Superior Court of Pierce County. Superior Court Docket No. 88-3-04690-4. Date Filed In Superior Court: July 1, 1994. Superior Court Judge Signing: Hon. Karen L. Strombom.
As Corrected February 14, 1997.
Written By: John E. Turner, J. Concurred IN By: Carroll C. Bridgewater, J., David H. Armstrong, J.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Turner
TURNER, J. -- Donna Edwards argues that the trial court erred in ruling a community debt from which her former husband, John Edwards, agreed to hold her harmless was discharged by John's bankruptcy. She claims that John's agreement was in the nature of an obligation for alimony, maintenance or support, which could not be discharged in bankruptcy. We hold that John's agreement was not in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support because the circumstances do not suggest that assistance was intended by the court. Additionally, we affirm the trial court's denial of attorney fees for prior contempt proceedings because the relevant statute does not authorize attorney fee awards for prior proceedings.
In 1990, John and Donna Edwards were divorced. The trial court awarded almost all of the community property, including the community home, to John. Apparently, the couple had built the home years earlier with the assistance of an unsecured loan from Donna's great-aunt, Leona LaBarge. Donna was awarded a $22,068 judgment, "representing her share of community property," a 1986 Oldsmobile, and her separate property. John was ordered to "pay, assume and hold [Donna] harmless from": (1) the $22,068 judgment; (2) the obligation on the Oldsmobile; (3) the obligation to Leona LaBarge; (4) $3,000 for attorney fees incurred by Donna; and (5) other separate obligations. The trial court set no due date for the payment of the judgment and made no findings or Conclusions in the decree regarding alimony, maintenance or support for Donna.
After the decree was entered, John made a few payments on the Oldsmobile but, ultimately, it was repossessed. John also quit making payments on the obligation to Leona LaBarge. He has not paid any of the $22,068 judgment to Donna. But John did not default on his child support obligation.
Donna served John with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for failure to comply with the terms of the decree. The trial court never ruled upon the motion because John filed a chapter-seven bankruptcy petition seeking to discharge all obligations owed to Donna under the dissolution decree. The motion to show cause was stayed pending the bankruptcy proceedings.
The bankruptcy court entered an order discharging "all dischargeable debts." Because the debt to LaBarge was unsecured, it was presumed to be discharged. After the bankruptcy proceedings were complete, Donna again served John with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for not paying Donna as ordered in the dissolution decree. John asked the bankruptcy court to enjoin Donna from collecting the allegedly discharged obligations. The bankruptcy Judge declined to do so and asked the superior court to decide if the obligations to Donna were discharged in John's bankruptcy. John responded by filing a bankruptcy petition under chapter-thirteen. Although the automatic stay associated with this filing would have stayed the contempt hearing, the bankruptcy Judge lifted the stay to permit the hearing.
The trial court then held a full evidentiary hearing on "whether the obligations of the divorce decree were discharged by Mr. Edwards['s] recent bankruptcy or whether these obligations are not dischargeable . . . under 11 U.S.C. sec. 523(a)(5)." The court concluded that the award of attorney fees and the obligation to pay the debt secured by the Oldsmobile were not dischargeable because they were in the nature of maintenance or support. The court also found, however, that the LaBarge debt was dischargeable because it was not in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support. The court stated, "the underlying purpose of the [LaBarge] debt was a distribution of a community property debt which was associated with a community property. The debt obligation does nothing to provide any necessities to [Donna] or the children . . . " Additionally, the court ordered Edwards to pay Donna's attorney fees, but only those associated with the final contempt hearing.
Donna appealed, challenging the determination that John's agreement to hold her harmless on the LaBarge debt was dischargeable and the court's refusal to award attorney fees and costs incurred in the legal proceedings leading up to the final contempt hearing.
I. Dischargeability of LaBarge Debt
The primary issue in this appeal is whether John's obligation to hold Donna harmless on the LaBarge debt was discharged by the bankruptcy court's order. The superior court found that the LaBarge debt was dischargeable because it was not in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support. Whether a debt is dischargeable is a question of law that we review de novo. See, e.g., In ...