Tax REFUNDS in a Chapter 7

I’m talking about tax refunds, not returns.  There is a difference.  A tax return is the paper that you send to the taxing authority.  The tax refund is the actual money you get back from the taxing authority.  Tax refunds are property of the estate….well, not entirely….but mostly….well, that is the subject of this post: when are tax refunds property of the estate?

To answer the question, you must understand, exactly what tax refunds are.  Like I said, they are the $$$ that is returned to you by the taxing authority.  But its a little more complicated than that.  First off, while the amount of your refund, if any, is determined when completing your tax return, your right to that refund  actually vests at the end of the tax year for which your refund pertains.  So if for tax year 2011, you paid in more than your actual tax obligation, then your right to a refund vests on January 1, 2012 (even though the actual amount may not be determined until October, 2012, if you filed an extension).  Thus on January 1, 2012, your 2011 tax refund may be considered an account receivable, albeit for an unknown amount.  And since accounts receivables are considered property of the estate,  the 2011 tax refund may be considered property of the estate.

The extent of the bankruptcy estate’s interest in  a tax refund depends on the date you filed for bankruptcy relief.  As in the example above, if a debtor were to file for relief on January 1, 2012, his entire 2011 tax refund would be property of the estate.  The Bankruptcy Code requires that debtors file their tax returns as required by law and therefore the bankruptcy trustee will request turnover of the entire 2011 tax refund upon the debtor’s receipt.  So, if the debtor has yet to file his 2011 tax return before filing bankruptcy, 100% of the 2011 tax refund is property of the estate and will likely need to be turned over to the Trustee

The same is true if the debtor files bankruptcy after filing his tax returns but before receiving the tax refund.  Also, if he has received his tax refund and is still in possession of the refund, or any portion of it, at the time he files bankruptcy then he’ll be asked to turn over to the Trustee the portion of the refund debtor had in his possession at the time of the bankruptcy filing.  At this point, the debtor’s interest in the tax refund is likely an interest in cash, or, more likely, an interest in a bank account in which the funds are deposited.  Regardless of its disposition, if the debtor is in possession of the refund at the time of filing bankruptcy, the debtor must turn those funds over to the Trustee.

The scenario may be different if the debtor files bankruptcy after receiving his tax refund and spending the funds on reasonable and necessary goods (such as car repairs, bk atty fees, necessary food/clothing/maintenance items, housing repairs, etc.).  In this scenario, the 2011 tax refund was already received prior to the bankruptcy filing, thus it transformed from an account receivable to an asset – a diminishing asset.  If diminished prior to the filing of the bankruptcy, then, well, it is diminished and any residual is considered property of the bankruptcy estate (see previous paragraph); if fully diminished, however, then there is nothing for the bankruptcy estate.  (See below for comments regarding use of a tax refund prior to the filing of a bankruptcy.)

But what happens when a debtor files bankruptcy much later in the year….like October, 2012.  At that point it is very likely the debtor received his 2011 tax refund and spent it (assuming a tax return was filed in or before April).  However, it is also likely that the debtor will be filing another tax return in the next 6 months….so Bankruptcy Trustees, the sly devils they are, will seek the bankruptcy estate’s pro-rata share of the debtor’s 2012 tax refund, if there is one.  Basically, the Trustee calculates the bankruptcy estate’s percentage of the tax refund based upon the Petition date (the day the debtor filed bankruptcy).  So if the Debtor filed October 1, 2012, the Trustee will divide  275 (numbers of days lapsed prior to the Petition date + the Petition date) by 366 (total days in the year).  So in this instance the Trustee would get 275/366 (75.14%) of the debtor’s 2012 tax refund.

Sometimes tax refunds are the only asset a Trustee administers.  Thus, Trustee’s will hold cases open until they get a copy of the tax return – if it shows little to no refund, then they’ll likely file a no-asset report and allow the case to close.  However, if there is a sufficient refund, then the Trustee will likely elect to administer such funds and the  case will remain open until the Trustee is finished.

Notes Regarding Tax Refunds:

1.  The debtor cannot exempt his interest in his tax refund.  In fact the tax refund may be the only non-exempt asset a debtor has – which means that Trustee’s are keen on what happens to them.

2. A debtor’s liquidation of the tax refund will be scrutinized.  Thus, if you wish to spend your tax refund prior to filing bankruptcy, then understand that you will be asked how you spent such funds and why such an expense would be considered reasonable and necessary in your circumstances.  That means a debtor  should not spend his tax refund on a vacation, novelty or frivolous items, or other things not necessary for his welfare.  Some accepted expenses include groceries, car/house repairs or maintenance, bankruptcy attorney, catch up arrears on secured debt, medical expenses, and the like.  It is advised though that debtors consults with their attorney prior to the spending of tax refunds.

3. Due to the scrutiny that tax refunds get, which is rightly deserved, the better the debtor can show how those funds were used, the better it is FOR EVERYONE.  It is recommended that debtors deposit their tax refund into its own separate bank account; the account should start with a $0.00 balance, and should only reflect the deposit of the debtor’s tax refunds….nothing else.  Funds should be withdrawn from the account only by way of checks or POS transactions…that is it (i.e., no cash withdrawals or transfers to other accounts).  This way the bank, not the debtor, will generate a statement as to how those funds were used or disposed.  Also, the debtor should  not transfer funds from the “refund” account to some other “regular checking” account in order to use the funds; otherwise the Trustee will then need to review 2 checking account statements to determine how the funds were used.

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