Monday, February 20, 2017

Separation agreements can't contract away bankruptcy protections

I recently negotiated a separation agreement in a divorce in which the opposing attorney insisted on inserting a clause that on its face prevented the parties from receiving the benefit of bankruptcy laws if one of them filed a bankruptcy petition in federal court. The clause that she tried to insert was as follows:


"Each Party agrees that neither shall attempt in any way to discharge any obligations contained in this Agreement in bankruptcy proceedings, and that in the event that s/he does, any discharge in bankruptcy for any such obligations shall have no effect upon his/her responsibility as contained in the Agreement. The obligations of the Parties set forth in this Agreement shall survive and supersede any subsequent discharge in bankruptcy. The filing Party shall indemnify and hold harmless the non-filing Party from any and all losses suffered as a result of the bankruptcy proceeding, including costs and legal fees."

In my opinion, this clause is illegal in that it violates federal law and is unethical because it misleads the parties and can cause them to litigate frivolous issues in the event of a bankruptcy filing by a party.

Bankruptcy law is established by federal law. While it may incorporate state law and even look to state law for various elements of the overall bankruptcy scheme, on the issue of a party's ability to file bankruptcy and the effect of filing a bankruptcy petition, these are within the exclusive jurisdiction of federal law. State court judges in family court have no ability to take away a party's right to file bankruptcy or to restrict the effect of such a filing. The parties also lack the power to contract away bankruptcy rights. If an individual could contract away bankruptcy rights then every contract would contain an anti-bankruptcy clause.

In some regards, bankruptcy law protects obligations created by Family Court in a divorce. Child support and alimony are domestic support obligations which are protected categories of debt. Property division does not receive protection under bankruptcy law. The proposed clause does not effect child support or alimony as these are already protected would not be effected by a contract clause that caused separation agreements to survive bankruptcy. This clause is aimed solely at property division.

In the case of In re Kroen, the court addressed a similar clause. The court found that the clause violated bankruptcy law and could not be enforced. The court found that this clause violated public policy. There are are long line of federal cases that hold that an agreement to make contracts non-dischargeable in bankruptcy are void as they all offend the public policy of promoting a fresh start for individual debtors.

Since the proposed clause is illegal and void under bankruptcy law, it can never be given any enforcement in either state or federal court. As such, the only possible purpose of the proposed clause is to make the parties think that property division in a divorce is non-dischargeable under bankruptcy law. In other words, the purpose is to mislead the parties into an incorrect understanding of the law. This is a violation of the ethical rules that lawyers follow.

The Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers prohibit lawyers from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation or conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. The proposed clause would mislead parties into thinking that they can file litigation in bankruptcy court and prevent the discharge in bankruptcy of property division obligations. Such a misleading action is conduct that involves misrepresentation. Since it encourages frivolous litigation it is also prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Drafting a separation agreement is a complicated process. People getting divorced should consult an lawyer experienced in family law before signing a separation agreement.









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