Attorney’s Fees and Bankruptcy

What happens if one spouse, Husband, is ordered to pay the attorney’s fees of the other spouse, Wife, the Wife pays the attorney’s fees, requests reimbursement, then Husband files for bankruptcy?  Is the Wife out of luck?

This situation came up in In re: Jeffrey Todd Van Dermark, a 2008 case from the Bankruptcy Court in the Northern District of Texas.  Quick answer – the Husband had to pay the fees in full.  But read on, there’s more to it.

Quick Facts:

  • Husband and Wife divorced in Georgia, in 2006.
  • Wife had a contract with her attorneys and was required to pay them upon receipt of the invoice.
  • In the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, Husband was ordered to pay $25,000.00 in attorney’s fees to Wife’s attorney.
  • Wife ended up paying the firm the $25,000.00, and turned to Husband to be repaid.
  • Husband filed for bankruptcy the next day, and tried to discharge the $25,000.00 debt.

Question for the Court

The question the Court was asked to answer was this – “Was the $25,000.00 a domestic support obligation under the bankruptcy code since Wife paid it and now demanded it from Husband, so protected as a priority claim?  Or was it not a domestic support obligation because the Husband was supposed to make the payment to Wife’s attorneys?”

The reason it matters is that if it was found to be a domestic support obligation, Husband would have to pay that $25,000.00 first (that claim has priority) and in full.  If not, the $25,000.00 claim would be reduced or fully discharged and Wife would be left out in the cold, having shelled out $25,000.00.

The argument provided by counsel was whether or not this claim was owed to Wife’s attorneys or to Wife under the domestic support obligation statute in the Bankruptcy code, and focused on Section 101(14A)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code, which states for a claim to be a domestic support obligation, it must be:

“a debt that accrues before, on, or after the date of the order for relief in a case under this title, including interest that accrues on that debt, as provided under applicable non bankruptcy law notwithstanding any other provision of this title  that is -

(A) owed to or recoverable by -

(i) a spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, legal guardian or responsible relative; or…”

The Court looked first to the bankruptcy code’s definition of ‘claim,’ and found that it is a ‘right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent  matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured or unsecured,” and that the definition was intentionally broad.  11 U.S.C. 101(5)(A); See In re Egleston, 448 F.3d 803, 812 (5th Cir. 2006).

The Court also turned to Georgia’s statutory definitions, since the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce was out of Georgia, and found that it supported this claim as being owed to Wife, not just her attorney, per the language of the Decree of Divorce and under Georgia law.

Since that was the only argument asserted, and the Court found that the claim was, in fact, owed to and recoverable by Wife, the claim was a domestic support obligation.

Further Thoughts

One thing not argued, and which would have been interesting, is whether the Court believed it to fit the second requirement of a domestic support obligation, that the debt is

“(B) in the nature of alimony, maintenance, or support… of such spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, without regard to whether such debt is expressly so designated;…”

- 11 U.S.C. 101(14A)(B)

I think the claim would have been denied that special status at that point.  The claim just does not fit the second part of the definition for a domestic support obligation.  Unfortunately, we will not know until a similar fact set occurs, the argument made, and an opinion issued.

Related Article:

Child Support and Bankruptcy

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About CJ.Harding
Chris believes one of the most important aspects of family law is seeing the 'big picture.' This means understanding the law, the facts of your case and the range of possible outcomes. Only after knowing each of those can an attorney convey the risks and potential results and guide you to make the right decision for your case, your life and your family. He understands every person and every case is unique. Chris will advocate for the very best possible result in your case. He has worked on a variety of family law cases, including tracing of assets, property division of estates worth more than one million dollars, international and interstate child custody issues, enforcement actions as well as pre-marital and post-marital agreements. Chris continues to be a student of the Law and helps to educate others by maintaining the "Hot Topics" section of the Firm web site, which features current issues in Texas family law. Topics have included how a bankruptcy can affect child support and the differences between alimony and court ordered spousal maintenance. Chris joined the firm after graduating cum laude from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. During his time at SMU, Chris competed in numerous mock and moot competitions and placed nationally. Chris is a native Texan, growing up in the Houston area and completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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