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Overview of the 7 Most Commonly Used Bankruptcy Exemptions

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In a Nutshell

Bankruptcy exemptions protect a filer’s property to ensure they're able to take full advantage of their fresh start. While the available exemptions vary depending on the state you live in, there are certain types of common bankruptcy exemptions that are generally found in all exemption schemes. This article gives an overview of the seven most common types of bankruptcy exemptions and how they protect the filer’s property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Written by Lawyer John Coble
Updated July 28, 2023

Bankruptcy exemptions protect a filer’s property to ensure they're able to take full advantage of their fresh start. While the available exemptions vary depending on the state you live in, there are certain types of common bankruptcy exemptions that are generally found in all exemption schemes.

In this article, we'll look at the seven most common types of bankruptcy exemptions and how they protect the filer’s property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Personal Property Exemptions

Personal property is any property that you can touch and that isn't physically attached to your house or land (that’s called real property). Examples of personal property include your bible, sofa, and car. Personal property exemptions make certain property off-limits to creditors. Since the property is off-limits to creditors, the bankruptcy trustee can't touch it either.

Many personal property exemptions cover up to a certain value. In this case, you may only be able to partially protect that property. Other exemptions cover the full value of the item.

Some personal property exemptions are specific to one item. For example, most states have an exemption for your bible and your wedding ring. Other personal property exemptions cover certain types of property, like an exemption for household goods. These exemptions may have a limit on the total value that can be protected. For example, you may be able to cover only $2,000 worth of household goods. In this situation, if you have $3,000 worth of household goods, $1,000 would be unprotected (non-exempt). 

Another limitation is that there may be a per-item limit on exemptions. For example, if you have a piano that's worth $2,000 but there's a maximum exemption of $1,000 per item of household goods, $1,000 of the piano's value is non-exempt.

Personal Property Exemption Examples
Personal Property Exemption Examples

These exemptions limitations exist because the law protects items necessary for a reasonable lifestyle, but it doesn't protect luxury items.

Motor Vehicle Exemption

Most states have a specific exemption for a motor vehicle. These exemptions are usually limited by dollar amount. In some states, if you don't have a high enough motor vehicle exemption to cover your vehicle, you can use your spouse's full exemption if the vehicle is jointly owned. Some states allow stacking your spouse’s exemption, but don't let you use the full exemption of the spouse. Some states allow you to use part of your wildcard exemption (discussed below) to cover what's not covered in this motor vehicle exemption.

It's important to understand that exemptions don't have to be applied to the full value of the property where you owe money for the property. If you’re still paying on a car loan, you only need the exemption to cover your equity. If your car is worth $5,000 and you owe $2,000, you have $3,000 of equity. If you have a $3,000 motor vehicle exemption, then your car is fully protected from your bankruptcy trustee.

In some states, if you or a dependent is disabled, you can apply an increased exemption to the vehicle.

Exemptions don’t protect you from the secured creditors that have a collateral interest in the particular piece of property. 

Tools of the Trade

Most states have a "tools of trade" exemption. Tools of the trade are items you own and use to make a living. For a doctor, a tool of trade would be their stethoscope. For a carpenter, a tool of trade would be their hammer. For a delivery driver that owns the vehicle they use for deliveries, their car or truck might be a tool of the trade. Like other exemptions, the tools of trade exemptions are usually limited to a certain dollar amount.

Wage Exemption

Wages earned before you file bankruptcy but received after filing bankruptcy are part of your bankruptcy estate. The wage exemption is 75% in most states. Federal wage laws provide a limitation on creditors so that they can’t take more than 25% of your income after mandatory deductions (payroll taxes, etc) or the amount by which your weekly income after mandatory deductions exceeds 30 times the federal hourly minimum wage, whichever is lower.

Wage Exemption Example
Wage Exemption Example

If your weekly net wages are $250, the maximum amount the trustee could get from a paycheck that’s paid after the bankruptcy filing (for work fully performed before the bankruptcy filing) would be $32.50. The calculation is as follows: $250 x 25% = $62.25 that could be taken using the 25% calculations. However, 30 x $7.25 (the federal minimum wage) = $217.50. $250-217.50 = $32.50. Since $32.50 is less than $62.25, the trustee is limited to taking $32.50 from this paycheck.

Your state law may have a higher exemption than this amount, which may mean that the trustee can get nothing from this one paycheck.

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Homestead Exemption

The homestead exemption is what you use to protect your home from creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. Again, it's the equity that matters. If you own a home and it’s worth $200,000, but you owe $180,000 on it, you have $20,000 in equity. If your state allows a $30,000 homestead exemption, your home is fully exempt. If your state has a $7,500 homestead exemption, you have $12,500 of non-exempt equity in your home.

Most states have a dollar limitation on their homestead exemption. A few states such as Florida and Texas have an unlimited exemption for your home. In these states, you could own a home worth $100 million outright and it would still be completely exempt. Even these states do have some limitations though. In urban areas of Florida, the property can't cover more than 1/2 acre. In rural areas, it can't be more than 160 acres. Some states, such as New York, provide homestead exemptions in differing amounts depending on the county your home is located in. 

There's another rule for homestead exemptions. You must have bought the home 1,215 days before filing bankruptcy to use that state's homestead exemption. Otherwise, you'll be limited to $189,050. This amount is indexed for inflation and was last updated in April 2022. If you live in a state with an unlimited exemption such as Texas or Florida or a state with a homestead exemption greater than $189,050 and you haven't owned the home for the required amount of time, you'll be capped at this amount. If you live in a state with a lower homestead exemption, that lower homestead exemption will be your exemption amount.

If you rent instead of own a home, you may still be able to use the homestead exemption. In many states, you can use your homestead exemption to exempt your security deposit for the rental home or apartment where you live. Some states and the federal bankruptcy exemptions allow all or a portion of an unused homestead exemption to be used as a wildcard exemption.

Retirement Benefits

If your retirement account is an ERISA-qualified account, it’s generally exempt under both federal and state law. ERISA is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Generally, some IRAs that aren't ERISA-qualified, but qualify as IRAs under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), are also protected. Retirement accounts have to meet a very complex set of requirements to be ERISA qualified or to meet the requirements of the IRC.

Some states have an unlimited exemption for IRAs. Unfortunately, federal law trumps state law here. The Bankruptcy Code limits this exemption to $1,000,000 after indexing for inflation. This amount is updated every three years. It was updated on April 1, 2022, to $1,512,350. If your state exemption is less than this amount, you'll be stuck with the state exemption unless you live in a state where you can choose the federal exemptions.

If you inherit an IRA or other retirement account it isn’t exempt from your creditors or the bankruptcy trustee unless your state’s exemptions specifically state otherwise, with one exception. If you're the spouse of the person that died and you've rolled over the inherited IRA (or another type of exempt retirement account) into your own retirement account, the funds from the inherited retirement account will be protected from your creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. 

The Wildcard

The wildcard exemption protects any equity in property that's not already covered by another exemption. Most states and the federal exemptions have a wildcard exemption. Some state exemptions and the federal exemptions allow you to add any unused homestead exemption to the wildcard exemption.

In the case of the federal exemptions, the wildcard exemption is $1,475, and up to $13,950 of the unused homestead exemption can be added to the federal wildcard exemption. Both of these amounts are revised every three years for inflation. The last change occurred on April 1, 2022.

Let's Summarize...

Exemptions are an important part of any bankruptcy proceeding. They're what you use to protect your property from being taken and sold by the trustee. Most low-income bankruptcy filers have no non-exempt assets. With all their assets exempt, nothing can be taken or sold.

If you're unsure about what exemptions you can use or how to use them, you can consult with a bankruptcy lawyer. If it appears that you might lose some property if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it might be better to consider a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Written By:

Lawyer John Coble


John Coble has practiced as both a CPA and an attorney. John's legal specialties were tax law and bankruptcy law. Before starting his own firm, John worked for law offices, accounting firms, and one of America's largest banks. John handled almost 1,500 bankruptcy cases in the eig... read more about Lawyer John Coble

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