Can Child or Spousal Support Ever Be Written Off in Bankruptcy?

You’ve heard that no debt in bankruptcy is more untouchable than child support and spousal support. Is that true? Can Chapter 7 or 13 ever help?


Support is Not Dischargeable, IF It’s Really Support

If you owe a debt “in the nature of” child or spousal support, that debt cannot be discharged (legally written-off) in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case. See Bankruptcy Code Sections 101(14A), 523(a)(5), and 1328(a)(2).  

The point of the “in the nature of” language is that an obligation could be called support in a divorce decree or court order, and yet not actually be “in the nature of” support. The bankruptcy court looks beyond the label given to a debt in the separation or divorce documents to what kind of debt it actually is under the unique facts of the case. Practically speaking, if an obligation is labeled as support, most of the time it will indeed be “in the nature of” support. But not always, so it’s worth looking deeper.

So what’s an example of a debt which is called support but is not really “in the nature” of support? This is always in the discretion of the bankruptcy court, but here’s one example which would likely not be “in the nature of support. Imagine a personal loan provided to the two spouses during their marriage by one of the spouse’s parents. In the subsequent divorce, the divorce decree obligated the other spouse to repay that loan by paying making payments of “spousal support” until that loan was paid off. In that obligated spouse’s subsequent bankruptcy case, that obligation for so-called “spousal support” would likely be seen as one not “in the nature of” support. Instead the court could well see that obligation for what it really is: an obligation for one spouse to pay a marital debt, not one actually to pay spousal support.

But this cuts in the other direction, too. An obligation “in the nature of” child or spousal support can be called something else in the separation or divorce documents but would still be treated as a support obligation and not discharged in bankruptcy.

Any Possible Benefit from Chapter 7?

Usually the best thing that a “straight” Chapter 7 can do to help with your support obligations is to discharge your other debts so that you can better afford to pay your support.

Beyond that there is one other relatively rare situation that can help if you owe back support payments—an “asset” Chapter 7 case.

In most Chapter 7 cases, all of the assets that the debtors own are protected by exemptions, so the debtors keep all their assets. Nothing has to be given to the trustee. Since the “bankruptcy estate” contains nothing, it’s a “no asset” case.

But if you do surrender anything to the trustee—usually something you no longer need or that is worth giving up for the benefit of doing a Chapter 7 case—the trustee will pay your creditors out of the sale proceeds of whatever you surrendered. And guess what’s the first thing that gets paid by the trustee out of the “bankruptcy estate”? Support obligations owed at the time your Chapter 7 case is filed are paid ahead of any other creditor (after the trustee’s fees and costs). So if you owe back child or spousal support, some or all of it could be paid this way.

Any Possible Benefit from Chapter 13?

Although a Chapter 13 case does not discharge support obligations any better than a Chapter 7 one, it still gives you a potentially huge advantage: Chapter 13 stops collection activity for back support obligations. Chapter 7 does not. This is significant because support collection can be extremely aggressive, in many states including the potential loss of your driver’s license and even occupational licenses. Then after stopping these, Chapter 13 provides you a handy mechanism to pay off that back support, usually allowing you to pay that debt ahead of most or all other debts. Sometimes you can even reduce how much you must pay to your other creditors by the amount of back support, in effect allowing you to pay your back support “for free.”

Although Chapter 13 does not discharge any obligations “in the nature of” support, unlike Chapter 7 it does discharge other obligations arising from a separation or divorce decree or settlement. So as to those relatively rare obligations discussed above which are labeled as support obligations but in fact are not “in the nature of” support, they would be discharged  under Chapter 13.