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Bankruptcy in the United States is a matter placed under Federal jurisdiction by the United States Constitution (in Article 1, Section 8), which allows Congress to enact "uniform laws on the subject of Bankruptcy throughout the United States." Its implementation, however, is found in statute law. The relevant statutes are incorporated within the Bankruptcy Code, located at Title 11 of the United States Code, and amplified by state law in the many places where Federal law either fails to speak or expressly defers to state law.
While bankruptcy cases are always filed in United States Bankruptcy Court (an adjunct to the U.S. District Courts), bankruptcy cases, particularly with respect to the validity of claims and exemptions, are often highly dependent upon State law. State law therefore plays a major role in many bankruptcy cases, and it is often quite unwise to generalize bankruptcy issues across state lines.
There are six types of bankruptcy under the Bankruptcy Code, located at Title 11 of the United States Code:
- Chapter 7 - basic liquidation for individuals and businesses
- Chapter 9 - municipal bankruptcy
- Chapter 11 - rehabilitation or reorganization, used primarily by business debtors, but sometimes by individuals with substantial debts and assets
- Chapter 12 - rehabilitation for family farmers and fishermen
- Chapter 13 - rehabilitation with a payment plan for individuals with a regular source of income
- Chapter 15 - ancillary and other international cases
Although in theory all property of the debtor that is not excluded from the estate under the Bankruptcy Code becomes property of the estate (i.e., is automatically transferred from the debtor to the estate) at the time of commencement of a case, an individual debtor (not a partnership, corporation, etc.) may claim certain items of property as "exempt" and thereby keep those items (subject, however, to any valid liens or other encumbrances). An individual debtor may choose between a "federal" list of exemptions and the list of exemptions provided by the law of the state in which the debtor files the bankruptcy case unless the state in which the debtor files the bankruptcy case has enacted legislation prohibiting the debtor from choosing the exemptions on the federal list. Almost 40 states have done so. In states where the debtor is allowed to choose between the federal and state exemptions, the debtor has the opportunity to choose the exemptions that most fully benefit him or her and, in many cases, may convert at least some of his or her property from non-exempt form (e.g. cash) to exempt form (e.g. increased equity in a home created by using the cash to pay down a mortgage) prior to filing the bankruptcy case.
The exemption laws vary greatly from state to state. In some states, exempt property includes equity in a home or car, tools of the trade, and some amount of personal effects. In other states an asset class such as tools of trade will not be exempt by virtue of its class except to the extent it is claimed under a more general exemption for personal property.
One major purpose of bankruptcy is to ensure orderly and reasonable management of debt. Thus, exemptions for personal effects are thought to prevent punitive seizures of items of little or no economic value (personal effects, personal care items, ordinary clothing), since this does not promote any desirable economic result. Similarly, tools of the trade may, depending on the available exemptions, be a permitted exemption as their continued possession allows the insolvent debtor to move forward into productive work as soon as possible.
The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 placed pension plans not subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), like 457 and 403(b) plans in the same status as ERISA qualified plans with respect to having exemption status akin to spendthrift trusts. However, SEP-IRAs and SIMPLEs still are outside federal protection and must rely on state law.