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.