Non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt

April 9, 2014

For most bankruptcy debtors, dealing with an income tax debt in Chapter 13 comes down to whether the debt will be paid ahead of other creditors (and in full under the plan confirmation requirements of Section 1322(a)), or paid along with other unsecured creditors with the remaining tax debt discharged at the end of the case. In bankruptcy jargon, the debtor’s income tax debt is either a priority, non-dischargeable claim; or it is a non-priority, dischargeable claim.

However, there is a special circle of inferno reserved for a Chapter 13 debtor with a tax debt that is not classified as a priority claim, and therefore cannot be paid ahead of general unsecured creditors, but is also non-dischargeable. This special ring of hell bears the inscription “non-priority, non-dischargeable claim” at its gate (which is Latin for “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”).

A debtor with a non-priority, non-dischargeable income tax claim cannot use Chapter 13 to pay the tax debt in full during the plan without also repaying all other unsecured creditors 100%. It also means that any portion of the tax obligation not paid during the bankruptcy case will survive, and any tax lien on the debtor’s property will continue after bankruptcy. [Unpaid non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debts used to be discharged upon completion of a Chapter 13 payment plan, but the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 repealed this portion of the Chapter 13 “superdischarge.”]

Deciphering whether a tax debt is a priority, non-dischargeable claim; a non-priority, dischargeable claim; or a non-priority, non-dischargeable claim is best discovered using a Venn Diagram. But short of drawing pictures, let’s look at the Bankruptcy Code for what makes a tax debt non-dischargeable, and then the conditions that make the debt a priority debt. At the end we can see how a non-priority, non-dischargeable claim might occur.

Non-Dischargeable Tax
Section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code states that a discharge under Chapter 7, 11, 12, or 13 does not discharge a debtor from any individual income tax debt

  1. That is a secured tax debt (11 USC § 507(a)(3))
  2. That is a pre-petition tax debt that was
    1. last due, including extensions, within three years of the bankruptcy filing (11 USC § 507(a)(8)(A)(i); or
    2. assessed within 240 days of the bankruptcy filing (11 USC § 507(a)(8)(A)(ii))
  3. When a return was not filed (11 USC § 523(a)(1)(B)(1))
  4. When the return was filed within two years of the bankruptcy filing (11 USC § 523(a)(1)(B)(2))
  5. When a return is fraudulent or the debtor attempts to willfully “evade or defeat such tax.” (11 USC § 523(a)(1)(C))

Priority Tax
Special priority status is given to certain income tax debts, and distribution of assets in Chapter 7 or regular payments under Chapter 13 pay these tax debts before FDIC claims, DUI/DWI personal injury claims, and general unsecured claims. Section 507(a)(8) sets out the criteria for a priority income tax claim:

  1. The pre-petition tax debt is
    1. last due, including extensions, within three years of the bankruptcy filing (11 USC § 507(a)(8)(A)(i); or
    2. assessed within 240 days of the bankruptcy filing (11 USC § 507(a)(8)(A)(ii))

Non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt
The most common way a Chapter 13 debtor can fall through the cracks of the Bankruptcy Code and get stuck with a non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt is by filing a late tax return. In fact, some bankruptcy courts dispute that a late filed return is eligible for discharge because a “return” is defined by many state laws as being timely filed. This is an important distinction that is currently in litigation. See McCoy v. Miss. State Tax Comm., 666 F.3 924 (5th Cir., 2012)(a late-filed tax return is, by definition, not a return and hence the taxes can never be discharged); but see Gonzalez v. Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue, BAP No. MW 13-026 (B.A.P. 1st Cir. March 6, 2014)(Massachusetts state tax liabilities of the debtor were dischargeable even though his tax returns were filed late after applying Massachusetts law defining a “return”).

Most bankruptcy courts will not allow a Chapter 13 debtor to pay a non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt ahead of other general unsecured creditors by establishing a “special class” for the debt. While 11 U.S.C. Section 1322(b)(1) permits a plan to designate a class of unsecured claims, it may not “discriminate unfairly.” Nondischargeability, by itself, does not justify special classification. See Copeland v. Fink (In re Copeland), 2014 BL 27501 (8th Cir., No. 12-4018, 1/31/14).

A non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt places the debtor in a difficult position. Since the debt is not dischargeable, the debtor may elect to eliminate other burdensome unsecured debts through Chapter 7 and deal with the tax debt outside of bankruptcy. The debtor may also pay a portion of the tax debt during Chapter 13 at the same rate as other unsecured, non-priority creditors, while enjoying the protection of the automatic stay. Finally, the debtor may elect to file “Chapter 20,” that is, file a Chapter 7 to discharge unsecured debts, then file a Chapter 13 case immediately after. The debtor would then be able to pay 100% of the non-priority, non-dischargeable tax debt during Chapter 13 without also paying other general unsecured creditors (which were discharged in the prior Chapter 7 case).

For further questions or for a free consultation, contact the experienced attorneys at Fears | Nachawati Law Firm. Call us at 1.866.705.7584 or send an email to fears@fnlawfirm.com.

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