Chapter 13 is a repayment bankruptcy. You pay your creditors whatever you can afford over three to five years (three years for lower income earners, five years for higher wage earners). You are required to commit your disposable income to the repayment plan during the repayment period. You are also required to pay as much to unsecured creditors as they would receive in a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy.
An expected income tax refund is property of the bankruptcy estate. Many debtors are able to protect all or a portion of their income tax refunds by applying legal exemptions to the expected refund. After applying all of your available exemptions, the remaining unprotected amount is often little or nothing.
If you cannot protect your tax refund with exemptions, you are required to pay the non-exempt amount in your monthly plan payments. This is because your unsecured creditors would get this money if you filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Even if you have a non-exempt tax refund, your bankruptcy attorney may be able to save your refund under certain circumstances. One trick to apply the non-exempt portion of your expected income tax refund to next year’s taxes. The IRS will keep your tax overpayment and use it for taxes you may owe in the future. The Tenth Circuit case of Weinman v. Graves, 609 F.3d 1153 (10th Cir. 2010) holds that the bankruptcy trustee cannot force the IRS to turnover a tax refund that is held to pay future taxes. The election to apply the refund to your future tax liability is irrevocable under section 6513(d) of the Internal Revenue Code. Consequently, your interest in the refund when you file bankruptcy is limited to what is left after the IRS applies the money to next year’s tax liability.
This trick is common in Chapter 7 cases, but can be used in Chapter 13 cases as well to avoid increasing your monthly plan payment. Working closely with your bankruptcy attorney and a skilled CPA will maximize the amount of money you get to keep. If you are expecting a large income tax refund, but need to file Chapter 13, speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney and discuss your options. Your attorney can explain how the federal laws can protect your assets and discharge your debts.