Is a motorcycle an automobile in Massachusetts?

harley1Practicing bankruptcy law in Massachusetts means you are always learning new things. A question that cropped up recently: Does a Harley – Davidson motorcycle count as a debtor’s automobile? And a little more broadly — is a motorcycle a vehicle?

These questions were one of the subjects in the Sutherland case, decided on July 16, 2013. The married debtors had used the appropriate Massachusetts exemption to try to protect one of their vehicles — a Harley-Davidson motorcycle worth an estimated $12,000.

The exemption law in question is the sixteenth paragraph of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 235, section 34, which says:

An automobile necessary for the debtor’s personal transportation or to secure or maintain employment, not exceeding $7,500 of wholesale resale value; provided, however, that the equitable value of a vehicle owned or substantially used by debtor who is either a handicapped person or a person 60 years of age or older shall be exempt up to $15,000 in wholesale resale value……

The law is obviously intended to protect people’s vehicles so they can get to work, school, doctors, etc., but the word “automobile” in the first line created potential problems for the Sutherland’s Harley: would a motorcycle count as an automobile?

The second sentence of the law is a puzzler too, where a $15,000 exemption is given to debtors age sixty and over to apply to thier “vehicle.”

The result of the case? Since Mr. Sutherland was 62 when he filed the case, Bankruptcy Judge Melvin Hoffman interpreted the second sentence, and decided that a motorcycle is indeed a vehicle under Massachusetts law, and the Sutherlands could keep their Harley.

On the other hand, since the matter was now settled, Judge Hoffman declined to offer any opinion on whether a motorcycle was also an “automobile,” which could have an impact in future cases for debtors under sixty.

To top things off, Hoffman’s opinion, like all bankruptcy rulings, aren’t officially binding on the other judges in Massachusetts, so debtors with motorcycles in the Bay State could possibly face some bumpy roads ahead in bankruptcy court.

Stay tuned!


By Doug Beaton

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