Kentucky Bankruptcy Law

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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.

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

Debt and Divorce

In Kentucky marital law there is no presumption that debt incurred by one spouse is marital debt and the recent Supreme Court of Kentucky opinion in Rice v Rice, 2009-SC-000730-DG, March 24, 2011 (to be published) reaffirms that doctrine. Sometimes you can tell when a court gets hacked off, and some of that comes through in this opinion written by Justice Noble. One clue as to the court being upset is when they use the word “egregious” and it appears in this opinion.

The husband and wife had been married for 42 years. The wife, Carolyn, worked at an $8.00 an hour job. The husband, Jackie, allowed their adult son to accumulate around $65,000.00 debt by letting him use credit cards and co-signing for loans. This went on for about four (4) years before Carolyn got wind of her husband allowing this mountain of debt to arise and when she confronted Jackie about it, he just changed the mailing address for the bills so she would not find them. Are you starting to see what lead to the divorce?

Anyway, the trial court that granted the divorce assigned each of the parties one half (1/2) of this debt even though Carolyn had not authorized it. The Court of Appeals let that decision stand, but the Supreme Court would not tolerate it. They held that a debt incurred or authorized by one spouse and which the other spouse neither authorized nor received a benefit from is not marital debt.

The reason it was important that Carolyn take her fight to the Supreme Court of Kentucky instead of filing bankruptcy is that the assignment of debt may have been deemed a “domestic support obligation” by the bankruptcy court. So, even though her legal obligation to the creditors may have been extinguished in bankruptcy, she might have remained on the hook to Jackie for around $32,500.00 because domestic support obligations are not discharged.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | Bankruptcy, dissipation of assets, Divorce, Family Law, Planning | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discharge of Debt and Domestic Support Obligations

The changes in the bankruptcy code from the 2005 BACPA essentially eradicated a debtor’s ability to discharge their domestic support obligations. So, if you are divorced or pay child support, it is important to understand what you can do regarding debts arising from the divorce or child support. A recent decision by Judge Scott, Judge for the Eastern Distric of Kentucky Bankruptcy Court, offers a concise explanation of how domestic support obligations arise and how they are impacted by the automatic stay from collection activity of 11 U.S.C. Section 362.

Domestic support obligations (I’ll call these “DSO”s here on out) are defined liberally by the bankruptcy code at 11 U.S.C. Section 101(14A). When a DSO arises because it is “in the nature of” maintenance, alimony or child support, then the automatic stay of Section 362 does not prevent collection actions from property that is NOT part of the estate. The clearest example of this is when the divorce court ordered one party to pay his or her ex-spouse monthly payments (either alimony payments or child support) and the receiving party can still expect to receive those monthly payments from the debtor’s ongoing wages, which are not part of the estate of a Chapter 7. The receiving spouse need do nothing in the bankruptcy court to take action to enforce this order of support.

The recent decision referenced above gives a great example of a very different way that a DSO can arise. In that case, the debtor was ordered to maintain payments on the marital residence until it sold. However, he did not do so (perhaps he could not or maybe he thought he was pulling one over on his ex-wife, I have no idea) and the marital residence foreclosed. There was a deficiency of around $45,500 from the foreclosure as compared to the assessed value of the house. Presumably, the full debt on the house was covered by the sale proceeds and the $45,500 represented equity. So, the debtor had been ordered by the divorce court judge to pay 1/2 of that to his ex-wife. The debtor argued that since the house did sell and there was no net gain from said sale, that he did not owe his ex-wife one cent. Neither the divorce judge nor Judge Scott bought this argument.

The debtor went into bankruptcy with a $22,750 plus DSO as a result of the foreclosure on the marital residence. Since it was not in the nature of alimony, maintenance or child support, the automatic stay did prevent the ex-wife from pursuing collection activity, so she moved the court to lift the stay. She attempted to do so, but failed to sufficiently explain to the bankruptcy court the reason why she should be allowed to have the stay lifted.

The end result is that the debtor clearly has to repay his ex-wife the $22,750 that he theoretically could have realized if he had kept current on payments and sold the house on the open market. However, since the ex-wife did not fully carry her burden of proof, she is going to have to wait until the bankruptcy is closed to take action to collect this debt.

Several lessons come from this case. First, you really should consult with an attorney familiar with both family law and banruptcy law if you are going to allow property that was subject to a decree or court order in a divorce be repossessed or foreclosed upon. The long term cost to you may be far more than you want to incur. Second, remember that bankruptcy does not take care of every sort of debt and you need to recognize what debts will remain. This could help you decide between pursuing a work-out outside of bankruptcy, filing a Chapter 7, or filing a Chapter 13. Third, if you are owed a DSO, be sure to adequately provide evidence to the bankruptcy court of the “good cause” (the reason why you are harmed) required by 11 U.S.C. Section 362(d)(1) for the automatice stay to be lifted.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | Bankruptcy, Chapter 7, child support, Divorce, Family Law, Foreclosure, Planning, Pre-filing planning, Property (exempt | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Voluntary Underemployment & Child Support (or Roy’s Very Bad Day)

In a prior post discussing dischargeability of a Dodge Durango Debt from a Divorce, I said that in the case, Howard v Howard, 2008-CA-001059-MR (June 12, 2009)(to be published) the Kentucky Court of Appeals addressed two important domestic support obligation issues. This post reveals that second issue.

As we saw before, Roy lost his argument that the deficiency judgment debt on his Dodge Durango was discharged through bankruptcy. As to his ex-wife Sondra, he remained responsible for the payments because it was agreed to and decreed through the divorce. That made it non-dischargeable as a domestic support obligation and so Sondra could pursue payment through contempt proceedings.

Now, Roy also had left a nice paying job as a federal prison guard claiming a medical reason. Apparently it was not a very good medical reason (or he failed to prove it up) because the trial court determined that his new employment at half his former wages was voluntary. Because it was deemed a voluntary reduction in pay, Roy was ordered to keep paying the same child support as before while earning half the amount of wages as before. He wouldn’t even be able to put gas in the tank of a Durango now.

In order to modify child support, the movant must show “a material change in circumstances that is substantial and continuing.” KRS 403.213. Judges have considerable discretion to decide whether a job change resulting in much less income is voluntary or involuntary. If it is voluntary then that person does not get a break on the child support.

But what if Roy really had a medical problem and could not longer work at the federal prison? Well, if his medical condition was legitimate, and it may have been, then there should have been a trail of documentation that was produced as evidence to the court. If Roy had that evidence, then he needed to pull it together and convince the judge. This is where it actually saves money in the long run to invest in having a good attorney. A good attorney would have either told Roy he was wasting his time because an ingrown toe-nail won’t convice the court, or she would have made sure the evidence was there.

Unfortunately, losing on the Durango Debt and losing on the reduction of child support did not end his very bad day. Roy also had to pay $500.00 towards Sondra’s legal fees. I mean no offense to any of my colleagues that may have represented Roy, and if Roy reads this I am sorry if it seems I am rubbing salt in the wounds, but had he invested in legal counsel knowledgeable in bankruptcy and family law, he could have saved a heap of money in the long run.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | attorney fees, Bankruptcy, child support, Divorce | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adoption statutes require strict compliance

Adoption can be an expensive proposition and I have been asked on occasion if a person can do their adoption pro se (on their own and without a lawyer). Actually, this question tends to come up in family law matters in general far more than in other areas of law. I hear this question about self-representation even less often in bankruptcy where folks clearly are in dire straits financially. My response is typically yes, you can but . . .. Then I relate to them a show I saw on Discovery or TLC about a man who was out hiking and became trapped when a boulder rolled onto his arm. He would have died out in this ravine had he not amputated his own arm with a pocket knife (the tv show assured me this was a true story). Anyway, in this graphic and slightly grotesque story the man did what he had to do to survive, but it had to be exceedingly painful and extremely messy. Representing oneself in a family law matter can be just like that: exceedingly painful and extremely messy.

That answer seems to ring intuitively true for people in divorce situations, but many assume that since an adoption is a happy occasion and that judges love putting families together rather than tearing them apart, that one could handle it without a lawyer. The contrary is actually true. In the recent Kentucky Court of Appeals decision R.M. v. R.B., 2008-CA-001099-ME, (2009, to be published), the Court reminds us that “[b]ecause adoption is a statutory right, Kentucky Courts require strict compliance with the statutory procedures to protect the rights of natural parents.” The statutory framework for adoption contained in KRS 199 has many “if, then” kinds of provisions requiring careful navigation even by seasoned adoption attorneys. Because of this strict compliance requirment, adoption is the least likely area of family law where one should proceed pro se. At the very least, consult with an attorney that is knowledgeable in adoptions to see if there are any “boulders” in your particulare situation that need to be dealt with.

March 8, 2009 Posted by | Adoption, child custody, Divorce, Family Law, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Here I am dead and my ex-wife (ex-husband) got all of my retirement!?

It is common for a Separation and Property Settlement Agreement to be reached in a divorce situation where retirement benefits are divided up. When one spouse’s retirement is split up and a portion is given to the other spouse, family law practitioner’s know that a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) is required in addition to the agreement document. However, due to off-setting of funds, one spouse generally has a retirement account that remains unmolested and sometimes each spouse keep their retirement wholly as their own through negotiations. In this latter situation, a QDRO is not required and so they are rarely prepared and entered with the court and the plan administrator. A recent Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) decsion, KENNEDY, executrix of the ESTATE OF KENNEDY, DECEASED v. PLAN ADMINISTRATOR FOR DuPONT SAVINGS AND INVESTMENT PLAN et al., Decided January 26, 2009(available here at Findlaw) points out the danger assuming the divorce’s settlement agreement wraps up loose ends regarding retirement accounts.

In the Estate of Kennedy case, Husband and Wife entered into an agreement where Wife gave up her interest in Husband’s savings and investment plan (“SIP”) that was governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The divorce was granted and the settlement was accepted by the courts. Husband’s attorney did not see the need for a QDRO and Husband assumed that was that and never changed his designation of beneficiary with the SIP administrator. When Husband died, the SIP administrator disbursed the remaining funds to ex-Wife. Everybody else got a bit peeved over this and sued in Federal District Court because it involved a question of federal law under ERISA.

Without getting too far into the analysis, SCOTUS decided to keep things simple and straightforward for plan administrators: either you do a QDRO or you change your beneficiary. The plan administrator is to look to the documents of the plan under ERISA to determine where the money goes avoiding complicated inquiries into a person’s intent. While a QDRO is an exception to this that could require the administrator to look outside of the plan documents, such an inquiry would be limited.

The lesson here is that if your are able to keep your retirement accounts intact through a divorce, you cannot rely on the divorce settlement agreement to direct those funds upon your death. You must either change your designated beneficiary, or have a QDRO entered – changing your beneficiary is by far the simplest and least costly of those options. Family lawyers need to provide their clients with follow-up directions at the end of a divorce to tie up loose ends such as changing beneficiaries for retirement accounts.

January 31, 2009 Posted by | Divorce, Estate Planning, Family Law, Marital Assets, property allocation | 1 Comment

Hanging out at the intersection of divorce and business

The Supreme Court of Kentucky recently issues it decision in Medical Vision Group, PSC v Philpot, 2008-SC-000017-MR (Aug. 21, 2008)(to be published) which technically creates no case law, but is instructional regardless. The appeal was dismissed because at the time it came before the Supreme Court, the receivership issue was resolved and so the matter was moot.

The short version is that the Judge Philpot, Fayette Family Court Judge, put two companies under receivership because the sole owner of the companies, Dr. Dudee, abandoned the businesses. Dr. Dudee had refused to pay court ordered maintenance and other property distribution from his divorce and so he was jailed for contempt. While in jail, he refused to participate in work release, so his businesses were not generating revenue. Bottom line, Dr. Dudee refused to honor his obligations ordered in the divorce from his wife. Whether he was a conscientious objector or a had just been hijacked by a really bad attitude, I will let the public decide based on the facts in the case should you choose to read it.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the trial court by asserting that the judge did the right thing because the two companies were essentially “alter egos” of Dr. Dudee. However, since the trial court judge entered no findings of fact or conclusions of law in his decision regarding “alter ego” doctrine that would allow for the piercing of the corporate veil, the Supreme Court said that could not be the basis of upholding Judge Philpot’s decision. They did opine, though, that Judge Philpot was well within his discretion to enjoin the two companies in the divorce action pursuant to KRS 403.150(6) as proper parties to allow the court to exercise its judicial authority. The Court went on to point out that no third party was harmed by enjoining the businesses because Dr. Dudee was the sole owner. They also elaborated on the obligations that Dr. Dudee was refusing to honor and then added that he initially agreed to the receiver while stating he did not believe the court had jurisdiction to do so (kind of a half-hearted objection meant to move things along, but hoping to preserve an appeal – not terribly effective).

A few lessons emerge. First, if you want to preserve an appeal, be clear on the record rather than ambivalent. Second, if you are the sole owner of a company, it is ineffective to hide or divert assets into that company to keep them out of a divorce situation. Third, other parties can be brought into an action for a dissolution of marriage action, including a company that one of the parties has ownership interest in even if they are not the only owner. Lastly, no one emerges from a divorce unscathed emotionally, spiritually, or financially, but the extent of the injury can be mitigated or worsened by the attitude one adopts in the proceedings.

September 3, 2008 Posted by | Civil Procedure, Divorce, Family Law, property allocation | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Paternity Pandemonium III

After reflecting on the recent decision in J.N.R. v. O’Reilly that I posted on here and here, I recognized a troubling conundrum in the law. I will expound with a hypothetical situation beginning where the JNR case leaves off. Absolutely no offense is intended towards the real parties in the real JNR case; this is purely hypothetical:

    Where the real case leaves off is with biological father (“BioDad”) unable to get any relief because the trial court has no jurisdiction to proceed. In the hypothetical, the legal father (“LawDad”) has to work two jobs to pay the legal fees that accrued defending against BioDad’s petition and the ensuing appeals. Because of the stress of this, he develops a drinking problem and becomes estranged from his wife. A divorce occurs and biologcial mother (“BioMom”) gets sole custody. BioMom becomes depressed and, as a result of deep depression, neglects the child (“Child”). Child is removed by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services after being found wandering along a busy highway after sneaking out of the house while mom was in a depressed stupor. The Cabinet dutifully seeks out a relative to care for Child, but the only known relative is LawDad whom they find passed out on his front porch after a night of drunken debauchery. Because of LawDad’s double D dysfunction, he cannot have the child placed with him or gain custody.

    Now, the stage is set and Child goes into foster care. Because BioDad was denied the opportunity to assert paternity, he has not been judicially found to be a parent. KRS 610.020 requires the Petition to name “parents”, but BioMom and LawDad are still sore about the whole lawsuit thing and never bring BioDad up. Furthermore, KRS 610.040 does not require that he be notified. So, Child is in foster care for the next 15 months because BioMom and LawDad are more focused on sniping at each other than regaining custody of Child.

    Next, the Cabinet files a petition for the involuntary termination of parental rights of BioMom and LawDad on behalf of Child. Still, the Cabinet has no idea about BioDad because they never read this blawg and are unfamiliar with this case. Interestingly, KRS 625.060 requires that “biological parents” are made parties to the action, but only “if known”. Here is where the hypothetical has different possible outcomes.

    Outcome 1: Parental rights are terminated to BioMom and LawDad and Child spends the rest of his childhood going from foster home to foster home, or perhaps is adopted and lives happily ever after, but always dreams of being with his “real” parents. BioDad sees him years later with the adoptive family and finally learns of all those events, but he can do nothing. In the worst case scenario, adoptive parents are actually sadists bent on mentally torturing Child. Best case scenario is that they are great parents and is relatively unharmed by all these events.

    Outcome 2: BioDad finds out and moves to intervene in the termination of parental rights. Now, we are back at the starting point and the court has to determine whether he has standing to intervene under this separate set of statutes. Arguably he would have standing because the statute specifically mentions “biological parents”. This, then, is a huge inconsistency in the paternity laws of kentucky. Regardless, he still has a huge hurdle to overcome because the termination of parental rights statute, KRS 625.090 has no safe harbour provision that would protect BioDad due to his lack of knowledge of the events. In other words, neglect or abuse never has to of been alleged against BioDad. The statute is a list of events, sometimes totally out of the control of the parent, and if one and only one of these events are checked off, then termination can occur. BioDad could be the best dad in the world, but if Child was found to be neglected by clear and convincing evidence, has been in foster care 15 out of the last 22 months (even if it is the Cabinet’s fault for not having enough workers to move the case along), and the judge believes it is in the child’s best interest (purely subjective), then his parental rights could be terminated without him ever getting to exercise them.

Give the above scenario, as unlikely as it is, I have had to reflect on the JNR decision because of the far reaching consequences. I hope that the General Assembly will take up this issue to rectify this legal inconsistency.

May 14, 2008 Posted by | Civil Procedure, Divorce, Family Law, Parenting, Paternity | , , , | 1 Comment

Income in divorce is not the same as with the IRS

People typically think of income in terms of how the IRS defines income, even when it comes to divorce. This makes sense because we deal with income and IRS on an annual basis (except certain notable celebrities) while we deal with divorce, if at all, only once (again with certain celebrities excepted). However, they are not defined exactly the same.

In the recently released Kentucky Supreme Court case, Gripshover v. Gripshover, (2005-SC-000729-DG & 2006-SC-000258-DG)(Feb. 21, 2008)(to be published), , one particular difference is illuminated. The IRS provides for certain business expenses to be fully depreciated (expensed) in the year of the expense rather than depreciated over time. 26 USC Sec. 179. The Gripshover Court held that KRS 403.212 provides only for straight line depreciation. This means that the IRS reported income will often be lower than the income used for determining child support in divorce cases where a business owner is one of the spouses.

It also means that the days of relying on a business owner’s 1040 with the various self-employment schedules to show income is gone. CPA’s will be needed who understand the difference definition of income in divorce in order to determine child support.

February 23, 2008 Posted by | child support, Divorce, Family Law, Marital Assets, property allocation | , , , | 1 Comment

Fraud or dissipation of assets and divorce

The Kentucky Supreme Court just issued its decision in Gripshover v. Gripshover, (2005-SC-000729-DG & 2006-SC-000258-DG)(Feb. 21, 2008)(to be published). There is a pretty extensive factual background in the published opinion, but unless you either enjoyed reading cases in law school or aspire to enjoy reading cases in law school, I will focus on some key rulings in the case.

Unfortunately, there are spouses who, when they begin contemplating a divorce, engage in fraudulent maneuvering to hide away assets. This can take the form of transferring property belonging to the marital estate so as to exclude it as marital property in the impending divorce. When this dissipation of marital assets occurs, the trial court can recharacterize assets or pull them back into the marital estate in determing a “just” distribution of property.

In Gripshover, the wife alleged that real property transferred into a limited partnership and other property transferred into a trust defrauded her of her marital interest. The Supreme Court disagreed. For a finding of fraud or dissipation, there has to be evidence that the transfers were made in contemplation of divorce and with the intent to impair the other spouses interest. In this case, no such evidence was produced.

While I do not advocate suspicion within a marriage, it is important for both spouses to be understand the ramifications of significant transfers of property. So, I do advocate both spouses being engaged in the finances of the family.

February 23, 2008 Posted by | dissipation of assets, Divorce, Family Law, Fraud, property allocation | , , , | 4 Comments