For the second time in as many days a person I was speaking to highlighted the importance of getting the whole picture when looking at a bankruptcy matter. I accepted the compliment today when the potential client said that, after over a decade of trying to resolve certain debt issues and getting help from various professionals, I was the first person to sit and listen to the whole story. Actually, this is also true of family law cases such as custody or divorce. That may be why I am involved in both of these kinds of cases – because I naturally want to look at the whole picture to find a global resolution when possible.
Yesterday the issue was being served with a foreclosure notice on a house where the person was never named of the deed to the house. After a few more inquiries, it became clear that the person had a potential dower or curtesy (yes, that is spelled correctly) interest in the property as a result of being married to the owner at the time it was purchased. However, that was not the end of the story. I explained that we needed to look closer at the underlying documents. If the foreclosure was only extinguishing a dower or curtesy interest, then the person had nothing to lose. But, if they had ever signed a promissory note, even without ownership in the house, they could be hit with a deficiency debt. It is dangerous in law to stop at the simplest or most obvious answer; you gotta look at the whole picture.
Actually, that was more of a slice of the whole picture, but today’s story was more compelling on looking at the everything. To minimize wordiness, I will not explain the whole picture. This tale involved going back to 2003 and recounting several key events, tragedies, and attempts at resolving debt. What I learned was that nearly $100k of tax debt might be discharged except that there was a time they would have been “tolled”. I knew I had to get tax account transcripts to determine this. Also, there were events and circumstances that might actually allow for the rare discharge of student loan debt. However, it was clear that if I could help with the tax debt, then there might be enough relief that the student loans would not be so onerous. If I had not taken the hour plus to hear all the ins and outs of this families circumstances, I may have missed a key piece of the puzzle and blundered ahead making things worse rather than better.
The end result was that by looking at the whole picture, rather than just the immediate concern of the student loan debt, the potential client left with a sense of hope. I could not promise that the student loans could be discharged, but by coming at it from a different angle, relief was still at hand.
I have often written about Chapter 13 and how it is a great mechanism for resolving tax debt. And it is! When looking at income tax debt, there are basically two kinds: that which can be discharged and that which cannot be discharged. Simple enough.
The basic rules of figuring out which tax debts can be discharged are also simple, but the various times and ways the time-frames of these rules get “tolled” gets tricky:
- The most recent date (remember extensions) the filing was due is over three years ago.
- The tax was assessed at least 240 days ago.
- The tax return was actually filed more than two years ago.
- The tax return was not fraudulent.
- The taxpayer was not willfully trying to evade the taxes.
So, in a Chapter 7 or 13, the income tax debts that meet these rules get discharged. If there are tax debts that are not discharged, then in a Chapter 7 they keep on accruing interest and penalties and must get paid. In a Chapter 13, these non-dischargeable tax debts must be paid in full. So, if you have enough disposable income to accomplish it, then in three to five years the tax debt PRINCIPAL is paid in full on tax debt that cannot be discharged.
Ahhh, the rainbow is at hand! Oh, but wait, Federal tax debt can still accumulate 4% interest while in bankruptcy and Kentucky income tax can accumulate 5% interest. You see, 11 USC Sect. 1322(b)(10) has a little catch. A debtor in Chapter 13 can ONLY pay the accruing interest on these income tax debts IF AND ONLY IF all the claims filed by creditors are paid at 100%.
There is nothing for it other than to give plenty of advance notice to Chapter 13 debtors. There is no way to change the fact that the interest can accumulate and there is no way to make it get discharged. So, unless you have a 100% Chapter 13 plan, be prepared to have to pay the accumulated interest on your income tax debt EVEN after the Chapter 13 is closed out. Don’t fret too much though. When you have gotten that far, you are going to be much more freed up financially to take care of that last issue.
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.
I am doing a series on timing between filings of bankruptcies and began looking at the time between two Chapter 7 filings. Today is looking at the time between Chapter 13s. As I stated previously, the issue is not when one can file, but when one can receive a discharge in the subsequent case. The time issue for a 13 to a 13, unlike other scenarios, is open to litigation.
If the preceding bankruptcy was a Chapter 13, then you cannot receive a discharge in a subsequent Chapter 13 if it is filed two (2) years or less from the prior Chapter 13. However, it remains unclear in the Sixth Circuit (including Kentucky) if this means two years from the discharge of the prior Chapter 13 or the date the first Chapter 13 was filed. See 11 USC Sect. 1328(f)(2). I believe the most likely reading is from filing date to filing date due to the similarity in language of the statute. However, one should be aware that this has not been squarely decided in the Sixth Circuit and there are arguments on the other side. The main argument on the other side is that it really makes no sense to have a two-year period when Chapter 13s run three to five years, but that really only makes this statute cover a rare situation, not an impossible one.
4) If the preceding bankruptcy was a Chapter 13 (or Chapter 12), then you cannot receive a discharge in a subsequent Chapter 7 if the Chapter 7 was filed within six (6) years of when the preceding bankruptcy was filed. See 11 USC Sect. 727(a)(9). There are two exceptions: if there was 100% payment to unsecured claims in the Chapter 13 or if there was 70% repayment AND it was the Debtors’ best effort.
5) If there was no discharge in a preceding Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, then there is no time limit on filing with regard to receiving a discharge. However, there is an impact on the automatic stay which is not covered here.
When I say “within” I advise to wait that period of years and then one can file the day after that period has run.
I began looking a the time between Chapter 7s if one wishes to receive a discharge. The time frame is different when the subsequent case is a Chapter 13 showing the favored status of Chapter 13 bankruptcy. If the preceding bankruptcy was a Chapter 7 (or Chapter 11 or 12), then you cannot receive a discharge in a subsequent Chapter 13 if is filed four (4) years or less of when the Chapter 7 was filed. See 11 USC Sect. 1328(f)(1).
If one gets a discharge of unsecured debt in a Chapter 7 but still has some non-dischargeable priority debt in income taxes, they may want to turn right around and file a Chapter 13 without waiting the four years because they will be paying the debt in full over the length of the plan. So, there is no need for the discharge. This is a strategy discussion to have with your attorney.
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