By Christopher C. Carr, Esq., Suburban Philadelphia Bankruptcy Lawyer
There are two main types of domestic support obligations (‘DSO”) defined in the bankruptcy code. The first kind of DSO encompasses things such as child support payments and alimony. (To simplify, let’s just call this type: “support“). The second type of DSO comes from the distribution of property in divorce; in Pennsylvania the statutes refer to this as “equitable distribution“, which is the terminology I will use here. The latter usually consists of the spouse’s equitable share of the equity — as adjudicated by the courts or agreed to in a property settlement agreement, which also must be court approved in Pennsylvania — in the marital residence but can also include joint bank accounts and other valuable items.
In the general definitions within the Bankruptcy code 11 USC Sect.. 101(14 a-c), both support and equitable distribution appear as DSO’s, misleading one to think that perhaps the two will be treated identically in bankruptcy. However, while this is true of a Chapter 7, it is otherwise for a Chapter 13. The difference in treatment as between the two different kinds of domestic support obligations only become apparent when one looks at how they are treated those portions of the Bankruptcy Code dealing specifically with the discharge of these specific categories of debt.
At first glance in 11 USC Sect. 523(a)(5) and 11 USC Sect. 523(a)(15), the sections of the Code dealing with equitable distribution, it appears that these two subsets of domestic support obligations are treated the same. That is to say, neither support nor equitable distribution obligations appear to be discharged in bankruptcy, meaning specifically that in both a Chapter 7 bankruptcy these debts survive the bankruptcy and remain obligations of the debtor and alternately in a Chapter 13, they both must be paid in the plan and/or any amount left over so survives.
However, 11 USC Sect. 1328(a)(2) changes the picture radically, at least insofar as discharge after completion of a Chapter 13 Plan is concerned. (Note that virtually anyone who has a regular income can elect a Chapter 13 filing as versus a Chapter 7.) This provision essentially states that once all the plan payments are made and the debtor complies with its other requirements, the DSO types not listed in the statute will be discharged: one of the provisions so listed is 11 USC Sect. 523(a)(5), which again deals with with support debts. However, whether by design or inadvertence, Congress conspicuously excluded from that list 11 USC Sect. 523(a)(15), which again pertains to equitable distribution obligations.
Thus, unlike support, which cannot be discharged either in a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13, the proceeds of an equitable distribution can be discharged to the extent that the ex-spouse still owes same once the Chapter 13 plan payments have been otherwise completed. A clever bankruptcy lawyer, knowing this, will to the extent possible, draft a plan which, perhaps by favoring secured and other priority unsecured debt in order and amount of payment, provides for less than all of the equitable debt to be discharged, which has the effect of excusing the debtor spouse from his or her remaining equitable obligations, even though ironically these were awarded to the creditor spouse by a court of law. The (alas little appreciated) lesson for the family lawyer representing the creditor spouse is to require all equitable debt to be paid up before the property settlement agreement is authorized, so as to avoid eventual loss of some or all of their equity in a potential Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
©Christopher C. Carr, Attorney at Law 2009, All Rights Reserved
If you live in the Suburban Philadelphia area, including the counties of Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, or Montgomery, and are seeking a competent and compassionate bankruptcy lawyer to help you explore your options and find the optimum solution, please call Attorney Christopher C. Carr, MBA (Finance) at 610-380-7969 (Offices in Paoli and Coatesville) for a FREE DEBT RELIEF EVALUATION. Or visit my web site at westchesterbankruptcyattorney.org and fill out the contact sheet.
I also provide Mortgage Modification Services.
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