Court Takes Expansive View of “Domestic Support Obligation”

Court Takes Expansive View of “Domestic Support Obligation”

By:  Michael R. Blaskowsky, Columbia River Law Group



In a ruling from earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel took a rather expansive view of the definition of a “domestic support obligation”, a debt which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.  In In re Rivera, Debtor’s minor son was incarcerated for 593 days on a juvenile charge.  Under California law, the parents of an incarcerated minor child are “liable for the reasonable costs of support of the minor while the minor is . . . detained in . . . any institution or other place. . . pursuant to an order of the juvenile court”, up to a maximum of $30 per day.  The “costs of support” under the statute are defined as “actual costs incurred by the county for food and food preparation, clothing, personal supplies, and medical expenses.”

After Orange County sent Debtor various billing notices (which she ignored), the juvenile court entered a judgment against Debtor for the costs of support.  Shortly thereafter, Debtor filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, and listed the judgment owing to Orange County as one of her creditors.  About four months later, she received a discharge of her debts.

Following the discharge, Orange County attempted to collect the debt from Debtor, claiming that the debt was not discharged as a “domestic support obligation”.  Debtor then moved to reopen her bankruptcy case, and filed a motion to have Orange County held in contempt of court for attempting to collect a discharged debt.  The Bankruptcy Court ultimately ruled in favor of Orange County, holding that the debt was a non-dischargeable “domestic support obligation”.  The Debtor then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which affirmed the Bankruptcy Court.

The issue before the Panel centered on the statutory definition of “domestic support obligation”.  Under the law before the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act, a domestic support obligation had to be payable to a “spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor” to render it non-dischargeable.  In fact, a previous case under pre-Reform Act law held that a debt resulting from a child’s incarceration was dischargeable because it was owed to the County, and not to a spouse, former spouse, or child.

The 2005 Reform Act, however, markedly changed the definition of “domestic support obligation”.  Under current law, a debt that is owed to or recoverable by a governmental unit which is “in the nature of alimony, maintenance, or support (including assistance provided by a governmental unit)” constitutes a “domestic support obligation”.  Given that change, the Panel held that the debt was in fact in the nature of support, and therefore not dischargeable.

“Acting under authority of the California statutes, Orange County seeks to recover from Debtor the daily expense it incurred in providing her son ‘food and food preparation, clothing, personal supplies, and medical expenses’ while he was incarcerated. . . . These sorts of costs are quintessentially support expenses, whether they are incurred by a child’s parents or by a governmental unit.”

I have a strong difference of opinion with the Panel’s holding in this case.  By jailing someone, you do not “support” them.  The United States Constitution imposes a duty upon the government to provide reasonable housing, food, and medical care for those incarcerated.  A failure to do so would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”. The California statute referenced above attempts to cloak the amounts expended on an inmate as “support” whereas they are, in reality, simply the costs of jailing the individual.  While I can understand that the government wants to recoup some of those expenses, characterizing them as “support” is nonsense.

This post is intended to be purely informational in nature, and cannot be considered legal advice.  If you have questions related to bankruptcy, please call our office at (503) 545-1061 (Oregon cases) or (360) 836-4238 (Washington cases) to schedule a free initial consultation.