Significant US Supreme Court decisions affecting bankruptcy practice continue to come down the pike.  Sometimes the decision is good news. (In re: Lanning, discussed elsewhere in this blog, allowing debtors to adjust their income downward from the means test when special circumstances so dictate.)

Sometimes the decision is really detrimental to bankruptcy practice — setting up a trap for the unwary.  This new decision, In Re: Ransom No. 09–907, is just that kind of case. In a nut shell, it prevents a bankrupt debtor from including a motor vehicle ownership expense on Form B22 — the “means test” — if the debtor doesn’t have a loan on his or her vehicle. This has the net effect of adding about $500 to the debtor’s disposable income.

It also encourages a debtor to go buy a vehicle before filing bankruptcy. For instance, if a debtor has the choice in Chapter 13 bankruptcy between paying $500 more each month to a bankruptcy trustee versus paying a lender for a new vehicle which the debtor can actually use and enjoy, what is the better option?

Ranson ignores the fact that if a debtor has no car payment for the MOMENT, sometime during the bankruptcy plan the debtor’s old, paid off vehicle is likely to have to be replaced. In most instances, reliable transportation is required for the debtor to maintain employment so he or she can continue to make the required bankruptcy plan payments to the trustee.  The ransom decision also ignores the fact that an older vehicle may not have a monthly payment to a lender, but it costs more to maintain due to necessary repairs along the way.

This case demonstrates why an experienced, competent bankruptcy attorney is essential to your case.  Your lawyer must be able analyze the state of the law and adjust your case strategy accordingly.  Most of the decisions important to your bankruptcy filing are made before your documents are ever presented to the court.

Here’s what the U.S. Supreme Court had to say in the Ransom case:

No. 09–907. Argued October 4, 2010—Decided January 11, 2011
Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code uses a statutory formula known asthe “means test” to help ensure that debtors who can pay creditors do pay them. The means test instructs a debtor to determine his “dis-posable income”—the amount he has available to reimburse credi-tors—by deducting from his current monthly income “amounts rea-sonably necessary to be expended” for, inter alia, “maintenance or support.” 11 U. S. C. §1325(b)(2)(A)(i). For a debtor whose income is above the median for his State, the means test indentifies which ex-penses qualify as “amounts reasonably necessary to be expended.” As relevant here, the statute provides that “

[t]he debtor’s monthly ex-penses shall be the debtor’s applicable monthly expense amounts specified under the National Standards and Local Standards, and the debtor’s actual monthly expenses for the categories specified as Other Necessary Expenses issued by the Internal Revenue Service [IRS] forthe area in which the debtor resides.” §707(b)(2)(A)(ii)(I).The Standards are tables listing standardized expense amounts for basic necessities, which the IRS prepares to help calculate taxpayers’ability to pay overdue taxes. The IRS also creates supplementalguidelines known as the “Collection Financial Standards,” which de-scribe how to use the tables and what the amounts listed in them mean. The Local Standards include an allowance for transportationexpenses, divided into vehicle “Ownership Costs” and vehicle “Oper-ating Costs.” The Collection Financial Standards explain that “Own-ership Costs” cover monthly loan or lease payments on an automo-bile; the expense amounts listed are based on nationwide car financing data. The Collection Financial Standards further state that a taxpayer who has no car payment may not claim an allowance for ownership costs.
When petitioner Ransom filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy relief, helisted respondent (FIA) as an unsecured creditor. Among his assets,Ransom reported a car that he owns free of any debt. In determininghis monthly expenses, he nonetheless claimed a car-ownership deduc-tion of $471, the full amount specified in the “Ownership Costs” table,as well as a separate $388 deduction for car-operating costs. Based on his means-test calculations, Ransom proposed a bankruptcy plan that would result in repayment of approximately 25% of his unse-cured debt. FIA objected on the ground that the plan did not directall of Ransom’s disposable income to unsecured creditors. FIA con-tended that Ransom should not have claimed the car-ownership al-lowance because he does not make loan or lease payments on his car. Agreeing, the Bankruptcy Court denied confirmation of the plan.The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Held: A debtor who does not make loan or lease payments may not takethe car-ownership deduction. Pp. 6–18.
(a) This Court’s interpretation begins with the language of theBankruptcy Code, which provides that a debtor may claim only “ap-plicable” expense amounts listed in the Standards. Because the Code does not define the key word “applicable,” the term carries its ordi-nary meaning of appropriate, relevant, suitable, or fit. What makes an expense amount “applicable” in this sense is most naturally un-derstood to be its correspondence to an individual debtor’s financial circumstances. Congress established a filter, permitting a debtor toclaim a deduction from a National or Local Standard table only ifthat deduction is appropriate for him. And a deduction is so appro-priate only if the debtor will incur the kind of expense covered by thetable during the life of the plan. Had Congress not wanted to sepa-rate debtors who qualify for an allowance from those who do not, it could have omitted the term “applicable” altogether. Without that word, all debtors would be eligible to claim a deduction for each cate-gory listed in the Standards. Interpreting the statute to require athreshold eligibility determination thus ensures that “applicable” carries meaning, as each word in a statute should.
This reading draws support from the statute’s context and purpose. The Code initially defines a debtor’s disposable income as his “cur-rent monthly income . . . less amounts reasonably necessary to be ex-pended.” §1325(b)(2). It then instructs that such reasonably neces-sary amounts “shall be determined in accordance with” the means test. §1325(b)(3). Because Congress intended the means test to ap-proximate the debtor’s reasonable expenditures on essential items, a debtor should be required to qualify for a deduction by actually incurring an expense in the relevant category. Further, the statute’s pur-pose—to ensure that debtors pay creditors the maximum they can af-ford—is best achieved by interpreting the means test, consistent withthe statutory text, to reflect a debtor’s ability to afford repayment.Pp. 6–9.
The vehicle-ownership category covers only the costs of a car loan or lease. The expense amount listed ($471) is the average monthly payment for loans and leases nationwide; it is not intendedto estimate other conceivable expenses associated with maintaining a car. Maintenance expenses are the province of the separate “Operat-ing Costs” deduction. A person who owns a car free and clear is enti-tled to the “Operating Costs” deduction for all driving-related ex-penses. But such a person may not claim the “Ownership Costs”deduction, because that allowance is for the separate costs of a carloan or lease. The IRS’ Collection Financial Standards reinforce this conclusion by making clear that individuals who have a car but makeno loan or lease payments may take only the operating-costs deduc-tion. Because Ransom owns his vehicle outright, he incurs no ex-pense in the “Ownership Costs” category, and that expense amount istherefore not “applicable” to him. Pp. 9–11.
Ransom’s arguments to the contrary—an alternative interpreta-tion of the key word “applicable,” an objection to the Court’s view ofthe scope of the “Ownership Costs” category, and a criticism of thepolicy implications of the Court’s approach—are unpersuasive. Pp. 11–18.