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Archive for the ‘bankruptcy timing’ tag

The Effects of an Income Tax Lien

August 31st, 2020 at 7:00 am

Try to file bankruptcy before a tax lien gets recorded. But if you can’t, here are the effects of a tax lien under Chapter 7 and 13.

 

This blog post continues a series about the smart timing of your bankruptcy filing. (It was interrupted by two blog posts updating federal unemployment benefits.) The last in this series was about how good bankruptcy timing prevents you paying certain income tax interest and penalties. We ended with this: “The effect of a tax lien depends on whether the tax at issue qualifies for discharge, and whether you file a Chapter 7 or 13 case.” That’s today’s important topic.

Bankruptcy Timing and Tax Liens

The recording of a tax lien by the IRS or state often causes extra headaches. So it’s usually better to file your bankruptcy case before you’re hit with a tax lien.

But you may go to see a bankruptcy lawyer until after that’s already happened. Or your lawyer may advise to you wait to file for some tactical reason. That reason may be related to your income tax debt(s). It’s not unusual to delay filing until the tax meets the conditions for discharge (full write-off). While you’re holding off on filing, you run the risk of the IRS/state recording a tax lien.

If you’re waiting to file on the advice of your bankruptcy lawyer, he or she will likely tell you about the risks and potential effects of a tax lien. The following outlines what you may hear.

General Effect of a Tax Lien

The recording of a tax lien gives the IRS/state a security interest on everything you own. Your assets then become collateral on the tax debt.

Actually, where or how the IRS/state records the lien determines the assets that it covers. Usually one tax lien covers your real estate, while another covers your personal property—everything else you own. Look carefully at the wording of the tax lien to see what tax years it covers and what assets it encumbers. These details matter as you and your lawyer determine the effect of the lien(s).

A Tax Lien on a Non-Dischargeable Tax under Chapter 7

Assume you file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case and you owe a tax that does not qualify for discharge.

The recording of a tax lien on such a tax does not greatly affect what happens in that bankruptcy case. As discussed in our last tax-related blog post, you’ll have to arrange to pay that tax after completing your bankruptcy. You’ll also have to pay the ongoing interest and penalties.

The tax lien may put more pressure on you to make those payment arrangements. You’ll also want to get reassurances that the IRS/state will not take any other collection actions while you pay as agreed. The lien will also motivate you to pay the tax as fast as possible to get a release of the lien.

You’ll usually go this Chapter 7 direction if it will discharge your other debts so that you can reasonably pay off the tax debt(s).

A Tax Lien on a Non-Dischargeable Tax under Chapter 13

The situation is somewhat similar under an “adjustment of debts” Chapter 13 case. You still have to pay the tax that doesn’t meet the timing and other conditions of discharge. But you do that through your 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan. This gives you the benefit of not having to make payment arrangements with the IRS/state. The Chapter 13 procedure does that for you.

You just pay your monthly play payment, and your tax debt is incorporated into that. The IRS/state must comply with the “automatic stay,” which prevent all your creditors from taking any collection action against you. At the end of your case you will have paid off the tax. So the IRS/state will release any tax lien related to it.

A pre-existing tax lien in the Chapter 13 context can be meaningful in one way. The tax lien effects the payment of interest and penalties.

In a Chapter 7 case with a nondischargeable income tax you have to pay all interest and penalties. That’s true regardless whether there’s a pre-filing tax lien. The tax lien mostly serves to put more pressure on you to make payment arrangements and pay it off fast.

A Chapter 13 case is different. If there’s no tax lien, you would not have to pay ongoing interest and penalties. You’d likely pay only a portion of the penalties accrued as of the date of filing the Chapter 13 case. Sometimes you’d pay none.

 But with a tax lien, you must generally pay ongoing interest in your Chapter 13 payment plan. That can add how much you must pay into your plan and thus how long your plan takes.  

A Tax Lien on a Dischargeable Tax under Chapter 7

The effect of a tax lien on a tax debt that otherwise qualifies for Chapter 7 discharge can be huge. The Chapter 7 case would usually simply discharge that debt, so you would owe nothing.

But if there’s a prior recorded tax lien, that lien survives the bankruptcy case. The discharge of the tax debt does not legally affect the lien. Then the key issue becomes the value of the assets to which the lien attaches.

If you don’t have any real estate and your other assets are minimal, the IRS/state has less leverage over you. Especially if the tax debt was not large, some tax entities will then voluntarily release the tax lien. Both the tax and the tax lien would then be gone.

But some tax entities are more aggressive. This is more likely if the amount of the dischargeable tax is relatively large. They will leverage their tax lien to require you to pay all or part of the tax debt. They won’t release their lien otherwise.  Sounds unfair considering that the debt is otherwise dischargeable. But that’s the potential effect of the tax lien.

This leveraging is understandably much more likely if the assets to which their tax lien(s) attach are substantial. And in particular, this is true if that asset is equity in your home. You could be made to pay an entire tax debt that otherwise qualifies for discharge because of a tax lien.

So there’s a lot of uncomfortable ambiguity when you have tax lien on a dischargeable tax in Chapter 7.

A Tax Lien on a Dischargeable Tax under Chapter 13

A lot of this ambiguity is resolved in a Chapter 13 case. That’s because there’s an efficient procedure for determining the effect of a tax lien.

You and your bankruptcy lawyer will propose the value of assets that are encumbered by the tax lien. That’s done in the Chapter 13 plan you file with the bankruptcy court. You’re effectively stating what you believe to be the practical value of that tax lien, and thus the amount you’ll pay.

The IRS/state can object to this proposed treatment or not. If it objects, the value and amount you pay is usually negotiated, or if necessary decided by the bankruptcy judge.

Or, as is often the case, the IRS/state does not object. That often happens if what you and your bankruptcy lawyer propose is reasonable. Next, whatever you proposed becomes the court-approved plan. Assuming you pay off the plan as approved, that will take care of the IRS/state. Then at the end of the case the judge will discharge the remaining debt. With the debt gone, the IRS/state will then release the tax lien(s).

 

Avoiding Income Tax Interest and Penalties

August 10th, 2020 at 7:00 am

Bankruptcy timing can affect not only whether you must pay a tax debt but also whether you must pay certain tax interest and penalties.


This blog post is in a series about the importance of smart timing of your bankruptcy filing. Today we cover how good bankruptcy timing can prevent you having to pay certain income tax interest and penalties.

Avoiding Income Tax Interest and Penalties by Discharging the Tax Itself

Two weeks ago we discussed how to time a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” appropriately to discharge an income tax debt. “Discharge” means to legally, permanently write off the tax. Then last week we discussed how to discharge an income tax in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. When you discharge a tax in these ways what happens to the interest and penalties tied to that tax?

Generally, if you discharge an income tax debt, that also discharges any interest and penalties associated with that tax. That’s the most straightforward way to avoid such tax interest and penalties.

What If the Tax Does Not Qualify for Discharge?

If your tax debt doesn’t meet the timing and other conditions for discharge, what happens to the interest and penalties? That depends on whether you (with the help of your bankruptcy lawyer) file a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case.

Interest and Penalties on Nondischargeable Tax under Chapter 7

If you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy you continue owing the tax, and the interest and taxes keep accumulating.

You do receive one brief benefit. During the 3-4 months of the bankruptcy procedure the IRS and/or state legally may not collect the tax. The “automatic stay” that stops just about all debt collection activity applies to all your income tax debts. But as soon as the Chapter 7 case is done, the tax collection activity can resume. The interest and penalties continues to accumulate even during your case. And after the case they will continue accumulating as normal until you pay the tax, interest, and penalties in full. So with taxes that don’t qualify for discharge, Chapter 7 does not help with tax interest and penalties.

Interest and Penalties on Nondischargeable Tax under Chapter 13

However, if you file a Chapter 13 case there is some help with tax interest and penalties. This can be true even with a nondischargeable income tax.

In most Chapter 13 cases you do not have to pay any ongoing interest and penalties after filing your case. Through your payment plan you pay the tax over the 3-to-5-year life of your case. But the IRS/state writes off any after-filing accumulating interest and penalties as long as you successfully complete your case. (If you don’t complete your case, the IRS/state tacks on any accumulating interest and penalties to whatever tax you didn’t pay.)

What about the before-Chapter-13-filing interest and penalties? You must pay the interest portion along with the nondischargeable tax that you have to pay.

However you usually don’t have to pay the before-bankruptcy-filing penalty portion in full. Sometimes you don’t have to pay any of it. The tax penalties are a “general unsecured” debt. You generally pay general unsecured debts only as much as you can afford to pay during the life of your Chapter 13 case. This means that you may pay as little as none of the pre-bankruptcy penalties.

Furthermore, in most cases these penalties don’t add a dime to the amount you must pay into your Chapter 13 case. That’s because in most cases you pay what you can afford into the pool of general unsecured debts over the life of your payment plan. A set amount filters down to these debts. So the dollar amount of tax penalties merely reduces how much other general unsecured debts receive. You don’t pay any more. The amount you pay just gets shifted around among these debts.

Exceptions

There are exceptions to the above. Sometimes the amount you pay into your payment plan is driven less by your budget than by non-exempt (unprotected) assets. Then you may need to pay more to your general unsecured debts (which includes the pre-bankruptcy penalties). You may even need to pay them in full—a so-called 100% plan. But that’s rare. Your bankruptcy lawyer will discuss this with you if you have this unusual situation.

What about the Effect of a Recorded Income Tax Lien?

That’s a great question. The recording of an income tax lien before filing a bankruptcy case can definitely create additional headaches for you. This can be true about both the underlying tax itself and the related interest and penalties.

So the simple timing preference is, when possible, file your bankruptcy case before the IRS/state records a tax lien.

The effect of a tax lien depends on whether the tax at issue qualifies for discharge, and whether you file a Chapter 7 or 13 case. We’ll cover these in our blog post next week.

 

Timing Bankruptcy to Cover New Debts

July 20th, 2020 at 7:00 am

A bankruptcy covers the debts you owe as of the moment you file your case, not future debts. So how do you know when to file your case?

 

In last week’s blog post we introduced how to time your bankruptcy filing. We gave a list of 15 examples of timing considerations. Today we start with the first example: timing your bankruptcy filing so that it covers as many debts as possible.

Debts You Might Owe Very Soon

Here are two situations in which you expect to soon owe a debt that you don’t owe at the moment.

First, let’s say you have a medical condition for which you are about to see a doctor or other health professional. Or it’s an ongoing condition for which you get treatment regularly. Let’s assume that you know that you can’t afford to pay the upcoming medical bills for these upcoming services. You are already feeling overwhelmed by your present debts. You’re feeling pressure to file bankruptcy now to get relief from those debts. But you’re wondering if you should wait to file bankruptcy until after you’ve finished incurring the upcoming medical debts.

Or second, let’s say you’ve been relying on credit cards, cash advances and such to get by. You’re falling further and further behind, and you know the situation is not sustainable. You recognize that you’ll never be able to pay all your debts, so you need bankruptcy relief. But you don’t know when you should stop using the credit and file bankruptcy.

Here’s some guidance.

Bankruptcy Only Includes Existing Debts

Debts that you legally owe at the moment you file your bankruptcy are included in your bankruptcy case. Debts you don’t owe until after you file your bankruptcy are not included. That include debts you incur the next day. Or actually, even debts you incur an hour after your filing.

For example, usually 3 or 4 months after filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case you receive a discharge. That legally writes off most debts, including virtually all medical debts and unsecured credit card debts. But that only covers those medical and credit card (and other) debts legally owed at time of filing.

And in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts,” only the debt in existence at the time of filing are covered in the court-approved payment plan.

What Determines whether a Debt is Included

Under bankruptcy law, a debt is defined as a “liability on a claim.” Section 101(12) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. In other words, a debt is what you owe on a “claim.” And a “claim” is a “right to payment” that a creditor has against you. Section 101(5) of the Bankruptcy Code. Therefore, the issue is whether you and/or the creditor have acted to trigger a right of payment from you. If so, and that occurred before you file the bankruptcy case, the debt is included.

So, a medical provider has a right to payment from you immediately upon providing you the medical services. A credit card creditor has a right of payment from you immediately you’re your use of the card for a purchase or cash advance. Similar triggers create a debt with other types of debts.

What’s Not Required

Notice in the two above examples we said the right to payment exists “immediately upon” the triggering event.  So the debt exists then as well. This does not require the creditor to send a bill, or for you to receive it.

Notice this also means that neither you nor the creditor needs to know the amount of the debt. For bankruptcy purposes it’s already a debt that can be included in your bankruptcy case. The amount can be worked out later.

The debt can also be “contingent.” You may not actually have to pay the debt yourself; that may depend on a separate event. For example, someone else may also be liable on a joint debt, or it may be covered by insurance. But it’s still a debt for bankruptcy purposes.

Also, you may not agree that you owe the debt. It can be “disputed.” It’s still a debt for bankruptcy purposes and thus included in your bankruptcy case. The creditor and you may resolve the dispute later, if necessary.

(See Section 101(5)(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Trigger Event Not Always Obvious

With a medical or credit card debt it’s quite straightforward when the debt has been created. And that’s true of the majority of debts; it’s usually pretty obvious. For example, you become liable on a vehicle loan debt when you sign or otherwise legally enter into the loan agreement. Same when you buy furniture on a contract, or incur a payday loan.

But how about an annual federal or state income tax debt? What triggers that into a debt? 

There’s a relatively simple answer on this: legalistically you owe the tax as of the end of that tax year. So as of January 1 of the following year you can include that tax in your bankruptcy case. (The effect of including it is a different question. The tax must meet certain conditions to discharge it under Chapter 7, for example. But if it doesn’t meet those conditions, you can pay it under the favorable conditions of Chapter 13.)

Tougher Situations

How about more complicated debts? How about a debt arising out of a divorce, such as an obligation to pay one of the marital debts? Or to pay child support? Do you have to wait (and not file your bankruptcy case) until the divorce is final? Or don’t some of those debts arise from the marriage itself so you can file bankruptcy earlier?

Or how about an apartment lease that you signed a while ago but want to get out of now? Is the triggering event when you signed the lease? Or is a new debt created every month you stay in the apartment? If it’s the latter then does that mean that you may still owe for the time you stay there past your bankruptcy filing date?

Similarly, on a condo foreclosure, would you continue owing homeowner association dues for the months after your bankruptcy filing? Does it matter that you’ve moved out if the condo is still in your name until the foreclosure is final?

In these and many other less straightforward situations the answers are not nearly so obvious. And the answers may be surprising and financially dangerous.

Such as in the last example. Generally you DO keep incurring each new month of homeowner dues. And you do so as long as the lender has not completed the foreclosure process. That could take many months, or in some circumstances even years. Those accruing dues would not usually be covered by a bankruptcy case you filed before those months/years of dues accrued.

So deciding when to file your case can get complicated fast.

The Best Advice is to Get Some Good Advice

Even in relatively clear situations—the above medical, credit card, and income tax ones—there are delicate bankruptcy timing issues.

If you’re anticipating many months (or even years) of medical procedures, should you wait until they’re done? What if you’re being sued/foreclosed/repossessed and don’t feel you can wait?

When does it make sense to wait to the end of a calendar year to include that tax debt in your Chapter 13 case? Are there other alternatives such as a partial-year tax filing?

The timing issues get even more complicated in the other less-straightforward examples we gave, and in countless others.

The honest truth is that the timing solution will always depend on your unique situation. It’s actually true: you are unique, your combination of circumstances is unique, and your timing solution must be unique.

It’s the job of your bankruptcy lawyer to understand you and your situation. He or she is trained and experienced about your legal options, timing and otherwise. He or she has spent a career wrestling through tough situations like yours. You’ll learn about your timing options, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and likely get a recommendation about what’s best.

 

Timing Your Bankruptcy

July 13th, 2020 at 7:00 am

The timing of your bankruptcy case is important, sometimes extremely important. It can determine if your case is as successful as it can be.

 

Five weeks ago we started a series on why you should get legal advice from a bankruptcy lawyer. We’ve also been making a point of showing why it’s smart to do so early, when you start considering bankruptcy.

It’s super important to get this legal advice so that you can learn:

  1. if bankruptcy is the best option for you, and how to pursue other alternatives
  2. how Chapter 7, 11, 12, and 13 work, and whether either are right for you
  3. what actions you should take to position yourself, whether you’re possibly or definitely filing bankruptcy
  4. what you should avoid doing
  5. the best timing for your bankruptcy filing

If you want to look back, we covered #1 and #2 five weeks ago. The next four blog posts got into different aspects of what you should and shouldn’t be doing before filing (#3 and #4). These included keeping assets (4 weeks ago), taking on debt (3 weeks ago), filing income tax returns and paying the taxes (2 weeks ago), and paying child/spousal support (1 week ago).

Today we start on how to best time the filing of your bankruptcy case.

Bankruptcy Timing

Frankly, this is a huge topic. That’s because so much our financial lives are tied to time. One day you don’t owe a debt. The next day you go to a medical appointment and immediately owe a debt to the doctor’s office. You get the bill with a due date (after insurance pays a portion, if you’re fortunate enough to have insurance). If you can’t pay it by the due date, the debt goes into collections at some point in time. Then at some point you get sued, which turns—a certain amount of time later—into a judgment against you. After a short period of time (usually), that turns into a garnishment of your paycheck. All of these steps involve timing, with deadlines and time-based events.

Similarly, bankruptcy involves many issues of timing. Using the example above, filing bankruptcy stops the debt collection process wherever it is at the time.  If a lawsuit has been filed by the collector but no judgment yet entered, bankruptcy stops the entry of a judgment. If a judgment has been entered but no garnishment yet ordered, bankruptcy filing at that time prevents the garnishment. If your wages are the midst of being garnished, bankruptcy stops the garnishment. Whether it stops your current paycheck from being garnished or the next one, it all depends on timing.

Important Examples of Good (and Bad) Timing

The timing of your bankruptcy filing can affect all of the following. Whether:

  1. the bankruptcy case includes recent or ongoing debts or not
  2. you have to pay an income tax in full, in part, or not at all
  3. you must pay interest on an income tax because of a tax lien
  4. you can discharge (legally write off) a credit card debt, or a portion of it
  5. you can discharge a student loan debt
  6. you qualify for a vehicle loan cramdown—reducing monthly payments, interest rate, and total debt—and still keep the vehicle
  7. you qualify for a personal property collateral cramdown—paying less—and still keep the collateral
  8. you stop the repossession of your vehicle in time, or lose it to the vehicle loan creditor
  9. you prevent the foreclosure of your home in time, enabling you to catch up over time
  10. you get more time to sell your home, including years from now
  11. you qualify for a Chapter 7 case under the “means test,” or must instead file under Chapter 13
  12. you qualify for a 3-year Chapter 13 payment plan or instead must pay for 5 years
  13. your sale or gifting an asset is a “fraudulent transfer
  14. your payment to a friendly creditor is a “preference
  15. you can keep all of your assets if you’ve moved from one state to another in the past several years

Conclusion

Just looking down this list gives you a better idea how important the timing of your bankruptcy can be. We’ll be covering these timing issues one-by-one in our next blog posts. There’s a good chance that one, or even a number of them, apply to you. If any do, and you need to know more about it, please call us. We would appreciate being your bankruptcy lawyers, helping you fully  benefit from the law.

 

Two Examples of Bankruptcy Timing with Medical Debts

September 20th, 2017 at 7:00 am

How to know whether to delay filing bankruptcy when you’re expecting new medical services and their medical debts?  Here are two examples.   


Our last blog post was about the importance of timing your bankruptcy filing to include more of your debts.

One example we used was of a person with unresolved medical issues requiring ongoing medical care. That person could be overwhelmed by medical and other debts already owed. But he or she may wonder whether it would be wise to hold off on filing bankruptcy until the anticipated medical debts were incurred and so could be included.

We’ll now present two examples of this situation, each with different facts. We’ll show how these different facts resulted in these two people getting quite different legal advice.

Jeremy’s Facts

Jeremy is 30 years old, and single. He was in a car accident a year ago, resulting in serious injuries and huge medical bills. He’s not yet medically stable. He was underinsured, so that a big chunk of his medical expenses were covered but a lot were not. Because he’s maxed out his vehicle insurance coverage he’ll be liable for most of his future medical expenses.

Jeremy currently owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. In the next year or so he expects to add on another $30,000 to $40,000 in medical bills.

Jeremy does not have much in assets. His current income is low, as are his immediate prospects. That’s largely because he’s working a limited schedule as a result of his injuries, medical appointments and surgeries. He was in the military and so didn’t finish college until a couple of years ago. His future income prospects are quite good.

Should Jeremy File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?

If Jeremy would file bankruptcy now, it wouldn’t write off (“discharge”) his upcoming $30-40,000 in medical bills. A year from now he’ll be back in the hole that much.

He could then try to negotiate his way to paying reduced amounts. And if his income increases he may end up being able to pay off his debts, eventually. But that is not a satisfactory solution.

His bankruptcy lawyer instead advises that he wait to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” until he became medically stable and had incurred most or all of his medical debts.

Jeremy has limited exposure to harm by his creditors in the meantime. All of his assets are “exempt”—worth little enough to be fully protected from his creditors, even outside bankruptcy. His income is sporadic and low enough that he’d lose little if his wages were garnished. Jeremy hasn’t been sued yet. That may be in part because his creditors don’t see him as a good prospect for forced collection.

So Jeremy does wait, finishes his surgeries and other medical procedures, racking up another $35,000 in medical bills, and then files a Chapter 7 case to discharge all of his debts.

Mary’s Facts

Mary is 65 years old, also single. She had a heart attack two years ago. Like Jeremy she owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. Her heart ailment is a chronic condition which will definitely require medical attention the rest of Mary’s life.

She works full time in the same job she’s had for a decade. Her income is modest but high enough so that if her wages were garnished she would lose a significant amount.

Indeed she just got served with a lawsuit by her largest medical creditor for $10,000. This creditor likely sued knowing that it could likely get paid through wage garnishments.

Should Mary File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?

Because Mary just turned 65 years old she now qualifies for Medicare. She expects to have both Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (medical insurance). She understands that these will pay for most of her anticipated medical costs.

So with her future medical expenses largely taken care of, there is no reason for Mary to wait to file bankruptcy. The just-filed lawsuit for $10,000 is good reason not to wait. If she files a Chapter 7 case through her bankruptcy lawyer before her deadline to respond to the lawsuit, she will prevent it from turning into a judgment and then a garnishment.

So Mary does just that. She files the Chapter 7 case, stops the lawsuit in its tracks, and within about 100 days discharges that $10,000 and all the rest of her debts. She gets a fresh financial start heading into her retirement years.

A Moral and Legal Note

Note that incurring a debt, medical or otherwise, when you intend not to pay it is questionable, legally and morally.

The moral question is a personal one. If it’s a matter of your life and death, or even just of your health more broadly, it’s likely defensible to have a surgery or other medical procedure done even if you knew you couldn’t pay for it and intended to discharge the resulting debt in bankruptcy.

The legal question is clearer but still murky. The law does not approve of incurring a debt when you don’t intend to pay it. That can be considered fraud on the creditor. It may turn on the facts of the case. If you’re in the midst of a medical emergency you may not be conscious and able to give your consent for medical services.  Also, most medical creditors don’t raise objections base on issues of fraud in bankruptcy. And when they don’t raise this issue by a quick deadline, they lose the opportunity to do so in the future. So this legal problem usually resolves itself in this practical way.

Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about these moral and legal issues if you are considering delaying your bankruptcy filing in order to include future debts.

 

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