By Ryan C. Wood
The issue in these cases is the effect of the Internal Revenue Service or other taxing authorities filing a Substitute Filed Return (“SFR”) and then the taxpayer voluntarily files their own tax return after that. Does the subsequent honest, accurate and voluntary filed tax return by the tax payer satisfy the definition of a “return” under the Bankruptcy Code and Section 523(a)(1)(B)(i)? A SFR is filed by a taxing authority (Internal Revenue Service or Franchise Tax Board) when a taxpayer fails to timely file their tax return on their own. A SFR is created and filed by the taxing authority. If a taxpayer has a SFR for a tax year and owes taxes for that year, and then files for bankruptcy protection the taxes owed for the SFR year, if normally dischargeable, are exempt from discharge (not discharged) given any debt for a tax with respect to which a return was not filed is nondischargeable pursuant to § 523(a)(1)(B)(i). But this is the bankruptcy world and not the real world. The Bankruptcy Code changes creditors rights to try and treat all parties fairly when the debtor has limited resources or no resources to pay their debts as the come due or at all.
Like many laws Congress passes certain terms that are extremely important are not defined within the law. I wish this was not so common and the undefined terms regularly are extremely important to interpreting the law. The Bankruptcy Code is no different. A “return” was not defined sufficiently and still is not even though Congress in the 2005 BAPCPA reforms amended Section 523(a) to include [For purposes of this subsection, the term “return” means a return that satisfies the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law (including applicable filing requirements)]. Such term includes a return prepared pursuant to section 6020(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, or similar State or local law, or a written stipulation to a judgment or a final order entered by a nonbankruptcy tribunal, but does not include a return made pursuant to section 6020(b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, or a similar State or local law.] So the argument is a return filed after the SFR is a tax return that satisfies the requirements of applicable nonbankrutpcy law and the taxes for that year should therefore be dischargable.
As background, and you probably know this, any time a return is filed a form is used like 1040EZ or 1040a. So after a SFR is filed by a taxing authority the person that did not file their return uses the pre-printed form provide by the taxing authority. So for bankruptcy purposes and after the 2005 BAPCPA amended Section 523(a) to include for purposes of this subsection, the term “return” means a return that satisfies the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law the use of a preprinted form provided by the taxing authority meets this requirement. It apparently does not.
In the Martin Smith v. United States Internal Revenue Service case Mr. Smith and his Bankruptcy Attorneys attacked the fourth prong of the Hatton test and tried to argue Mr. Smith’s voluntary filed tax return filed after the SFR is a “return,” therefore the underlying taxes owed are dischargeable and not governed by § 523(a)(1)(B)(i). While the original bankruptcy court agreed, unfortunately the District Court and now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
In Hatton in 2000, pre-2005 BACPA, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals developed a four prong analysis as to what a “return” is pursuant to § 523(a)(1)(B)(i) and the Bankruptcy Code. See In re Hatton, 220 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2000) The test for a “return” under Hatton is: (1) it must purport to be a return; (2) it must be executed under penalty of perjury; (3) it must contain sufficient data to allow calculation of tax; and (4) it must represent an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that a number of sister circuits have agreed with the Hatton case. See In re Ciotti, 638 F.3d 276,280 (4th Cir. 2011); In re Justice, 817 F.3d 738, 740–41 (11th Cir.2016) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also noted that the Tax Court has not wavered. See Estate of Sanders v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 144 T.C. 63 (2015) Wait, Congress changed Section 523 and added: for purposes of this subsection, the term “return” means a return that satisfies the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law (including applicable filing requirements). So is this non-hanging parentheses language why there was no analysis of the Section 523 language change in 2005? Was Mr. Smith’s late filed return not in compliance with applicable filing requirements?
From my perspective a SFR does not meet the Hatton test. The taxing authority more or less makes up the numbers based upon what they have and not real world numbers. So while requirements 1-3 are met in the Hatton test, again we are left with prong 4. Does a SFR represent an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law? Subjectively yes. The Internal Revenue Service takes 1099’s or other documents provided by employers and does its best to put together a return on behalf of the tax payer who does not timely file their return. At the same time the tax payer subjectively believes when they do file their return after a SFR is filed they also make an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law. It would seem both parties are making a an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law. The courts have analyzed this issue objectively though.
Mr. Martin’s Bankruptcy Attorneys argued that the Smith facts were different then the Hatton facts and therefore distinguishable and I have to agree. I have not read all of the pleadings, but Mr. Martin filed his 2001 tax return seven years after it was due. Mr. Smith reported a higher income than the IRS used in their SFR which increased his tax liability. One issue that is not up for argument is whether the increased tax liability above the amount due on the SFR is dischargeable. The increased tax liability evidenced by Mr. Smith’s actual late filed return is dischargeable. So the late filed return is a partially recognized “return” under the Bankruptcy Code then? Just not the entire return? In Smith, Mr. Smith unfortunately falls prey to the holding in Hatton that belated acceptance of responsibility was not an honest and reasonable attempt to comply with the tax code. I have to disagree with this analysis in Smith. Not only did Mr. Smith file a return, but he honestly listed his income and deductions so that his tax liability increased and subjectively made an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law. So what if it was seven years after the actual taxes were due. Where is there any temporal requirement in the Hatton test or the new language in Section 523(a) resulting from the 2005 BAPCPA? The Hatton test is not even the law, but another appellate case and a created test prior to the statutory change in Section 523(a) to help define the term “return.” Statutory interpretation/construction requires a court take the plain meaning of the words used within their context. The court must focus on the language of the statute. Must give each word its ordinary meaning unless the statute or the context requires otherwise, and must interpret not only the individual words, but also the provision as a whole along with related provisions. See Lamie v. U.S. Tr., 540 U.S. 526, 534 (2004); Friedman v. P+P, LLC (In re Friedman), 466 B.R. 471, 479 (9th Cir. BAP 2012); Foxgord v. Hischemoeller, 820 F.2d 1030, 1032 (9th Cir. 1987) The court must interpret not only the individual words, but also the provision as a whole along with related provisions. United Sav. Ass’n of Tex. v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Assocs., Ltd., 484 U.S. 365, 371 (1988) Where is the analysis of how Mr. Smith’s accurate, honest, reasonable, partially relied on and tax liability increasing return does not meet the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law (including applicable filing requirements)? The Hatton case was decided in 2000 and before the 2005 BACPA which became effective in 2005.
Unlike Mr. Smith, Hatton merely met with the IRS and capitulated into an installment agreement with the IRS without making any affirmative action to honestly and reasonably comply with the tax code. Mr. Smith clearly did honestly and reasonably not only make the effort, but did comply with the tax code and then filed a return that met the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law (including applicable filing requirements) by increasing his tax liability. Mr. Smith should have been rewarded for filing his tax return upon seeking bankruptcy protection under the Bankruptcy Code. An honest debtor deserves a discharge under the Bankruptcy Code. I believe this and believe the holding in the Smith case sends the wrong incentive and message to debtors and their attorneys.
So, somehow the Internal Revenue Service is allowed recognize the validity of a late filed return regarding the increased taxes owed while at the same time arguing the late filed return is not actually a “return” for purposes of §523(a)(1)(B)(i) as the late filed return does not meet the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law. I suppose the only reason to file a return after a SFR is to decrease the alleged tax liability in the SFR, but the return is still not a “return” for bankruptcy purposes. The Hatton case and now Smith decision more or less provide a penalty for not voluntarily filing a tax return within a certain amount of time. Well, then what is a reasonable time frame in which the fourth prong of the Hatton Test can be satisfied? One year? Two years or days after the SFR is filed? Some arbitrary time limit after the SFR is filed that if you are a day over you cannot discharge the taxes when filing bankruptcy? I still want to know how a return filed after a SFR does not satisfy the requirements of applicable nonbankruptcy law (including applicable filing requirements). I am going to have to dig deeper into these two cases……….
The Oral Arguments Before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
Wow, what a pressure cooker. After listening to the oral arguments before the three judge panel I still believe the decision here is wrong as the law and Bankruptcy Code are written. It is about interpretation though and past decisions. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just could not get over that the debtor filed the 1040 tax return so late after the IRS had given him so many chances to file his own return. The debtor in this case did not actually file his own return until after the IRS spent the time to file the Substitute Filed Return. I will assume the application of the Hatton test was the correct choice even with the addition to Section 523(a) of a definition of a “return” under the Bankruptcy Code. So we are stuck with the IRS and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals somehow telling us the tax return filed by a debtor after a Substitute Filed Return is a “return” as to the amount the debtor filed return increases the assessed taxes from what the Substitute File Return assessed, but that same “return” is not a “return” as to the previously assessed taxes owed from the Substitute Filed Return. The Smith case did not nothing to explain how a portion of a “return” can be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law and part of a “return” not be at the same time.
The Smith case really just ignores the issue of what the definition of what a “return” is under the Bankruptcy Code or what an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law (including applicable filing requirements). The Court just took the IRS position that since the IRS filed the SFR then a debtor in this case, Martin Smith, under the circumstances in his case could never subsequently file a return and have the portion of the taxes owed according to the SFR discharged in a bankruptcy case. Mr. Smith just waited far too long to file his “return” that by every measure was complete and accurate. In theory there can still be a set of facts in which a court can determine a return filed by the debtor after a SFR is in fact a “return” and discharge all of the taxes assessed for that year. This case was just not it. What is troubling is the Hatton case represented a debtor that made no good faith effort to file a “return” unlike in the Smith case. Mr. Hatton filed a late return in which he provided true and accurate information resulting in his tax obligation given his tax liability increased from the Substitute Filed Return the taxing authority created. That is by definition a honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law (including applicable filing requirements). What does “including applicable filing requirements” even mean? We still do not know. It would have been nice for the Smith case to have gone this direction and helped to define how to apply the actual words of the Section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.
So, the moral of the story really is to timely and honestly file your tax returns and not let a taxing authority file a return on your behalf. Do not ignore the letters a taxing authority sends in the mail to file your returns and this will never be a problem.