The conditions you have to meet to write off an income tax debt actually make sense. And understanding those conditions is a lot easier if you understand the sense behind them.
In my last blog I introduced the four conditions for discharging taxes in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” and said I’d explain them in this blog today.
This is made easier by the fact that there is a single principle behind all four of these conditions: bankruptcy law believes that taxpayers who pretty much follow the tax laws should be able to write off their tax debts just like the rest of their other debts, after first giving the IRS (or other tax authority) a sensible amount of time to collect the taxes.
How long is this sensible amount of time? How much of an opportunity do the tax authorities have to collect before you can discharge the tax debt? Each of the four conditions measures this amount of time differently, based on 1) when the tax return for the particular income tax was due, 2) when the tax return was actually filed, 3) when the tax was “assessed,” and 4) whether the tax return that was filed was honest and therefore reflected the right amount of tax debt when it was filed. You must meet all four of these conditions, all four of these measures of time.
Taking them one at a time:
1) Three years since tax return due: Every income tax debt has a fixed point in time when its return had to be filed. That date is extended by a certain number of months if you asked for an extension, but it’s still a fixed point in time, one that can be easily ascertained. So this first condition gives the tax authorities three years to collect, three years from a fixed point not affected by your actions (the timing of filing the return) or their actions (audits, legal disputes).
2) Two years since tax return actually filed: In contrast, this is a time period triggered by your own action. Notice above when I stated the overall principle at work here, I said you must “pretty much” follow the tax law. Thus you can file a tax return late and still be able to discharge the debt if at least two years has passed since you filed the return.
3) 240 days since assessment: Assessment is the tax authority’s formal determination of your tax liability, usually by its review and acceptance of your tax return. Normally an income tax is assessed within a few weeks that it is received, so the 240 days since assessment usually passes way before the above three-year or two-year time periods. But the law has to account for the less common situations when assessment is delayed. So, when a tax is subject to a lengthy audit or litigation, or an “offer-in-compromise” (a taxpayer’s formal offer to settle), and the three-year and two-year periods have passed, the tax authority still has 240 days after assessment to chase that tax debt.
4) Fraudulent tax returns and tax evasion: This last condition essentially says that none of the above time periods are triggered at all if you are intentionally dishonest on your tax return or try to avoid paying the tax in some other way. If you are cheating on your taxes then the tax authority has no opportunity to collect the debt, so you cannot discharge the debt, regardless how old the tax is.
If your tax debt can jump through these four hoops, you should be able to discharge that tax in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
But what if you owe taxes which do not meet these four conditions? What if some of your taxes do but others do not? Or what if the IRS has recorded a tax lien? Or if a lot of the taxes came from operating a business, or are not income taxes but some other kind? I’ll tell you about these situations in some upcoming blogs.