Do Divorce Settlements Survive Bankruptcy?

I have previously written about interplay between divorce, family court proceedings and bankruptcy, as well as other issues involving the interplay between bankruptcy and family law.  One issue that is highly significant in situations where one of the former spouses is about to file a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is whether the bankruptcy trusee will seek to undo a divorce settlement agreement.

With bankruptcy filings being so common, and divorce being a major reason for seeking bankruptcy relief, divorce lawyers are frequently concerned as to whether a divorce settlement will be upheld in a bankruptcy proceeding.

There are valid reasons to be cautious since if a debtor transfers a valuable asset to a spouse (or soon-to-be ex-spouse) prior to filing for bankruptcy, and the debtor-spouse does not receive reasonable value in return, then the transfer may be deemed to be a “fraudulent transfer.” In such a case, the bankruptcy trustee can sue the person who received the asset to recover it for the bankruptcy estate, so that all creditors can share in its value.  As with any other situation involving fraudulent transfers, the debtor must have been insolvent at the time of transfer.

In order to demonstrate that a transfer was not a fraudulent transfer, the party who received the transfer would have to show that there was “reasonably equivalent value.” It is common for a divorcing spouse to settle the divorce case by giving the other spouse valuable assets such as an interest in real estate, bank accounts, investments, or other personal property. In those situations, both parties do not want a bankruptcy trustee to try to set such transfers aside.

There was a time when some of the bankruptcy courts held that innocent spouses who received such a transfer were no different from any other party who received a large transfer without sufficient consideration. However, a case decided by the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in June of 2009 will give many divorcing spouses a greater degree of certainty that a trustee will not be able to set aside a divorce settlement.

The decision in Bledsoe v. Bledsoe, 569 F.3d 1106 (9th Cir. 2009) this issue by addressing when a bankruptcy court may avoid a transfer made pursuant to a state-court divorce decree. The Circuit Court affirmed that decision and held that a trustee can only set aside a matrimonial settlement if he alleges and proves “extrinsic fraud.”  The Court also held that a divorce decree that follows from a regularly conducted, contested divorce proceeding conclusively establishes “reasonably equivalent value” in the absence of fraud or collusion. Since the Second Circuit has not addressed this issue, Bledsoe is valid law in the bankruptcy courts in New York. At the same time, the bankruptcy court, here in Rochester, New York, and elsewhere, will always review the totality of the facts.

In order for a divorce settlement to be upheld by the bankruptcy court, it must be ratified by the matrimonial court. That means that any transfer should be accurately described in a stipulation of settlement.  In addition, the stipulation must be specifically referred to and incorporated in the judgment of divorce.  It is not enough that the parties merely stipulate to a settlement; the court must specifically approve the settlement.  In a typical judgment of divorce, this is accomplished by stating that the stipulation survives the judgment of divorce and is not merged into it.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, New York, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

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