If you've heard commercials offering the hope of eliminating tax debts in bankruptcy, be cautious. Bankruptcy lawyers regularly answer the question, "Does bankruptcy clear tax debt?" and the answer is always the same. "Sometimes." The reality is eliminating tax debt in bankruptcy can be complicated. Before you file for bankruptcy, you'll want to understand:
By the end of the article, you'll understand why many filers continue to owe tax debt at the end of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and why most Chapter 13 filers must pay taxes in full through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan.
If you need to discharge tax debts, Chapter 7 bankruptcy will likely be the better option because it's a quicker process and doesn't require debt repayment. But Chapter 7 isn't available to everyone. You must be eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and your tax debt must qualify to be wiped out with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge.
Here are the conditions you must meet before eliminating federal income taxes in Chapter 7 bankruptcy:
Even if you meet these conditions, you might be out of luck if the IRS has already put a lien on your property (more below). Also, some jurisdictions have additional requirements.
For instance, in the ninth district, you must file your tax return in a timely fashion, and filing late precludes a discharge. Also, in Chapter 7, if you paid off nondischargeable tax debt using a credit card, the credit card balance will be a nondischargeable debt if a creditor challenges the dischargeability by filing an "adversary proceeding" or bankruptcy lawsuit.
Your victory might be bittersweet if your taxes qualify for discharge in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Why? Bankruptcy won't wipe out prior recorded tax liens. All Chapter 7 bankruptcy will do is wipe out your personal obligation to pay the qualifying tax and prevent the IRS from going after your bank account or wages.
But if the IRS recorded a tax lien on your property before the bankruptcy filing, the lien will remain on the property. You'll have to pay off the tax lien before selling and transferring the property's title to a new owner.
Learn more about liens in bankruptcy.
Filing your tax return might not be as burdensome once you realize that using Chapter 13 bankruptcy to manage your tax debt can be a smart move. Here's why:
Bear in mind that any nondischargeable tax that won't go away in bankruptcy (generally, those incurred during the last three tax years) must be paid in full during the three- to five-year Chapter 13 plan. You'll be caught up on taxes and most or all of your other debt when it's over.
Unlike Chapter 7, in Chapter 13, you can discharge a credit card balance incurred due to paying off a nondischargeable tax debt. Learn more about tax debts in Chapter 13.
You won't gain any real advantage by waiting to file your income tax return until after you file a bankruptcy case. But, there are many reasons you'll want to be current when filing your Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 matter.
When you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the trustee assigned to oversee your case will ask for your most recently filed tax return. That doesn't necessarily have to be the tax return for the last tax year, but the trustee will ask for a written explanation if it isn't the most recent return.
The trustee will compare the income you report on your return to the amount listed in your bankruptcy paperwork. If you show that you're due a refund, the trustee will also want to check that you have the right to protect or "exempt" it and that you've claimed the proper exemption amount. If not, you'd be required to turn the refund over to the trustee, who would, in turn, distribute it to your creditors.
Many people plan to use the return for necessary items such as living expenses before filing a bankruptcy case. If you choose this approach, keep records of your expenditures.
You must be up to date on your tax returns before filing a Chapter 13 case, but the rules allow you a little wiggle room. You'll provide copies of the returns for the previous four tax years to the Chapter 13 trustee before the 341 meeting of creditors (the hearing that all filers must attend).
If you're not required to file a return, your trustee might ask for a letter, an affidavit, or a certification explaining why. Sometimes local courts will impose additional rules for documents in their districts.
If you owe the IRS a return but don't file it before your 341 meeting of creditors, things can happen to derail your case.
Did you know Nolo has been making the law easy for over fifty years? It's true—and we want to make sure you find what you need. Below you'll find more articles explaining how bankruptcy works. And don't forget that our bankruptcy homepage is the best place to start if you have other questions!
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We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by hiring a local bankruptcy lawyer.