One of the major concerns of most people considering bankruptcy is what will happen to their stuff. We get this question from clients all the time. Most normal people who have standard assets – a home with a modest amount of equity, a reasonable car (not a high end sports car), furniture, computer, etc – are just fine. One of the items most people take for granted that they can keep is their family Bible. But one Illinois consumer faced losing her good book when she filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Today we'll look at what happened in this interesting case.
A very special Bible
In 2003, Illinois resident Anna Robinson, a librarian, was working at the Stinson Memorial Library in Anna, Illinois. While cleaning out old storage, she found a rare copy of the Book of Mormon, the Bible of that faith. The library allowed her to keep the dusty old tome and she stored it in a plastic baggie in her home for more than a decade. The book was from 1830 and was worth roughly $10,000.
The bankruptcy case
Ten years later, when Robinson filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, her attorney included the Book of Mormon in her bankruptcy petition. He acknowledged that Illinois bankruptcy law allows an exemption for bibles but says Robinson understands that “valuable bibles may or may not be covered under such an exemption.” The Trustee decided to go after the Bible.
What Illinois exemptions allow
Illinois law 735 ILCS 5/12-1001 establishes which property is exempt in bankruptcy and section 12-1001(a) specifies that the following shall be exempt: “The necessary wearing apparel, bible, school books, and family pictures of the debtor and the debtor's dependents.” The Trustee fastened onto the word “necessary” at the beginning of this passage to push to strip Robinson of her Bible.
What the Trustee did
The Trustee claimed that the word “necessary” at the beginning of that part of the law should be applied to every item thereafter. In the Trustee request to the court to seize the Bible she said the law only protects a “necessary bible” as in “necessary apparel” “necessary bible” or “necessary school books.” This may seem a stretch, but the bankruptcy court agreed and ruled the Trustee could take it.
What the bankruptcy court decided
Because it's vague as to whether the word necessary applied to items thereafter, the bankruptcy judge had to consider the intent of the law. The judge said the purpose of the law is to prevent the debtor from becoming a burden on society by discharging debt they can afford to reasonably pay. The judge said bibles are to facilitate worship and since Robinson kept hers in a bag and had other Books of Mormon, it wasn't necessary for her daily worship needs.
Was the bankruptcy court correct to rule this way?
The bankruptcy judge seemed to base her decision on the manner in which Robinson stored the bible. In fact, it makes sense to keep an old bible in a storage container no matter its worth. As a Mormon, the book was likely a very important religious relic to her and that puts the bankruptcy court in the position of determining what is an appropriate way to worship. That's dangerous territory.
A reversal on appeal
The debtor appealed the Trustee's decision to take her old bible away and while it took a year for the district court that oversees the Illinois bankruptcy court to render their decision, they came down in favor of Robinson keeping her bible. The court said that even if you applied the word “necessary” to the bible, it is not the business of the court to tell someone what kind of bible is necessary for their worship. They also said “necessary” alleviated the consideration of value.