I’m often asked how a corporation can eliminate its tax debts. Typically, the corporation has withheld taxes from its employees’ paychecks but has not tendered these “trust fund taxes” to the IRS or state taxing authority. These withheld funds are referred to as “trust fund taxes” because the employer withheld the money “in trust” for the benefit of the IRS or other taxing authority.
An employer who is struggling financially uses the trust fund taxes as a source of hard currency, much like it would if granted a bank loan. An employer hopes the use of the trust fund taxes would defuse a business crisis or at least keep the business afloat until brighter days (entrepreneurs always see a brighter tomorrow). The problem is the IRS is not a lender and did not voluntarily give the employer the money —and certainly has not granted the employer authorization to use the trust fund taxes.
The IRS is typically aggressive in collecting the trust fund taxes. The IRS can intercept tax refunds, lien, levy, seize, and exercise other collection tactics. Seizure of the corporation’s asset could terminate the business. For example, what would a restaurant owner do if the president arrived at the restaurant one morning to find the IRS had seized all the tables, chairs, refrigerators, freezers, etc.? Panic of course!
So what is the corporation to do? Call its lawyer of course! But there is only so much a lawyer can do in such an emergency.
The corporation is generally not in a position to repay the IRS the full amount of the trust fund taxes in a quick lump-sum payment so that the assets are returned. Lawyers can contact the IRS and try to negotiate an installment agreement or an offer-in-compromise— but that takes time and the IRS would be in no hurry to relieve the taxpayer’s pressure by returning the assets. An emergency bank loan would be nice, but that is not realistic because of the pending tax obligation and the fact that the restaurant is not operating since the IRS seized the tables, chairs, refrigerators, freezers, etc.
So bankruptcy becomes the obvious solution. Chapter 13 is not available because the tax debt is owed by the corporation and Chapter 13 is available only to individuals. Chapter 11 is a great option. Filing the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case would grant the corporation with the “automatic stay” protections of the US Bankruptcy Code. The attorney would contact the IRS to negotiate a return of the assets for the company’s promise to pay adequate protections payments to the IRS going forward. If negotiations are unsuccessful, then the court should rush to the courthouse to file an adversary proceeding to force the IRS to return the assets… again, the company would have to provide the IRS adequate protection. But at least the company could return to regular business operations.
Some clients ask if the taxes could be discharged by filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy without the need to pay any adequate protection payment to the IRS. The answer is NO. That strategy was tried by a convenience store operating in Senatobia, Mississippi in the case of In re Sarfani, Inc., 527 B.R. 241 (Bankr. N.D.MS 2015). In Sarfani, the company attempted to discharge unpaid sales taxes collected from customers as “trust fund” taxes. The court rejected the company’s attempt to discharge the taxes because Sarfani, Inc. was a corporation and Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharges are only available to individuals (human) and not corporation, partnerships, LLCs, LLPs, trusts, etc. 11 U.S.C. §727(a)(1). So, Chapter 11 would be the best bet.
PRACTICE POINTERS: The best tax planning is advanced tax planning. Bankruptcy lawyers are frequently contacted in emergencies after the IRS collectors have struck and struck hard—shuttering a business. The IRS can be agreeable if the company negotiates before the issue comes to a boil. But once the IRS collectors have taken action a company would typically need court intervention and the bankruptcy protections to survive. How long can a company survive that is shuttered? NOT LONG! Customers find competitors, suppliers and vendors get frightened, and employees quit and find other jobs. Immediate Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would be warranted.
For follow-up questions, contact attorney Robert V. Schaller by clicking here.