Bankruptcy and Court Ordered Marital Obligations

February 15, 2010

Bankruptcy can have a serious impact on an ex-spouse. That is because a family court will often assign payment of a joint debt to one party only. In many cases the obligated party lacks the resources to pay the debt in full or to refinance it. Therefore the ex-spouse remains legally obligated to the creditor. This is often the case with automobile debt and credit cards with large balances.

A court-ordered debt to a former spouse is given special consideration by the bankruptcy laws. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case these debts are generally non-dischargeable. An order directing payment to a third party (e.g. a mortgage payment) is also generally non-dischargeable if the payment is effectively a form of spousal support. Even an obligation to pay your ex-spouse’s attorney fees in connection with the divorce proceeding is generally non-dischargeable.

While past due support obligations are also non-dischargeable debts in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, debts not in the nature of support (e.g. a division of marital property) can be discharged. The ex-spouse must contest the debtor’s characterization of the obligation and convince the bankruptcy court that the debt is a support obligation in order to save it from discharge. If the court determines the debt is a support obligation, it must be paid by the debtor through the Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Whether the family court-ordered obligation arises from a property division or from a support obligation, the ex-spouse will likely suffer harm from the debtor’s bankruptcy filing. The sad truth is that any non-payment of a joint monthly obligation will harm the ex-spouse’s credit report and there is little that can be done to remedy it. If the debt is discharged through the debtor’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the creditor may elect to pursue the ex-spouse and there will be no recourse against the debtor.

Regardless whether you or your ex-spouse owes a court-ordered joint obligation, if bankruptcy is in the future, you should seek professional help. It is important to evaluate the impact the bankruptcy will have on the debt and determine a course of action that will best protect you. Timing can be very critical, so consult with an experienced bankruptcy attorney early.

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