Same-Sex Couples and the Bankruptcy Dilemma

Submitted by Jen Jones on Mon, 02/01/2010 - 12:48pm

Same-Sex Couples and the Bankruptcy Dilemma

The decision to file for bankruptcy is never an easy one, especially where married couples are involved. Spouses must settle issues of dishonesty, mistrust, and frustration--and that’s even before any of the complex steps of collecting necessary documents and filing papers.

But the story for insolvent couples does have a caveat: joint bankruptcy protection. Married debtors can file their cases jointly with one trustee, one filing fee, and one total case. Debtors can bring to the table their joint debts as well as debts they hold only in their name. To be a joint case, the debtors need only be legally married.  And they must be a man and a woman.

Sounds simple right?

Well, for thousands of individuals living in America today, the latter designation raises difficult questions—especially in the growing number of states that recognize same-sex marriage or its legal equivalent (“civil unions”). Yet, as the constitutionality of laws and amendments forbidding marriage equality continue to be litigated across the country, same-sex debtors seeking bankruptcy relief  face even tougher challenges.

Because it is generally accepted that the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") would preclude the filing of a joint bankruptcy petition by a same sex married couple, these folks face two very different options: (1) make two separate bankruptcy filings, or (2) pursue the right to seek bankruptcy relief as would an opposite-sex married couple. 

While the second option would be a precedent-setting endeavor, fulfilling the true meaning of marriage equality, in reality pursuing this groundbreaking goal is largely antithetical to the larger motivations of most bankruptcy bound individuals, gay or straight: getting out of debt.

In practice, a married same-sex couple will need, more than their heterosexual counterparts, the assistance of a qualified bankruptcy attorney to pull together all of their required financial information;  ensure that it is complete and their disclosures accurate; and research and prepare a case that anticipates a variety of motions attacking the joint filing. Regardless of what “party-in-interest” files the case (as defined by the Bankruptcy Code and common law), the filing will likely be challenged, even before a judge reaches such substantive issues as income, assets, liabilities, and creditors.

In this case, like others for same-sex couples seeking right-giving precedents, while the Bankruptcy Code provides one standard, constitutional arguments will inevitably reveal others that need to be briefed and raised.  Same-sex couples must expect that any decision in their favor will be appealed, perhaps more than once to a US District Court, a Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, a Circuit Court of Appeals, or maybe even the Supreme Court of the United States.  For debtors, this type legal wrangling adds ,ore time, more fees and inevitably more stress to what is undoubtedly an already nerve-racking situation.

As a result, for a married same-sex couple facing the need to file bankruptcy, the next steps can mark a tough decision: file singly or fight the system; seek your family’s financial security or a denigrated group’s fundamental rights; moving forward for your family or moving your family forward.  In the end, changing the current state of the law will take either an act of Congress or one or more very brave and very patient married same-sex couples who find themselves drowning in debt and who–in spite of these debts—also feel empowered to fight the good fight.

The state of marriage equality is not yet where it should be in the United States, and this seriously affects the legal rights of same-sex families.  But until the law changes, same-sex couples need expertise in the handling of their cases.

If you live in North Carolina where same-sex marriage is not legal, but are still considering bankruptcy, the bankruptcy experts at the Law Offices of John T. Orcutt offer a totally FREE debt consultation and now, more than ever, it’s time to take them up on their offer. Just call toll free to +1-919-646-2654, or during the off hours, you can make your own appointment right online at www.billsbills.com. Simply click on the yellow “FREE Consultation Now” button.

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