Bankruptcy and Family Law: Support Obligations, Divorce Settlements

This guide explores the complex intersection of bankruptcy and family law, detailing how bankruptcy affects child support, spousal support, and the division of marital assets and debts, with insights into relevant legal concepts, statutes, and case law.


Bankruptcy and family law intersect in complex ways, particularly when it comes to support obligations and divorce settlements. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how bankruptcy affects family law matters, including child support, spousal support, and the division of marital assets and debts. We will explore relevant legal concepts, statutes, and case law to help you understand the implications of bankruptcy in the context of family law.

Understanding Bankruptcy

Types of Bankruptcy

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Chapter 7 bankruptcy, also known as liquidation bankruptcy, involves the sale of a debtor's non-exempt assets to pay off creditors. It is typically used by individuals with limited income who cannot repay their debts.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Chapter 13 bankruptcy, or reorganization bankruptcy, allows individuals to keep their property and repay debts over a three to five-year period based on a court-approved repayment plan.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Chapter 11 bankruptcy is primarily used by businesses to reorganize their debts while continuing operations. However, individuals with substantial debts may also file under Chapter 11.

Bankruptcy Process

Filing for Bankruptcy

The bankruptcy process begins with the filing of a petition in bankruptcy court. The petition includes detailed information about the debtor's assets, liabilities, income, and expenses.

Automatic Stay

Upon filing for bankruptcy, an automatic stay is issued, which temporarily halts most collection actions against the debtor. This stay can impact ongoing family law proceedings, such as divorce or child support enforcement.

Discharge of Debts

A discharge releases the debtor from personal liability for certain debts, meaning they are no longer legally required to pay them. However, not all debts are dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Family Law and Bankruptcy

Child Support Obligations

Non-Dischargeability of Child Support

Under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5), child support obligations are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. This means that filing for bankruptcy does not relieve a debtor from their responsibility to pay child support.

Enforcement of Child Support

Even during bankruptcy, child support enforcement actions can continue. The automatic stay does not apply to the collection of child support, allowing custodial parents to pursue enforcement through wage garnishment or other means.

Official Resources: - 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5) - Office of Child Support Enforcement

Spousal Support (Alimony)

Non-Dischargeability of Spousal Support

Similar to child support, spousal support obligations are generally non-dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5). This ensures that former spouses continue to receive necessary financial support despite the debtor's bankruptcy filing.

Impact on Spousal Support Awards

Bankruptcy can impact the amount and duration of spousal support awards. Courts may consider the debtor's financial situation post-bankruptcy when determining or modifying spousal support.

Official Resources: - 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5) - U.S. Courts - Bankruptcy Basics

Divorce Settlements

Division of Marital Property

Equitable Distribution vs. Community Property

States follow either equitable distribution or community property principles when dividing marital assets and debts. Equitable distribution states divide property based on fairness, while community property states divide property equally between spouses.

Impact of Bankruptcy on Property Division

Bankruptcy can complicate the division of marital property. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, non-exempt assets may be sold to pay creditors, potentially affecting the property available for distribution in a divorce.

Official Resources: - California Courts - Property and Debts in a Divorce - Chapter 815j - Dissolution of Marriage, Legal Separation and Annulment

Treatment of Divorce Settlements in Bankruptcy

Property Settlements

Property settlements in divorce are generally dischargeable in Chapter 13 bankruptcy but not in Chapter 7. This distinction can influence the timing and strategy of filing for bankruptcy in relation to divorce proceedings.

Hold Harmless Agreements

Hold harmless agreements, where one spouse agrees to pay joint debts, may be affected by bankruptcy. If the paying spouse files for bankruptcy, the non-filing spouse may become liable for the debt.

Official Resources: - U.S. Courts - Bankruptcy Basics - Family Law Litigation - Bankruptcy Court

Timing of Bankruptcy and Divorce

Filing for Bankruptcy Before Divorce

Filing for bankruptcy before divorce can simplify the division of debts and assets. It can also provide a clearer financial picture for both parties, potentially leading to a more equitable settlement.

Filing for Bankruptcy After Divorce

Filing for bankruptcy after divorce may be necessary if one spouse is unable to meet their financial obligations. However, it can complicate the enforcement of divorce settlements and support obligations.

Joint vs. Individual Bankruptcy Filings

Joint Bankruptcy Filing

Married couples can file for bankruptcy jointly, which can streamline the process and reduce costs. However, it requires cooperation and agreement on financial matters.

Individual Bankruptcy Filing

Individual bankruptcy filings may be appropriate if only one spouse has significant debts. It allows the non-filing spouse to retain their credit rating and separate financial responsibilities.

Official Resources: - U.S. Courts - Bankruptcy Basics - Find a Lawyer for Affordable Legal Aid | USAGov

Navigating the intersection of bankruptcy and family law requires specialized legal knowledge. Consulting with attorneys experienced in both areas is crucial to protect your rights and interests.

Various resources are available to help individuals find affordable legal assistance, including legal aid organizations and bar associations.

Official Resources: - Find a Lawyer for Affordable Legal Aid | USAGov - Office of Child Support Enforcement


The intersection of bankruptcy and family law presents unique challenges, particularly regarding support obligations and divorce settlements. Understanding the legal principles and strategies involved can help individuals navigate these complex issues effectively. Always seek professional legal advice to ensure your rights and interests are protected in both bankruptcy and family law matters.

Official Resources: - U.S. Courts - Bankruptcy Basics - Office of Child Support Enforcement - Find a Lawyer for Affordable Legal Aid | USAGov

This guide provides a comprehensive overview of the key issues at the intersection of bankruptcy and family law. By understanding these concepts, individuals can better navigate the complexities of support obligations and divorce settlements in the context of bankruptcy.

About the author
Von Wooding, Esq.

Von Wooding, Esq.

Lawyer and Founder

Counsel Stack Learn

Free and helpful legal information

Find a Lawyer
Counsel Stack Learn

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Counsel Stack Learn.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.