There are exceptions to the stay. The bankruptcy does not stay civil actions or proceedings to establish paternity, establish or modify a domestic support obligation, decide matters relating to child custody or visitation, address domestic violence, or dissolve a marriage when the divorce does not affect property of the estate.
The bankruptcy estate is comprised of all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case, including any interest the debtor acquires or becomes entitled to acquire within 180 days after the date of the bankruptcy filing as the result of a property settlement agreement with the debtor’s spouse, or of an interlocutory or final divorce decree. See 11 U.S.C. § 541.
Most bankruptcy debtors will try to immunize the property they expect to receive in their divorce action by claiming that the property is exempt from the bankruptcy estate. The U.S. Bankruptcy Code allows the debtor to prevent the distribution of certain property by claiming it as exempt. Section 522(b) of the Code allows the bankruptcy debtor to choose the exemptions afforded by state law or the federal exemptions listed in section 522(d). Section 522(l) states the procedure for claiming exemptions and objecting to claimed exemptions: “The debtor shall file a list of property that the debtor claims as exempt under subsection (b) of this section. … Unless a party in interest objects, the property claimed as exempt on such list is exempt.” The Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure allow creditors and the bankruptcy trustee thirty days to object to claimed exemptions unless the court extends the time for objecting to the debtor’s claimed exemptions. Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz, 503 U.S. 638, 639 (1992).
If the divorcing spouses have not divided their retirement assets or other marital assets between them prior to the bankruptcy filing, then the debtor’s right to receive retirement assets or any other nonexempt marital assets from the non-debtor spouse will be included in property of the bankruptcy estate to the extent that the debtor has not exempted the marital assets from property of the estate. The nonexempt assets could then be subject to distribution to the creditors of the debtor in the course of the bankruptcy proceeding.
The Bankruptcy Code provides the non-debtor spouse a right to request relief from the automatic stay in order to return to the state court to complete the distribution of the marital assets.
Where equitable distribution is not determined prior to the commencement of a bankruptcy case, the non-debtor spouse may have only an unsecured claim against the bankruptcy estate. If economic terms are decided by a domestic relations court or agreed to by the parties prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case, the non-debtor spouse would have an in rem interest and not merely an unsecured claim. See, e.g., Verner v. Verner (In re Verner), 318 B.R. 778, 787–90 (Bankr. W.D. Pa. 2005); Roshan v. Nouri (In re Nouri), 304 B.R. 155, 160–05 (Bankr. M.D. Pa. 2003). See also Gendreau v. Gendreau (In re Gendreau), 122 F.3d 815, 818 (9th Cir. 1997); Lowenschuss v. Selnick (In re Lowenschuss), 170 F.3d 923, 930 (9th Cir. 1999).
The bankruptcy court will usually grant relief from stay to the parties to proceed with the division of marital assets in the state court divorce proceeding. However, the bankruptcy trustee stands in the shoes of the debtor, and the trustee may be substituted for the debtor in the divorce proceedings in order to collect the debtor’s nonexempt share of the marital property for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate. Any settlement between the bankruptcy trustee and the non-debtor spouse must be approved by the bankruptcy court. See In re Martin, 91 F.3d 389 (3d. Cir. 1996).
If your client violates the automatic stay, any individual injured by any willful violation of the stay will be entitled to recover actual damages, including costs and attorney fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, punitive damages. If you are unsure, it is in your best interest and the best interest of your client to obtain a court order granting relief from stay before taking any action against the bankruptcy debtor to enforce your client’s claims against the debtor. See 11 U.S.C. § 362 (k)(1).