Enforcement of Child Support Arrears and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation. Respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property. See, 11 USC § 362[a][1]. Although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA § 454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court finds that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
In the Matter of a Support Proceeding Marcia T., Petitioner,
v.
Raymond W., Respondent.
F-01769-08/08A
Family Court, Albany County
Decided on September 1, 2009
CITE TITLE AS: Matter of Marcia T. v Raymond W.
Marcia T., Matter of, v Raymond W., 2009 NY Slip Op 51883(U). Parent and Child-Support-Bankruptcy Proceedings Not Bar to Recovery of Arrears under Prior Determination of Support Magistrate. (Fam Ct, Albany County, Sept. 1, 2009, Maney, J.)
APPEARANCES OF COUNSEL
Bixby, Crable & Stiglmeier, PLLC (Carol Stiglmeier of counsel) for Marcia T.
Jeffrey S. Berkun, Esq. for Raymond W.
OPINION OF THE COURT
Gerard E. Maney, J.
By order dated January 14, 2009, the Support Magistrate determined that respondent Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the Court pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 by failing to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears. The matter was referred to this Judge for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439 (a).
Counsel for respondent maintains that because respondent filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008, the confirmation hearing must be stayed. Counsel argues that the bankruptcy code contains an automatic stay provision that provides that the filing of a bankruptcy petition operates as a stay of actions or proceeding to recover a claim against the debtor that arose prior to the commencement of the case. Although certain exceptions to the automatic stay provisions exist, counsel argues that none apply in the instant family court proceeding.
The court agrees with counsel that the commencement of a case under Chapter 13 of the United States Bankruptcy Code stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims *2 against the debtor and his property (11 USC §362 [a] [1]) or to obtain possession and control of property of the estate (11 USC §362 [a] [3]). The property of the estate, which is broadly defined, specifically includes “earnings” (11 USC §541 [a] [6]; §1306 [a];). Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate (11 USC §1306 [a] [2]). Thus, “[t]he claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings” (Margaret Howard, A Bankruptcy Primer for the Family Lawyer, Family Law Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 1997, at 380).
Although the court finds that it is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454 to recover arrears while the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, it does not find that it is prohibited by the bankruptcy laws from confirming the finding of a willful violation already made by the Support Magistrate and holding its authority to enforce such finding in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
It is this court’s understanding that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.
Accordingly, after examination and inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the case and after hearing the proofs and testimony offered in relation thereto and based on evidence that a lawful order of support was in effect and respondent had the ability to pay but willfully failed to do so, it is
ADJUDGED that Raymond W. failed to obey the order of this court for the support of his children , A. W. and S. W., and that such failure was willful;
ORDERED that the determination of the Support Magistrate pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 made herein that Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the court is hereby confirmed; and it is further
ORDERED that if the payment of arrears as set forth in the Support Magistrate’s January 14, 2009 order is not satisfied when respondent’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454.

I have previously written about several different situations involving interaction between New York’s Family Law and bankruptcy.  The basics of divorce and bankruptcy were addressed in this post,  the issues related to the bankruptcy court’s handling of domestic support obligations were addressed in this post, and the issues related to attorneys fees and bankruptcy were addressed in this post.  Because of the complexity of the issues involved, New York courts continue to decide cases were the family law and bankruptcy law interact.  A recent case of Marcia T. v. Raymond W., 24 Misc.3d 1245(A) (Fam. Ct. Monroe Co. 2009), addressed whether Chapter 13 bankruptcy stay prevented recovery of child support arrears and a finding of willful failure to pay.

Respondent father filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008.  Petitioner mother brought a willful violation petition based upon the father’s failure to pay several thousand dollars in child support arrears.  Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439(a).  Respondent’s lawyer argued that because of Chapter 13 filing, the confirmation hearing must be stayed since automatic stay prevents recovery of any claims that arose prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case.

The Family Court held that respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy and resulting automatic stay stops all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property.   Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1306 (a)(2).  Thus, the claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings.  It further held that although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA §454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court found that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.

The court further noted that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.

The above is an excellent illustration of how a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can be utilized to prevent serious problems that a finding of willful violation may present.  Further, since the typical Chapter 13 plan lasts for 5 years, this allows the party paying child support to extend payment of child support arrears over 5 years.  A family law lawyer needs to be familiar with bankruptcy law issues since it is not uncommon for these areas of law to interplay.

Divorce Actions and New Automatic Stay Orders

Since the enactment of Domestic Relations Law §236(B), often referred to as  the “Equitable Distribution Law,” divorce lawyers have had to deal with transfers of, or encumbrances on, marital property which might frustrate the eventual disposition of a divorce case.

Immediately after the enactment of the Equitable Distribution Law, attorneys attempted to prevent transfers and encumbrances of marital property by various means, such as seeking injunctive relief to prevent or undo any transfers, filing notices of pendency with regard to real property which would form part of equitable distribution, and seeking other forms of relief from the courts.  Eventually, the case law made clear that a notice of pendency cannot be filed in a divorce case since an equitable distribution action did not directly affect the title to, or the possession, use or enjoyment, of real property. This left injunctive relief as the only means to restraining transfers during the pendency of an action.  Since the burden of obtaining an injunction was considerable, the moving party had to make a requisite showing that the party to be restrained was threatening to dispose, or was already disposing, of marital assets so as to adversely affect the movant’s ultimate rights to equitable distribution.  Typically, the burden of making the application, and the expenses of doing so, fell on the non-titled spouse.

The different courts in New York State took different approaches to address this issue.  Here in Rochester, the supreme court justices handling matrimonial cases would issue, if requested, standing orders which restrained the parties from substantially altering their financial positions. However, the standing orders would be issued in most cases after a motion was brought or after a preliminary conference was held.

Now, effective Sept. 1, 2009, there is a statute which provides for an automatic stay in all matrimonial actions. The present DRL §236(B)(2) has been redesignated as DRL §236(B)(2)(a) and subparagraph (b) has been added, which reads:

b. With respect to matrimonial actions which commence on or after the effective date of this paragraph, the plaintiff shall cause to be served upon the defendant, simultaneous with the service of the summons, a copy of the automatic orders set forth in this paragraph. The automatic orders shall be binding upon the plaintiff in a matrimonial action immediately upon the filing of the summons, or summons and complaint, and upon the defendant immediately upon the service of the automatic orders with the summons. The automatic orders shall remain in full force and effect during the pendency of the action, unless terminated, modified or amended by further order of the court upon motion of either of the parties or upon written agreement between the parties duly executed and acknowledged. The automatic orders are a follows:

(1) Neither party shall sell, transfer, encumber, conceal, assign, remove or in any way dispose of, without the consent of the other party in writing, or by order of the court, any property (including, but not limited to, real estate, personal property, cash accounts, stocks, mutual funds, bank accounts, cars and boats) individually or jointly held by the parties, except in the usual course of business, for customary and usual household expenses or for reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with this action.

(2) Neither party shall transfer, encumber, assign, remove, withdraw or in any way dispose of any tax deferred funds, stocks or other assets held in any individual retirement accounts, 401K accounts, profit sharing plans, Keogh accounts, or any other pension or retirement account, and the parties shall further refrain from applying for or requesting the payment of retirement benefits or annuity payments of any kind, without the consent of the other party in writing, or upon further order of the court.

(3) Neither party shall incur unreasonable debts hereafter, including, but not limited to further borrowing against any credit line secured by the family residence, further encumbrancing any assets, or unreasonably using credit cards or cash advances against credit cards, except in the usual course of business or for customary or usual household expenses, or for reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with this action.

(4) Neither party shall cause the other party or the children of the marriage to be removed from any existing medical, hospital and dental insurance coverage, and each party shall maintain the existing medical, hospital and dental insurance coverage in full force and effect.

(5) Neither party shall change the beneficiaries of any existing life insurance policies, and each party shall maintain the existing life insurance, automobile insurance, homeowners and renters insurance policies in full force and effect.

The Office of Court Administration has  promulgated a Rule already and is in the process of issuing an Official Form incorporating the Notice required under the Statute.  Until the official form is issued, a divorce attorney should attach a notice to the summons stating that, upon service, an order is in effect and then reciting, word-for-word, the five elements listed above.  In my experience, the Monroe County Clerk’s Office will provide a form at the time the summons is filed, unless the requisite notice is already attached to the summons.

This legislation basically preserves the status quo during the pendency of a matrimonial action by shifting the burden of seeking relief from a spouse asking for the imposition of an injunction to a spouse moving to vacate or modify that restraint.  What is unclear at this time, is how this automatic order will be enforced, and what are the remedies for its violation.