Kentucky Bankruptcy Law

Counsel with Care

Tax Refunds: A “hidden” bit of disposable income

In a Chapter 13, the debtor puts together a budget they present to the court. This budget encompasses Schedule I (income) and Schedule J (expenses). In order to get a Chapter 13 plan confirmed, it has to be feasible. Part of showing that a plan is feasible involves demonstrating that the debtor can actually make the payments proposed by the plan. If the money left over (the disposable income) when expenses are subtracted from income is substantially less than the proposed plan payment, then the plan is not feasible.

Sometimes the plan calls for payments that are just a bit of a stretch for debtors. This happens when the debtor is using the Chapter 13 to pay off arrears on a house facing foreclosure or when there is priority, non-discharged income tax debts that have to be paid in full during the plan. In these instances, the debtor and their attorney will likely engage in “belt-tightening” by shaving off amounts from expense items that they believe they can realistically accomplish.

However, there is a source of disposable income that may be lying hidden in all the paperwork. Many people over-withhold on their taxes. Some do this to avoid owing a tax debt at the end of the year and others like to have a self-created bonus. This latter practice is essentially loaning the United States government money for several months at zero percent interest. So, while it is a nice little psychological trick to force one to save money up, it is definitely not maximizing use of one’s resources.

Worst of all, if you have engaged in the belt-tightening on your budget as I mention above then you have created a set-point in the eyes of a trustee. They assume that is your actual budget. So, when they see tax refunds exceeding $1,200.00 per year (state and federal combined), then you belt-tightening budget may backfire.

Let me unpack that a little. In my hypothetical scenario, the debtor gets back an average of $3,600.00 per year in tax refunds. That comes to $2,400.00 more than the threshold that many trustees look too for reasonable withholding levels. This is $200.00 per month. The trustee would argue, and rightly so, that if the debtor used the proper withholding levels, they would have $200.00 more in pocket each month.

Now, in order to achieve the $200.00 plan payment needed to pay off the arrears on the house during the five-year bankruptcy, the debtor “shaved” expenses down by $200.00 each month less than actual expenses. This makes the budget really tight and barely sustainable, but the debtor thinks they can manage it. However, at the meeting of creditors, the trustee challenges the tax refunds and insists on a $400.00 per month plan payment reflecting what the debtor proposed plus the $200.00 per month that has been withheld in excess of taxes actually owed.

A quandary develops. The only way to preserve the $200.00 plan payment is to go back and amend Schedule J to show actual expenses. Ah, but that set-point I mentioned is already established. Now, the debtor will have to produce documentation to support higher expenses than they originally claimed (under oath I might add). Most people do not keep records accurate enough to document all their expenses.

So, if your attorney suggests that you plan to change your withholding on taxes so that less is taken out of your paycheck, trust them. This will allow you to set expenses at reasonable, sustainable levels from the very beginning and yet meet the needs of the plan. Honestly, $200.00 more in hand each month is exactly the same as $2,400.00 once a year. Actually, it is more because when you let that money build up with the Internal Revenue Service, you are losing a tiny bit of the “time value” of those dollars.

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July 25, 2013 - Posted by | Bankruptcy, Chapter 13, Discharge, Foreclosure, Plan payments, Planning, Pre-filing planning, Priority debt, Secured loan arrears, Tax refund, The estate | , , , , , , , , , ,

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