The Impact of Bankruptcy on Jointly Owned Property

Family in car lot, looking at red car.If you face a mountain of debt and have concluded that the only way you can get a fresh start is through a personal bankruptcy filing, you may concerned about the impact of a bankruptcy on jointly owned property. What if you are named on the bank account of a parent or elderly relative as a convenience to facilitate the payment of their bills? What if you had a parent or friend co-sign a loan for you?

Creditor or Trustee access to Jointly Held Property

The simple reality is that (with few exceptions) any property in which you have any ownership interest is potentially subject to being used to pay creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding, unless you can properly exempt it. The good news is that the amount of the jointly held property available to the bankruptcy court will typically be only your individual interest.

In New Jersey, money in a joint bank account is presumed to belong to each account owner in the same proportion as each contributed money to the account, unless there is clear and convincing evidence of an intent to make a gift.

A common situation we see is where an elderly parent adds a child as a joint account holder “for convenience” so the child can help manage the money or pay bills. If you are the child and can document that the money all came from the parent without an intent to make a gift, a trustee will probably leave it alone. But if you have not filed a bankruptcy, the bank account could be subject to a bank levy by one of your judgment creditors without notice. Then the account is frozen until you or your unhappy parent can go to court (weeks later) to show that the money is not yours.

We recommend against this arrangement. Parent and child should go to the bank and make arrangements for the child to have signature authority on the account under a power of attorney.

Another potentially troublesome situation arises where a parent takes title to a car that a minor child bought or is paying for using her own money. Usually this is done “for insurance purposes”. The car is still an asset of a bankruptcy estate, and is still subject to a sheriff’s levy ordered by an unpaid judgment creditor. In a bankruptcy, we have generally been able to protect the car under the theory that the car is “legally but not beneficially” owned by the parent.

These types of situations are just some of the examples that can arise. If you are facing financial difficulties, we counsel against keeping your money or assets in joint names with others. However, before transferring things around, you need to get qualified legal advice that can come from such transfers if done improperly.

Contact Our Office

Let us help you minimize the stress, anxiety and confusion that come with a personal bankruptcy filing. At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we offer a free initial consultation to every client. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. For an appointment, call Neuner & Ventura at (856) 596-2828 or send us an e-mail. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.
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