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The best-laid rules of bankruptcy law gang aft agley

The incomprehensible part of this post's title comes from a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is the end of a familiar expression, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry," which Burns coined in a poem in 1785. English majors are eternally grateful to the person who translated the poem from the original Scots. Like "Beowulf" and "The Canterbury Tales," the old language is remarkable for scholars but off-putting for the rest of us.

State and federal laws can work the same way. The language is so convoluted and antiquated that even attorneys have trouble figuring it out. Over time, though, the courts wrestle with the maze of heretofore's and howsoever's and tell us what they think it means so we can move on. The law doesn't change; we are just a little clearer about what a legislature or Congress meant to say.

Bankruptcy law is no different. In fact, it may be worse, because there are two sets of laws -- federal and state -- to understand. And, when it comes to exemptions, a somewhat complicated part of the bankruptcy code, any tortured language of years gone by can slow the process and cost the debtor and the courts both time and money.

A prime example of this came across our desks recently in a case from outside of Illinois. At the center of the case is a couple that received a life insurance payout (the husband's mother passed away) just a couple of weeks after filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The question the court had to answer was whether the payout was part of the bankruptcy estate. Figuring out the statute was not easy.

We'll continue this in our next post.

Source:, "The Amazingly Confusing Life Insurance Exemption From Creditor Claims," Jay Adkisson, April 11, 2015

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