As a Sacramento Bankruptcy Attorney I must often explain to my clients that domestic support obligations, such as spousal support and child support, are not dischargeable in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This concept frustrates many individuals trying to clean up his or her economic profile. I must also remind these individuals to keep in mind that child and spousal support are not the only domestic support obligations to come out of a family court that could survive the bankruptcy. A recent case stemming from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, In re Mason, demonstrates a perfect example of a non-dischargeable domestic support obligation.
Mrs. Mason filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after having received a divorce from the state of New Hampshire in 2007. The parties’ divorce decree held that both parties would be liable to pay one half of their 2006 tax burden. However, Mrs. Mason listed Mr. Mason as a co-debtor on their tax lien and a creditor in her Chapter 7 petition and attempted to discharge her half of the parties’ 2006 income tax bill. Ms. Mason received her automatic discharge in the Chapter 7. Each party later attempted to assert relief from the 2006 taxes under the “innocent spouse” doctrine. The IRS granted Mrs. Mason’s request and denied the request of Mr. Mason. Mr. Mason moved to hold Ms. Mason in contempt of the family court for not paying her share of the tax bill and for an order directing her to pay one half of the tax bill. The circuit court denied Mr. Mason’s request. They found that since the IRS had granted her petition for relief under the “innocent spouse” doctrine, that it changed the nature of the taxes from a debt to the IRS to a personal debt to Mr. Martin and since Mr. Mason failed to fight the discharge in bankruptcy court that he would lose. They also denied his request for attorney’s fees.
On appeal, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed the lower court and held that the modifications of the bankruptcy code in 2005 mean that the domestic support obligations are not discharged automatically. The question turned on whether the taxes were automatically non-dischargeable because they were a part of the divorce decree, such as child support, or whether Mr. Martin would have to fight the discharge in the bankruptcy court. In their decision, the New Hampshire Supreme Court compared the modified bankruptcy code with the older version. They found that the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA “) removed the previous ability to pay tests that the law previously required regarding the dischargeability of a debt. This courts interpretation of the law found the BAPCPA directs that any debts falling within particular categories are automatically non-dischargeable. Specifically, they held that a debt created by a divorce decree is one of the automatically non-dischargeable debts. Since the 2007 divorce decree required Mrs. Mason to pay one half of the 2006 tax bill the court found that her debt was automatically non-dischargeable and she lost.