Monday, October 17, 2011

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and Taxes

It was one of the last individual tax returns I saw this year going into October 15, so the topic is on my mind.
The topic is bankruptcy. It seems that I have seen or discussed bankruptcy more in the last three years than in the balance of my career years combined. There are peculiar tax rules to bankruptcy. Today I want to talk about chapter 7, also known as liquidation, as that is the type of bankruptcy that I have been seeing the most.
Chapter 7 is the classic bankruptcy. Your assets and liabilities pass to the bankruptcy trustee. The trustee sells what he/she can and pays what is possible to the creditors. When done the judge discharges the bankruptcy and one is free of all debts. Depending on the state you may retain certain types of assets. The example I am familiar with is the primary residence in Florida. Some debts may follow you out of bankruptcy. An example is the loan on your car. You reaffirm the debt because you want, or need, to keep the car. If you want the car you have to keep the debt.
Upon filing a Chapter 7, your assets and liabilities past to the bankruptcy estate, which is normally represented by a trustee. It may be that some assets do not pass, but let’s not include that issue in our discussion. The estate also succeeds to one’s tax attributes. Think of attributes as tax benefits waiting to happen: a net operating loss or a general business tax credit, for example. When they finally kick-in, there is a benefit – meaning a reduction in tax – to you.
Why is this important? Because the estate is a separate taxpaying entity. When calculating its tax, the trustee can use your tax attributes to offset the estate’s tax. So, if you have an NOL, the trustee can use it to offset the estate’s taxable income. When you remember that the NOL can only be used once, this has meaning to you. If the trustee uses it, then you cannot.
There is another important tax consideration to bankruptcy. You may already know that debt discharged in bankruptcy is not taxable to you. Did you know, however, that you have to reduce your tax attributes to the extent that you have discharged debt? If you have $56,000 of debt discharged and have a $61,000 NOL carryforward, you have to reduce that NOL carryforward to $5,000 ($61,000 – 56,000).
What is the estate taxed on? Remember that one’s assets move to the estate upon filing Chapter 7. If the income can be traced to the asset, then the income is taxable to the estate as long as the asset is inside the estate. Examples include:
·         Dividends on stocks
·         Interest on bonds
·         Royalties on mineral rights or patents
·         Rental income on rental real estate
·         Capital gains or losses from selling stocks and bonds
What is not taxable to the estate? The classic example is your paycheck. It cannot be traced to an asset inside the estate, so it is not taxable to the estate. It is however taxed to you.
So the estate files a tax return for interest and dividends. You file a tax return for your wages. You now have two tax returns where there used to be just one.
And that is how the estate uses up your tax attributes. When the estate is discharged, it should tell you what is left on the tax attributes, because now you can use what is left. There may be nothing left.
This works well if the estate is large enough to have its own tax return. Frankly, what I have seen in recent years (at least the last 5 years) are small bankruptcy estates. These estates generally do not file a separate estate return, although technically they are supposed to. Rather all the estate numbers (think dividends and the sale of the stock that generated them) are combined with the taxpayer’s other non-bankruptcy numbers (think W-2) and reported on taxpayer’s individual income tax return. Now it becomes important for the CPA to remember the tax attribute rule, because there is no separate estate return to remind him/her.
This past weekend I met with a client who had $79,901 discharged in Chapter 7. There was no separate bankruptcy estate tax return. We did not make an election to end the client’s tax year upon the date of the Chapter 7 filing. She did have tax attributes to reduce. The client’s tax consequence went as follows:
                Debt discharged                                              79,901
                Net operating loss carryover                     ( 43,268)
                Capital loss carryover                                   ( 11,045)
                Note receivable                                              ( 25,588)

The client lost the NOL and capital loss carryovers to the debt discharge. The amount left over reduced the client’s basis in a note receivable from a partnership. Think about this for a moment. What happens when our client is repaid the note in the future? Our client would receive more money than the client has basis in the note. Is this a taxable event? You bet. Why did we select the note? Because the note is in a partnership that is unlikely to ever repay our client in full. We considered the risk of the “phantom income” to be slight.

The IRS does not intend for bankruptcy to be “free.” From a tax perspective, what the IRS wants is for the bankruptcy to be tax-neutral over a period of time. In the above example, our client was not taxed on the $79,901, but the IRS has immediately eliminated $54,313 of tax benefits. The IRS further hopes that our client is repaid the note in full, because that will trigger $25,588 of phantom income. At that point $54,313 + 25,588 equals $79,901, which was the discharged income the IRS did not tax. To the IRS this would constitute a “push,” as it was out only the time value of the tax but not the tax itself.

Is there an order how the tax attributes are to be used up? Of course. The order is as follows:

·         Net operating loss carryover
·         General business credit carryover
·         Minimum tax credit carryover
·         Capital loss carryover
·         Basis of property
·         Passive activity loss and credit carryovers
·         Foreign tax credit carryover

There are other types of bankruptcy than Chapter 7. There is Chapter 13, which is a reorganization of debt for an individual. Chapter 12 is for farmers and Chapter 11 is for businesses. Perhaps we will talk about them – on another day.

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