When Bankruptcy Meets Divorce

Just over two years ago, President George W. Bush signed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) of 2005, which became effective Oct. 17, 2005. If you are getting divorced, this new bankruptcy law could concern you. Reason: While you may not realize it, in this country, our high divorce rate and bankruptcy commonly intersect.

Here’s how. Until the enactment of the BAPCPA, the bankruptcy process was seen by some, and used by many, as a tool to permanently evade (or, to use bankruptcy terminology, “discharge”) family obligations foisted upon them by agreement or court order after a marital dissolution. Plus, once a person filed a bankruptcy petition–for liquidation under Chapter 7 or reorganization under Chapter 13 (or, less commonly, Chapter 11)–he gained the protection of an “automatic stay,” preventing creditors from taking any actions against him, his income or his property to collect their debts.

If the “debtor’s” income was less than the sum needed to maintain his lifestyle, including debt service, he would generally opt for the Chapter 7 liquidation, taking advantage of whatever homestead and property exemptions his state allowed, thus protecting his assets from creditors. If any nonexempt property existed, the bankruptcy trustee would liquidate it to pay secured creditors first, with unsecured creditors, such as ex spouses (who lacked collateral or guarantees) at the back of the line.

While Chapter 7 liquidation was not a means to avoid a mortgage or shirk taxes secured by liens, it did provide the debtor a clean slate, free from pesky consumer debt–credit cards, loans from friends and family, legal or medical bills–and whatever equitable distribution payments he couldn’t comfortably afford. Plus, if a person happened to live in Florida, Iowa, Kansas Oklahoma, South Dakota or Texas, he could really make out like a bandit because these states had (and still have) limitless homestead–and generous property–exemptions.

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