By Ryan C. Wood
I will give you my opinion right now and say yes, if possible. If your spouse and you do not own any separate property then please file bankruptcy jointly and receive an order of discharge with both of your names and social security numbers listed. Doing this makes it black and white to your creditors. All debts are discharged as to both spouses. If only one spouse files for bankruptcy and receives a discharge you have entered the gray as to the non-filing spouse. While bankruptcy is governed by Federal Law to determine certain asset issues the Bankruptcy Court has to look to state property marital law to determine separate property and community property.
The Community Discharge
So in a community property state only the community assets are liable for community debts. If there are no separate property assets brought into the marriage by the spouses then there is nothing other than community assets at the time of filing and then post-discharge. 11 U.S.C. § 524(a)(3). “[Section] 524(a)(3) treats the effect on the nondebtor spouse of a discharge of a debtor in a community property state when the nondebtor spouse is liable on the community claim, but has not filed a bankruptcy petition.” In re Karber, 25 B.R. 9, 12 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 1982). In summary, all actions to collect a “community claim” from section 541(a)(2) property acquired after the petition date is permanently enjoined unless timely objected to. A creditor is still free to seek collection against the non-filing spouse’s separate assets.
So What Is The Problem?
So you the issue is some of the debts are under one spouses name and social security number while some debts were incurred by the other spouse. Who files for bankruptcy then? All of the debts were incurred during their marriage too. If one spouse files for bankruptcy and receives a discharge will that discharge protect the spouse that did not file? Yes and no. This is the gray of only one spouse filing. What can a creditor do or not do to collect their debt against the non-filing spouse’s separate property? What is property of the bankruptcy estate or community assets after the spouse received a discharge? Can a judgment creditor suspend the non-filing spouses driver’s license? Is a driver’s license a community asset?
File Jointly If Possible To Avoid Confusion
As bankruptcy attorneys that have filed and been involved in thousands of b bankruptcy cases, if it is possible, we recommend spouses file jointly so that it is black and white post-discharge. Each spouse receives a discharge of all debts whether in their name and social security number or not. A creditor with a judgment can renew the judgment and then wait to collect. The entire time the judgment is also accruing interest. Also, once the judgment is renewed the total amount of the renewal will accrue interest. This accrual of interest will make the judgment increase significantly plus the cost of collection added in also. What is the judgment creditor waiting for? They are waiting for some separate property assets to be obtained by the non-filing spouse. If the non-filing spouse inherits assets from someone the inherited assets are arguably separate property of that spouse and now there are separate assets to collect from. Or the judgment creditor is waiting for the community to end via divorce or death. Once the community is terminated then the protection of the discharge of the filing spouse is also terminated.
We had a judgment creditor write us a letter once to explain their position and right to collect from the non-filing spouse. The judgment creditor argued that the community discharge pursuant to Section 524 is a “phantom discharge” since it only bars collection from community assets. Again, if there are no separate assets then how is the discharge merely a phantom discharge? If there are no separate assets then all assets are community assets and therefore protected. What procedure is there to make the determination that there are no separate assets? There really is none. If a creditor allegedly violates the order of discharge the only recourse is to seek sanctions from the bankruptcy court that signed the order of discharge. Litigating this issue will most likely cost more than what it cost to file the initial Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. No one really wants to have to deal with this after receiving a discharge and moving on. If you are married and do not file jointly this is a potential issue you will be creating by filing alone.
Prevent Possible Litigation
Again, the theme of this article is if you can file jointly then file jointly and eliminate the possibility of litigating whether a creditor is violating the order of discharge or not. It may not be possible though depending upon the circumstances. Bankruptcy attorneys have to look at all of the assets of clients and make a determination as to the best course of action. There are also circumstances in which a spouse refused to file for bankruptcy protection no matter what. The point of filing for bankruptcy is to discharge eligible debts or reorganize debts without causing additional stress or problems for the bankruptcy filer. Most bankruptcy filers do not have the means to litigate issues that sometimes arise. Like a creditor going after a non-filing spouse post-discharge. If you filed for bankruptcy protection you probably do not have thousands of dollars to litigate anything. In the event a creditor goes after a non-filing spouse and we are successful in obtaining sanctions there is no guarantee that the bankruptcy court will award attorneys’ fees and costs for seeking sanctions. It is usually a tough position to be in after the bankruptcy is long over and then a creditor decides to do some sort of collection activity against the non-filing spouse. So what then? To take this issue off the table completely and just file jointly.