Archives for July 2018

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

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: Chapter 7 Stops the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

The recording of a tax lien often immediately turns an unsecured debt into a secured one, forcing you to pay what you could have written off.

 

If you owe income taxes, stopping the IRS or state record a tax lien can be a huge benefit of filing bankruptcy. How much of a benefit turns on details about the taxes you owe and the type of bankruptcy you file. Today and in our next blog post we’ll look at income taxes that would be discharged (forever written off in full). Today we focus  on the benefits of filing Chapter 7; next week we’ll do the same for Chapter 13.

Secured and Unsecured Debts in Bankruptcy

The leverage that any creditor has over you depends a lot on whether its debt is secured by your property. For example, if a debt is secured by your home, the home is collateral on that debt. In most situations even after filing bankruptcy you have to either pay the debt or you could lose the home.

The Effect of a Tax Lien

If you can’t pay an income tax, that tax debt is an unsecured one. It’s not secured by anything you own. The IRS and state taxing authorities have some powerful collection techniques they can use to collect the tax. But they can’t simply take anything of yours to pay off the tax debt. That’s because that tax debt is not secured by anything you own.

This completely changes when the IRS/state records a tax lien against your tax debt. The recording legally converts the unsecured tax debt into a debt secured by your property. Which property becomes security against that particular tax debt depends on the details of 1) the tax lien itself and 2) your state’s property laws.

But regardless of these details, IRS/state tax liens can potentially turn pretty much everything you own into security on that tax debt. That means that if you don’t pay the tax, the IRS/state can often take whatever you own in payment of that tax debt. Usually the practical result is not that they take everything, or even anything. Rather, you end up paying the tax debt, sooner or later.

Unsecured Older Income Tax Debts in Bankruptcy

Contrast that from what would happen to that tax if there was no recorded tax lien.

Most ordinary unsecured debts can be legally forever written off in bankruptcy. This is true of some income tax debts as well, if they meet certain conditions. Basically, bankruptcy discharges (writes off) income taxes for which the tax return:

  • was due more than 3 years before your bankruptcy case is filed, AND
  • was in fact filed more than 2 years before bankruptcy.

An Older Income Tax Debt WITHOUT a Tax Lien Under Chapter 7

If you meet the above 2 conditions (and a couple other seldom applicable ones), filing Chapter 7 will simply forever discharge that tax debt. Within about 3-4 months after you file the case, it will be legally gone. You will not have to pay it.

You filed bankruptcy in time to stop the IRS/state from recording a tax lien. And after discharge they’ll never be able to record a lien, or collect in any other wayr.

An Older Income Tax Debt WITH a Tax Lien Under Chapter 7

But it’s completely different if you did not file bankruptcy until after the tax lien recording.

If the tax debt meets the timing conditions, your Chapter 7 filing would technically discharge the tax debt itself. However, the IRS/state would still have a lien on your property after the bankruptcy case was completed.

Because of this surviving tax lien, the IRS/state would at that point be able to exert its rights under the lien. That means it could take and sell whatever property the lien attached to. That would usually be all your personal property or your real estate, or possibly both.

To prevent this from happening, you’d want to contact the IRS/state to make payment arrangements. As mentioned above, the result is usually that you have to pay the tax in full, along with its continually accruing tax penalties and interest.

The Lesson

The lesson is very clear. If you owe income taxes, file bankruptcy before the tax authorities record a tax lien. If the tax you owe meets the timing conditions, you’ll be able discharge the entire tax and pay nothing on it.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Fraud Debt Collections in Bankruptcy

Being accused of defrauding a creditor is unusual in consumer bankruptcy cases. A creditor would have to jump through significant hoops. 

 

Most Debts are Discharged (Permanently Written Off) in Bankruptcy

The federal Bankruptcy Code has a list of the kinds of debts that are not discharged. This list details the conditions under which these kinds of debts don’t get discharged. (See Section 523 on “Exceptions to discharge.”)

Essentially, all your debts get discharged unless any of them fit one of the listed exceptions.

The Fraud Exception

One of the most important exceptions to discharge is the one stating that debts, “to the extent obtained, by… false pretenses, false representation, or actual fraud,” might not be discharged. (Section 523(a)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

This is an important exception to discharge because it could apply to many different kinds of debts. The other exceptions to discharge apply to very specific categories of debts. For example, these other exceptions include child and spousal support, various taxes, and student loans. But the fraud exception could apply to just about any debt if it was incurred in a fraudulent way.

What Makes for a Fraudulent Debt?

Your creditor would have to demonstrate that its debt should not be discharged because you incurred that debt fraudulently. If the creditor fails to do so the debt WILL get discharged and you’ll no longer legally owe it.  

To avoid discharge of the debt, the creditor would have to present evidence and prove EACH of the following:

  1. you made a representation
  2. which you knew at THAT time was false
  3. you made that representation for the purpose of deceiving the creditor
  4. the creditor relied on this representation
  5. the creditor was damage by your representation.

For example:

  1. a person gets a loan by representing that he or she has a certain amount of income
  2. while knowing that income amount was inaccurate
  3. with the purpose of fooling the creditor into making the loan
  4. resulting in the creditor relying on this income information in making the loan
  5. and losing money when the person didn’t pay back the loan

What Happens When a Creditor Alleges Fraud

Proving all five of these necessary elements often isn’t easy. So creditors tend not to object unless they believe they have a strong evidence of fraud. In the vast majority of consumer bankruptcy cases no creditors raise any fraud-based challenges.

When a creditor does raise such a challenge it does so in a specialized lawsuit in the bankruptcy court. This “adversary proceeding” usually focuses directly on whether the creditor can prove the five elements of fraud.

Such adversary proceedings almost always get settled. That’s because the amount of money at issue doesn’t justify the expense in attorney fees and other costs that can accrue quickly for both sides.  

Staying Allegedly Fraudulent Debts

The “automatic stay” imposed against virtually all creditor collection action also applies to allegedly fraudulent debts. If the creditor has alleged fraud prior to your bankruptcy filing, the filing will at least temporarily stop all collection on the debt. 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.)

Then, as mentioned above, the debt will either get discharged or not. If the creditor doesn’t file an adversary proceeding in time, the debt DOES get discharged. If the creditor files an adversary proceeding but then doesn’t prove fraud, the debt is discharged.

On the other hand, if the creditor does prove fraud the debt is not discharged and the creditor can then pursue the debt. It gets a judgment stating that the debt is not discharged and collectible. Then the creditor can use all the usual collection methods to collect the debt.  

However, because these matters are usually settled, the settlement usually includes an agreed payment plan. So in the unlikely event that a creditor DOES allege fraud against you, files a timely adversary proceeding, AND convinces the bankruptcy judge that all the elements of fraud were present, you would still very likely have a workable way to pay the debt without worrying about being hit by unexpected collection actions.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Deal with Student Loan Collection with Chapter 13

Qualifying for “undue hardship” to discharge (write off) student loans is not easy. But Chapter 13 gives you powerful help over the timing.

 

The Much Better Chapter 13 “Automatic Stay”  

Last time we explained how bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” immediately stops student loan collections against you. But if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy this protection from collections lasts only the 3-4 months that the case lasts. If you qualify under “undue hardship,” you could discharge (write off) your student loan debt during your case. Then the student loan creditor could no longer collect that debt.

But if you can’t show “undue hardship,” Chapter 13 buys you much more time, and more timing flexibility.

Chapter 13 Simply Buys More Time

Chapter 13 buys more time because a typical case lasts 3 to 5 years. The “automatic stay” prevents collection actions this entire length of time.  A student loan creditor could try to persuade your bankruptcy judge to allow it to collect before the end of your case.  But usually this doesn’t happen. So regardless of anything else, Chapter 13 puts off your student loan creditor(s) for a fairly long time.

Chapter 13 May Buy Time Until You DO Qualify for “Undue Hardship”

To discharge a student loan you (or your dependent) must be experiencing an “undue hardship” at that time.  Chapter 13 gives you the flexibility of waiting for up to 5 years until you meet that condition. You file the case, and throughout its life your student loan creditor(s) is (are) prevented from collecting. Then, as soon as you do qualify for “undue hardship,” your bankruptcy lawyer would file the discharge petition.

For example, assume you or a financial dependent had a worsening chronic medical condition. But that condition was NOT YET preventing you from working, so that you were not yet in the circumstances that your student loan(s) was (were) preventing you from maintaining even a minimal standard of living. You could not petition for “undue hardship” discharge yet. But Chapter 13 would allow you to wait as long as 5 years after filing the case. This would give you time for your condition to worsen until you did met this requirement.   

Conclusion

Chapter 13 prevents your student loan creditor(s) from chasing you for years. And it also allows you to delay asking to discharge your student loan debt(s) until the point when you’d qualify. In the right circumstances these could be huge advantages.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Student Loan Collection

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.