Bankruptcy Court Rules Domestic Partners Don’t Qualify as SpousesThe U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California has ruled that two California debtors in a same-sex domestic partnership are ineligible to file a joint bankruptcy petition because they do not qualify as spouses under section 302(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.

In In re Villaverde, two California women in a same-sex relationship registered as domestic partners in June 2004. California did not recognize same-sex marriage at that time. Despite the subsequent legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the women remained in the domestic partnership. In July 2015, they filed a joint Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition.

The Chapter 13 trustee moved to dismiss the petition on the grounds that the debtors are domestic partners, not spouses. The debtors argued that since California confers the same rights on domestic partners as spouses, domestic partners should be considered spouses with the right to file a joint petition under section 302 of the Bankruptcy Code.

Section 302(a) of the Bankruptcy Code states, in part, “[a] joint case…is commenced by the filing with the bankruptcy court of a single petition…by an individual that may be a debtor…and such individual’s spouse.”  While recognizing that the Bankruptcy Code does not define “spouse” and that there is no longer any federal law that specifically defines the term, the court said it must look to other common sources for the definition of “spouse.” When doing so, the court determined that a spouse must be a married person.

The court then weighed whether or not a domestic partner registered in California can be considered a married person. The court said that while the California Family Code does grant domestic partners the same rights as spouses, domestic partnerships and marriages are distinguishable concepts. The court noted that the intent of the California legislature was to extend equal rights to domestic partners as spouses and not to grant domestic partners the same status as married spouses.

The court noted that “Because both same- and opposite-sex couples can get married and, as a result, file a joint petition, denying same-sex domestic partners the ability to jointly file is no different than denying an unmarried, cohabitating opposite-sex couple the same.” And since same-sex marriage is now legal, and the debtors chose to remain in a domestic partnership, denying them the right to file a joint petition is not discriminatory.

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