In an unusual case in Illinois, Robinson v. Hagan (Case No. 13-cv-1239-SMY, S.D. Ill. 2014), a Chapter 7 debtor was permitted to keep a rare, first edition copy of The Book of Mormon from 1830, which was potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars. Normally, in a Chapter 7 case, a debtor must turn over all assets that are not exempt to the Trustee so that they may be sold, and the proceeds distributed among the creditors. In most states, this would likely require the turnover of a valuable Bible.
However, in Illinois, Bibles are specifically exempted under the law. The Illinois exemption statute provides as follows: “The following personal property, owned by the debtor, is exempt from judgment, attachment, or distress for rent: (a) The necessary wearing apparel, bible, school books, and family pictures of the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” 735 ILCS 5/12-1001(a).
The Bankruptcy Court agreed with the Chapter 7 Trustee’s argument that permitting the Book of Mormon to be exempted would violate the intent and purpose of the statute because the statute was not intended to exempt Bibles that were not of ordinary value. The Chapter 7 Trustee also argued that the word “necessary” in the statute applied to all of the items listed and that the rare Book of Mormon was not necessary because the debtor had multiple copies of the scriptures.
In reversing the Bankruptcy Court, U.S. District Judge Yandle held that the plain language of the statute indicated that the Bible was exempt without regard to its value. If the legislature had intended to place a dollar limit on the exemption, it would have done so, as was the case with other items, such as motor vehicles ($2,400) and tools of the trade ($1,500). Addressing the issue of whether the Book of Mormon was “necessary,” the District Court reasoned that even if the word did modify all of the terms of the statute, the Court was not in a position to determine the spiritual necessity of any book, which was necessarily an individual determination. In addition, the District Court found that the value of a Bible alone was irrelevant to the “necessary” analysis. In this case, since the debtor had kept the Book of Mormon, despite its great value and her dire need for money, it was clear that she refrained from selling the Book because of its non-monetary value, with no intention of defrauding her creditors. As such, the District Court found that the Book of Mormon was entirely exempt under the Illinois exemption statute.
If you are considering filing for bankruptcy and have an unusual or potentially valuable item of personal property, you will need an experienced attorney to evaluate your case. The attorneys at the firm of Laura Margulies & Associates, LLC have successfully handled thousands of cases in Maryland and Washington, D.C., many involving unique or novel issues. Please contact us today for a consultation at 301-816-1600. Our website address is: www.law-margulies.com.