games, players who declare bankruptcy lose all their property. The real world is much different, especially in Pennsylvania.

Exemptions 101

Many creditors, such as the IRS, do not need to go to court to seize property and sell it to pay your debts. Bankruptcy eliminates that possibility. Even if creditors find a way around the automatic stay, they cannot touch exempt property.

Much like bankruptcy qualifications, there are formal and informal exemptions. The formal exemptions are discussed below. The informal exemptions usually involve an obscure bankruptcy rule called the best interests of creditors rule.

Assume Jill has a small bass boat worth about $1,000, and it also needs about $500 in repairs. If the trustee seized it, the trustee must not only make the repairs. The trustee must also store it, market it, and pay all other sales-related costs.

According to the formal exemptions, creditors could seize the boat and sell it. But due to all these expenses, the creditors would get little or no money. So, the trustee might be legally prohibited from seizing the boat.

State Exemptions

As mentioned above, each state has its own slate of exemptions. Pennsylvania's property exemptions are as follows:

  • Retirement accounts,
  • Government benefits,
  • Current wages,
  • Property of a business partnership,
  • Personal property, and
  • A Wildcard exemption.

The wildcard exemption, which is $300 in Pennsylvania, allows debtors to protect property that is otherwise non-exempt.

Federal Exemptions

If you are filing a no-asset Chapter 7 or you have substantial assets in a partnership, the state exemptions are probably for you. A good Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyer can evaluate your case and make a solid recommendation. Most other Pennsylvanians select the federal exemptions, which are:

  • Homestead: You may protect up to $25,150 in home equity. So, if you have less equity than that, the trustee cannot touch your house. A Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyer can unlock some advanced options, such as a tenancy of the entirety, which stretch this exemption further.
  • Motor vehicle: If your vehicle has less than $4,000 in equity, the federal exemptions protect it. Most people have practically no equity in new cars. Used cars might have substantial equity, but they have almost no financial value.
  • Personal property: Jewelry, electronics, furniture, and other household goods are exempt. These exemptions normally have value ceilings. But most used personal property has almost no value. A $1,000 television set might fetch only $100 or maybe $200 in a garage sale.
  • Retirement accounts: Public retirement accounts, like government pensions and teacher retirement plans, are 100 percent exempt regardless of their value. Private accounts, like 401(k)s and IRAs, might be subject to an amount limit. But the law is uncertain on this point. A Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyer can protect your legal and financial rights in situations like these.
  • Wildcard exemption: The federal wildcard exemption is much more complicated than the state exemption. Under the federal exemptions, the wildcard is $1,325. If you do not use all the homestead exemption, you may use up to $12,575 to protect otherwise nonexempt property.

Other exemptions, at both the state and federal level, include life insurance payments, personal injury settlements, disability benefits, and DSO (Domestic Support Obligation) payments, like child support and alimony. Also, at both the state and federal level, the trustee or a creditor can challenge an exemption, usually on the basis of fraud.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pennsylvania Bankruptcy

How do I start a bankruptcy case in Pennsylvania?

When people file bankruptcy, money is usually an issue. Unfortunately, some people who try to save money by going through bankruptcy alone end up worse financially for it.

DIY (Do-It-Yourself) bankruptcies are the least expensive way to get started. The forms are available here. A partnership with a bankruptcy petition preparer is a close second. These approaches might save money initially, but they cost money later.

Filing a DIY bankruptcy is like filing a business tax return without being able to use the instructions. Furthermore, if things go sideways, you are on your own. A bankruptcy petition preparer charges a lot of money simply to fill out forms. Preparers cannot tell you how to fill out the forms. They certainly cannot represent you in court.

A Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyer is a much better option. An attorney handles the entire matter, from start to finish. That ability gives your family additional peace of mind.

Where do I file bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?

Bankruptcies are filed in federal court. There are three federal court districts in the Keystone State. If you live in the Philadelphia area, you are probably in the Eastern District. If you live near the Ohio or West Virginia border, you are probably in the Western District. If you live anywhere else in Pennsylvania, you are most likely in the Middle District.

How much does bankruptcy cost in Pennsylvania?

Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 filing fees vary in different jurisdictions. They are normally about $350. Installment plans and fee waivers are sometimes available.

DIY filers must pay all costs before they file. Bankruptcy petition preparers normally demand payment in advance as well.

Pennsylvania bankruptcy lawyers usually offer pre-petition and post-petition installment plans. In fact, many bankruptcy filers only pay filing fees upfront.

What do you lose if you declare bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy debtors forfeit all their nonexempt property. Most people do not have non-exempt property unless they have vacation homes or yachts.

How do I declare bankruptcy in PA?

Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy debtors must file a petition and schedules. A Philadelphia bankruptcy lawyer can advise you as to the difference between Chapter y and Chapter 13, as well as the difference between state and federal property exemptions.

Can I file Chapter 7 and keep my house and car?

Generally, your house and car are exempt, if you choose federal exemptions in Pennsylvania.

Contact a Dedicated Attorney

People who file bankruptcy find relief from financial stress and also get to keep most or all of their property. To get started, reach out to a Pennsylvania bankruptcy attorney today.

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.

 

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