Q&A: How one spouse’s bankruptcy filing affects the other spouse

Dear Liz: If one spouse files for bankruptcy, how does that affect the other spouse? What happens to the joint accounts?

Answer: How the nonfiling spouse is affected depends on whether they live in a community-property or a common-law state.

Most states are common-law states. Property and debts acquired during marriage can belong to only one spouse.

In these states, the filing spouse’s separate property and their share of any jointly owned property become part of the bankruptcy. Any property that isn’t protected under the state’s bankruptcy exemption laws can be taken and sold to pay creditors.

The bankruptcy trustee may try to partition any joint property so only the filing spouse’s share is sold, but if that’s not possible the whole property may be sold and the nonfiling spouse will be paid for his or her share. The bankruptcy erases the filing spouse’s separate debts and share of any joint debts, but the nonfiling spouse still has to pay his or her share of those joint debts.

In community-property states, property and debts acquired during marriage typically belong to both spouses, even if they’re in only one spouse’s name. So a bankruptcy filing by one spouse in a community property state can put more property at risk. (Community-property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.)

As in common-law states, a completed bankruptcy erases the filing spouse’s debts but leaves the other spouse on the hook for his or her share of any joint debts.

In community-property states, though, the nonfiling spouse can get a benefit known as a “phantom discharge.” If the filing spouse gets debts wiped out and is able to protect community property under the state’s exemption laws, then that property stays protected. As long as the couple is married, creditors won’t be able to touch it.

Bankruptcy has gotten complicated enough that you’ll want to get good, solid advice from an experienced bankruptcy attorney before you proceed with any filing. Most such attorneys offer a free or low-cost initial consultation to discuss whether it’s the right solution for your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

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