On February 24, 2011, a same-sex couple filed a joint Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in Los Angeles, California. Why is this big news?
Bankruptcy is one of the many (thousands, actually) areas in which same-sex couples are treated differently from opposite-sex couples. Even if a same-sex couple is legally married (for example, the couple lives and marries in Massachusetts) or has formed a domestic partnership in a state that provides such partnerships with the same benefits as marriages (as in California), because federal law does not recognize the marriage or partnership, the couple must act as if they are not married when it comes to bankruptcy. That means filing separate bankruptcies, even if filing a joint bankruptcy would make more sense or confer legal benefits. And filing two separate bankruptcy petitions is always more expensive than filing a joint petition. Not only does the couple have to pay two filing fees, but same sex couples also pay double attorneys fees since the attorney must prepare not one, but two, petitions. (Some bankruptcy attorneys waive the fees incurred in preparing the second petition because they recognize and loathe the unfairness of the system. Of course, this means that the attorney must eat those fees.)
In some instances couples who are not considered married under DOMA are better off filing separately in that they each are able to independently claim exemptions on their property --which may lessen the amount required to be paid under the plan -- and aren't required to include all "marital" property in one petition, as is the case with community property belonging to a married couple. Still, if called on to choose between a better result in the bankruptcy and equal treatment currently being denied under DOMA, most filers would likely opt for equal treatment.
Amidst this backdrop comes big news in the bankruptcy world: On February 24, 2011 a same sex couple filed a joint petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the Los Angeles bankruptcy courts. The filing came on the coattails of the Obama administration's announcement that it would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court (although it will continue to enforce DOMA unless and until the courts rule it unconstitutional). Many bankruptcy attorneys and same-sex couples are waiting to see how the court treats this bankruptcy case.
By Guest Blogger Kathleen Michon