State Law Does Not Create Exemption in Trust

Posted by NCBRC - January 18, 2023

A state statute protecting a trust from judgment creditors is not an exemption statute for bankruptcy purposes where it was not designated as such and it did not provide unequivocal protection against all forms of collection. In re Morris, No. 21-30468 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. Jan. 13, 2023).

In his chapter 7 bankruptcy schedules, the debtor listed an interest as a potential beneficiary in a trust that did not have a spendthrift provision. The debtor claimed an exemption for the interest under Illinois law, 735 ILCS 5/2-1403 (1999), which provides:

Judgment debtor as beneficiary of trust. No court, except as otherwise provided in this Section, shall order the satisfaction of a judgment out of any property held in trust for the judgment debtor if such trust has, in good faith, been created by, or the fund so held in trust has proceeded from, a person other than the judgment debtor. . . .

The trustee objected, arguing that the statute did not create a bankruptcy exemption.

Illinois is an opt-out state, so the court looked to state law to determine whether the trust interest would be exempt even though, unlike other specified exemptions like retirement plans and worker’s compensation awards, the statute at issue here did not create an explicit exemption. The court found that exemptions under the state laws are not limited to those so designated. Rather, “exempt property is any property that the legislature has identified and declared to be free from liability to processes such as seizure and sale, or attachment to satisfy debts.” The essential characteristic of an exemption “is simply whether the provision unequivocally protects the identified property against all forms of collection.”

In this case, the statute the debtor relied on was limited to protecting a debtor’s interest in a trust from judgment creditors. But the court found the chapter 7 trustee was merely gathering estate assets under section 541. He was not a judgment creditor nor was he attempting to collect on a judgment. The court quoted from In re Gutterridge, 2013 WL 395140 (Bankr. C.D. Ill., Jan. 31, 2013), discussing the same state statute, that “once a bankruptcy petition is filed, the Illinois statute in this case cannot apply to create an exemption to a trust that is otherwise simply an asset of the bankruptcy estate.”

The court noted that the grantors could have placed the trust out of reach under section 541(c)(2) by including a spendthrift provision. But the trust in this case did not do so.

The court rejected the debtor’s argument that because certain forms of collection such as levy, garnishment and attachment, all involve a judgment the state statute essentially applies to all collection actions. The court found no support for the argument in the language of the statute. Had the legislature intended to create an exemption, it could have done so.

The court concluded that the narrow language of the Illinois statute was not an “unequivocal” protection of the trust for bankruptcy exemption purposes. It sustained the trustee’s objection.

Morris Bankr SD Ill Jan 2023


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