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

Want to Change Child Support? Know the A, B, C’s…

Changing a child support payment (whether your’s or your ex’s) is certainly possible, just make sure that all the bases are covered.  Let’s look at the first group of steps needed, which can be found in Texas Family Code section 156.401(a).

  1. A “material and substantial change in circumstances” is needed.  Here, we need it to be a financial change (either earning power or monetary need).
  2. Those circumstances must relate to the child or a person affected by the order.
  3. The change in circumstance must have occurred after the signing of the order.

With the above set of facts, changing that child support payment becomes possible.  At the hearing, the above must be shown.  Simple testimony is not always enough.  The best way would be to show tax returns or pay stubs showing income at the time of the signing of the order, then current tax returns or pay stubs.

For an interesting case showing this process, look at In the Interest of C.H.C. by clicking the name of the case.

Child Support and Bankruptcy…

Unfortunately, many people ordered to pay child support have had to file for bankruptcy.  We see this occasionally, and while sometimes that person is attempting to avoid their child support obligation, many times the person truly is experiencing hard times.  Even more unfortunately, that person may believe bankruptcy will stay, halt or eliminate their child support obligation – that is simply not the case.  In fact, bankruptcy can make it easier for a person receiving child support to get paid.

To lay the argument out simply:

1) Child Support is seen as a domestic support obligation under the bankruptcy code – 11 U.S.C. 101(14A).

2) Domestic Support Obligations are not dischargeable through bankruptcy – 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(5).

3) In fact, the automatic stay associated with bankruptcy filings will not apply to collection of a domestic support obligation from property that is not part of the bankruptcy estate or with regard to a wage withholding order for future income- 11 U.S.C. 362(b)(2).

4) Finally, exempt property can be taken to satisfy domestic support obligations notwithstanding any State or Federal law to the contrary - 11 U.S.C. 522(c)(1).

What does this mean?

When a person (“debtor”) files for bankruptcy, they fill out certain schedules.  Those schedules include all of their property, their income and where that income comes from.  Because of (3) and (4), the person owed child support could look at those schedules, determine what the debtor is claiming is exempt, then file their Motion to Enforce Child Support.  Texas is allows for a debtor to claim quite a bit of property as exempt, but the debtor must list it in the schedule, which the person owed child support can then show the Judge and simply request that property or that income to satisfy the child support obligation.  While not a sure-fire way of getting that child support paid, looking through a debtor’s bankruptcy filing is a good start.

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