“Sham” Carve-Out Agreement Rejected

Posted by NCBRC - March 29, 2023

Calling the agreement a “sham,” the district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s denial of a carve-out agreement between the chapter 7 trustee and the state and federal tax creditors. The court found the agreement would adhere to no one’s benefit but their own. The court also upheld the bankruptcy court’s finding that the debtor’s homestead exemption applied to section 724(b). Summerlin v. Turnage (In re Turnage), No. 22-122 (W.D. N.C. March 14, 2023).

The 72-year-old widowed debtor living on Social Security income and help from her son, filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. She claimed an exemption of $55,000 in her home which she valued at $124,510.00. Her secured debts at the time of her petition totaled $231,788.29, and consisted of a mortgage on her home and both federal and state tax debts.

The chapter 7 trustee valued the debtor’s home at between $175,000 and $180,000. He objected to her exemption as inapplicable to her tax liens under North Carolina law. He then entered into a carve-out agreement with the debtor’s tax creditors under which he would receive $30,000 for his expenses and “[t]he IRS and NCDOR each get 60% of their secured tax liens. The remaining 40% carved out of the tax liens (approximately $38,000 after payment of the Trustee’s expenses) would be used to pay priority unsecured claims in full and the remainder would be disbursed pro rata among the general unsecured creditors.” He moved the court for authority to sell the property so he could carry out this distribution plan.

The bankruptcy court denied the motion to sell and overruled the objection to the debtor’s exemption. The trustee appealed to the district court.

The court found the appeal turned on application of section 724(b). In addition to establishing the order of distribution where tax liens are involved, that section provides that after the first mortgage is paid off, claimants holding certain types of priority claims may substitute in for the tax lien to the extent of the tax lien. The court noted that the only priority claim that would be available to substitute in for the tax lien would be the trustee’s own compensation, related primarily to the sale of the debtor’s home.

Notably, section 724(b) makes no provision for exemptions. Because North Carolina opted out of the federal exemptions, the court turned to state law to determine how the debtor’s homestead exemption would fare under a section 724(b) distribution scheme. It found state law emphasizes a liberal construction of exemption laws, favoring their application.

The court was unpersuaded by the trustee’s argument that permitting the debtor to take her homestead exemption would impinge on the tax liens. The court differentiated between the homestead exemption’s applicability to proceeds from sale of the home and its applicability to the tax liens themselves. It found that “once the tax agencies agree to the carve-out they cannot direct the allocation of the value created by such carve-out.”

Finally, the court noted with distaste that the carve-out benefited only the trustee and the tax agencies. It stated: “for her ‘fresh start,’ the Debtor, a 72- year-old widow with no meaningful source of income, loses her home and gets no more than a check for about $2,000. The minimal benefit to the other general unsecured creditors does not obscure the reality of this agreement.”

The court affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision that the Debtor’s homestead exemption applies to section 724(b) and its denial of the Motion to Sell.

Turnage WD NC March 2023

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