By: Justin A. Klingenberg
St. John’s Law Student
American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff
In Boellner v. Dowden, the Eighth Circuit held that it is within the discretion of the bankruptcy court to order substantive consolidation of spouses’ bankruptcy estates when they file separate petitions for chapter 7 bankruptcy. In Boellner, the debtors, Samuel and Marilyn Boellner, who were married and living separately, each filed their own petition for chapter 7 bankruptcy on the same day. James Dowden was assigned as trustee in their respective cases. In addition to living apart and having individual credit card debt, the debtors “had separate insurance policies, separate interests in business, separate annuities, and separate IRAs….” However, the debtors shared a checking account, several credit cards, a leased car, and had jointly withdrawn funds from IRAs. Additionally, the debtors shared obligations for state and federal taxes and attorney’s fees from a previous civil case. The trustee filed a motion for joint administration and substantive consolidation, arguing that the debtors’ “assets, liabilities, and handling of financial affairs were substantially the same,” and permitting them to “maintain separate bankruptcy estates would prejudice the creditors.” The debtors disagreed and argued that they should be permitted to maintain separate bankruptcy estates because it would allow Samuel, the husband, to choose federal exemptions and Marilyn, the wife, to choose state exemptions. After comparing the schedules filed by each spouse, the bankruptcy court ruled in favor of the trustee, and ordered substantive consolidation. The debtors appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel and the trustee removed the appeal to the district court, which affirmed the bankruptcy court’s order. Subsequently, the debtors appealed to the Eighth Circuit, contending that the substantive consolidation order was an abuse of the bankruptcy court’s discretion. In determining whether substantive consolidation was appropriate, the Eighth Circuit adopted a two-prong factor test articulated by the Eleventh Circuit that considered “(1) whether there is a substantial identity between the assets, liabilities, and handling of financial affairs between the debtor spouses; and (2) whether harm will result from permitting or denying consolidation.” In assessing the first factor, the Eighth Circuit found that the bankruptcy court’s reliance on the debtor’s statements of financial affairs and bankruptcy schedules was appropriate. In concluding the first factor had been fulfilled and, thus, substantial identity had been established, the Eighth Circuit emphasized the bankruptcy court’s finding it peculiar that Marilyn claimed ownership of the home while Samuel claimed ownership of the household’s goods. In its analysis of the second factor, the Eight Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy court’s finding that the evidence was sufficient to establish harm to creditors, particularly because the debtor’s “separate estates would have significantly less value than if their cases were substantively consolidated and [they] were forced to choose either federal or state exemptions.” Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit held that, since substantial identity had been established and separate estates would greatly prejudice the debtor’s creditors, the bankruptcy court was within its discretion in ordering substantive consolidation.