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In Re: E.D. Bankr. Jan Rasmussen

September 14, 2011

IN RE: E.D. BANKR. JAN RASMUSSEN
AND
CHERYL RASMUSSEN,
DEBTORS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seybert, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Appellant Kenneth P. Silverman (the "Trustee") is Jan and Cheryl Rasmussen's ("Debtors") Chapter 7 Trustee. The Bankruptcy Court denied the Trustee's motion to disallow the Debtors' claimed homestead exemption and the Trustee appealed. For the reasons that follow, the Bankruptcy Court's decision is AFFIRMED.

BACKGROUND

The facts underlying this appeal are straightforward and undisputed. Debtors reside at 56 Horn Lane, Levittown, New York (the "Premises"). They own a vested remainder fee interest in the Premises subject to a life estate owned by Jan Rasmussen's mother, Jeannette. The Premises is Debtors' principal residence; they reside there with Jeannette and pay her $600 monthly rent.

Debtors filed for Chapter 7 relief on March 27, 2009. Their remainder interest in the Premises is their only asset. Debtors claimed a homestead exemption for the Premises, and the Trustee objected.

In an opinion by United States Bankruptcy Judge Alan S. Trust, the Bankruptcy Court ruled that Debtors could claim their remainder interest as a homestead. (Bankruptcy Order dated July 20, 2010 (the "Bankruptcy Order").) The Bankruptcy Court reasoned that Debtors' remainder interest in the Premises qualified for the exemption because New York's homestead exemption statute, New York Civil Practice Law and Rules Section 5206 ("Section 5206"), does not specify which types of ownership interests are exemptible. Inasmuch as a future interest in real property is descendible, devisable, and alienable to the same degree as estates in possession, the Bankruptcy Court concluded, Debtors' interest is an ownership interest and therefore exemptible. In the Bankruptcy Court's view, this outcome was particularly apt in light of a court's duty to construe the homestead statute in Debtors' favor to effectuate its purpose. (See Bankruptcy Order at 6.)

DISCUSSION

The issue in this appeal is whether vested remaindermen who occupy real property as their principal residence and pay rent to the life tenant with whom they share a home may claim the real property as a homestead exemption under Section 5206. The Bankruptcy Court, in a case of first impression, concluded in a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision that they may. For the reasons that follow, the Bankruptcy Court's decision is AFFIRMED.

I. Standard of Review

The Court reviews a Bankruptcy Court's conclusion of law de novo. See, e.g., In re Jackson, 593 F.3d 171, 176 (2d Cir. 2010).

II. Debtors may Exempt the Premises

New York's homestead exemption statute, which applies in this case because New York has "opted out" of the exemptions listed in the federal Bankruptcy Code, see 11 U.S.C. § 522(b); N.Y. D.C.L. § 284; see also, e.g., In re Martinez, 392 B.R. 530, 531 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2008), provides in pertinent part:

(a) Exemption of homestead. Property of one of the following types, not exceeding one hundred fifty thousand dollars for the counties of Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, Westchester and Putnam; one hundred twenty- five thousand dollars for the counties of Dutchess, Albany, Columbia, Orange, Saratoga and Ulster; and seventy-five thousand dollars for the remaining counties of the state in value above liens and encumbrances, owned and occupied as a principal residence, is exempt ...


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