Farrey v. J Sanderfoot/Concurrence Kennedy

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Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion

Justice KENNEDY, with whom Justice SOUTER joins, concurring.

I agree with the Court's holding that a debtor cannot use § 522(f)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code to avoid a lien on an interest the debtor acquired after the lien attached. I agree also with the Court's determination that respondent conceded what we all now know to be the key point in the case. In describing the effect of the Wisconsin Family Court's decree on the real property in question, the husband stated in his brief before this Court:

"Prior to the judgment of divorce, the parties held title to the real estate in joint tenancy, each holding a pre-existing undivided one-half interest. At the point that the divorce court issued its property division determination, those property rights were wholly extinguished and new rights were put into place." Brief for Respondent 7-8.

This concession is fatal to the argument respondent must make to prevail here, which is that the judicial lien fixed upon his pre-existing interest in the property. With the case in this posture, though, the possibility arises that later cases, whether from Wisconsin or from some other jurisdiction, could yield a different result. This would depend upon the relevant state laws defining the estate owned by a spouse who had a pre-existing interest in marital property and upon state laws governing awards of property under a decree settling marital rights.

In this case, prior to the Family Court decree ordering the property division, respondent had a vested, present, and undivided interest in one-half the marital property. The relevant Wisconsin statutes, enacted when the State adopted substantial parts of the Uniform Marital Property Act, provide that "[a]ll property of spouses is presumed to be marital property," Wis.Stat. § 766.31(2) (1989-1990), and "[e]ach spouse has a present undivided one-half interest in each item of marital property." Id., § 766.31(3). Absent respondent's concession, it would seem that the state court did not divest him of his pre-existing interest. At no place in its "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Judgment of Divorce" did the court declare that respondent's predecree interests were extinguished. Rather, the decree declared that upon its effective date sole title to the property vested in respondent. It also gave respondent's wife a lien against the home to secure the debt he owed her to equalize the property settlement. Finally, it divested each party of "any and all right, title and interest in and to the property awarded to the other." App. to Pet. for Cert. 58a. As I read these provisions, respondent obtained from his wife her one-half interest in the home, while always retaining his one-half interest as well. Because no interest in the home, other than the lien, was awarded to respondent's wife, respondent was never divested of any interest.

This interpretation conforms to the result mandated if a marriage terminates without any decree for property division. Wisconsin law provides that "[a]fter a dissolution each former spouse owns an undivided one-half interest in the former marital property as a tenant in common." Wis.Stat. § 766.75 (1989-1990). So too, if one spouse were to make a voluntary transfer of his or her one-half interest to the other spouse, I should not think it could be said that the transferee's prior interest had been extinguished. Rather, the transferee would retain his or her own interest, and the two interests would be merged into a single estate. See Thauer v. Smith, 213 Wis. 91, 95, 250 N.W. 842, 844 (1933). A state-law scheme in this pattern is to be distinguished, of course, from a regime in which a tenancy by the entirety is recognized and is deemed a single interest owned by the marital entity, a regime in which the estate dissolves when the marriage does. See McCormick v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., 22 B.R. 997 (WD Pa.1982) (applying Pennsylvania law). Thus, it is not at all clear that as a matter of state law the judicial lien could not attach to the husband's predecree interest in his one-half of the marital property. If so, respondent could use § 522(f)(1) to avoid at least part of his wife's lien.

The result the Court reaches consists with fairness and common sense. Since the Wisconsin Family Court had the power to strip the husband of his interest altogether, it can be reasoned that the court granted him the entire property on the condition that his prior interest would terminate and that a lien would attach to a new interest in the whole. The problem with this argument, however, is that there is no indication in the record that the husband consented to the decree. A waiver of this sort may also be contrary to the nonwaiver provision of § 522(f).

Following this analysis, I believe the Bankruptcy Code may be used in some later case to allow a spouse to avoid otherwise valid obligations under a divorce court decree. Though adept drafting of property decrees or the use of court orders directing conveyances in a certain sequence might resolve the problem, it appears that congressional action may be necessary to avoid in some future case the perhaps unjust result the Court today avoids having to consider only because of the fortuity of a litigant's concession. With these observations, I concur in the opinion and the judgment of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).