Molly had squatted on the damp parquet flooring of the forbidding old cabin a long time before contacting our office. Indeed she stared at the cobwebs festooned on the walls until white dust completely covered her eyelids prior to summoning the courage to call: her energies were exhausted.
After her grandfather’s death her life had become unbearable. For five weeks after the funeral, she thought very little of the pretty property he had left to her, which was dotted with shadowless stones and swept by fragrant blasts of wind lifted from a neighboring valley- she figured she’d sell the land and use the money to pay off her debts. This is because she had dug herself into an awfully big hole after losing her job the previous year. But now that she had some spare change in her purse the creditors stormed her all at once. How the banks learned of Molly’s inheritance so fast is a mystery even to me. But the fact that two of them had already initiated civil proceedings against her was a question not shrouded in any doubt. A man had even seized her by the arm to serve her with a court summons.
And if that was not enough, her phone rang incessantly with the voices of zealous bill-collectors barking threats, menacing letters walled up her mailbox and, at each new dawn, she feared her checking account would be garnished. She protested at first, crying, trying to reason with all the creditors. But lately her preferred way of attending to things was with a despairing wave of the hand. And really, all her clothes had become bedraggled, and her black hair fell rather untidily over her pale slender neck.
Nobody in the town would have called her grandfather rich but he had lived comfortably in his old cabin. Its bright reflection even happened to float on a very wonderful silver-colored lake – perhaps to match the bright reflection from the bald spot on the old man’s head, people said, when he sat fishing with his sturdy back turned to the house, the luminous white birch trees, and to all the world – but that aside, his estate held stock worth a hundred thousand dollars, various items of personal property, and furniture- all of which he left to Molly.
When she first entered my office she looked composed. Or maybe she had just become dry-eyed? In any case, I soon learned what a mess she’d fallen into. In fact, as soon as she began to speak, I could see the first signs that inwardly she was very distressed- I could hear how irregular her breaths were. Her skin, moreover, was of the delicate pink sort which very quickly turns pale- which it did. I offered her water, but she pointed to her large bag of a purse and said she already had some. Then, in a faltering voice, she explained her story. I had told her to start at the beginning, and she took me at my solemn word- she started way back.
“My parents had used drugs pretty hard,” she said, “and I was brought up bouncing between all kinds of relatives- some of them utterly strange people…”
It seems her grandfather had paid for most of her support. And sometimes he had even visited her. But the old man was himself a pretty hard-drinking fellow, who didn’t need any kid around. From what I could tell, he was one of those businessmen who have become all but extinct these days- men without university degrees, who have large bushes for eyebrows and fearlessly demolish every morsel of every meal – but who use their wits to gather handsome nests for themselves. Apparently, he had once owned a motel in Maine, a hamburger franchise in Mississippi, property on the South Carolina coast and even a store in Louisiana which had sold exotic birds.
I will not recount here all the details of her story. Only parts were relevant to her legal problem. But the way she had passed through the world in solitude, and her tale, shaped as it were by a child’s memory, moved me as much as my profession permits.
Next, she told me how she came into her debt. She had worked as a saleswoman at a large department store. She said the atmosphere in the store was like a fashion-contest. And because she wore plain clothes, and her manners were quiet, the other saleswoman found her almost insufferable. A band of them, she explained, never lost an opportunity to say hurtful things to her, and even persecuted anyone who might have befriended her. And the meeker she acted, the more the spite against her grew- she just could not win them over. Moreover, her natural shyness was taken for pride. It seems that even girls who otherwise disliked one another had an understanding when it came to making fun of Molly. Well, to put the story short, one day the bullying made Molly’s nerves snap. Her pulse hammered at her head until she finally screamed at a small, sturdily-built blond girl who had teased her in an obnoxious, hushed tone. Then she raged like an Old-Testament prophet at everyone else. For this, of course, she was fired.
So, after she lost her job, she used her credit cards to pay the bills while she looked for work. But nobody hired her. Probably she received a bad reference from the store. Then she removed the store from her resume but nobody hired her anyways. In the end, she became dejected. And it was only with a mechanical gesture that she ever bothered to get out of bed these days. She got another credit card to sustain her while in this state. Then she got another. And the months flew by. Finally she became so worn out that all she did was dream of finding some secluded spot, and to live there in abandoned poverty. Then her granddad died and left her the property. Then the creditors encircled her. And then she called us.
Anyways, she concluded the story by saying, “It’s all good.”
“Hmm,” I replied, not knowing exactly the meaning of the expression, “It’s all good.” In all likelihood I also cleared my throat and rubbed my nose.
But really, I felt sure that a bankruptcy would probably help her. So I looked at her and asked if she knew what bankruptcy was. She was a tad taken aback by the question. In response, she looked up, and then she tapped her fingers on my desk for a few moments, as if to knock an answer out of it. She also frowned a little and drew her chair closer to my desk. I had not been conscious up till then that it was difficult to form a good notion about her age. She held herself as a woman quite past her first youth, but some of her isolated gestures seemed almost adolescent. I found myself trying to understand their meaning.
At last, she responded that she didn’t want a bankruptcy. She said she would pay her creditors with the money she had inherited. She would sell the cabin. She just wanted the creditors to quiet their frenzied collections attempts for a time. Then I solemnly asked her if she was sure. At this, she rocked back and forth a little in her chair. She even momentarily looked like she might rise and dash out of the office. Then she tucked one of her legs up on her chair, reveling an endearing, but rather worn square-toed shoe, and a faint regret appeared in her eyes. A few more moments passed. Finally she looked down and said, with a thoughtful air, that she had always dreamed of living in the cabin.
It was very clear to me that if Molly lost the cabin it would be as if her last connection with another person was shattered. Her desire to live there was born of a wish to keep a root in the world, where she was otherwise totally alone. And not everyone can remain faithful to a house. She smiled, perhaps suspecting that I understood this point.
In the meantime, there arose in my mind the unpleasant realization that her creditors would seek to garnish her bank account and put a lien on the cabin unless immediate measures were taken. And truth be told, I didn’t wish to see a drop of her grandfather’s wonderful old property go into the claws of the banks. A hundred-thousand dollars maybe wouldn’t allow the young lady to live in any kind of luxury these days, but it could brighten what seemed to me a life that had already had too much rain trickling down its windows.
So, I explained to her that she ought to at least give bankruptcy some thought. I told her that the Automatic Stay which goes into effect upon the filing of a Voluntary Petition would stop her creditors from contacting her, as well as put a halt to the litigation against her. It would give her breathing room. At this, she made a short, agitated movement of her body. She almost had the look of a person waiting for some sign. Her eyes had a slightly abashed expression. She forced a smile.
Sometimes a lawyer is obliged to take some of his client’s shame upon his own heart. I don’t say this boastfully. It really is true. Probably this is because people unaccustomed to its sometimes archaic workings and its adversarial nature are just plain uneasy with it. So I explained to Molly that a bankruptcy could put her on the eve a fresh life. That perhaps she owed it to her granddad. That it could possibly save her property. I didn’t feel entirely light-hearted about saying all this- it seemed a tad indelicate. And had I been her priest I might have told her to just pay her debt. But I wasn’t her priest, and so my duty was to protect her property. After saying all this I looked at her inquiringly for a response.
At this, her face darkened with a flush and she began to cry like a deluge from heaven. This went on a minute or so. A ray of sun from between the blinds was streaming into my eyes, so I had to squint to see her – though I made a start to try and calm her. But, somewhat to my surprise, and much to my relief, she resolutely asked if she could keep the cabin if she filed the bankruptcy. I told her to provide me a copy of her grandfather’s will, a copy of any loan documents for the property, copies of the civil Complaints filed against her by the banks, and so on. I would review them and give her a definite answer.
The next day Molly faxed us all the documents. In the meanwhile, I looked up the tax-assessor’s value of the cabin. I discovered that cabin was worth $200,000. But there was still $150,000 to pay off on the mortgage. This meant that she had $50,000 in equity. That is, if she sold the house, and paid off the bank, she would have $50,000 in her pocket.
Well, people are allowed up to $125,000 in equity on their Principal Residence before the Bankruptcy Trustee will sell a property and distribute the proceeds to the creditors. This was good news. Molly wouldn’t lose the cabin. Soon she could scrape the peeling paint from its grimy walls and watch the sun hide behind the trees of the lake.
So I telephoned Molly and told her all this. And she agreed that I should file the Voluntary Petition under Chapter 7.
However, there were some wrinkles to deal with before I could do it. The cabin was not yet Molly’s Principal Residence. She lived in a dreary basement apartment across the town. She would thus need to move prior to filing. And if this seems sneaky- it isn’t. It is part of legitimate pre-bankruptcy planning. The day a person files a petition is like a photograph of his life. So as long as Molly lived in the cabin on the day she filed she could call it her Principal Residence.
But what to do with the $100,000 in stock that her grandfather left Molly? If she let it sit the Trustee would seize it. So I suggested she sell the stock and put $10,000 of it into a qualified retirement account where it would be safe. The Trustee cannot go after a debtor’s retirement. These accounts are exempt. Another $88,000 she could use to pay off most of the mortgage on the cabin. I also had told Molly that she ought to look up some of her grandfather’s old business pals to help her get a job so she could start making payments on the cabin. This idea got her a very promising lead.
And what about the final $2000?
Well, Molly happened to arrive at my office the next day wearing a rather pretty silk dress, with a transparent veil falling elegantly over her hair, was gloved, combed- and something rather like a sash with yellow polka dots daintily hung across her chest. Ah, how a photographer might have captured this portrait of a lady- sitting on a bench in some prodigal city square looking like an exquisite apparition! But what can I say? Clothes seem to be exempt from seizure, up to a certain amount……
The Chronicles of Mr. Mantel will have new articles periodically published. Check back next month for the next article!
Stories from The Chronicles of Mr. Mantel are fictional and do not depict an actual person or event . This article does not constitute legal advice.