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.
As I have suggested in other posts, there is a significant intersection between family law and bankruptcy law. One example of this link comes in the form of the homestead exemption. Kentucky now allows for debtors seeking bankruptcy to use the Federal exemptions. This greatly increased the homestead exemption from the low and static Kentucky exemption of $5,000.00 to the Federal exemption that is tied to inflation. Currently, an individual can claim over $21,625.00 of the equity of their residence as exempt property. For a married couple, that means they can claim over $43,250.00 equity in their residence as exempt. In other words, if you are married, have a home that is valued at $200,000.00 dollars and you owe $160,000.00 on the home that is secured by a mortgage, then you can reaffirm the debt of $160,00.00 and still keep your home in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
This knowledge is priceless if you are either contemplating divorce or in the midst of a divorce action. Saving a home in the face of a bankruptcy can benefit your family regardless of whether the divorce occurs or not (though hopefully, as I stated in my last post, the divorce could be avoided). Knowing the exemption and interplay of bankruptcy and family law can allow for wise planning on the timing of the filing or bankruptcy, how marital assets are divided, and where monies might come from to satisfy domestic obligations.
I was just talking the other day to a client who had a real estate transaction question. The context of the real estate transaction included a co-signed debt, a family law issue, and a high risk of bankruptcy for the co-debtor. If I only understood one of those areas of law or only knew a part of the context of his question, then I would have given the wrong advice.
If I had only thought about the transfer from the family law perspective, I would have advised against the transfer. If I have only contemplate real estate law and looked at the value of the property versus the debt load, I probably also would have advised against the transfer. However, knowing the impact of the imminent filing of bankruptcy by the co-signer and how that would interplay with the family law issue and the ability to enact a transfer post-bankruptcy, made the exact opposite answer the better advice to give him.
Bankruptcy law permeates every single other area of law that involves financial transactions of any sort. This is because the bankruptcy code preempt debtor and creditor rights and obligations of state law to a huge extent. So, whether you are contemplating a divorce settlement, a real estate transfer, a debt settlement, or a multi-million dollar contract, ask your lawyer what would happen if you or the other party ended up in bankruptcy. If they have no idea, ask them to research it or consult with a bankruptcy practitioner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The process of dividing property in a divorces consists of three broad steps as outlined in Jones v. Jones, 2006-CA-001870 (Feb. 1, 2008)(to be published): “(1) classify the property as marital or nonmarital, (2) assign to each party nonmarital property owned by that party, and (3) divide in just proportions marital property.” In the Jones case, the ex-husband, Ricky, appealed the trial court’s classification of Tobacco Transition Payment Program payments (“TTPP”) as marital property.
TTPP is an important source of income for many Kentucky farmer’s and is divided into payments for growers of tobacco and payments for owners of the land where the tobacco would otherwise have been planted. This is where the particulars of the Jones case becomes important. Ricky inherited a life estate in the family farm. Without becoming too bogged down in the technicalities of a life estate, this means the farm was his to use during a lifetime, most likely his own. Since he inherited the farm, it was non-marital property by operation of KRS 403.190(2)(a). Ricky argued that the owner’s share TTPP came to him as the owner of the farm by devise so that it was not a marital asset.
Here, the trial court basically said that Ricky might be right about the owner’s share of the TTPP being non-marital, but the overall division was equitable, so let’s leave it alone. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court and asserted that the owner’s payments under TTPP were compensation for the taking of the property interest of growing tobacco on the property, so it was non-marital.
However, the grower’s TTPP payments took the place of income earned from the sale of tobacco that would have been grown. Therefore, the compensation for loss of income and would be marital. Ricky still won this argument, though, because he and his ex-wife, Lynn, had a prenuptial agreement that specified “life estate in the farm “together with the income produced thereby, shall continue and remain the separate property’ of Ricky.” Id. at 5-6.
Next, Ricky challenged the trial court’s allocation of $44,648.00 out of $67,000.00 in improvements to the farm (main house, garage, lake) as marital. The Court of Appeals analyzed this under KRS 403.190(2)(e) which states:
The increase in value of property acquired before the marriage to the extent that such increase did not result from the efforts of the parties during marriage.
The life estate was given to Ricky before the marriage (obviously or else the pre-nuptial agreement would have involved prescience) and there were improvements made during the marrigage. The problem with the trial court’s analysis came from how it valued those improvements.
The trial court equated the actual cost of improvements to the increase in value of the life estate. This makes no sense because a life estate has much less value than outright ownership (fee simple). Basically, one can sell a life estate, but who would want to buy it? It would come to an end as soon as that life ended, which could be the day after the closing. Thus, the $44,648.00 that the trial court assigned as marital probably exceeded the fair market value of the life estate. Usually, expert testimony is required to determine fair market values. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to recalculate the values involved and strongly suggested getting expert testimony.
Finally, Ricky appealed the award of payment of Lynn’s attorney fees. This is often appealed because it really hacks people off to go through a divorce and then have to pay their ex’s attorney fees too. However, these appeals rarely win because such an award is “soundly” in the discretion of the trial court. The court must consider the financial resources of the parties and, if an imbalance in resources exists, can award attorney’s fees. Well Ricky, two out of three ain’t bad.
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