Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New Homestead Decision

Judge Rosenthal in the recent case in re Zmijewski, 2008 WL 2705508 (Bankr.D.Mass.2008), added a decision to the many dealing with trusts and homesteads in Massachusetts. The Chapter 7 debtors, before their case was filed, conveyed real estate to a self-settled trust. The debtors were sole trustees and beneficiaries. However, they only conveyed a remainder interest to the trust and retained life estates in their own names. They then sought to exempt all equity in the real estate with a homestead. The trustee objected and judge sustained with the objection.

The judge held that even if there were no trust involved, the debtors could not exempt two estates (the life estate being one and the remainder interest being the other) with a homestead. No individual can claim more than one homestead. Moreover, since the remainder interest was in trust, the debtors did not own real estate with respect to the remainder interest--they owned personal property. The debtors relied on the recent cases allowing debtors to exempt real estate held in trust. However, these cases relied on the doctrine of merger--an equitable doctrine that can impute ownership of trust property to a sole trustee and beneficiary. The judge stated that this was not argued by the parties. The debtors now may try to raise the issue on a motion for reconsideration. Whether the judge will consider this argument waived or will entertain it is an interesting practice question for those of us in the trenches.