Bankruptcy and Divorce — Which Comes First?

Far too often, the underlying cause of divorce is financial difficulty. Even if financial problems are not the cause of a divorce, they can arise when you no longer have two incomes to pay for your lifestyle or when, having separated, the spouses now have two households to support. If you are considering filing for divorce or if you know that your spouse plans to seek a divorce, a personal bankruptcy filing may become necessary. So a key question is the timing and order of these proceedings. Should you file for bankruptcy first? If so, what will be the impact on your divorce and on your soon-to-be ex-spouse?

Unfortunately, the interplay of divorce and bankruptcy is complex and very much dependent on the facts and circumstances. But a few things are generally true. First, getting early advice from an experienced bankruptcy attorney about how a bankruptcy may impact a divorce is essential. Bankruptcy counsel and divorce counsel should confer at key points in the process.

Bankruptcy or Divorce first? Don’t do them together if possible.

We generally recommend completing the bankruptcy or the divorce first rather than having both in play at the same time. That said, which should be done first depends on the parties and how well they get along, as well as the financial situation and the financial pressure being exerted by creditors. All things being equal, we generally recommend filing the bankruptcy first, but this is not always best. And in some cases, it makes good sense to file a bankruptcy even though a divorce is pending (eg. To discharge debts that are making it hard to settle the divoce. Again, “the devil is in the details”. We can also say that in most instances, using bankruptcy as a litigation tactic against a spouse is ineffective and can backfire.

If you finalize Your Divorce First

If you finalize your divorce before filing for bankruptcy, a lot of ambiguities and complexities may be done away with. Property will generally have been divided, and the amount due for child support, alimony or equitable distribution will have been decided. Unless there has been fraud or collusion, bankruptcy courts generally honor the results of a previous divorce judgment. But, while child support or alimony obligations [“Domestic Support Obligations”] cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding, in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy equitable distribution or other non-DSO obligations owed to the ex- spouse who is not filing, can be discharged. These can include unpaid attorneys fees owed to your own divorce attorney. If you agreed to pay some of your ex-spouse’s debts for her, this also might end up being non-dischargeable. There are other potential complications that are too fact based and complex to go into here. Anyone doing this needs to review a potential divorce settlement with bankruptcy counsel.

If You File for Bankruptcy First

If you are married when you file for bankruptcy, you can choose to file bankruptcy individually or jointly. If you file individually, you will receive the protections afforded under the law — prohibition of calls, letters or legal action by creditors — but your spouse will not. Because your spouse won’t be protected, he/she may be subjected to harassment by creditors and may be liable for the full amount of the debt. If you file jointly, you will both be protected, but you will both take a hit on your personal credit rating.

A Chapter 7 filing prior to a divorce can simplify the divorce proceedings, as most all debts will be discharged. A joint bankruptcy filing by a husband and wife (either with the same attorney or with separate bankruptcy counsel) may be wise. Spouses who work together can generally fare better than those who do not. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy may help under certain circumstances, even though such cases take 3 to 5 years to complete.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

We offer a free initial consultation to every potential bankruptcy client. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney or under unusual circumstances. To schedule an appointment, call our office at (856) 596-2828 or send us an e-mail. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

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