• July 24, 2012

Our garbage, our refuse, our discard, reveal a lot about our habits and even our shared values.  Exemptions from state debt collection laws — that is, property that our legislature has determined is beyond the reach of creditors — is also worth considering.  In a sense, it is the opposite of our garbage.

In part, it consists of assets that we want, as a matter of social policy, to encourage people to seek and save to the fullest.  We want, for example, to encourage retirement savings and the purchase of insurance (so certain insurance proceeds are exempt).

In part, exempt property consists of things in the material world in which the value to the debtor relative to the value of the object stripped from the debtor is so disproportionate that we, as a society, preserve that ownership regardless of the acknowledged debt due.

The family Bible.  One’s pew at church. Wedding rings (up to a certain price – gotta be real, here).  “The library and philosophical and chemical or other apparatus belonging to, and used for the instruction of youth…

No love for our cell phones?  Anyone want to sponsor an amendment?

It is interesting how the identified personal property changes over time.  The exempt property statute has been amended quite a few times over the years.

Note that “musical instruments” are exempt. But this exemption has been read to mean “family musical instruments” and, even more importantly, this exemption has been found unconstitutional (by a U.S. bankruptcy judge?!).

Thus, statutes setting out property exempt from debt collection gives an interesting peek at deeply held social values and the balance of these values with the maintenance of a complex commercial system premised on an underlying functioning means of enforcement.

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