Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Judge Rules That Home is Where the Heart Is

In 2000, Natalie Portman starred in "Where the Heart Is," a movie about a pregnant 17 year old girl who makes her home in a Walmart. Judge Stacey Jernigan recently had to decide a quite different case about home and the heart. The case involved whether a modern day cowpoke's heart was down on the ranch or in town in his wife's bedroom. Fortunately, like a character in a John Wayne movie, the Debtor fended off every attack and saved the ranch. In re Tinsley, No. 09-36036 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 11/16/10). The opinion can be found here.

The Story

Our story goes back to 1979, when the Debtor's father purchased 116 acres located in Kaufman, Texas. In 2004, the Debtor moved into the Kaufman property to take care of his father. From 2004 to 2008, the Debtor stayed at the property full time and operated his own business, which consisted of running cattle and growing hay.

On September 24, 2008, the Debtor's father passed away and left the ranch to the Debtor. under his will A few days later on October 14, 2008, the Debtor married. After marriage, he d spent his days at the Kaufman property and his nights at his wife's home. The Debtor generously allowed his adult son and his family to live at the Kaufman property.

On September 10, 2009, the Debtor filed bankruptcy. Title to the Kaufman property remained in the name of his deceased father because the probate case had not been concluded. The Debtor used his wife's address as his address on the bankruptcy petition, but claimed the Kaufman property as his homestead.

The Objections

The Trustee and a creditor objected to the claimed homestead exemption on the grounds that:

a. The Kaufman property was not his homestead under Texas law; and
b. The homestead exemption was capped at $136,875 because the Debtor acquired his interest within 1,215 days before bankruptcy.

Texas Homestead Exemption

In order to establish a Texas homestead, a person must show that he has a present possessory interest in the property and must show a combination of both overt acts and intent to make the property his homestead.

The objecting parties claimed that the Debtor did not have a present possessory interest in the property because he did not hold legal title. The Court rejected this argument, finding that legal title was not necessary. The Court found that the Debtor was a tenant at will of the probate estate. While his continued possession of the property "depends upon the will and whim of the fee simple owner (i.e., the probate estate of his father)," the fact that he was the devisee under the will made it unlikely that he would lose his possessory interest.

The next issue was thornier. The homestead "is a possessory right which inures to the benefit of a family unit." The Debtor and his wife occupied two separate properties. Therefore, the Court had to determine whether the Debtor showed sufficient overt acts and intent to make the Kaufman property his homestead. The Court noted the possibility that the couple could claim both properties as a noncontiguous rural homestead, but found that this theory had not been pled.

The court found that in a dual residence scenario, the first step is to determine whether one residence was objectively the only homestead. If the usage is sufficiently ambiguous, then the court may honor the Debtor's subjective intent.

While finding that the case was extremely close, the Court found enough ambiguity to take the Debtor's subjective intent into account.

1. The Debtor spent almost every day at the Kaufman property.
2. The Debtor intended to move his bride onto the Kaufman property once it was renovated.
3. "While his new bride is eight miles down the road, the Debtor's horses, boots, tools, livelihood the past 17 years and now extended family are at the Kaufman property 365 days a year." Judge Jernigan shows real discernment here. The real test of a cowboy's residence is where he keeps his boots.

Homestead Cap

However, the ranch was not out danger yet. The creditors argued that because the Debtor acquired his interest in the Kaufman property under his father's will and his father passed away less than 1,215 days before bankruptcy, that the exemption was capped at $136,875.

The Court found that the Debtor had acquired a "vested economic interest" under the will. While noting that she "had grave doubts whether section 522(p) should apply at all in the context of a homestead 'acquired' by devise in a will within 1,215 days of the debtor filing for bankruptcy," she found that the Fifth Circuit had assumed without discussion that an inherited property was acquired. She also noted that Black's Law Dictionary defined "acquire" to mean "to gain by any means."

While it looked like a bad result, the Court was willing to hold her nose and apply the cap. However, there is an exception to the cap for the principal residence of a family farmer. After an exhaustive analysis, the Court found that: the Kaufman property was the Debtor's principal residence; that the Debtor was engaged in farming operations even though he no longer grew crops and didn't have any cattle on the property at the time of the filing (the Court found it compelling that he had operated a ranching operation on the property since 1993 and had resumed his ranching operation after recovering from a heart attack), the Debtor's debts were less than $3,544,525 and that the Debtor received more than 50% of his gross income from farming during the three years prior to bankruptcy.

The end result was that the Debtor got to keep the ranch without being subject to a cap.


In conclusion, Judge Jernigan remarked:

The court would conclude with the old saying that “home is where the heart is,” and, although the Debtor may have spent his nights with his new bride at the Kemp Property, rather than the Kaufman Property, the facts and circumstances in this case certainly show that the Kaufman Property is the Debtor’s true home and where his “heart” is. This case is certainly unique in that it implicates section 522(p)(1) for reasons not originally contemplated by Congress (i.e., this is hardly a case of letting a debtor get through a “mansion loophole,” in that no non-exempt property was put in a large, luxurious mansion on the eve of bankruptcy). Fortunately, for this Debtor, even though he “acquired” property which he used as his homestead within 1,215 days of filing bankruptcy, Congress anticipated certain situations to which they did not want section 522(p)(1) to apply and drafted section 522(p)(2)(A).
Opinion, p. 35. In the final analysis, a bad unintended consequence was avoided due to the fortuitous intervention of an exception that happened to fit the Debtor to a t.


Los Angeles Bankruptcy Attorney said...

Wow! a home in wal-mart??? lol

Anonymous said...

This is a good blog. Keep up all the work. I too love blogging and expressing my opinions

George E. Bourguignon, Jr. Attorney at Law said...

Detailed posting, and quite a story. I bet people that say home is where the heart is do not think that the law would agree.