Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in D.C.: What You Need to Know

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Posted On: September 28, 2017

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Bankruptcy Exemptions Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Consumer Laws by State

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Posted by: Deborah Kurfiss

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in DCWashington, D.C. dates back to 1791, when it was founded to be our nation’s capital. The District of Columbia is the location of all three branches of our government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. Here, Congress passes laws, the President develops policies, and the Supreme Court rules on cases that affect us all. The city is dotted with monuments and museums, and some of the popular sites to visit include the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Smithsonian.

Washington, D.C. is not only our nation’s capital, it is also a city of where 681,170 people live and work. The per capita personal income (PCPI) is $75,596, which is a whopping 153% of the national average of $49,571. This reflects a 2.8% increase from 2015, which is close to the national increase of 2.9%.

D.C.’s current-dollar gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 was $126.8 billion. Its real GDP grew 2.4% compared to the national change of 1.5% from 2015 to 2016. It’s no surprise that government is Washington’s largest industry and is responsible for 33.8% of its GDP. The second-largest industry is professional and business services, which accounts for 24.7% of the GDP.

For those who live in D.C., they’re used to paying higher prices for rent, transportation, and food. The cost of living in D.C. ranks third in the U.S. and North America, and eighth-highest in the entire world. When those costs start to build up and turn into debt, D.C. residents may be able to turn to bankruptcy to help with their financial situation.

Is Chapter 7 bankruptcy an option for me in DC?

Though Washington, D.C. is a rich area as a whole, of course that wealth does not flow to everyone, and some must file bankruptcy. Most people file a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy under Title 11 of the U.S. Code rather than a Chapter 13 reorganization. If you file for Chapter 7, you must take a “means test” to determine whether or not your income is below the median level in the District of Columbia. Given your income, debt, and other factors, the court will determine whether repaying your debts under a Chapter 13 reorganization is possible.

The bankruptcy trustee can “liquidate” your non-exempt property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy; in other words, they can sell it to help pay your debts. Therefore, if you do proceed to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it is important that you know what property is qualified for an exemption and is therefore safe from the trustee.

The federal bankruptcy code lists types of property that are exempt, and to what amount. Any amounts listed apply to your equity in the property rather than its total value. However, the District of Columbia, along with the states, was given the option of creating its own exemption list. Some states insist that you use the state list, and some states give you the option of choosing between the state or the federal list.

Washington, D.C. gives bankruptcy filers a choice.

District of Columbia Bankruptcy Exemptions: Can I keep my property?

You may choose whether you want to use the federal bankruptcy exemptions or the Washington, D.C. bankruptcy exemptions, but you cannot pick and choose between the two. You must choose one and commit to it, so it’s important that you and your Washington bankruptcy lawyer go through all your property to determine which exemption list is best for you.

Should you decide to use D.C.’s bankruptcy exemptions, you may also use additional exemptions that are called the federal non-bankruptcy exemptions, which may be found in various sections of the federal bankruptcy code. These cover federal benefits.

Below we highlight just some of the Washington, D.C. exemptions. Talk with your attorney about the complete list and whether or not choosing District of Columbia exemptions or federal bankruptcy exemptions is best for your specific circumstances.

District of Columbia vs. Federal Exemptions

The top 5 exemptions under D.C. law compared to federal law.
Type of exemptionDistrict of Columbia lawFederal law
HomesteadExempt, full equity$23,675 of equity in principal place of residence
Personal property$8,625 total in household furnishings and goods, clothing, appliances, books, and more, not to exceed $425 per item$12,625 aggregate value on household goods, plus federal wildcard exemption applicable ($1,250 plus $11,850 of any unused portion of your homestead exemption)
Vehicle$2,575$3,775
Wages75% of earned but unpaid wages or pension payments; non-wage earnings including pension up to $200 per month for head of familyIncome you've earned but not yet received becomes part of your bankruptcy estate
Pension/retirementERISA-qualified retirement plans, stock bonus, pension, and profit-sharing plansExempt, with a cap of about $1.28 million on IRAs and Roth IRAs

Homestead

Washington, D.C. has the best homestead exemption in the country. It gives you an exemption for the full equity of real property used as your residence, including a cooperative. § 15–501

The federal list gives you a homestead exemption only up to $23,675 under 11 U.S.C. 522(d)(1), (5).

Example: You bought a $300,000 home and have $100,000 in equity in it. Under D.C. exemptions, you may keep your house. Under federal exemptions, the trustee can sell your house because you have more than $23,675 in equity in it.

Personal Property

D.C. bankruptcy exemptions include:

  • Household furnishings, household goods, clothing, appliances, books, animals, or musical instruments not to exceed $425 per item or $8,625 in total. § 15–501
  • Up to $1,625 in professional books, or tools of your trade. § 15–501
  • Professionally prescribed health aids. § 15–501
  • Family pictures; all the family library not exceeding $400 in value. § 15–501
  • Provisions for three months, whether provided or growing. § 15–501
  • Burial plot. § 15–501
  • Higher education tuition savings account. § 47-4510

Examples of some of the federal exemptions under 11 U.S.C. § 522 are:

  • Household goods up to $600 per item and an aggregate of $12,625.
  • Jewelry up to $1,600.
  • Tools of your trade including implements and books up to $2,375.
  • Health aids.

Vehicle

Washington, D.C. allows an exemption not to exceed $2,575 in one motor vehicle. § 15–501.

The federal exemption is more beneficial at $3,775.

Insurance, Awards and Maintenance

D.C. bankruptcy exemptions include:

  • Unmatured life insurance contract. § 15–501
  • Fraternal benefit society benefits. § 31-5315
  • Disability benefits. § 15–501
  • Wrongful death payment. § 15–501
  • Award for pecuniary loss or pain and suffering. § 15–501
  • Payment under a stock bonus, pension, profit-sharing, annuity, or similar plan or contract on account of illness, disability, death, age, or length of service, to the extent reasonably necessary for support. § 15–501
  • Crime victim’s reparation. § 15–501
  • Alimony. § 15–501
  • Unemployment compensation. § 51-118
  • Social Security and veterans’ benefits., § 15–501
  • Workers’ compensation. § 32-1517
  • Unemployment compensation. § 51-118

Talk with your attorney about the differences between the federal and the D.C. exemptions, but as an example, some federal exemptions include:

  • Up to $12,625 in loan value, accrued dividends, or interest in a life insurance policy.
  • Up to $23,675 for a personal injury award.
  • Federal exemptions include most of the others that have been listed above for D.C.

Wages

D.C. exemptions allow:

  • Non-wage earnings including pension up to $200 per month for head of family, or $60 per month for up to two months if not head of family. § 15-503
  • Minimum of 75% of earned but unpaid wages or pension payments. Judge may allow more for low-income debtors. § 16-572

Under the federal exemption, wages you earn after filing are not part of your bankruptcy estate. Income you’ve earned but not yet received do become part of your bankruptcy estate. Unless wages fall under an exemption, they can be taken by the bankruptcy trustee to pay your debts.

Retirement Plans

Washington, D.C. exempts ERISA-qualified retirement plans, stock bonus, pension,  and profit-sharing plans.

The federal code generally allows you to exempt pensions and retirement money, but there is a cap of $1,283,025 on IRAs and Roth IRAs.

Wildcard

Washington, D.C. allows you to exempt property not to exceed $850 in value plus up to $8,075 of any unused amount for homestead exemption or burial plot.

The federal exemption is $1,250 of any property and unused portion of homestead up to $11,850.

Where is my bankruptcy court located?

Filing bankruptcy is a big step, and it is often accompanied by a great deal of confusion and stress. If you are even considering filing bankruptcy, talk with a good D.C. bankruptcy attorney. The earlier you consult with an attorney, the more options you will have. You may even be able to avoid bankruptcy. However, if you do file, be sure to get an experienced attorney who can protect as many of your assets as possible.

The District of Columbia has one bankruptcy court location at 333 Constitution Ave. NW, Room 1225, Washington D.C. 20001, Phone: (202) 354-3280.