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What is Equity?

August 15, 2011

Equity is a very important term when discussing your personal assets. Generally, equity is the difference between the market value of an item and the amount of the claims against it. For instance, if your car is worth $5,000, and your auto loan balance is $3,000, then you have $2,000 in vehicle equity. If you own the vehicle jointly with your mother, you have $1,000 in vehicle equity.

Equity is a common issue during bankruptcy, since the debtor is allowed to keep certain modest possessions. Once the amount of equity in an item of property is determined, the debtor can apply legal exemptions against the equity to protect the asset from the bankruptcy trustee and creditors.

When calculating equity, it is vital to not over-value the asset. For some items there are resources, such as the NADA Price Guide for automobiles. For other items you may need to do some investigation. Ebay is a good resource for collectibles. For real estate it may be necessary to speak to a realtor or conduct an appraisal to discover the market value.

Many bankruptcy debtors over-value furniture and jewelry. Most furniture and jewelry immediately depreciates a great deal after purchase. A used sofa may have cost you $700 at the furniture store, but the market value is only what you would get from a yard sale or through Craigslist. Probably not anywhere near what you originally paid.

After determining the market value, the second step in figuring equity is to subtract any claims against the property. The most common type of claim is called a purchase money security interest (PMSI), a fancy term that means you used a lender’s money to buy the item and used the item as security for the loan. This is usually the case with a car loan or a home mortgage, but many other credit purchases could be considered PMSI. A non purchase money security interest (NPMSI) is a loan secured by property you already own. Some finance companies use furniture or other property owned by the borrower to secure personal loans. Finally, a tax lien against real estate or even personal property may affect your equity, as can some legal judgments.

Once your equity is calculated, the next step is to apply legal exemptions to the equity. Most debtors are able to protect all of their equity using legal exemptions. If there is unprotected equity, the trustee must make a decision whether the amount of equity available is worth his time and will actually benefit creditors. Statistically bankruptcy trustees only take property or assets from debtors in about one out of every twenty five Chapter 7 cases.

It is very important to accurately calculate the amount of equity in your property. Discuss all of your property, its market value, and your legal claims with your attorney. Your attorney can then advise you on the best way to protect the property from creditors.


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