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129 Nev., Advance Opinion 31
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEVADA
IN RE: ANA J. FOX, DEBTOR.
YVETTE WEINSTEIN, CHAPTER 7
ANA J. FOX,
MAY 31J 2013
Certified question, pursuant to NRAP 5, regarding permissible
exemptions under NRS 21.090 for property belonging not only to the
judgment debtor but also to her non-debtor spouse. United States
Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit.
Sullivan, Hill, Lewin, Rez & Engel and Elizabeth E. Stephens, Las Vegas,
Ana J. Fox, Las Vegas,
in Proper Person.
Law Offices of Amy N. Tirre, P.C., and Amy N. Tirre, Reno; Lewis & Roca,
LLP, and Laury M. Macauley, Reno,
for Amicus Curiae Bankruptcy Law Section of the State Bar of Nevada.
BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.
/ 3 -/0
By the Court, CHERRY, J.:
The United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth
Circuit has certified a question of law to this court relating to permissible
exemptions claimed by judgment debtors under Nevada's exemption
statute, NRS 21.090. In particular, the certified question asks, "[lin
Nevada, may a judgment debtor claim exemptions under NRS 21.090
belonging not only to herself, but also to her non-debtor spouse?" In the
bankruptcy case, however, only two types of exemptions are at issue: the
exemption under NRS 21.090(1)(f) for motor vehicles and the exemption
under NRS 21.090(1)(z) for up to $1,000 of property not already exempted,
which is known as the "wildcard exemption." See In re Newman, 487 B.R.
193, 196 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2013). Thus, we focus on whether the motor
vehicle and wildcard exemptions may be claimed on behalf of a non-debtor
See NRS 21.090(1)(f) and (z), In re Fontainebleau Las Vegas
Holdings, LLC, 128 Nev. „ 289 P.3d 1199, 1209 (2012) (rephrasing
certified questions under NRAP 5). We adopt the plain language rationale
embraced by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Idaho
in In re DeHaan, 275 B.R. 375 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2002), and conclude that,
based on NRS 21.090(1)(f) and (z)'s plain language, Nevada law does not
allow debtors to claim motor vehicle and wildcard exemptions on behalf of
their non-debtor spouses.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
In May 2010, respondent Ana Fox filed a petition for relief
under Chapter 7 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. Fox's spouse did
not join in the bankruptcy petition and did not file a separate petition for
relief. Nevertheless, under bankruptcy law, the bankruptcy estate
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includes all of the marital community property, in addition to Fox's
separate property. 11 U.S.C. 541(a)(2); NRS 123.225; NRS 123.230. Out
of the bankruptcy estate, Fox claimed exemptions for two motor vehicles
under NRS 21.090(1)(f) and property worth over $1,400 under NRS
21.090(1)(z). Both the vehicles and the other assets claimed as exemptions
were community property.
The Chapter 7 Trustee, appellant Yvette Weinstein, filed an
objection on the grounds that a debtor spouse may exempt only a single
vehicle and property worth no more than $1,000 under NRS 21.090(1)(f)
and (z) and a non-debtor spouse has no right to claim any exemptions in a
debtor spouse's bankruptcy. Fox filed a response to the Trustee's
objection, arguing that a debtor spouse may claim exemptions under NRS
21.090(1)(f) and (z) on behalf of a non-debtor spouse.
After a hearing, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the
District of Nevada entered an order overruling the Trustee's objection.
The court found that Nevada law allows a debtor to claim motor vehicle
and wildcard exemptions on behalf of a non-debtor spouse, which, in effect,
doubled Fox's exemptions. The Trustee timely appealed to the United
States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit. Because Nevada
has opted out of the federal exemption scheme, Nevada's judgment debtor
exemption law applies, 11 U.S.C. 522(b); NRS 21.090(3), and the
Bankruptcy Appellate Panel has sought a ruling from this court regarding
whether, under Nevada law, judgment debtors are allowed to claim
exemptions on behalf of non-debtor spouses. In particular, it requests a
definitive construction of Nevada's motor vehicle and wildcard exemption
provisions, NRS 21.090(1)(f) and (z). The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel
stayed the proceedings before it until our resolution of the certified
We have decided to consider the certified question. See NRAP
5(a); Volvo Cars of N. Am., Inc. v. Ricci,
122 Nev. 746, 750-51, 137 P.3d
1161, 1164 (2006) (in determining whether to exercise its discretion to
consider certified questions, this court looks to whether the "answers may
'be determinative' of part of the federal case, there is no controlling
[Nevada] precedent, and the answer will help settle important questions of
law" (quoting Ventura Grp. Ventures, Inc. v. Ventura Port Dist., 16 P.3d
717, 719 (Cal. 2001))).
The Nevada Constitution provides that "[t]he privilege of the
debtor to enjoy the necessary comforts of life shall be recognized by
wholesome laws, exempting a reasonable amount of property from seizure
or sale for payment of any debts or liabilities. . . ." Nev. Const. art. 1, §
14; see Bero-Wachs v. Law Office of Logar & Pulver,
123 Nev. 71, 75-76,
157 P.3d 704, 707 (2007). Nevada's "Legislature enacted what is now NRS
21.090 to fulfill the mandate set forth in Nevada's Constitution."
v. Pierson, 123 Nev. 86, 90, 157 P.3d 697, 700 (2007). "The legislative
purpose of NRS 21.090 is 'to secure to the debtor the necessary means of
gaining a livelihood, while doing as little injury as possible to the
In re Galvez, 115 Nev. 417, 419, 990 P.2d 187, 188 (1999)
(quoting Krieg v. Fellows, 21 Nev. 307, 310, 30 P. 994, 995 (1892)),
superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in In re Christensen, 122
'The Bankruptcy Law Section of the State Bar of Nevada filed an
amicus curiae brief addressing the divergent views of debtors, creditors,
Nev. 1309, 1320, 149 P.3d 40, 47 (2006); see Savage, 123 Nev. at 90, 157
P.3d at 700 ("the exemptions set forth in NRS 21.090 are 'absolute and
unqualified,' with few exceptions, 'and [their] effect is to remove the
property beyond the reach of legal process' (alteration in original)
(quoting Elder v. Williams, 16 Nev. 416, 423 (1882))); Sportsco Enters. v.
Morris, 112 Nev. 625, 630, 917 P.2d 934, 936 (1996) ("In NRS 21.090, the
Legislature provided express exemptions from execution for some property
NRS 21.090(1) states, in relevant part, that "[t]he following
property is exempt from execution, except as otherwise specifically
provided in this section or required by federal law:
(0 Except as otherwise provided in
paragraph (p), [21 one vehicle if the judgment
debtor's equity does not exceed $15,000 or the
creditor is paid an amount equal to any excess
above that equity.
(z) Any personal property not otherwise
exempt from execution pursuant to this subsection
belonging to the judgment debtor, including,
without limitation, the judgment debtor's equity in
any property, money, stocks, bonds or other funds
on deposit with a financial institution, not to
exceed $1,000 in total value, to be selected by the
21.090(1)(p) does not apply in the instant matter, as it
pertains to a motor vehicle "for a person with a permanent disability."
We have yet to address whether a judgment debtor may claim
Nevada's motor vehicle and wildcard exemptions on behalf of her nondebtor spouse. Before examining whether Nevada's personal property
exemptions could be claimed by a debtor on behalf of a non-debtor spouse,
we turn to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Idaho,
which recently addressed the identical question under Idaho law.
DeHaan, 275 B.R. 375 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2002). The bankruptcy court
concluded that the Idaho exemption scheme did not allow a debtor to claim
a second set of personal property exemptions on behalf of a non-filing
spouse. Id. at 381-82. Focusing on the language of the applicable state
exemption statute, the court held that "[t]he plain language speaks to the
right of the 'individual' debtor to claim exemptions within the relevant
monetary limits. It does not purport to authorize such a debtor to claim a
second set of like exemptions for another individual (i.e., his spouse)." Id.
at 382; see Idaho Code Ann. § 11-605(3), (10) (2010) (an "individual" debtor
can claim personal property exemptions under Idaho's personal property
In Nevada, we likewise concentrate on the plain language of
statutes when examining issues of statutory construction. J.E. Dunn Nw.,
Inc. v. Corus Constr. Venture, LLC, 127 Nev. „ 249 P.3d 501, 505
(2011) ("[w]hen the language. . . is clear on its face, 'this court will not go
beyond [the] statute's plain language" (second alteration in original)
(quoting Great Basin Water Network v. State Eng'r, 126 Nev.
P.3d 912, 918 (2010))); see Hardy Cos. v. SNMARK, LLC,
, 245 P.3d 1149, 1153 (2010) (we review de novo the construction of
statutes). "Although exemptions are to be liberally construed in favor of
the debtor, the Court must not depart from the statutory language nor
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extend the legislative grant."
In re Lenox, 58 B.R. 104, 106 (Bankr. D.
Nev. 1986); see In re Christensen, 122 Nev. 1309, 1314, 149 P.3d 40,
43 (2006) (this court "liberally and beneficially construe [s] . . . state
exemption statutes in favor of the debtor").
The Nevada statutory subsections applicable here, NRS
21.090(1)(f) and (z), refer to exempt property of the judgment debtor.
Nowhere in these provisions does it mention the non-debtor spouse or a
dependent. 3 Given the plain language of NRS 21.090(1)(f) and (z), we
conclude that a judgment debtor may claim exemptions for a single motor
vehicle and up to $1,000 in personal property for herself; however, a
debtor is not permitted to claim those exemptions on behalf of a nondebtor spouse.
See DeHaan, 275 B.R. at 382. 4 Thus, in accordance
with the clear and unambiguous language of NRS 21.090(1)(f) and (z), a
spouses are considered dependents under the
Bankruptcy Code. 11 U.S.C. § 522(a)(1) (2006).
acknowledge that the United States Bankruptcy Court for the
District of Arizona reached a contrary conclusion in In re Perez, 302 B.R.
661, 663 (Bankr. D. Ariz. 2003) (holding that a debtor may claim that
property is exempt from community debts under Arizona law by asserting
not only his own, but also his spouse's exemptions because each spouse
acts for the benefit of the community and thus Arizona law allows one
spouse to claim the other's exemptions on her behalf).
judgment debtor in Nevada is limited to one motor vehicle exemption not
to exceed $15,000 and other personal property exemptions not to exceed
We, therefore, answer the certified question in the negative as
set forth above.
Wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief. Husband did not join in the bankruptcy petition or file a separate petition for relief. Under bankruptcy law, the bankruptcy estate includes all of the marital community property. Wife claimed exemptions for two motor vehicles and property worth over $1,400, all of which was community property. The Trustee filed an objection on the grounds that a debtor spouse may exempt only a single vehicle and property worth no more than $1,000 under Nev. Rev. Stat. 21.090(1), and a non-debtor spouse has no right to claim any exemptions in a debtor spouse's bankruptcy. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court overruled the Trustee's objection, determining that Nevada law allows a debtor to claim motor vehicle and wildcard exemptions on behalf of a non-debtor spouse. The Trustee appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which certified a question to the Nevada Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that, based on section 21.090(1)(f) and (z)'s plain language, Nevada law does not allow debtors to claim motor vehicle and wildcard exemptions on behalf of their non-debtor spouses, and therefore, a judgment debtor in Nevada is limited to one motor vehicle exemption an other personal property exemptions not to exceed $1,000.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email