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Will My Bankruptcy Affect My New Spouse?

Vivona Pandurangi, PLC March 27, 2024

Couple and lawyer discussing the bankruptcy documentBankruptcy is designed as a vital financial safety net, offering a legal debt relief strategy for those struggling with unmanageable debt. Filing for bankruptcy can help you rebuild financially, overcoming the burdens of past financial misjudgments or unforeseen economic hardships. However, the impacts of bankruptcy don’t exist in a vacuum, especially if you are recently married. 

For newlyweds, the intersection of love and finances can be complex. The prospect of bankruptcy, despite having numerous benefits for debt relief, can commonly be viewed in a negative light and can raise significant questions about how your partner's financial past might influence your assets, credit, and long-term financial planning. When considering bankruptcy, it’s essential to understand that your financial past may have implications for your spouse depending on the circumstances and nature of your debts. 

At Vivona Pandurangi, PLC, we understand the concerns that arise when one partner in a marriage is considering filing for bankruptcy. We aim to help you understand how bankruptcy can impact your new spouse and provide you with the necessary knowledge to make metered and informed decisions. 

The Intersection of Bankruptcy and Marriage 

When an individual files for bankruptcy, it doesn't automatically implicate their spouse in the process. However, the impact of bankruptcy on your spouse hinges on several pivotal factors, including the type of bankruptcy filed, the existence of joint debts, and the laws of your state regarding property and debt within a marriage. 

Types of Bankruptcy and Spousal Impact 

When dealing with personal debts, there are two predominant types of bankruptcy that individuals usually consider: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.

  • Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, often referred to as liquidation bankruptcy, is designed to eliminate most if not all of an individual's unsecured debts by selling the debtor's non-exempt assets to pay off creditors. If you file for Chapter 7 without your spouse, only your debts will be discharged. However, any joint debts that exist between you and your spouse may be examined and your spouse may be contacted for payment. Additionally, certain debts cannot be discharged under Chapter 7, including alimony, child support, certain tax debts, and student loans.  

  • Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is geared towards individuals with a regular income who wish to retain their assets while paying off debts under a court-approved repayment plan. It involves a repayment plan over 3 to 5 years. If joint debts are included in the filing, your spouse could be protected under the co-debtor stay provision, which bars creditors from collecting joint debt payments as long as you comply with the repayment plan.  

The Impact of Joint Debts on a New Spouse 

The role of joint debts in bankruptcy is particularly crucial and can significantly influence a new spouse's financial health. When a new spouse is not jointly involved in the debts that are subject to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they are generally not directly impacted in a legal sense. This means that any debts discharged in the bankruptcy are solely the responsibility of the individual who filed.  

However, when one spouse files for bankruptcy, any joint debts, or debts co-signed by both partners, come under scrutiny. If the filing spouse seeks bankruptcy relief for these debts, creditors can still legally pursue the non-filing spouse for repayment. This is because, from the creditor's perspective, the other spouse has not received bankruptcy protection and therefore remains fully liable for the debt. 

This underscores the importance of careful financial planning before filing for bankruptcy within a marriage. Potential strategies to mitigate the impact on your spouse include refinancing debt solely in your name (if possible) or choosing a chapter of bankruptcy that offers certain protections to your spouse, such as Chapter 13 bankruptcy. 

Impact on Your Spouse's Credit 

A common concern among couples is the impact of one spouse’s bankruptcy on the other’s credit score. If you file for bankruptcy alone, your spouse's credit score and credit history will not be affected. However, any repercussions on joint financial obligations can indirectly influence your spouse's creditworthiness. 

If you've co-signed loans or hold joint accounts, your discharge from these debts through your bankruptcy filing won't absolve your spouse’s responsibility toward them. This can lead to creditors pursuing your spouse for repayment, which could affect their credit score and financial stability.  

If the bankruptcy results in the loss of significant property or financial assets that were expected to contribute to the couple's joined financial goals, this can indirectly affect the non-filing spouse. If you are unsure about how filing for bankruptcy might impact your new spouse's credit and financial stability, reach out to an experienced bankruptcy attorney who can help determine the right options for your situation. 

The Role of State Property Laws 

The extent to which bankruptcy affects your spouse also heavily relies on the property laws of your state, particularly concerning marital property. In Virginia, like in many other states, the distinction between common law property and community property plays a significant role.  

Under the common law property system, which Virginia adheres to, property owned by one spouse is considered separate, unless it is specifically co-owned. When you file for bankruptcy, this signifies that only the assets owned solely by you or jointly owned between you and your spouse can be used to pay off creditors.  

Conversely, in states that follow the community property system, assets acquired during the marriage are owned jointly by both spouses, regardless of who earns the money or whose name is on the title. In a bankruptcy filing by one spouse, all community property—not just the filing spouse’s separate property—can be used to settle debts with creditors. This can significantly expand the pool of available assets, potentially putting more of your spouse's assets at risk. However, only a handful of states follow community property laws. 

In Virginia, the common law property system offers a layer of protection for the non-filing spouse. It allows for clear separation of assets owned prior to marriage or received as gifts or inheritance. However, it’s important for married couples to be aware of how jointly owned property and debts are treated. In a bankruptcy context, any jointly owned property can be subject to claims by creditors, despite the common law distinctions. 

Filing for Bankruptcy as a Couple 

Sometimes, filing for bankruptcy together with your spouse can streamline the process, potentially reducing legal fees and simplifying the management of shared debts. However, the decision to file jointly should be weighed with careful consideration of each of your individual and joint financial standing. The advantages of discharging joint debts and protecting shared assets must be balanced against the potential long-term impacts on both your credit scores. 

Seek Experienced Legal Guidance 

Understanding how bankruptcy affects your new spouse is crucial to fostering a supportive environment where informed choices lead to a stable financial future. At Vivona Pandurangi, PLC, we're committed to providing our clients with the knowledge and guidance needed to make informed decisions about bankruptcy.  

Located in Falls Church and Alexandria, Virginia, we proudly serve clients throughout Fairfax County, Arlington County, Prince William County, and Loudon County. Reach out to us for a comprehensive evaluation of your finances and to make sure both you and your spouse are well-prepared to work through the potential impacts of bankruptcy together.