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Archive for the ‘dissolution of marriage’ tag

A Creditor’s Precautionary Motion about the Automatic Stay

February 26th, 2018 at 8:00 am

A creditor might file a motion to avoid violating the stay, or to get permission to take some action other than collect a debt.   

 

In the last three blog posts we’ve covered five reasons why creditors ask for “relief from the automatic stay.” The first one is by far is the most common.  Creditors ask for “relief from stay” to take back collateral, or to establish payment and other terms that you must meet to avoid losing the collateral.

The other four reasons were to get permission to finish a lawsuit or other proceeding to determine:

  1. whether you owe any debt to the creditor
  1. the amount of that debt, assuming you owe something
  2. whether you owe a debt which can be paid by insurance (instead of you personally)
  3. whether the debt you owe can be discharged (written off) in bankruptcy     

Today we cover two more reasons that a creditor may ask the bankruptcy court for “relief from stay.” These tend to be precautionary—arguably the creditor or other party could act without bankruptcy court permission. But because of the risks of potentially violating the automatic stay the party first asks for permission.

So, a party could file a motion for relief from stay

  1. to get a court determination whether the creditor’s intended actions would violate the automatic stay
  2. to get permission to take some other action against you not involving collecting a monetary obligation

Penalties for Violation of the Automatic Stay

When a creditor or other party learns that you’ve filed a bankruptcy case, it knows that it can no longer take collection action against you to collect any debt. If it does take such action it would likely be in violation of federal law and may have to pay damages.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Code (at Section 362(k)(1)) says that

an individual injured by any willful violation of a stay provided by this section shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.

In other words there can be significant financial penalties for taking action against you in violation of the automatic stay.

1. Avoiding Violation of the Automatic Stay

The problem is that sometimes it’s not crystal clear whether a certain action by a creditor would violate the automatic stay or not. Bankruptcy Code Section 362 about the automatic stay has 8 subsections about the kinds of actions that bankruptcy stays (stops). It has 28 exceptions about the kinds of creditor actions that the automatic stay does not stop. The entire code section contains about 6,500 words—lots of potential for confusion.

So how does a creditor or other adversary of yours avoid the potentially serious penalties for violating the stay? It can file a precautionary motion for relief from stay to put the issue before the bankruptcy court. The creditor/adversary doesn’t act against you until after getting the court’s determination that it is acting legally.

For example, assume that you file a bankruptcy case while you are in the midst of a divorce. Your ex-spouse wants to finish the divorce proceeding regardless of your bankruptcy filing. The Bankruptcy Code says it’s not a violation of the automatic stay to finish a divorce proceeding. However it IS a violation to the extent that “such proceeding seeks to determine the division of property that is property of the estate.”  (Section 362(b)(2)(A)(iv).)

So your ex-spouse may file a precautionary motion to find out if the property to be divided is included in “property of the [bankruptcy] estate.” He or she wants to know how to go forward with the divorce without violating the automatic stay.

Note that you can simply not respond to such a motion if you’re fine with the action your adversary proposes. Then the bankruptcy judge will likely give the adversary the clarification it needed. If you don’t object your adversary will more likely get what it is requesting.

But if you do want to object, you respond through your bankruptcy lawyer to the creditor’s motion. The judge then decides whether the creditor’s proposed action would be a violation of the automatic stay. And if it would be a violation, the court usually also decides whether the adversary is still entitled to relief from stay to proceed with his or her action.

2. Permission to Take Action Other Than to Collect a Debt

Similarly, a creditor may ask for relief from stay to take some action separate from collecting its debt. It is essentially asking to take some action other than debt collection, and wants to be sure it can.

When you enter a contract with a creditor, you often have contractual obligations beyond just paying the debt. For example, if you’re behind on rent payments on an apartment when you file bankruptcy, you owe a debt. The landlord cannot pursue you on that debt because of your bankruptcy filing. But it may want to evict you so that it can rent it to another tenant. So the landlord could file a motion for relief from stay to get permission to evict you. That motion would make clear that the landlord is NOT asking for or getting permission to collect the back rent. It’s just asking for permission to proceed with an eviction-only lawsuit. If the landlord succeeded in that motion, the court’s order granting the permission would also be limited to the eviction proceeding, and would not allow collection of the back rent.

(There are special rules about the automatic stay involving residential rentals. So be sure to discuss this with your bankruptcy lawyer if it pertains to you. Also, see Section 362(b)(22 and 23) of the Bankruptcy Code and our recent blog posts about this.)

 

Family Court Proceedings and Debts in Bankruptcy

February 12th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Bankruptcy prevents or stops only certain limited divorce/family law proceedings. Others, including collection of ongoing support, continue. 

 

Our last several blog posts have been about creditor collection actions stopped or not stopped by a bankruptcy filing. Today we get into divorce and family court related proceedings and debts.

Family Court Proceedings

The bankruptcy law that stops creditor collections immediately when filing bankruptcy is called the “automatic stay.”

The automatic stay doesn’t just stop creditor phone calls, wage and bank account garnishments, and vehicle repossessions and home foreclosures. It also stops most creditor lawsuits from being filed and prevents ongoing lawsuits from continuing. This makes sense because a creditor’s lawsuit is clearly part of its efforts to collect its debt.

However, there are certain kinds of lawsuits that have little or nothing to do with collecting a debt. Many of such lawsuits are in family or domestic relations court. Bankruptcy law creates exceptions to the automatic stay to allow certain specific family court proceedings. Such proceedings can be started or continued regardless of your bankruptcy case.

Each of these specific exceptions to the automatic stay makes sense. These proceedings mostly deal with personal matters not pertaining to collecting a debt or taking an asset from you. They include court proceedings

  • to establish the paternity of a child
  • to establish or modify the amount of child or spousal support
  • to resolve issues of child custody or visitation
  • to address domestic violence

See Section 362(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code.

So, your ex-spouse/domestic partner or about-to-be ex-spouse/domestic partner can start or continue these specific kinds of proceedings regardless of your active bankruptcy case. So can somebody acting on his or her behalf (such as a state support enforcement department).

The Divorce Proceeding

The automatic stay also does not prevent or stop the divorce or dissolution of marriage proceeding itself. When you file a bankruptcy case it doesn’t affect an ongoing divorce proceeding or the filing of a new one.

But that’s not quite true on a practical level. The automatic stay DOES apply to and does stop what is a crucial part of most divorce proceedings. That’s the division of marital property and marital debt. If there is no marital property or debt being addressed in your divorce, if only the dissolution of the marriage is being adjudicated, then that proceeding can continue and the marriage can be dissolved, regardless of your bankruptcy case.

But if, as usual, there’s some property or debt to divide, the automatic stay stops that from going ahead.

The Bankruptcy Code excludes from the automatic stay “a civil action or proceeding… for the dissolution of marriage, except to the extent that such proceeding seeks to determine the division of property…  .” (See Section 362(b)(2)(A)(iv).)

That exception makes sense because of what bankruptcy deals with—property and debt. Chapter 7, especially, looks to your property and debts as of a certain point in time—your date of filing.  It would not be a very sensible use of court time for two courts to be dealing simultaneously with your property and debts. The bankruptcy court would be dealing with a fluid situation as the divorce court shifted the debtor’s property and debts. So, a divorce court is stopped from proceeding on these issues while the automatic stay is in effect.

Collection of Child and Spousal Support

(We’ve addressed the special situation of child and spousal support separately in a recent blog post so we’ll be brief here.)

The automatic stay does not stop the collection of ongoing child or spousal support in either Chapter 7 or 13.

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” also does not stop the collection of prior unpaid support. But Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” can stop prior unpaid support collection, IF you act proactively and with consistency. You must:

  • continue paying any  ongoing monthly support payments
  • arrange to pay all unpaid support current during your Chapter 13 payment plan
  • actually make the proposed and court-approved plan payments so that you do catch up on all unpaid support during your 3-to-5-year plan

 

A Caution about Severing Your Chapter 13 Case from Your Spouse

September 1st, 2017 at 7:00 am

If getting separated or divorced while in a Chapter 13 case, you’ll likely each need a new lawyer for independent advice about what to do.   

 

Last time we explained an important option for spouses filing a Chapter 13 together: “severing” their case into two if they later separate or divorce. That allows each spouse to do whatever they want to do with their side of the case. Each person can either continue in the Chapter 13 case, convert to Chapter 7, or dismiss out of bankruptcy altogether.

You should know about this severing possibility before filing your case because it’s good to know your future options. You need to know how much flexibility Chapter 13 has if your circumstances change. And you need to know the limits on that flexibility.

With this in mind there’s a practical consideration about case severing that we didn’t have room to discuss last time. That’s the fact that your bankruptcy lawyer may not be able to advise either of you once you’re getting divorced.

Conflict of Interest

Lawyers are not allowed to simultaneously represent two people who have interests that are in conflict with each other. Only if your interests are quite closely aligned so that the same legal solution (such as filing a Chapter 13 case) is the best for you both can one lawyer represent both.

That’s true even if the two of you are in somewhat different circumstances. Most of the time two spouses have at least slightly different circumstances. For example, each of you may have some debts that you individually owe, and other debts you jointly owe. You may own some assets individually and the rest own jointly with your spouse.

If your circumstances are very different from your spouse’s, one lawyer may not be able to represent you both. Just being married does not automatically mean there isn’t a conflict of interest between you. This might prevent joint representation by one lawyer even if you have the best marriage in the world.

For example, one spouse may have come into the marriage with a significant asset. The other spouse may owe multiple years of income tax debt predating the marriage. His tax debt and overall situation may by far be best handled in a Chapter 13 case. She may not need any bankruptcy, or a Chapter 7 case if her asset can be protected through an exemption. Because her primary interest may be to save her asset while his may be to get his taxes paid or written off through, their interests may be in conflict. Especially if he is pressuring to do something she’s reluctant to do, she may need her own lawyer to determine what is in her own best interest.

Conflict of Interest from Coming Divorce

Let’s assume the two spouses’ interests were aligned enough so that they filed a Chapter 13 together. They got independent legal advice if that was needed, but in any event they filed the case jointly. But now, a year or two into their 3-year case they’re getting divorced. Up until now throughout their Chapter 13 case one bankruptcy lawyer has been representing them.

At this point that single lawyer likely cannot keep representing both of them. That’s because almost for certain they have become each other’s legal adversaries. Their individual interests have come into conflict in two ways.

First, as to their prior debts, they are likely in conflict there. In the example above, to the extent his income taxes have not yet been paid off or written off through the Chapter 13 payment plan, he’ll want to take care of them. He’d likely want to finish the Chapter 13 case, presumably with some amendments to account for post-divorce finances. She’ll have no interest in those taxes since she is not liable on them. Her interest will be on protecting her significant asset, maybe by dismissing her side of the Chapter 13 case.

Second, divorce almost always generates its own new liabilities, one ex-spouse liable to the other. These may include child or spousal support, debt from division of assets, and obligations to pay certain joint or separate debts. A bankruptcy lawyer absolutely cannot give either person any advice about such matters because that would advance the interest of one spouse to the direct detriment of the other spouse.

Lawyer’s Advice about Severing the Case into Two

In practical terms, most couples getting divorced while in a Chapter 13 case will need to sever their case into two cases. Then each spouse can do what is appropriate for themselves in their separate cases.

When a case is very close to completion it may be appropriate to just finish the case.  In the above example, if the payment plan is just a month or two to completion it may serve both spouses to get the discharge of debts this would provide them.

Or similarly, it may make sense to convert the Chapter 13 case into a joint Chapter 7 case. That may be in each party’s best interest. The reason they filed a Chapter 13 case—such as to save the family home—may well no longer apply. So getting the relatively quick closure provided by Chapter 7 may serve both of them best.

But whether to sever the case into two, finish off the Chapter 13 case, or convert to Chapter 7, the original Chapter 13 lawyer cannot advise the spouses about these options. That’s because he or she owes a duty of loyalty to both individuals. And the lawyer can’t be loyal to two people who now have opposing interests.

The lawyer can’t advise them about the effect of these options on an asset owned or a debt owed by one of them. That’s because they now have opposing interests about that asset or debt.

Same thing is true with advice about the effect of their bankruptcy options on their upcoming divorce. Obviously the two have directly opposing interests about all aspects of their divorce. Their lawyer can say nothing whatsoever to them about how their bankruptcy options may affect their divorce.

The Lawyer Needs to Either Withdraw or Require Independent Advice

The bottom line is that in most cases the Chapter 13 lawyer has to withdraw from representing the spouses. Or at the least the spouses have to meet with and get advice from their own separate lawyers. Those two lawyers could very well then agree that both spouses would be served by the case being severed. They would authorize the original lawyer to file a motion to sever and then withdraw from representation. The two lawyers would then each take over representation in those two severed cases.

 In some limited situations those two lawyers might agree that both of the spouses would be best served by either completing the Chapter 13 case or converting it into a Chapter 7 case. They may authorize the original lawyer to take that action. But they would continue being available to provide their individual clients with independent advice as the Chapter 7 or  Chapter 13 case was completed.

 

Upcoming Property from a Divorce

December 9th, 2016 at 8:00 am

One special category of future assets in bankruptcy is property from a divorce—either from a property settlement agreement or court decree.  

 

Bankruptcy and Future Assets

Five blog posts ago we started this series on special assets about inheritances and life insurance proceeds. We referred to a special 180-day exception to the otherwise strong rule saying that you focus on assets that you own as of the day that you file your bankruptcy case.

This exception means that assets you acquire by inheritance or life insurance up to 180 days AFTER filing bankruptcy are treated as if you owned those assets at the time you filed your case. Section 541(a)(5)(A) and (C) of the Bankruptcy Code. This means the inheritance or life insurance proceeds could go to your creditors instead of into your pocket.

Property Acquired by Property Settlement Agreement or Decree

Notice how that reference to the Bankruptcy Code on that 180-day exception just now was to subsections 541(a)(5)(A) and 541(a)(C). Well, how about the subsection in between those two: 541(a)(5)(B)?

The 180-day exception applies there as well, this time to property (assets) acquired:

as a result of a property settlement agreement with the debtor’s spouse, or of an interlocutory or final divorce decree…  .

Dealing with Divorce and Bankruptcy at the Same Time Is Complicated Enough…

Both divorce and bankruptcy deal with a lot of the same financial issues, including assets and debts. Divorce often shifts your assets and debts. That’s one reason that it’s often unwise to file bankruptcy right in the midst of a divorce. Bankruptcy, especially Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” has trouble dealing with a moving target, with shifting assets and debts. Divorce creates that complicating moving target.

The 180-Day Exception

Just one of those complications is that you can’t just look at what your assets are when you file bankruptcy. You have to anticipate what else you may acquire through your divorce in the subsequent 180 days.

By Settlement Agreement, Interlocutory Decree, or Final Decree

To be clear, the law doesn’t just cover assets you get from your final divorce decree. It includes prior steps in the process, such as property settlements that you make with your spouse. It may also include court orders resolving just part of your divorce.

Conclusion

So be very careful if you’re in a hurry to get a divorce filed. Don’t make the understandable mistake of thinking that bankruptcy fixates only on what you own at the time of filing.

Also, just because you figure it’ll take a long time to finish your divorce, you might want to wait to start it. That’s because even though you might be fighting about child custody or spousal support for many months, the property settlement of the case or a partial decree on property could happen faster. If any of this happens within 180 days after filing bankruptcy, assets you expected to receive yourself could easily go instead to your creditors.

 

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