“This is why you go to law school,” bankruptcy attorney and Army Lieutenant Colonel Kristina Stanger says. “You can change people’s lives because the law is in the way of something that should be right.”
In support of the Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need (HAVEN) Act of 2019 (. 679/H.R. 2938), Kristina fulfilled a key strategy role through the American Bankruptcy Institute. The Act corrects an oversight in the bankruptcy code. Veterans’ disability benefits are included as income during consideration for bankruptcy relief. Social Security disability benefits are exempt. “It’s a situation where the law is discriminating against veterans,” Kristina says. “When they seek bankruptcy relief, they’re in a worse position than an average American. In essence, the law is deterring veterans from obtaining the fresh start that others receive because they may be forced to pledge their disability benefits to others.”
This disadvantage has affected veterans in financial distress since 2005. “The magnitude of the problem is hard to identify because service members are a very humble, quiet group of people. Those who are in financial distress don’t want to publicize it—no one does,” Kristina says. “I’ve been serving the Army for 21 years, my husband’s a disabled vet, and I’m a bankruptcy lawyer. Even I didn’t know the law was this brutal.”
This change in the law could also help veteran’s mental health issues by easing their financial burdens. “We know that financial distress is a significant contributing factor to the startling veteran suicide statistics. This act is going to go a long way to ease that distress for many of our most honorable citizens.”
To bring attention to the problem, Kristina helped design the ABI Veterans Task Force’s legislative strategy. After her selection to the ABI’s “40 Under 40” program, Kristina was appointed to the Veterans Task Force, a natural fit for the lieutenant colonel serving in the Iowa National Guard.
She and her Tiger Team of five task force members sought bipartisan support. “Together we made hundreds of phone calls and visits with Congressional members to inform and educate, but also to ask for their support for the HAVEN Act,” Kristina says.
Led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the Act gained epic numbers of co-sponsorship support, including both of Iowa’s Senators, Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst, and numerous House members. Support was evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats with two Independents on board.
Kristina and her team supported efforts for testimony on the HAVEN Act and other bankruptcy bills before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in June.
“We helped prep the materials and testimony for the Congressional Record,” she says. “We visited with all of the members we could.”
The Tiger Team was ready to testify and answer questions. “Having done that legwork ahead of time made the hearing go so smoothly,” she says. After the positive response, the HAVEN Act was passed by Congress, along with three other bankruptcy bills and was recently presented to the President to be signed into law. Find updates about the HAVEN Act here.
“Everyone should be able to get behind this and show that they can get things done on behalf of this constituent group that’s extremely deserving and needy,” Kristina says. “It was presented for exactly the right reasons—to protect veterans who deserve the world, in my opinion.”
Nyemaster’s support of her legislative efforts has been invaluable. “Nyemaster didn’t anticipate that I’d be out in D.C. lobbying and influencing the future of the bankruptcy code,” Kristina says. “The firm was very supportive of my efforts and proud that we were asked to take a trusted role in this endeavor.”
Kristina appreciates the Herculean efforts of the other professionals on the Tiger Team:
- Holly Petraeus, a military family advocate and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau executive
- John Ames, a senior partner at Bingham Greenebaum Doll
- Jay Bender, a partner at the Bradley Law Firm
- John Thompson, a partner at McGuire Woods
- Rachel Albanese, a partner with DLA Piper