Kentucky Bankruptcy Law

Counsel with Care

The case of mismatched law: alimony and bankruptcy

Alimony, or maintenance as it is called here in Kentucky, is an interesting topic because how state law defines and treats alimony does not necessary mesh with the bankruptcy code. In this post, I am talking about when a non-debtor ex-spouse owes the person filing bankruptcy (the debtor) alimony or maintenance (the two terms are interchangeable and I’ll stick with alimony since it is the most recognized). The scenario is a divorced debtor filing a bankruptcy (it can be either a chapter 7 or a chapter 13) because their ex has failed to pay the alimony as ordered as is now in a world of hurt. So, the debtor has to list the alimony owed to him or her because it comes into the bankruptcy estate through 11 USC Sect. 541. There is even a “clawback” provision in 11 USC 541(a)(5)(C) that reaches 180 days beyond the filing date of the petition in cases where a divorce has not yet been finalized.

To be sure, 11 USC Sect. 522(d)(10)(D) appears to exempt alimony (“the right to receive”) so that the debtor gets to hold on to it. However, appearances can be deceiving because the bankruptcy courts do not have to accept the determination of the parties or the state court in deciding if a certain asset is alimony. The debtor may have a court order that calls what the ex owes them alimony and he or she may believe it is alimony, but the bankruptcy court can decide differently. If the bankruptcy court deems the awarded monies to actually be a property settlement, then it is not exempt beyond any available “wild card” exemption from 11 USC 522(d)(5).

The bankruptcy court makes its determination as to whether or not an award of alimony is truly alimony or if it is actually a property settlement mechanism by looking at what actually transpired. There are different aspects that the court may focus on and so it is more likely to be alimony if: 1) it ends at death or remarriage, 2) it can be modified based on need, 3) the debtor did not have property or resources to meet their basic needs, 4) it is subject to the tax treatment for alimony in the tax code (taxable to recipient; deductible by payor), and 5) the payments go directly to the debtor. If, on the other hand, the award of monies was in lieu of other property or debt, then it may not be deemed alimony. These are not necessarily exclusive factors, but they give an idea of how the courts analyze an alimony claim of exemption. The bottom line is that the court wants to be sure that the monies are actually for the support and sustenance of the recipient. This is consistent with the other items in Sect. 522(d)(10)(D) because each is a replacement for wages.

Be careful entering into a bankruptcy if you are the recipient of alimony or maintenance. When you interview your prospective attorney, but sure they understand the nuance behind the stated words of the law. They need to be able to analyze how likely the court is to see the award as alimony. If the award is sizable, then you can expect to have an objection to the exemption be filed by the trustee. If you win by convincing the court that it is indeed alimony, you will still have to show that all of it is “reasonably necessary” to live on – and that does not mean living in style or luxury.

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June 30, 2011 - Posted by | Bankruptcy, Chapter 13, Chapter 7, Divorce, Exemptions, Family Law, Planning, Pre-filing planning, Property (exempt | , , , , , , , , ,

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