Avoiding Judgments that Can Really Hurt You, and Hurt Your Bankruptcy

Many judgments against you don’t matter once you file a bankruptcy. But certain ones are very dangerous. How can you tell the difference?

Letting a creditor get a judgment against you after it has sued you can sometimes result in that debt not being written off (“discharged”) in a later bankruptcy case. Or that debt may instead become much more difficult to discharge, even if eventually it is. But in the meantime it can turn an otherwise straightforward case into one much more complicated. 

So how can certain judgments make a debt not dischargeable? Because of a basic principle of law which says that once one court has decided an issue, another court must respect that decision. The theory is that litigants should only get to use court resources once to resolve a dispute. Once a court decides an issue, it’s been decided (except for the limited exception of appeals to a higher court).

But as I said, most judgments by creditors are NOT a problem in bankruptcy. That’s because most creditor lawsuits are about only one thing: whether the debt is legally owed. A judgment that establishes nothing more than that can generally be discharged in a subsequent bankruptcy.

The judgments that are dangerous are more complicated. They arise in lawsuits in which the creditor is alleging that the person owing the debt incurred it in some fraudulent or inappropriate way. If the judgment clearly establishes that’s what happened, then the bankruptcy court later has to accept that decision. If the wording of the lawsuit and judgment shows that the behavior was of the kind that the bankruptcy laws say results in the debt not being discharged, then without further litigation the bankruptcy court would rule the same way.

These cases can get complicated because often it’s not clear precisely what the previous lawsuit decided, or whether what was decided meshes closely enough with the dischargeablility rules of bankruptcy. There’s also the question whether the matter was “actually litigated” if the person against whom the judgment was entered did not appear to defend the lawsuit or did not have an attorney.  In other words you may or may not be able to get your day in bankruptcy court depending on whether in the eyes of the law you really already had your day in the prior court.

This risk of losing your chance to defend your case in bankruptcy court can be avoided by not waiting until after a judgment has been entered against you to see a bankruptcy attorney. That is especially true if the allegations against you involve any bad behavior other than not repaying the debt. As a general rule, if you get sued by any creditor you should see an attorney, even if you don’t plan on fighting the lawsuit and hiring an attorney for that purpose. That allows you to find out if the lawsuit could lead to a judgment making the debt not be dischargeable in a bankruptcy. And if so, you would then still have to option of filing the bankruptcy to prevent such a harmful judgment from being entered, instead of being stuck with it once you file a bankruptcy later.