In many marriages, couples jointly own real estate. While couples may not consider the nature of the title of a property, in the context of bankruptcy, how a jointly owned property is characterized is a critical consideration for determining whether it will become part of the bankruptcy estate. The factors weighed in determining whether an asset is community property or is held in a joint tenancy was recently discussed by a California bankruptcy case in which the court disputed how two marital properties should be categorized. If you are married and wish to seek debt relief via bankruptcy, it is prudent to speak with a seasoned California bankruptcy attorney to discuss how the property you own with your spouse may be impacted.
Background of the Case
Allegedly, the debtor, who was married, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Prior to filing the petition, the debtor transferred properties he owned with his wife to a trust. A trustee filed an adversary proceeding, asking the court to avoid the transfer because it was a fraudulent conveyance. The court ruled in favor of the trustee and ruled that the entirety of both properties could be recovered for the bankruptcy estate, rather than just the debtor’s halves. The debtor then appealed, but the lower court ruling was affirmed. The debtor then appealed again.
Characterization of Marital Property in Bankruptcy
Under California law, if a debtor owns a property in a joint tenancy, only the debtor’s interest will become the property of the bankruptcy estate. Further, the bankruptcy code allows a trustee in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to sell a jointly owned property and divide the proceeds between the non-debtor owners and the bankruptcy estate. If a property is considered community property, however, the entire property will become an asset of a bankruptcy estate. In such instances, the trustee can sell the property and distribute the entirety of the proceeds among the debtor’s creditors.