Chapter 13 Handles Both Older and Newer Income Tax Debts

If you owe a few years of income taxes, Chapter 13 lets you write off those that can be, while giving you time to pay those that must be.

Our Example

The last blog post introduced an example of how Chapter 13 can be a particularly good way to handle income tax debts when you owe multiple years of taxes. In that example:

  • Without a bankruptcy, a couple would have to pay about $30,000 to the IRS for back taxes, plus about another $45,000 in medical bills and credit cards, a total of about $75,000. Given their modest income and resulting ability to pay these obligations only very slowly, this couple would almost certainly be subject to many years of collection efforts, lawsuits and garnishments until the obligations were paid off.
  • Under Chapter 13, this same couple would pay only about $18,000—36 months of $500 payments. That’s less than 1/4th of the above $75,000 amount—and substantially less than the taxes alone!. Furthermore, the couple’s monthly payments would be based on their ability to pay. During this payment period their creditors—including the IRS—would be prevented from taking any collection action against them.

How Does Chapter 13 Work to Save so Much on Taxes and Other Debts?

  • Tax debts that are old enough are grouped with the “general unsecured” debts—such as medical bills and credit cards. These are paid usually based on how much money there is left over after paying other more important debts. This means that often these older taxes are paid either nothing or only a few pennies on the dollar.
  • The more recent “priority” taxes DO have to be paid in full in a Chapter 13 case, along with interest accrued until the filing of the case. However: 1) penalties—which can be a significant portion of the debt—are treated like “general unsecured” debts and thus paid little or nothing, and 2) usually interest or penalties stop when the Chapter 13 is filed. These can significantly reduce the total amount that has to be paid.
  • “Priority” taxes—those more recent ones that do have to be paid in full—are all paid before anything is paid to the “general unsecured” debts—the medical bills, credit cards, older income taxes and such. In many cases this means that having these “priority” taxes to pay simply reduces the amount of money which would otherwise have been paid to those “general unsecured” creditors. As a result, in these situations having tax debt does not increase the amount that would have to be paid in a Chapter 13 case, which is after all based on what the debtors can afford. In our example, the couple pays $500 per month because that is what their budget allows. That’s the same amount they would have to pay even if they owed nothing to the IRS! The couple meets their obligations under Chapter 13 by having most of their plan payments go to the IRS recent tax debts, and likely nothing to their other creditors or older IRS debts.
  • The bankruptcy law that stops creditors from trying to collect their debts while a bankruptcy case is active—the “automatic stay”—is as effective stopping the IRS as any other creditor. The IRS can continue to do some very limited and sensible things like demand the filing of a tax return or conduct an audit, but it can’t use the aggressive collection tools that the law otherwise grants to it. Gaining relief from collection pressure from the IRS AND all the rest of the creditors is one of the biggest benefits of Chapter 13.

Deciding Between Chapter 7 and 13 for Income Taxes

If, unlike the example, all of the taxes were old enough to meet the conditions for discharging them under Chapter 7, there would be no need for a Chapter 13 case. On the other hand if more “priority” tax debts had to be paid than in the example, the debtors would have to pay more into their Chapter 13 plan, either through larger monthly payments or for a longer period of time.

There are definitely situations where it is a close call choosing between Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. And sometimes preparing an offer in compromise with the IRS—either instead of or together with a bankruptcy filing—is the best route. To decide which of these is best for you, you need the advice of an experienced bankruptcy attorney to help you make an informed decision and then to execute on it.


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