Attorneys Fees Ordered in Family Court and Discharge in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

I have previously written how the bankruptcy courts deal with attempted discharge of the so-called domestic support obligations. However, that post focused primarily on discharge of obligation that arose as a result of divorce proceedings and child support. Occasionally, I see an attempt to discharge an obligation arising out of Family Court proceedings, specifically, attorneys fees.

While it is clear that the child support or spousal support obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy as domestic support obligations, the question of attorneys fees granted in a child support or other proceeding in Family Court was less clear cut until Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), where the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that the award of counsel fees by the Family Court was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

In Ross, the mother filed a petition for violation of a prior order of custody and visitation in 2005. In response, multiple cross petitions were filed by the father alleging violations by the mother and seeking modification of custody. In an August 2006 order resolving the parties’ petitions, Family Court sustained the mother’s motion for counsel fees and ordered that the father pay $ 5,000 of her counsel fees. The father subsequently filed for bankruptcy under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code and, in Schedule F of his petition, he listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. The father was discharged by order of the Bankruptcy Court in January 2007 and, shortly thereafter, the mother commenced the present proceeding in Family Court for the violation of a court order based upon the father’s failure to pay the counsel fees. Contending that the debt had been discharged in bankruptcy, the father moved to dismiss the petition. Family Court, among other things, concluded that the counsel fees awarded in its prior order were a nondischargeable domestic support obligation, denied the father’s motion and granted the mother’s petition in part, finding the father to be in violation of a prior order.

The Appellate Division noted that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over the issue of the dischargeablity of a particular debt following the discharge of the debtor in bankruptcy. It reviewed the father’s contention that the counsel fees, although awarded in the context of a Family Court proceeding regarding custody and visitation, were not “in the nature of support” for the parties’ children. The Court held that since the mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding clearly raised issues of financial need and hardship and her motion for counsel fees, which was sustained by Family Court in the August 2006 order, proposed consideration of her circumstances as one basis for an award of counsel fees. The Court held that the term “in the nature of support” is to be given a broad interpretation in the context of the discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and agreed with Family Court’s determination that the award of counsel fees in its prior order was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

The real issue in this case is whether the custody petition really was in the nature of support. The mother’s lawyer was able to persuade the both the Family Court and the Appellate Division that it was. While the Appellate Division relied on the award of attorneys’ fees and the relevant standard under the Family Court Act, an argument can be made that the Court should have looked to the underlying proceeding only and that proceeding dealt exclusively with custody issues. One of the factors in any award of attorneys’ fees is ability to pay, so that can make an award of attorneys fees in any proceeding in Family Court to be in the nature of support.

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