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Archive for the ‘automatic stay’ tag

Avoid a Support Lien through Bankruptcy

September 23rd, 2019 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 is very limited in helping avoid a support lien. Chapter 13 is much more powerful, as long as you precisely meet some conditions.

 

Child and Spousal Support Liens

If you fall behind on child or spousal support payments, your ex-spouse can put a lien on your home.  (Most likely a lien can be imposed on your other property, but we’re focusing here on your real estate). The procedures vary state to state, but generally the lien is filed wherever property is recorded. Most often that’s at the local county recorder’s office.

The lien gives legal notice about the support claim against you.  The lien goes onto the title to your house. It gives your ex-spouse power to make you pay when you sell or refinance the house. Sometimes the lien can force the sale of the house in order to pay the support debt. So you want to avoid a support lien whenever possible. Or at least stop its enforcement after it’s been recorded.

Does Bankruptcy Stop the Filing of a Support Lien?

“[A]ny “act to create any lien” is generally stopped by a bankruptcy filing. See Section 362(a)(4) and (5) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the “automatic stay.” The filing of a support lien is an “act to create… [a] lien.” So it appears that bankruptcy might stop a support lien.

However, there’s an exception under that automatic stay statute for the collection of support. Section 362(b)2)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code. If you file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case your ex-spouse can continue collecting unpaid and ongoing support against you. This includes filing a support lien on your house, and enforcing that lien as described above. So a Chapter 7 case filing will not stop the filing of a support lien against you and your house. And it won’t stop the enforcement of that lien.

But there’s an exception to this exception. Under the right conditions filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case will stop a support lien. Unlike Chapter 7, Chapter 13 can stop a support lien from being filed and recorded. Chapter 13 can also stop a previously recorded lien from being enforced.

That’s because although Chapter 13 does not stop the collection of ongoing support, it does stop collection of past-due support. By its nature a support lien pertains to past-due support. So filing Chapter 13 can stop the filing and recording of a support lien.

The Conditions under Chapter 13

Above we said that Chapter 13 protects you and your home from a support lien under the right conditions. These conditions are arguably sensible. But you must meet them precisely or you’d very likely lose the special benefits of Chapter 13. Your ex-spouse could begin collecting for past-due support, including filing and enforcing a support lien.

The conditions you must meet include:

  • Staying current on your ongoing support payments
  • Arranging to catch up on your past-due support within your 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan
  • Staying current on your monthly Chapter 13 play payments (through which you’re catching up on your past-due support)

These conditions are arguably sensible because the idea is that you deserve a break on past-due support collection, as long as you are sticking with your legally approved commitment to pay off that past-due support debt. If you don’t keep your commitment, you lose the protection from collection.

Conclusion

If you’re behind on support payments, filing a Chapter 7 case will not stop your ex-spouse (or support enforcement agency) from recording a support lien against your house. Nor will Chapter 7 stop the enforcement of that support lien. But, if you’re not already behind, filing a Chapter 7 case may discharge (write-off) enough other debts so you can stay current on your support obligations.

Chapter 13 will stop the recording of a support lien for past-due support. It will also stop the enforcement of a previously recorded support lien against your house. But you must pay off the entire past due support obligation during your Chapter 13 payment plan. And you must do so precisely as agreed in that plan. Lastly, you must also keep current on any ongoing support obligation. If you do all these, you and your home will be protected from any support lien. Then at the end of your case you will be current on all support. Therefore your ex-spouse/support enforcement agency will no longer have any ability to impose a support lien.

 

Avoid Income Tax Liens with Chapter 13

September 16th, 2019 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 can prevent income tax liens on dischargeable taxes. But the discharge takes years, and you may have to pay part of that tax.  

 

Two weeks ago we showed how the filing of a bankruptcy case stops the recording of an income tax lien.  A bankruptcy filing imposes the “automatic stay.” That law makes it illegal for the IRS or state tax agency to record a tax lien. (See Section 362(a)(4) and (5) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code forbidding the creating or enforcing of a lien.) That’s true whether your lawyer files a “straight bankruptcy” Chapter 7 case or an “adjustment of debts” Chapter 13 one.

Then last week we showed how this works specifically in a Chapter 7 case. IF the tax meets all of the conditions for discharge (legal write-off), then your Chapter 7 filing would prevent a tax lien, discharge the tax debt, and forever avoid a tax lien on that tax.

But how about in a Chapter 13 case? We know it would also stop an income tax lien recording, but then what would happen? Which would be better, Chapter 7 or 13?

Dischargeable Tax Debts under Chapter 13 

Assume again that the tax debt at issue meets the conditions for discharge. That tax would get discharged at the end of a Chapter 13 case, like in a Chapter 7 case. But there are two big differences.

Discharge of the Tax Debt Takes Much, Much Longer

First, that discharge of the tax debt would not happened within about 4 months as it would in most Chapter 7 cases. Instead it would happen usually 3 to 5 years later, the length of most Chapter 13 cases.  The automatic stay protection usually lasts throughout that time. So the IRS/state could take no tax collection actions in the meantime, including the recording of a tax lien.

But such a long period of time may allow problems to arise preventing the completion of your case. If you don’t successfully complete a Chapter 13 case the discharge doesn’t go into effect. So there is more risk that an otherwise dischargeable tax debt ends up not discharged. If the tax doesn’t get discharged, the IRS/state could record a tax lien as soon as you were no longer in your Chapter 13 case.

You May Have to Pay on that Tax

Second, under Chapter 13 you could pay part of the dischargeable income tax debt during your case. You generally pay some of your debts through a monthly payment plan. This may include some of your dischargeable tax debt. In a Chapter 7 case, in contrast, usually you pay nothing on a dischargeable tax debt.

Whether you would pay anything on such a tax under Chapter 13, and how much, depends on many factors. These factors focus on the nature and amount of your other debts, and on your income and living expenses. Often, you actually don’t pay anything more in a Chapter 13 case if you have a dischargeable tax debt than if you don’t owe that tax. That’s because you often pay a set amount towards all your debts based on what you can afford. Whatever you may pay towards a dischargeable tax would otherwise have just gone towards your other debts. However, in general under Chapter 13 there’s some risk that you’d pay something on a tax debt instead of nothing.  

The Bottom Line

It is worth emphasizing that if you successfully complete your Chapter 13 case, a dischargeable tax will get discharged. So you would no longer owe anything on it. So the IRS/state would not be able to record a tax lien on it, just like under Chapter 7.

How about a Tax that Can’t Be Discharged?

What if the income tax at issue does not meet the conditions for discharge? A Chapter 7 or 13 filing would stop the recording of a tax lien, at least temporarily. But what happens then? Is Chapter 7 or 13 better in this situation for permanently stopping a tax lien? We’ll cover this next week.

 

Avoid Income Tax Liens with Chapter 7

September 9th, 2019 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 can prevent future income tax lien recordings against your home, if the tax is truly dischargeable and you have a no-asset case. 


Last week’s blog post was about filing bankruptcy to prevent the IRS/state from recording income tax liens on your home. The “automatic stay”—bankruptcy’s broad freeze of creditor collection actions—stops tax lien recordings immediately when you file your case. To repeat what we said last week:

Federal law is crystal clear that filing bankruptcy stops and prevents “any act to create, perfect, or enforce any lien” against your property. Section 362(a)(4 and 5) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The IRS and the state tax agencies do not dispute this. They cannot record a tax lien against your home or anything you own once you file bankruptcy.

But how this works is quite different under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” Today we talk about filing Chapter 7 to stop tax liens, next week about Chapter 13.

The Chapter 7 Advantages

The primary benefit of Chapter 7 is speed. Assume you have a tax debt that meets the qualifications for discharge (legal write-off). (See our earlier blog post titled Bankruptcy Writes Off (Some) Income Taxes.)  Most Chapter 7 cases take 3-4 months from filing to completion. Most Chapter 13 cases take 3-5 years. If you have a tax debt that you are able to discharge, doing so quickly makes lots of sense. Chapter 7 is your likely answer.

Another big benefit: Chapter 7 is much more likely to discharge the tax debt without you having to pay any of it. Most Chapter 7 cases are “no asset” ones. This means that all of your assets are “exempt”—protected from liquidation by the Chapter 7 trustee. This usually means that your “general unsecured” debts would get discharged and be paid nothing. A dischargeable income tax debt is a general unsecured debt. So Chapter 7 would usually discharge the tax debt in full, without paying anything on it. (This assumes that you filed the Chapter 7 case before the IRS/state recorded a tax lien. That recording would turn the tax debt into a secured one, which you very much want to avoid.)

Under Chapter 13, in contrast, there is a significant risk that you would have to pay something on a dischargeable tax debt.  We’ll explain how this works in the next blog post. Avoiding that risk, and discharging the tax in just a few months: these both make Chapter 7 a very tempting option.

The Chapter 7 Disadvantage

The potential downside of Chapter 7 is that the automatic stay protection only lasts a short time. You are protected from the IRS’/state’s power to record a tax lien only during the length of the Chapter 7 case. Section 362(c)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code says that the automatic stay ends when the case is closed. Again, that case closure usually happens only 3 or 4 months after your bankruptcy lawyer files your case.

However, IF the tax debt at issue definitely meets all the qualifying factors for discharge, this is NOT a problem. Once bankruptcy discharges any debt, the creditor may no longer take any collection action on it. Section 524(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code make any “act… to collect” a discharged debt illegal. This applies to the IRS and state tax agencies just like any other creditor. So, as long as the tax debt at issue will truly be discharged in your Chapter 7 case, you don’t need to worry about any future tax lien on that discharged debt. Clearly, it’s crucial that you have a competent and conscientious bankruptcy lawyer to determine whether your tax is truly dischargeable. If so, then you can rely on Chapter 7 to prevent the recording of a tax lien, discharge that tax debt, and give you freedom forever from a tax lien on that tax.

 

Chapter 13 Gives the Most Time to Cure Your Mortgage

July 29th, 2019 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 provides no mechanism to cure your mortgage. But Chapter 13 does provide a powerful, realistic, and practical way to do so. 

 

Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “Adjustment of Debts”

Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 are the two main consumer bankruptcy options.

Most Chapter 7 cases only takes a few months—usually 3 to 4 months—from filing to completion. A Chapter 13 case usually takes 3 to 5 years. At first this extra length of time may seem like a disadvantage. However Chapter 13 puts this time to good use, accomplishing things that you can’t under Chapter 7.

Essentially, Chapter 13 gives you the 3-to-5-year period to cure your mortgage, while protecting your home throughout that time.

The Chapter 7 Shortcomings

Chapter 7 leaves you at the mercy of your mortgage lender if you’re behind on the mortgage.

Chapter 7 protects you from the lender for only the 4 months or so that it lasts. (The protection might even be shorter if the lender asks the bankruptcy court for permission to end the protection sooner.) During that time you may be able to work out a “forbearance agreement” with your lender. This agreement nails down the terms for curing your mortgage.

The problem is that you have precious little leverage in this negotiation. If you are not too far behind on your mortgage, your lender may be give you a few months, maybe up to a year, to catch up. But the lender has all the leverage and you have almost none. It could just begin or resume a foreclosure as soon as your Chapter 7 case is over. With that leverage it can make you try to catch up unrealistically fast, requiring huge extra catch-up payments each month. This makes more likely that you won’t succeed in always making the required payments. And at best, if you do make those large payments and do catch up, it’ll be a tough and risky experience.

The Chapter 13 Solution

In contrast, as mentioned above Chapter 13 gives you much more time, and protects your home in the meantime.

Instead of the catch-up payment amount being imposed on you, your personal realistic budget determines the amount. The payments can be stretched out over as much as 5 years. You may even be able to delay or lessen these catch-up payments if you have other even more urgent debts to pay. Also, if your circumstances change midstream, you’d likely be able to adjust the payments.

These and other advantages effectively lower the catch-up payments, making more likely that you’ll successfully cure the mortgage and keep your home.

Doing Your Part

You can rather easily lose the multi-year protection of Chapter 13 if you don’t fulfill some important obligations. To maintain the protection you have to:

1. Keep current on your court-approved Chapter 13 payment plan. Your catch-up payments are incorporated into the single monthly payment you make towards virtually all your debts. Not paying this to the Chapter 13 trustee each month gives your mortgage lender cause to ask permission to foreclose. It also gives cause for your case to be thrown out altogether. 

2. Keep current on the regular monthly mortgage payments. Chapter 13 gives you the means to slowly cure your arrearage. Falling further behind in the middle of your case seriously jeopardizes your case.

3. Pay your homeowner’s insurance on time. Don’t let your insurance lapse. That really scares your mortgage lender (and should scare you, too). Your lender would likely “force-place” its own insurance (which protects it but not you). It would then make you pay the exorbitant cost of this insurance, putting you that much further behind. This is also an independent basis for it to ask permission to foreclose.

4. Pay the property taxes. Falling behind on property taxes also gives the mortgage holder a separate basis for asking the bankruptcy court for permission to foreclose. The budget you work out with your bankruptcy lawyer will include money for these taxes, to prevent this from happening.

 

Include 2018 Income Taxes in a Chapter 13 Case Filed in 2019

January 21st, 2019 at 8:00 am

Do you expect to owe income taxes for the 2018 tax year? Starting January 1, 2019 you can wrap that tax into a new Chapter 13 payment plan. 

 

Have you been considering filing bankruptcy and now also expect to owe income taxes for 2018? If so, the start of 2019 gives you more reason to file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case.

Why? Because filing in 2019 allows you to include 2018 income taxes into your payment plan. That gives you major advantages:

  1. Saves you money on your payment of the 2018 tax
  2. Gives you some very valuable flexibility
  3. Stops tax collections and a tax lien on the 2018 tax

1. Save Money

Wrapping your 2018 income tax debt into a Chapter 13 payment plan usually allows you to pay no more interest and penalties on that tax. The savings can be much more than you think.

You’ll have to pay the 2018 base income tax itself in full, but usually not the interest or penalties. The base tax itself is a “priority” debt that you have to pay. But almost always no interest or penalties accrue on that tax (as long as you finish the case successfully).  

This especially helpful because practically speaking you’d probably not pay that 2018 tax for quite  a while:

  • If you don’t file bankruptcy your other financial pressures would likely prevent you from paying that tax quickly. You might even be tempted to put off filing the tax return, thereby aggravating the problem. The interest and penalties would accrue fast.
  • If you do file a Chapter 13 case in your payment plan you’d most likely pay other even higher priority debts ahead of the 2018 tax. There’s a good chance that tax wouldn’t get paid until near the end of your 3-to-5-year plan. A huge amount of interest and penalties would accrue in the meantime.

2. Valuable Flexibility

Wrapping your 2015 taxes into a Chapter 13 payment plan gives you tremendous flexibility in paying the tax. This can be a real game changer, especially when you have other financial obligations that can’t wait. Chapter 13 allows you to delay paying your 2018 tax debt until you can afford doing so AFTER paying, for example:

  • home mortgage arrearage to save your home
  • unpaid real property taxes, which usually accrue interest at a high rate
  • vehicle loan arrearage or “cramdown” payments to keep your vehicle
  • child or spousal support arrearage
  • other years’ income taxes, including protecting a home or other possession from previously recorded liens

3. Stop Future Tax Collection Including Liens

An important benefit of waiting until 2019 to include the 2018 income tax debt is to stop its aggressive collection. Filing a Chapter 13 case prevents the IRS and/or state from taking just about any collection actions on that tax. This protection against collection stays in effect throughout the years of the case (as long as you fulfill your obligations). Not having to worry about collection of this debt is a huge emotional and practical benefit.

It’s especially nice not have to worry about getting hit with a tax lien. Tax liens are dangerous for a number of reasons. They put your precious assets at risk, thereby giving the IRS/state tremendous leverage. Chapter 13 prevents tax liens while giving you the means to pay off the tax on a relatively flexible budget.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 AFTER the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

August 13th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 protects you from a recorded tax lien in crucial ways, and can reduce how much you pay on the underlying dischargeable tax debt. 

 

Last week’s blog post was about dealing with a recorded tax lien by filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case.  Usually the IRS’ or state’s recording of a tax lien against you effectively requires you to pay the underlying tax. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualifies for total discharge—legal write-off in bankruptcy. That’s because a recorded tax lien converts that tax debt from being unsecured to being fully secured by your property and possessions. You pay the tax—sooner or later—to avoid losing what you own.

When Chapter 7 Might Help

Last week we outlined some circumstances in which Chapter 7 might satisfactorily deal with a recorded tax lien. Those circumstances were when the tax lien either failed to apply to any assets you own or the assets were worth much less than the tax debt at issue. For example, the IRS/state may record a lien on your home which in the process of getting foreclosed. If you’re letting the house go then that tax lien has no leverage over you. Your Chapter 7 case would discharge the income tax debt and the subsequent home foreclosure would undo the tax lien.

But these situations are quite rare. Usually a recorded tax lien (or more than one) covers everything you own. Usually the value of your assets encumbered by the lien(s) well exceeds the amount of the tax at issue. Or even if your assets’ value is less than the tax(es) owed, you don’t want to lose those assets. So you have no choice but to pay the tax owed. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualified to be fully discharged.

However, if filing a Chapter 7 case takes care of all your other debts, maybe that’s okay. It would have been better to file before the tax lien’s recording so you could have just discharged the tax. But if it’s too late for that, clearing the deck of all or most of your other debts so you can concentrate on the tax debt afterwards may be your best option.

When Chapter 13 Could Be Much Better

The last paragraph assumes you could afford to pay the tax covered by the tax lien. But what if after finishing your Chapter 7 case you still didn’t have enough money each month? The protection from creditor collections (the “automatic stay”) you get from filing bankruptcy disappears when the case is over. That’s only about 3-4 months after your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 7 case. With the tax lien putting your assets at risk you’d have tremendous pressure on you to pay the tax. So if you couldn’t afford to pay as fast as the IRS/state would demand you’d have a serious problem.

Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case could significantly help.

First, the automatic stay protection against the IRS/state usually lasts the 3 to 5 years that a Chapter 13 case takes to complete. That alone greatly reduces the constant tension of being at the mercy of the tax authorities. During the Chapter 13 case your assets that are encumbered by the lien are protected from seizure. And your income and other assets are protected from any other tax collection efforts.

Second, you usually have much more flexibility in your payoff of the underlying tax. You have much more control over the amount and timing of payments on the tax debt. Your monthly Chapter 13 plan payments are based on your realistic budget. In earmarking where the money from those payments goes you can often pay other even more urgent debts (such as catching up on a home mortgage or child suport) ahead of the tax debt. You can sometimes delay paying the tax until some future event, like the sale of your home or other asset.

When Chapter 13 Is Even Better

When the assets covered by the tax lien have no present value, Chapter 13 is particularly powerful.

Consider a tax lien on a home with no present equity beyond the prior liens. After a Chapter 7 case the IRS/state could just sit on that recorded tax lien until you built up equity in the home. You’d pay down the obligations and the property would rise in value until there was equity to cover the tax lien. The IRS/state would have huge leverage over you. But under Chapter 13 the bankruptcy judge would declare that there’s no present equity secured by the tax lien. The tax would effectively be unsecured—as if there was no tax lien. You’d lump that tax debt in with your general unsecured creditors. You would likely pay only a small portion of that tax debt. Often you would actually pay no more into your Chapter 13 payment plan as a result of that tax.

For example, assume you owed $10,000 in dischargeable income tax.  The IRS recently recorded a tax lien on your home for that tax. Your home is worth $250,000, has $5,000 in property taxes, $210,000 on a first mortgage and $40,000 on a second mortgage. Owing $255,000 you have no equity in the home. But as you pay down the property taxes and the mortgage, and assuming the property value increases, there’d soon be equity securing the tax lien. But Chapter 13 allows you to freeze the present equity situation. The tax lien presently does not cover any equity in your home, the tax debt is thus unsecured, and would be treated just like the rest of your unsecured debt. Adding the tax debt to your other unsecured debt would usually result in you paying no more than you would have otherwise.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 Stops the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

July 30th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 and 13 can both prevent the recording of a tax lien. But if the tax qualifies for discharge Chapter 7 is quicker and less risky. 

 

Last week we showed how detrimental the recording of an income tax lien can be for you. It can turn a tax that you could fully discharge (legally write off in bankruptcy) into one you’d have to fully pay. We showed how Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” could prevent recording of the tax lien and could discharge the tax.

How about a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case? Would filing one also stop an income tax lien recording?  If so, what would happen to that tax debt?

Chapter 13’s Automatic Stay

The filing of a Chapter 13 case stops the recording of a tax lien by the IRS or state just like a Chapter 7 would. Any voluntarily filed bankruptcy case by a person entitled to file that case imposes the “automatic stay” against almost all creditor collection activities against that person and his or her property. (See Sections 301 and 362(a)  of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) Those “stayed” or stopped activities specifically include “any act to create, perfect, or enforce” a lien. (See Section 362(a)(4) and (5).)

So filing under Chapter 13 stops a tax lien recording just as fast and just as well a Chapter 7 would.

But Would Chapter 13 Be Better than Chapter 7?

That depends. It depends at the outset on whether the tax is one that qualifies for discharge. If it does qualify (mostly by being old enough) then a Chapter 7 is actually often better.

Under Chapter 7 the automatic stay protection lasts only the 3-4 months that the case is active.  But that’s long enough since the discharge of the tax debt would happen just before the case was closed. Once the tax debt is discharged the IRS/state could no longer do anything to collect that tax. It would certainly have no further ability to record a tax lien on that tax.

What would happen in this situation under Chapter 13, with a tax debt that qualifies for discharge? It would get discharged like under Chapter 7, but with two big differences.

First, the discharge would happened not 3-4 months after case filing but usually 3 to 5 years later.  The automatic stay protection usually lasts throughout that time, preventing tax collection, including the recording of a tax lien. But that long period of time under Chapter 13 does create more opportunities for things to go wrong. That’s all the more true because throughout that time you have various obligations, such as to make monthly Chapter 13 plan payments. If for any reason you don’t successfully complete your Chapter 13 case, the otherwise dischargeable tax debt still won’t get discharged.

Second, under Chapter 13 you may have to pay part of the tax debt before it is discharged. This is in contrast to usually paying nothing on it under Chapter 7. (This assumes that you’d have a “no-asset” Chapter 7 case—in which all of your assets would be “exempt”, protected.) Whether  you’d pay anything on a dischargeable tax debt in a Chapter 13 case, and if so how much, depends on many factors, mostly the nature and amount of your other debts and your income and expenses. But why risk paying something on a tax debt under Chapter 13 if you wouldn’t have to pay anything under Chapter 7?

So Chapter 7 Is Usually Better at Dealing with a Dischargeable Tax Debt?

The answer is likely “yes” if you focus only on this one part of your financial life.

But you may have other reasons to file a Chapter 13 case. For example, you may owe a more recent income tax debt that does not qualify for discharge, in addition to the one that does qualify. Chapter 13 provides a number of significant advantages in dealing with the nondischargeable tax. These could make Chapter 13 much better for you overall.

Or you may have considerations nothing to do with taxes, such as being behind on a home mortgage, a vehicle loan, or child support. Chapter 13 gives you huge advantages with each of these kinds of debts. Your bankruptcy lawyer and you will sort out all the advantages and disadvantages of each legal option to choose the best one.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Student Loan Collection

July 2nd, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” stops student loan collection actions for a few months. Sometimes it can stop these actions permanently. 

 

Bankruptcy gives you tools to deal with special debts—including those you can’t easily write off. Last week we got into income taxes. Today we discuss student loans, focusing on this special kind of debt in Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” Next week, we’ll cover student loans under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Let’s assume you owe a student loan that you can’t afford to pay. Here’s how Chapter 7 can help.

Student Loan Collection

Student loan creditors and collectors have extraordinary collection powers. Often they don’t need to sue you first and get a legal judgment against you, as most creditors must. These creditors and their collections have very aggressive collection procedures available to them. Besides the usual garnishment of bank accounts and paychecks, these special creditors can often grab your tax refund or a portion of a Social Security benefit check.

The “Automatic Stay” from a Chapter 7 Filing 

Student loans are special in a number of ways. However, just like ordinary debts, student loan collections are immediately stopped by the “automatic stay” imposed by your bankruptcy filing. It doesn’t matter whether or not the student loan would be discharged (written off) in your Chapter 7 case.

The “automatic stay” stops “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor.”  (Section 362(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) (A “claim” is a “right to payment”—essentially, a debt. See Section 101(5).) More specifically, the “automatic stay” stops “the commencement or continuation…  of a[n]..  .   administrative…  proceeding against the debtor. (Section 362(a)(1).) “Administrative proceedings” include the non-judicial collection actions mentioned above that don’t include a lawsuit. The Chapter 7 filing also specifically stops “the setoff of any debt” owed to you, such as a tax refund or Social Security setoff. (Section 362(a)(7).)  So, filing bankruptcy stops all student loan collection actions.

This break from collections lasts throughout the 3-4 months that most consumer Chapter 7 cases take to finish. But unless you deal with the student loan appropriately in the meantime, after that its collection can continue.

Dischargeability of Student Loans

Bankruptcy permanently discharges some student loans. A dischargeable student loan must meet just one condition, albeit a tough and confusing condition. The student loan must cause you an “undue hardship.” As the Bankruptcy Code puts it, you can’t discharge a student loan unless that loan “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” (Section 523(a)(8).)

What does “undue hardship” mean? How much harder must it be than just a simple “hardship”?

You may feel like your student loans are causing you a great financial hardship. However, the federal courts have interpreted this phrase very narrowly.  The details are beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but just keep in mind this condition is challenging to meet.

During the Chapter 7 Break in Collections      

During the 3-4 months of your Chapter 7 case you want to take steps to make the temporary break in collections a permanent one. Here are three ways to accomplish this.

  • If you and your bankruptcy lawyer believe you meet the “undue hardship” condition, your bankruptcy lawyer would file an “adversary proceeding” during your Chapter 7 case. That’s a specialized lawsuit designed to determine whether you qualify for “undue hardship.” If you persuade the bankruptcy judge that you do, the student loan debt would be permanently discharged. Then the temporary break in collections would become permanent. There would be no more collection on a debt once you no longer legally owe it.
  • The bankruptcy judge may give you only a partial discharge of your student loan(s). In this situation the judge is determining that repaying all of the loan(s) would cause you an “undue hardship.” But paying back only a portion would not. So you’d make arrangements to pay the remaining student loan debt, probably at a reduced monthly payment. As long as you made the payments your student loan creditor would take no further collection action against you.
  • If you don’t qualify for a full or partial “undue hardship” discharge, your Chapter 7 case would still at least discharge all or most of your other debts. That should leave you better able to pay the remaining student loans. Hopefully you’d be in a position to make payment arrangements. This may be done through a payment-reduction program which are available for various student loans. If so, then your situation would hopefully be resolved by the end of your Chapter 7 case. Then, at the time that the automatic stay would expire you won’t be facing any more student loan collections.

Avoiding Default and Preserving Options

Even if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship,” the bankruptcy pause in collections can be extremely helpful. It could maybe even be critical. That’s because you can only qualify for most student loan workout programs before you are too far behind on payments. So filing a Chapter 7 case before you’ve fallen too far behind could allow you to take advantage of these programs. But if you waited too long you could lose out, and be seriously disadvantaged.

Conclusion

It’s really crucial to talk with an experienced bankruptcy lawyer about all this. Student loans are complicated and often very challenging to deal with. This is true both outside and inside bankruptcy. You need a lawyer on your side who deeply understands both bankruptcy law and student loans.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Income Tax Collection

June 25th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Income tax debts can be handled in bankruptcy more than you think. This is true even with those taxes that are too new to be discharged. 

 

The Automatic Staying, and the Discharge, of Income Tax Debts

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that filing bankruptcy gives you power over income taxes. It does so in two big ways. First, filing bankruptcy stops the IRS and state from collecting your tax debts—either temporarily or permanently. This is the “automatic stay” applicable to pretty much all of your creditors. Second, bankruptcy permanently writes off (“discharges”) some income tax debts—generally older taxes.

If all the income taxes you owe qualify for discharge, then your situation is quite straightforward. You file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, which stops any ongoing tax collection during the case. Then 3-4 months later, near the end of the Chapter 7 case, your tax debt is discharged. The “automatic stay” protection against tax collection ends. But you no longer need to worry about tax collection because you no long owe any taxes.

Or if instead you file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case (for reasons other than the tax debt), there’s a similar result. The dischargeable income taxes are treated just like your other “general unsecured” debts. They only get paid to the extent you can afford to do so, if at all, during your case. Often, during the 3-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan most or all of your available money goes elsewhere. It goes towards priority debts like child/spousal support or more recent taxes. Or it goes to catch up on a home mortgage or vehicle loan payments. Regardless how much, if any, you pay on the dischargeable taxes, at the end of your case the rest is discharged. So, as with Chapter 7, you then owe no more on those taxes so you don’t need to worry about any more tax collection.

The Expiring Automatic Stay and Nondischargeable Income Taxes

But what happens if some or all of your income tax debts do not qualify for discharge?  The “automatic stay” does still go into effect as to those nondischargeable taxes. Your filing of a Chapter 7 case gives you a break from most collection actions of the IRS and/or state. If you are being garnished, that would stop. If the IRS/state was about to record a tax lien against your home, that would be prevented. If you are being pressured to enter into a monthly tax payment plan, that pressure would stop.

But this break from collection would not last long.  The “automatic stay” expires in a Chapter 7 case at “the time a discharge is granted.” (See Section 362(c)(2)(C) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the expiration of the “automatic stay.”) In just about all consumer Chapter 7 cases the bankruptcy court grants the discharge only 3-4 months after case filing. So you get a break but not much of one.

So what do you do if you have income taxes that would not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case?

The Chapter 7 Solution

If you filed a Chapter 7 case, it may discharge enough of your other debts that you could afford to enter into a monthly installment payment plan with the IRS/state for the remaining tax debts. The discharged debts may include some older, dischargeable income taxes, leaving you with less tax liability to still pay.

If discharging other debts leaves you in a position to pay your remaining tax debts over time, you (or your lawyer) should contact the tax authority immediately after the discharge to make payment arrangements. It may make sense to make contact even earlier so that the IRS/state knows your intentions. Ask your bankruptcy lawyer about the best timing.

You might also qualify for a reduction in the surviving tax debt amount. The IRS has a procedure for “offers in compromise” to settle a tax debt by paying less than the full balance. Most states have similar procedures. These are somewhat complicated to go through. You should not enter into such an attempt without getting solid legal advice about your chances of being successful.  

The Chapter 13 Solution

Your financial situation after a Chapter 7 discharge may not allow you to pay off the remaining income tax debts through a tax payment plan. You may not have enough cash flow to pay it off fast enough to qualify. Furthermore, interest and tax penalties will continue to accrue, requiring you to pay substantially more over time.

You may also not be a good candidate for getting a reduction in the tax amount through a “compromise.”

So if instead you file a Chapter 13 case, the protection of the “automatic stay” remains in effect throughout the 3-to-5-year length of the case. This gives you up to 5 years to pay off the nondischargeable income taxes without any tax collections against you. This allows you to pay off those taxes under very flexible terms. You can often pay other even more urgent debts—like child support or home mortgage arrearages—ahead of the taxes.

Usually you don’t have to pay any additional interest and penalties. That alone could save you a significant amount, enabling you to pay off the tax faster and easier.

Also, the IRS/state can’t record a tax lien against you during the Chapter 13 case. That takes significant leverage away from the taxing authority. And if a tax lien had already been recorded against you, Chapter 13 usually can deal with it very favorably.

Overall, if a Chapter 7 would leave you too much at the mercy of the IRS/state, Chapter 13 is often a good alternative.

 

What the IRS/State Can and Can’t Do After You File Bankruptcy

February 16th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Filing bankruptcy stops tax collection just like it stops other debt collection by more conventional creditors. But there are exceptions.  

 

The last several weeks of blog posts have been about bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” protection from creditor collections.  We’ve also gotten into many of the exceptions to that protection—when certain creditors CAN take certain actions.

Today we focus on some very limited exceptions to the automatic stay protection, those which apply specifically to income taxes. In bankruptcy you don’t want surprises, especially from a tax collector. These limited exceptions are reasonable. But it’ll still help you to understand them in order to not be surprised by them.

Tax Determination is Allowed, Tax Collection is Not

Simply put, the exceptions to the automatic stay protections are about determining the amount of tax owed. The IRS and the state tax authorities can take steps during bankruptcy to figure out how much you owe. They can make you do what the law requires along these lines. For example, they can require you to file your tax returns, regardless that you’ve filed bankruptcy. But then they can’t take any action beyond that to collect any taxes owed.

The IRS/State CAN’T. . .

The automatic stay immediately stops virtually all debt collection activity against you when you file bankruptcy. This protects you, your income, and your assets. Everything is put on hold so that the bankruptcy laws can be applied to your entire financial situation.

Debts that the law discharges—legally writes off—disappear. Other possible debts that the law does not discharge you continue to owe. With income taxes, if they’re old enough and meet other conditions, they’re discharged. Otherwise you’ll either owe them after completing the Chapter 7 case or you’ll pay them through the Chapter 13 case. But in the meantime the IRS and state are forbidden from collecting the debt. They are also forbidden to take any action directly related to collection, like recording a tax lien against your home or vehicle.

So to be clear, the automatic stay exceptions we’re discussing here do NOT allow the tax authorities to take any action to get your money or assets. The IRS and state tax authority can’t start or continue garnishing your paychecks or bank accounts. They can’t levy on (take away) anything else you own. They can’t call you to pay the tax, and can’t send you tax bills.

The IRS/State CAN. . .

As we said above, the taxing authorities can take certain specific steps to determine how much tax you owe. Some of these steps you wouldn’t expect your bankruptcy filing to affect—they’re probably not surprising. You filing bankruptcy does not prevent the IRS/state from doing the following:

  • Start or finish a tax audit “to determine tax liability.” (See Section 362(b)(9)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) But there can be no attempt to collect whatever that tax liability ends up being.
  • Send you a notice about the amount of tax that you owe—a “notice of tax deficiency.” (Section 362(b)(9)(B).) That notice is NOT a demand to pay the tax.
  • Demand that you file your tax returns. (Section 362(b)(9)(C).) In fact this step is often essential for the processing of your bankruptcy case.
  • Make an “assessment” of your taxes and issue a “notice and demand for payment.” (Section 362(b)(9)(D).) “Assessment” is a formal determination of the tax amount. The “demand” here is a term of art meaning that you are put on notice that you are obligated to pay the debt. But whether and when you really owe it usually depends on bankruptcy law.

Conclusion

The interplay between bankruptcy law and tax law can be quite complex. The rule of thumb is that bankruptcy stops tax collection but not tax determination. But your situation may have nuances that could make that rule of thumb misleading. If you are in the midst of, or fear, tax collections, be sure to see an experienced bankruptcy lawyer to find out what would happen in your unique situation. And it really does make sense to do so as early as possible. Tax debts are very much an area where early and wise planning could save you a lot of money.

 

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