Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Husband Not Denied Bankruptcy Discharge Because of Wife’s Felonious Conduct

Is a husband responsible for the bad acts of his wife, including the wife's theft of more than $300,000 from an ex-employer.  Read below to find out.

In the case of In re Rodenbaugh, 431 B.R. 473 (Bankr. E.D. Mo. 2010), the bankruptcy court addressed whether a husband would be denied a bankruptcy discharge because of his ambivalence to the family finances while his wife was engaging in willful and malicious conduct. In Rodenbaugh, the wife and husband filed a joint bankruptcy case attempting to discharge debts relating to the wife’s felonious theft of $314,327 from her ex-employer. The husband did not participate in the wife’s theft.

The wife deposited the stolen funds into a joint bank account shared with her husband. The husband admitted that he benefited from the wife’s theft in that some of the stolen funds were used to pay family expenses. The husband also admits that he had spent some of the stolen funds; however, he did so without any knowledge of the preceding crimes. The husband maintained that he became aware of the wife’s crime only after her termination from the wife’s employer. Finally, the husband testified at the trial that he had never noticed any superfluous funds in the joint bank account because he allowed the wife to pay the bills and was ambivalent to the family finances.

The wife’s ex-employer objected to the husband’s discharge pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(6) claiming that the financial obligation to repay the stolen funds should be excepted from discharge. The employer argued that the debt should be excepted from discharge as to the husband too because the husband knew of, or was willfully blind to the wife’s theft and therefore the husband’s actions were willful an malicious towards the ex-employer. The ex-employer argued that at the very least, the husband’s actions were reckless and as such any debt excepted from the wife’s discharge should be imputed to him as well.

The husband opposed the exception to discharge. The husband argued that the standard of willful and malicious conduct cannot be attributed to the husband because at all relevant times, the husband was not aware of the wife’s criminal actions and did not conspire, condone, contribute or encourage said criminal actions.

The court ruled in favor of the husband. The court began its analysis by noting that debts arising from willful and malicious injury by a debtor are excepted from discharge under 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(6). Wilfulness and maliciousness are two distinct elements of §523(a)(6). To prove willfulness, the creditor must show by a preponderance of the evidence that debtor intended the injury, not just a deliberate or intentional act leading to injury. Debts arising from recklessly or negligently inflicted injuries do not fall within the compass of §523(a)(6). But, the court did recognize that acts intrinsically meriting nondischargeability under §523(a) can be attributed to a debtor who did not perform them, if the debtor was a “knowing active participant” in a scheme or conspiracy through which a third-party malefactor performed the acts.

Apply the law to the facts, the Rodenbaugh court held that to prove willfulness under Section 523(a)(6), the wife’s ex-employer was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence either that the husband desired for the ex-employer to be harmed and thus conspired with the wife to this end OR that the husband knew of the wife’s crimes and schemed with her to this end despite substantial certainty that the ex-employer would suffer harm as a result of the wife’s actions.

Finally, the court rejected the ex-employer’s complaint objecting to the husband’s bankruptcy discharge. The court believed that the facts did not support a conclusion that the husband acted willfully. The court found that while the husband’s ambivalence to the family finances was likely reckless, there was insufficient facts to conclude that the husband’s actions rouse to the level of willful and maliciousness or that he conspired with his wife. Therefore, the husband was granted his bankruptcy discharge.
Warmest Regards,
Bob Schaller
Your Bankruptcy Advisor

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