Unfiled Tax Returns and Bankruptcy
June 29, 2020
If you’re considering filing bankruptcy, should you first prepare and submit any unfiled income tax returns? Should you prioritize paying them?
Our last two blog posts have been about what you should and should not do before filing bankruptcy. These are important to consider even if you hope to avoid bankruptcy but are sensibly admitting it’s possible.
So two weeks ago we focused on keeping, and not selling or giving up your:
especially any retirement funds
collateral on debts, such as your home, vehicles, or furniture
Last week we discussed whether to take on more debt to buy time and maybe avoid needing to file bankruptcy.
Today we look at whether you should file any unfiled income tax returns, and possibly prioritize paying unpaid income taxes.
The Quick Answer
In general you should:
prepare but not submit your tax returns to the IRS/state before seeing your bankruptcy lawyer;
not hold off on getting advice from a lawyer if you can’t get your tax return(s) prepared beforehand;
avoid paying any income taxes before getting advice about doing so from a lawyer;
if you’ve recently paid income taxes or are being forced to, all the more reason to get legal advice about how to proceed now.
Prepare Tax Returns
There’s a simple reason why it’s good to have any unfiled tax returns prepared before seeing a lawyer. The more information you can provide to your lawyer the more concrete his or her advice to you can be.
Bankruptcy can be a surprising good way to solve your tax problems, in numerous ways. It can virtually always stop tax collection, both forced (garnishments) and voluntary (installment payments). Bankruptcy can sometimes reduce payment of tax interest and penalties. Bankruptcy can buy you time, and protect you while you prioritize who you pay. And under the right conditions bankruptcy can even completely wipe out (“discharge”) an income tax debt.
But as you might expect the interplay between tax law and bankruptcy law can get complicated. For example, whether bankruptcy discharges an income tax debt depends on whether that tax meets some detailed conditions. So the more details about your taxes you bring to your lawyer the more specific the legal advice you’ll receive.
Therefore, if you haven’t prepared any outstanding tax returns, it helps to do so before visiting your lawyer.
But Do Not Submit the Tax Returns
There’s just as simple of a reason not to submit your tax returns to the IRS/state tax authority before seeing your lawyer. Once you submit them you can’t un-submit them.
Of course you are legally compelled to send in your income tax returns. And there’s a legal deadline to do so. And you can submit an amended return if you need to correct the original return.
But submitting a tax return is in effect a legal act which has consequences. For example, it may affect the timing of your bankruptcy filing, and impose otherwise avoidable timing pressure.
So, when possible, it generally makes sense to see your lawyer before submitting the outstanding tax return(s).
Don’t Delay Getting Legal Advice
Life can get complicated, financial and otherwise. You may have big roadblocks to getting your tax returns prepared. You may not have the necessary information or documents available to do so. Your tax returns may need the help of a tax preparer and you don’t have the money.
However, your financial circumstances may be crying out for bankruptcy and/or other legal advice. You may simply not be able to prepare the tax return(s) beforehand. While doing so would likely be helpful, this should not stop you from getting advice when you need it.
Prioritizing Paying Income Taxes
Every situation is different but, generally, see your bankruptcy lawyer before paying taxes.
Again, obviously you have a legal obligation to pay your income taxes.
However, if you have more debts than you can pay, it’s legitimate to ask which you should pay first. What order should you pay an income tax debt vs. an unpaid home mortgage vs. a late vehicle loan payment?
If you owe more than one income tax, which should you pay first? The IRS or the state? The older or newer one? Can you earmark the payment and should you do so between the tax itself vs. the unpaid interest vs. accrued penalties?
How does the timing of tax payments affect the timing of the possible bankruptcy filing?
So you can see that there are various fair questions about paying your income taxes when you’re considering bankruptcy. All of these questions, and likely more, would greatly benefit from legal advice.
If Paying Taxes Now
So what if you are making income tax payments now. Consider three scenarios.
First, you’re making agreed monthly installment payments on an older unpaid income tax. You know the IRS/state will come after you hard and fast if you stop paying.
However, the tax you’re paying may qualify for discharge—a complete legal write off. It may make sense to stop paying the monthly payments so you can put that money for better use. You need to determine your game plan and coordinate the timing with your bankruptcy lawyer.
Second, the IRS/state is garnishing your paycheck for an income tax debt. Whether or not that tax debt qualifies for discharge, a bankruptcy filing would stop the garnishments. Clearly you would benefit from learning about how this works, and especially the pertinent timing. Plus of course you need to learn about the different bankruptcy options for your entire financial situation.
Third, you’re paying an older income tax monthly, either voluntarily or by garnishment. As a result you’re not paying any or enough current tax withholding or quarterly estimated payments. As a consequence, you may be paying an older tax debt that bankruptcy would discharge and not paying one that you could not discharge. You may be using your precious money to pay a not-required-to-pay debt instead of one you must pay after bankruptcy. It would certainly make sense to get legal advice to prevent such a less-than-best use of your money.