The Kentucky Court of Appeals just issued a decision directly related to family law and bankruptcy that shows why knowledge of both fields can be so important. In Howard v Howard, 2008-CA-001059-MR (June 12, 2009)(to be published) the Court addressed two important issues regarding domestic support obligations. A domestic support obligation has a very broad definition under the bankruptcy code (11 USC 101(14A)) encompassing any debt owed to or recoverable by "a spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child's parent, legal guardian, or responsible relative" including a "government unit". This includes alimony (maintenance), child support, or other obligations arising out of a divorce or separation. The debt can be established through a separation agreement, decree or other order of the court. 11 USC 523(a)(15). For Kentucky Courts, it also includes a Dodge Durango debt. In this case, Mr. Roy Shane Howard divorced his wife, but he agreed
to, and was later ordered in the decree, to pay towards a deficiency judgment arising from the repossession of their Durango. The case does not say, but that repossession may have been the final straw that broke the back of their marriage. Some folks really love their Durangos. Anyway, after the divorce, he listed this deficiency judgment as a debt in his bankruptcy and his ex-wife did not object to its discharge so he figured he no longer owed that debt. However, little did he realize that Kentucky Courts share jurisdiction with Federal courts to determine whether an obligation is discharged and the Court of Appeals wasn't buying the argument that she had to object in the bankruptcy case. After all, the bankruptcy code declares such debts as non-discharged and spells out no special action required by the creditor. This Court determined that Roy's obligation in the divorce to pay part of the Durango deficiency was a domestic support obligation. While the bankruptcy discharged the debt as to the original lender, it did not disturb his responsibility for the debt to Sondra, his ex-wife. In other words, the original creditor could not come after Roy for the debt any longer, but they could go after Sondra and Sondra could bring it right back around and get Roy for contempt in the divorce court. And that is exactly what happened. So, if debts are an issue in a divorce proceeding, it is wise to plan carefully what will happen to those debts. Often, it is best for the each person to set aside the anger and honestly analyze if they can pay those debts once the one set of living expenses becomes two separate households. If not, and they otherwise qualify for bankruptcy, then a joint bankruptcy may be the best option. I said there were two important domestic support obligation issues. suffice it to say that this sort of deficiency debt could have been discharged in a Chapter 13 instead of the Chapter 7 he filed.