Monday, June 16, 2008

Decision Addressing Two Controversial Means Testing Issues

Massachusetts Bankruptcy Judge Feeney recently decided in re Mati, 2008 WL 2389234 (Bkrtcy.D.Mass.2008) in which she addressed two important means testing/disposable income issues for above-median-income Chapter 13 debtors. This case is one of many now revealing how substantial the changes are to Chapter 13 practice after BAPCPA, many of which are only now emerging after almost three years since the 2005 amendments.

First, the Court examined whether the debtor could exclude his 401(k) contributions from his disposable income and consequently exclude this income from his Chapter 13 plan payment. The Court put it this way: “The Court finds that the Debtor’s 401(k) contributions do not evidence bad faith under the totality of the circumstances in this case. The Debtor is merely taking advantage of what the law allows. Indeed, by excluding 401(k) contributions from property of the estate and expressly removing them from the definition of disposable income under section 1325(b), see 11 U.S.C. § 541(b)(7), Congress has implemented a policy of protecting and encouraging retirement savings.” Mati at 5.

The trustee had argued that doing what the statute allowed exhibited the debtor's bad faith. The Court recognized that doing what the law allows cannot be the sole basis for a bad faith finding, even if it yields what it deems as an inequitable result. Some courts have stated or implied that they would use “bad faith” to achieve a result consistent with pre-amendment practice. Mati lends important support to the contention that one is not acting in bad faith if they are doing no more or less than the law allows.

Next, the Court addressed the dispute over whether the debtor was entitled to the car “ownership” deduction on his B22C “mean test” form despite owning his car outright. The trustee argued that the allowance should only available to debtors who have a car loan or lease payment. The Court disagreed noting that the car ownership allowance appears in “applicable” and not the “actual” expense part of Section 707. The Court stated (quoting another court) that: “The use of fixed expense allowances levels the playing field for debtors. It is far less defensible from a policy perspective for a debtor with one car payment remaining at the time of filing to get the full standard deduction for the 60-month term of the Chapter 13 plan, while a debtor who paid off the secured debt before filing gets no deduction whatsoever.”

There is a split of authority throughout the nation on this BAPCPA provision. I believe the Court applied the law according to its terms. Some other courts appear to have strained to reach a desired result. Courts when faced with a statutory mandate to equalize certain expenses for consumer debtors should apply the law -–even when these provisions actually benefit debtors.

The bottom line is that going forward debtors in Judge Feeney’s session will be permitted to take the car ownership allowance even if they own their car outright.