IRS Can File a Proof of Claim in Bankruptcy Court for the Full Amount of Tax Liability Even After an Accepted Offer in Compromise

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Guest blogger Ted Afield today discusses the intersection of offers in compromise with bankruptcy. Professor Afield (with co-author Nancy Ryan) will be creating a chapter on Offers in Compromise for the next edition of Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS. Christine

In our clinic at GSU, we do a lot of collections work and routinely submit offers in compromise, which the IRS often accepts, on behalf of our clients. While our hope is always that the accepted offer will be a critical step that allows the taxpayer to get back in compliance with his or her tax obligations and get out from under the weight of a detrimental financial liability, unfortunately the accepted offer is sometimes not enough to prevent a taxpayer from continuing to be overwhelmed by other financial obligations. In situations like these, the taxpayer may in fact file bankruptcy during the 5-year compliance window for the offer in compromise. If this happens, the IRS potentially has a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding because the offer in compromise may have already been defaulted or may be defaulted in the future if the taxpayer fails to file tax returns and timely pay taxes. Accordingly, the IRS will file a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding, which raises the question of should this proof of claim be for the full amount of the tax liability or for the compromised amount of the tax liability.

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This was the question recently taken up in a memorandum opinion by the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, in In Re: Curtis Cole, No: 18-35182 (May 29, 2019). In this case, Mr. Cole and the IRS had entered into a compromise of tax liabilities for 2003-2014 totaling over $100,000 for the much more manageable sum of $1,000. During the five-year monitoring period, Mr. Cole started off well and timely filed and paid his 2016 income tax. For 2017, however, Mr. Cole recognized that he would not be able to timely file a return, and he accordingly requested and was granted an extension. Mr. Cole did then file his 2017 return and pay his 2017 tax bill on October 15, 2018.

PT readers who do a lot of OIC work will immediately recognize the potential problem that Mr. Cole created for his offer because an extension of time to file is not an extension of the time to pay taxes, raising the possibility that the IRS would default Mr. Cole’s offer for failing to pay his 2017 taxes in a timely manner. Compounding the problem was that Mr. Cole had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy one month earlier, on September 15, 2018. As a result, the IRS filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the full amount of the original tax liability that was compromised under exactly that theory (i.e., that Mr. Cole’s late payment of 2017 taxes caused his offer to default and thus caused the amount of the IRS’s claim to be the full amount of the tax liability).

Mr. Cole was not happy with this development and attempted to raise a couple of equitable arguments that did not have much of a leg to stand on. Mr. Cole’s first hope was that he would be simply forgiven his confusion over whether a filing extension also constituted a payment extension. This did not have much resonance in light of the fact that it is well established that filing extensions are not in fact payment extensions. Mr. Cole also attempted to argue that he effectively had rights under the Internal Revenue Manual by asserting that the IRS violated its own procedures when it did not offer him any opportunity to cure his late payment before declaring the offer to be in default. See I.R.M. 5.19.7.2.20, which states that in the event of a breach of the offer’s terms, the IRS should send the taxpayer a notice letter and provide an opportunity to cure before defaulting the offer. Again, this argument could not carry much weight in light of the well-established principle that the IRM does not give taxpayers any rights, and thus the IRS was not obligated to provide an opportunity to cure the default. Ghandour v. United States, 37 Fed. Cl. 121, 126 n.14 (1997).

Mr. Cole’s strongest argument was based on his reliance on a bankruptcy court opinion from the Eastern District of North Carolina that had ruled on a similar issue and had concluded that the proof of claim should be for the compromised amount rather than the full amount of the tax liability. In re Mead, No. 12-01222-8-JRL, 2013 WL 64758 (Bankr. E.D.N.C. Jan. 4, 2013). The Mead court found that the contractual language in Form 656 stating that the IRS may file a “tax claim” for the full amount of the tax liability if a taxpayer files for bankruptcy before the offer’s terms expire is ambiguous in regards to whether the “tax claim” refers to the full liability or the compromise amount. Accordingly, the Mead court held that the IRS violated the nondiscrimination rule of 11 U.S.C. § 525(a), on the grounds that it appeared that the IRS was trying to collect the full amount of the tax liability, rather than the compromised amount, solely because the taxpayer was in bankruptcy.

The Cole court, however, was not persuaded by its sister court in North Carolina and held that Mead was both distinguishable and simply incorrect.  Mead was distinguishable because, unlike in Cole, there was not an issue of whether the offer had been defaulted. However, even without that distinguishing characteristic, the Cole court noted that the outcome would be the same. In other words, regardless of whether the offer was in default, if the terms of the offer had not yet expired, the IRS would still need to file a proof of claim for the full amount of the tax liability in order to preserve its rights in case the taxpayer did subsequently default the offer. This is why the terms of the offer explicitly state in Section 7: “If I file for bankruptcy before the terms and conditions of the offer are met, I agree that the IRS may file a claim for the full amount of the tax liability, accrued penalties and interest, and that any claim the IRS files in the bankruptcy proceeding will be a tax claim.” I do not agree with the Mead court’s assertion that this language is ambiguous.

It’s not that the issue of whether the offer has been defaulted is irrelevant. Rather, that issue is simply premature at the moment when the IRS files its proof of claim. Even if the offer has unequivocally not yet been defaulted, the IRS must file a proof of claim for the full amount of the liability to protect its right to recover the full amount, should a default occur. So when can Mr. Cole attempt to make his likely to be very uphill arguments that he has not defaulted the offer? As the court notes, he does this when he submits his Chapter 13 plan, in which he will propose how to treat the IRS’s claim. If he believes he has not defaulted his offer, he can propose that the IRS only receive what it is owed if the offer is still in force. The IRS can then object if it believes that the offer is in default, and the issue can then be decided.

In comparing Cole and Mead, I think the Cole court likely has the better argument. The contractual language in Form 656 pretty unambiguously gives the IRS the right to file a claim for the full amount of the tax liability in a bankruptcy proceeding during the five-year monitoring period. That does not mean that the IRS will recover the full amount if the offer is not in default, but taxpayers should certainly expect such a claim to be filed and that they will have to litigate whether the offer is defaulted when they propose their bankruptcy plan.

Comments

  1. Frank Donahue says

    Interesting case issues! Wish I had additional facts in this case so that I could understand more of the reasons for filing the bankruptcy, other creditor and amounts, as well as whether the IRS assessments were the result of SFR’s or not.
    Being aware of the general Chapter 7 discharge rules, I have to wonder if once the IRS tax claim is filed on the full amount, (as the terms of the F656 clearly indicate is appropriate), whether the means test would no longer applicable and a conversion to a 7 would resolve these issues once and for all. If there are SFR assessments, of course this is not applicable.
    Unfortunately, the timing of his bankruptcy filing with respect to his OIC issues doomed his ability to navigate the Chapter 13 process successfully.

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