The Internal Revenue Code and the Bankruptcy Code are each complex laws, but when they intersect things can get quite confusing, and seemingly inconsequential facts can have serious legal consequences. In a recent unpublished opinion, In re Kevin Wayne and Susan Martin, EC-14-1180-KuKiTa (9th Cir. BAP 2015), the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) provided some guidance as to the effect the non-filing of a tax return or the filing of a tax return post-assessment can have on one’s eligibility for discharge through bankruptcy. While the court did not provide a bright-line rule, it did provide an explanation as to the applicable standards regarding what constitutes a “return” for purposes of a bankruptcy discharge. Taxpayers and their bankruptcy and tax attorneys can consider and apply the announced standard to gain a better insight into the impact their non-filing may have on contemplated bankruptcy proceedings. Of course the story may not be over, and the IRS may still appeal the BAP ruling.
Providing further clarity and a rejection of the harsh consequences imposed by a literalist approach and the IRS-advocated positions, the court also addressed a number of other arguments regarding the proper definition of a “return” and the analytical framework when determining a taxpayer’s eligibility for a bankruptcy discharge. In doing so the BAP rejected an approach that had gained favor in other courts. In doing so the BAP refused to follow other courts which had interpreted tax and bankruptcy law in a way which would make a tax debt nondischargeable whenever a tax return is filed even one day late. It also rejected the IRS position that once the IRS makes an assessment in the absence of a filed tax return that tax debt is non-dischargeable even though the taxpayer subsequently files a tax return.
The Taxpayers Failed to File Their Tax Returns for Multiple Tax Years