NCLC report: Urgent need for reform of state property exemption laws to free up courts and protect basic family assets

A new
report from the National Consumer Law Center surveys the property exemption laws of the
50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands that
protect wages, assets in a bank account, and property from seizure by
creditors. No Fresh Start: How States Let
Debt Collectors Push Families into Poverty
finds that not one jurisdiction’s
laws meet basic standards so that debtors can continue to work productively to
support themselves and their families.

States’ archaic
exemption laws fuel the lucrative and fast-growing debt-buyer industry. For
example, nine of the nation’s largest debt buyers purchased (for just a few
pennies on the dollar) nearly 90 million consumer accounts with a face value of
$143 billion, according to a January 2013 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study.
Consumers disputed at least one million of these debts, yet only half of
the disputed debts were verifiable at all by the debt buyer. 

Despite the
importance of state exempt property laws, this National Consumer Law Center
report finds that not one state meets five
basic standards:

  • Preventing debt collectors from seizing so much of the debtor’s
    wages that the debtor is pushed below a living wage;
  • Allowing the debtor to keep a used car of at least average
  • Preserving the family’s home—at least a median-value home;
  • Preventing seizure and sale of the debtor’s necessary household
    goods; and
  • Preserving at least $1200 in a bank account so that the debtor
    has minimal funds to pay such essential costs as rent, utilities, and commuting

The NCLC report
recommends that state exemption laws should be reformed to:

  • Preserve the debtor’s ability to work, by protecting
    a working car, work tools and equipment, and money for commuting and other
    daily work expenses.
  • Protect the family’s housing, necessary household goods, and
    means of transportation.
  • Protect a living wage for working debtors that will meet
    basic needs and maintain a safe, decent standard of living within the
  • Protect a reasonable amount of money in bank accounts so that debtors
    can pay commuting costs as well as upcoming rent and utility bills.
  • Protect retirees from destitution by restricting
    creditors’ ability to seize retirement funds.
  • Be automatically updated for inflation.
  • Close loopholes that enable some lenders to evade exemption
    For example, states that allow payday lending enable these
    lenders to evade state laws that protect wages and exempt benefits from
    creditors. States that allow lenders to take household goods as collateral
    enable these lenders to avoid state household good exemptions.
  • Be self-enforcing to the extent possible, so that the
    debtor does not have to file complicated papers or attend court hearings.

Model language
for states to achieve these goals is provided in the National Consumer Law
Center’s Model Family Financial Protection Act. The model law also includes steps that
states can take to reduce the pervasive abuse of the court system by debt
buyers. Seizure of debtors’ wages and property would not be such a problem if
debt buyers did not churn out such an endless stream of judgments on old,
poorly documented debts—many of which are based on mistaken claims. 

By updating
exemption laws, states can prevent over-aggressive debt buyers from reducing
families to poverty. These protections also benefit the state by keeping
workers in the work force, helping families stay together, and reducing the
demand on funds for unemployment compensation and social services.

report includes each state’s overall rating and ratings for the five
primary asset-preservation standards as well as appendices with specific
exemption information on all 53 jurisdictions. Also included: Recommendations
for the minimal exemption amounts that will allow a debtor to continue to work
to support a family. 

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