Basics of Bankruptcy Discharge and Domestic Support Obligations

On occasion, a divorce may result in one or both of the parties filing for bankruptcy, often without an adequate understanding of the limited relief available in the bankruptcy court. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (“BAPCPA”) directly addressed issues related to the dischargeability of marital debt and support obligations, as well as to the effect of the automatic stay on collection and enforcement proceedings out of divorce and family law litigation.

Under bankruptcy law, a “domestic support obligation” is any debt incurred before or after a bankruptcy filing that is owed to or recoverable by a spouse, former spouse, child or governmental unit; in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support; and established pursuant to the terms of a divorce decree, separation agreement, property settlement agreement, court order or administrative determination.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, essentially all marital and domestic relations obligations are not dischargeable, regardless of whether they are support in nature, property divisions or “hold harmless” agreements, provided they were incurred by the debtor in the course of a matrimonial proceeding or a divorce action which resulted in a separation agreement, divorce decree, court order or administrative determination.

A debtor’s obligation to pay marital debts directly to a third party ( ie., pay the mortgage on former marital residence) and to hold the former spouse harmless on said debts is also deemed to be non-dischargeable if the obligation has the effect of providing support to the former spouse. A debtor’s duty to pay the following expenses are usually deemed to be in the nature of support and not dischargeable: educational expenses of a minor child; medical insurance coverage for a minor child; and life insurance, with the minor children as beneficiaries.

Attorney’s fees owed by debtor to his own lawyer are clearly dischargeable in bankruptcy, but as a general rule, attorney’s fees owed by debtor to a former spouse’s attorney are not dischargeable, if the underlying legal proceeding resulted in the entry of an order or judgment directing payment of maintenance or spousal support to the former spouse.

The division of a debtor’s pension benefits during the divorce action is usually accomplished by entering a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”). Since division of a pension is considered to be a transfer by debtor of a present interest in his pension, and as such, it is not a debt that can be discharged in bankruptcy.

In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, past due domestic support obligations owed by a debtor are not dischargeable, unless they are paid in full over the life of the Chapter 13 plan. However, if a debt created by a separation agreement or judgment of divorce is not in the nature of support, it sometimes can be discharged in Chapter 13 without being paid in full.

For a Chapter 13 Plan to be confirmed by the Bankruptcy Court, it must: pay in full to the former spouse all domestic support obligations owed by debtor at the time of the bankruptcy filing, and the debtor must be current on all domestic support obligations incurred after the bankruptcy filing.

A Chapter 13 Plan, even if confirmed by the bankruptcy court, is subject to dismissal if the debtor fails to pay any post-petition or post-confirmation domestic support obligations, and a Chapter 13 discharge will not be entered by the bankruptcy court unless and until a debtor certifies that all domestic support obligations have been paid and that the debtor is current on such obligations.

The automatic stay created by a bankruptcy filing bars the commencement or continuation of most legal proceedings, but it has no effect on a proceeding to establish paternity; to establish or modify a child support order, determine child custody or visitation issues, or dissolve a marriage, except to the extent that such proceeding may seek to determine a division of marital property in which the bankruptcy estate also has an interest. In those situations, the divorce can be granted without first obtaining relief from the automatic stay, but the marital property cannot be divided without obtaining such relief.

The automatic stay also does not prevent the post-petition collection of domestic support obligations such as alimony or child support from any property belonging to the debtor, providing that the bankruptcy estate does not also have an interest in the same property; from automatic wage deduction orders created by a statute or judicial or administrative order; from the interception of debtor’s federal or state income tax refunds, or
from the withholding, suspension or restriction of a debtor’s driver’s license or professional or occupational license. Therefore, Bankruptcy Court does not offer much protection for someone seeking to avoid the domestic support obligations.

The above rules will apply to the proceedings in New York State courts. In Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division had to address a situation where one of the parties was seeking to enforce a counsel fee award after the other party filed for bankruptcy. In Ross, multiple violation petitions had been filed by the parties over the course of several years. In August 2006, Family Court upheld mother’s motion for counsel fees and directed father to pay $5,000 of the mother’s counsel fees. Father filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy thereafter, and listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. Father’s bankruptcy was discharged in January 2007. Mother brought a violation petition which alleged that father failed to pay the counsel fees. Father moved to dismiss petition on ground that he discharged counsel fee award in bankruptcy. The Appellate Division stated that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over issue of dischargabilityof a particular debt and held that domestic support obligations in the nature of support are exempt from discharge in bankruptcy. While father contended that counsel fees incurred were for custody and visitation proceeding, the record reveals that mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding raised issues of financial need and hardship. According to the Appellate Division, term “in the nature of support” is broadly interpreted in the context of discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and held that the award of counsel fees was in part in the nature of support, and as such, exempt from discharge in bankruptcy.

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