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A (Brief) history of New York exemptions, Part II

This is a continuation of my first blog on the history of New York bankruptcy and judgment debtor exemptions, which went up to the exemption statutes through 1824, which were brought together into one section when New Uork consolidated its statutes in 1829.

The original exemption statute was very specific in the household goods that could be exempted (six knifes and forks, one teapot etc.), and the mechanic could exempt $25 in tools of the trade. In 1842, an additional, somewhat overlapping exemption was enacted, protecting an interest in "necessary household furniture and working tools and team" to a value of $150.00, but not against a purchase money claim. The 1829 consolidated exemptions were available only for a "householder"; this 1842 exemption was for a householder or a person "having a family for which he provides." laws of 1842, p. 193, Chap. 157.

The homestead exemption, a major exemption for a debtor's residence, was added in 1850, at a value of $1,000 (laws of 1850, Chap. 260; sect. 1 & 2). As originally drafted, it was only available to a "householder having a family" and had to be designated as a homestead in a recorded document in the county clerk's office. $1,000 could buy you some house in 1850; not so much a hundred years later. The $1,000 homestead exemption remained unchanged for 119 years, finally doubling to $2,000 in 1969. Laws of 1969, Ch. 961. Eight years later, the exemption increased again, to $10,000, and the requirement to record a homestead designation was eliminated. Laws of 1977, Ch. 181. The exemption increased to $50,000 in 2005, and the proposed law increases it significantly again, up to $150,000 in New York City, Long Island, and three counties north of New York, $100,000 for the Hudson Valley and Albany, and $75,000 for the rest of the state.

Even before the homestead exemption was created, a family burying ground was added as exempt, in 1847 (Laws of 1847, Chap. 85, sect. 1.) This exemption is still with us.

In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, the "pay and bounty" and pension of enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers was exempted. Laws of 1864 Chap. 578, sections 4 & 5.

Around 1876, New York's statutes were recompiled, and the cumbersome Revised Statutes of 1829 (where exemptions were located at "Part III, Chapter VI, Title 5, Article 2, Section 22, Subsections 1-6") were replaced by the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP). Exemptions were located at CCP Sections 1389 through 1404. The six exemptions listed in the 1829 statute (set out and compared to modern statutes at the end of the first blog) (now CPLR Sect. 5205) were located in CCP 1390; the limited catch-all household goods and tools exemption created in 1842 was located at CCP Sect. 1391, increased to $250. The Homestead exemption was at CCP Sect. 1397.

In 1903, CCP Section 1391 was amended to allow certain creditors to execute on 10% of a debtor's wages or trust fund income, if it exceeded $20 per week. As originally drafted, the income execution was only available to creditors who had sold "necessaries" to the debtor, or performed work for the debtor as a domestic or a salaried employee. laws of 1903, Chap. 461. The limitations on the type of judgment creditor who could execute on wages was eliminated five years later. Laws of 1908, Chap. 148.

After World War I, New York's statutes were recompiled again, and exemptions were located in the new Civil Practices Act at CPA Sections 664 - 679. The old six household exemptions were located at CPA Section 665. The tools of the trade for a mechanic in CPA Section 665 (6) (formally CCP 1390(6) was increased to $100, and the catch-all exemption for household furnishings and tools, enacted in 1842, was placed as sub-section 7 of CPA Section 665. In effect there were two tools of the trade exemptions; $100 in CPA 665 (6) and $250 in CPA 665(7).

In 1942, CPA Sect 665 had a new sub-section added, 6A, exemption "a wedding ring; a watch not exceeding in value thirty-five dollars." Laws of 1942, Chap. 311.

In 1946, the basic household exemptions of CPA 665, sub-sections 4-6, were greatly revised and updated, essentially creating the language found in the current CPLR Sect. 5205. Gone was the ten sheep and their fleeces etc., replaced with a domestic animals exemption of $450. Gone were the six knifes and forks etc., replaced with "household furniture, crockery, tableware and cooking utensils". The two overlapping tools of the trade exemptions were replaced by a single $450 exemption. Laws of 1946, Chap. 135.

The Civil Practices Act was replaced by the Civil Practice Law and Rules in 1962, but the exemptions, found in CPLR Sections 5205 and 5206, were not changed.

In 1877, a "married woman" was permitted to claim a homestead exemption. CCP Sect. 1398. That same year, women (married or otherwise) became entitled to all the personal property exemptions a householder qualified for in CCP 1390 and 1391 (CCP Sect. 1392.) The original 1877 statute states that women are entitled "to the same exemptions, as prescribed in the last two sections, in the case of a householder." It was unclear if that last phrase meant that the woman had to be a householder or if that last phrase merely indicated that the preceding two exemption sections applied to householders. When the Civil Practices Act replaced the Code of Civil Procedures, each section was titled, and this section (CPA Section 666) was titled "Women's exemption as householder."

Not until 1946 was the provision changed to clearly state that women did not have to be householders to claim these exemptions. Laws of 1946, Chap. 135. And by the same 1946 statute, women did not have to be married to claim the homestead exemption. That statute also allowed men who were not householders to claim some exemptions for the first time, limited to the church pew, wearing apparel, wedding ring and watch, and a $250 tools of the trade exemptions.

In 1957, the tools of the trade exemption for householders and women was increased to $600 and for male non-householders to $450. (Laws of 1957, Chap. 512.) The whole tedious householder - non-householder - women differentiation was finally eliminated in the Bicentennial Year. Laws of 1976, Ch. 129, Section 1.

Technology always seems to lag in New York exemptions. In 1860, a sewing machine, fuel, oil, candles and candle sticks were added to the basic household exemptions. Laws of 1860, Chap. 152. A "mechanical, gas or electric refrigerator" and a "radio receiver" was added in 1957 (laws of 1957, Chap. 412). Continuing this pattern of exemption new household devices decades after their introduction, a television were added to the exemptions in 1976. Laws of 1976, Ch. 697, Section 1. Home computers and cell phones are only be added by the legislature with the 2010 proposed exemption bill.

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Peter R. Scribner, Esq.
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