This post will only apply to a narrow segment of people forced to consider bankruptcy – those who have a bunch of equity in their house along with a hefty debt in which their spouse does not have liability. Most often, this would be an entrepreneur whose business venture took a downturn.
I have discussed previously how Chapter 13 is a great mechanism for preserving one’s house if there are arrears to be dealt with or if there is excess equity beyond what can be covered by a homestead exemption. However, Chapter 13 is not for everyone. There are debt ceilings in a Chapter 13 that can operate to knock out business people who have personally guaranteed large amounts of unsecured business debt or even larger levels of secured debt. There also needs to be a somewhat predictable income upon which to base the budget and plan payment. This makes Chapter 13 difficult for people who may go months at a time without income due to the way their employment is structured, such as an entrepreneur.
Going into a Chapter 7, though, with excess equity in one’s house can be dangerous. Excess equity exists if there is a substantial value to the house even after subtracting the secured debt on it and the exemptions available. You see, a Chapter 7 trustee only makes about $60.00 per case unless they find non-exempt assets they can liquidate and distribute to unsecured creditors. The trustee gets a percentage of all such assets.
This brings us to the strategy that relies on a number of “ifs” being true. This strategy can be helpful (though certainly not a panacea): 1) If the Debtor is married and their spouse is NOT also indebted on the majority of debt so that they do not have to file also, 2) If the husband and wife share the home as tenants in the entirety (the deed gives then ownership “for their joint lifetimes with the remainder in fee simple to the survivor of them”), and 3) the Debtor has some exempt or non-estate resource to make a lump-sum offer to the trustee. The strategy is simply to go into Chapter 7 bankruptcy as an individual and then hope your spouse outlives you or you can make a deal with the Trustee.
The Trustee can seize non-exempt assets of the Debtor and liquidate them in a Chapter 7, but they must do this liquidating under state law. Kentucky law only allows a creditor (or Trustee) to sell the expectancy interest of a Debtor in real estate that they own as tenants in the entirety with a non-debtor spouse. The expectancy interest is that if they outlive their non-debtor spouse, then they have the entire undivided homestead as their own, but if their spouse outlives them then there is nothing – the entire undivided homestead goes to the surviving non-debtor spouse. So, the question becomes: “How much would someone pay for a chance that the non-debtor spouse dies first?” That amount, whatever it may be, is the actual value that the trustee would receive in selling the Debtor’s interest in the house.
In other words, a home owned in the way I described by a husband and wife cannot be stripped away from the non-debtor spouse. He or she is entitled to all of that home concurrently with the Debtor; it cannot be divided. A creditor cannot even get half the rents, if there were any. They can only obtain that expectancy – that chance that they may get it all. Because of that, many Trustee’s would be open to a reasonable lump-sum payment from the Debtor to retain their expectancy interest rather than risk coming up with a goose-egg by trying to sell what essentially amounts to a lottery ticket on the court house steps.
My last post hit some highlights on tax debt from a presentation by Professor Williams at the 16th Biennial Judge Joe Lee Bankruptcy Institute. This post delves a bit deeper into a specific tax law I touched on in that last post. The tax code provision is 26 USC Sect 1398 and it applies specifically to Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases. It does not address Chapter 13 cases.
The main thrust of Sect. 1398 is to allow for a Debtor to make an election to treat their ordinary tax year as two separate, shorter tax years. The first tax year would go up to and include the day before a Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 is filed. The second tax year includes the filing date of the bankruptcy and runs through the remainder of the normal tax year. This does NOT happen automatically, so the Debtor must take affirmative action.
If a married couple file jointly, the Joint-Debtor may also make this same election, but again it has to be an affirmative step taken by the Joint-Debtor; the Debtor’s election does not automatically apply to the Joint-Debtor. The election of the Debtor and election of the Joint-Debtor must be made no later than the due date for filing the return for the first short year and it cannot be undone once made.
By making the election, income that is part of the bankruptcy estate is taxable to the estate instead of to the Debtor. An example of how this might matter for a consumer debtor is if the Debtor becomes entitled to an inheritance or lottery winnings during the 180 days after filing. These monies get pulled back into the estate and might not be exempt or only partially exempt. Without this election, the Debtor may be hit with taxes on monies they were not able to keep.
This tax code provision would most usually come into play for business related bankruptcy debtors. Even if the Debtor is an individual, they own a business entity that may not be exempt or only partially exempt. The revenue that business generates would be income to the estate to the extent that business entity is not exempt. This can occur through ongoing revenues of the business or liquidation. The Debtor, again, would not want to be liable for taxes on funds they cannot enjoy.
The 1398 provision does not, however, have any impact on tax debt arising prior to the filing of the bankruptcy and the vast majority of consumer debtors will never need to avail themselves of this election to split tax years. Business related debtors need to be mindful of this option when there are non-exempt assets. Businesses entering bankruptcy as an entity, rather than the individual owner, must remember this election.
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- To File or Not to File: Attorney decision making
- Deadlines for Filing Prepetition Tax Returns in Chapter 13 Cases
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- Lessons Learned the Hard Way
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