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Bankruptcy and Family Law

Parties who are unable to keep up with their financial obligations may consider filing for bankruptcy. Chapter 7 bankruptcy involves liquidation of a party's assets to repay debts. Chapter 13 bankruptcy involves a payment plan with all collected funds subsequently distributed to creditors in order of their priority. A bankruptcy filing results in an automatic stay meaning the party filing for bankruptcy is protected from creditors seeking payment from them until the bankruptcy is resolved however, there are exceptions to this general rule. Specifically, the filing of a bankruptcy petition does not operate as a stay for any proceeding regarding the establishment or modification of an order for domestic support obligations, concerning child custody or visitation, or for the dissolution of a marriage (including decree with court order or property settlement agreement except to the extent that such proceeding seeks to determine the division of property that is property of the estate). Accordingly, a party may not seek to dismiss all their obligations in a family law matter by filing for bankruptcy.

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Pennsylvania case law reiterates this point. In Schulze v. Schulze, 15 B.R. 106 (1981), the court held that "there can be no doubt that the state court action as it pertains to divorce and the custody of the minor children should not be stayed." A party that files for bankruptcy cannot discharge an obligation to provide support. A party may however discharge an obligation to split assets and/or debts under a property settlement agreement or order on equitable distribution. In Deichert v. Deichert, 402 Pa. Super. 415 (1991), the court discusses which marital obligations are dischargeable or non-dischargeable in bankruptcy and concludes the court is to look at the intent of the parties and/or the effect/function of the obligation since debts under property settlement are dischargeable but support obligations are not.

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