Are Excise Taxes Dischargeable in Bankruptcy? 

Excise taxes assessed against an individual are dischargeable in a Chapter 7 case if the taxpayer waits three years to file bankruptcy.  The waiting period begins on the date of the transaction that incurs the excise tax if the taxpayer is not required to file a tax return reporting the excise tax.  However, the waiting period begins on the date of the tax return “due date” if the taxpayer is required to file a tax return reporting the excise tax transaction.

The excise tax is deemed a “priority” tax within the first three years of the waiting period pursuant to  11 U.S.C. §507(a)(8)(E) and rendered nondischargeable pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(1)(A).  But the excise tax transforms into a “general unsecured” tax after the three year waiting and becomes dischargeable period pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§727(a) and 1328(a).

So, the individual taxpayer who waits the three years can obtain a Chapter 7 discharge of the excise tax without paying any money to the taxing authority pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §727(a).  However, filing one day too early would cause the excise tax to be a non-dischargeable priority debt pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(1)(A) incorporating 11 U.S.C. §507(a)(8)(E).

Similarly, the individual taxpayer who waits the three years can obtain a Chapter 13 discharge of the excise tax debt pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1328(a) by paying only the percentage of the general unsecured debt required by the “liquidation analysis” of 11 U.S.C. §1325(a)(4).

Excise taxes assessed against a corporation are never dischargeable by filing Chapter 7 since corporations cannot receive a Chapter 7 discharge.  Similarly, corporations cannot receive a Chapter 13 discharge because they are not eligible to file Chapter 13.  However, a corporation could file a Chapter 11 case and pay less than the full amount of the excise tax if the corporation waits longer than the three year waiting period.

The dischargeability of an excise tax by an individual was addressed in In re Carpenter, 519 B.R. 811 (Bankr. D.MT 2014).  There, a corporation failed to pay required unemployment insurance taxes. The state taxing authority then assessed the tax against the corporate president as a “responsible party” because the president failed to cause the unemployment taxes to be paid.

The Carpenter court identified the issue as whether a corporate president’s personal liability for the corporate excise tax retains the status of “excise tax” when applied to the president individually.  The Court noted that all parties stipulated that the corporation’s obligation to pay the unemployment insurance tax was an “excise” tax. However, the president argued his tax obligation under the “responsible party” rule does not constitute an excise “tax” and is therefore not a priority debt.  Id. at 813.

Before ruling the court quoted Collier on Bankruptcy as stating the “first step in determining whether a claim is entitled to priority is determining whether the claim asserted by a governmental entity is a tax or is another type of obligation.”  4 Collier on Bankruptcy Sec 507.11[6].  The court determined that the obligation owed by the president as a “responsible party” was a tax.  Then, the court rejected the president’s argument and found that the president’s obligation to pay as a responsible party was an obligation to pay an “excise” tax and thus was a priority debt.  The logic of the opinion is somewhat confusing and could have been challenged on appeal.

PRACTICE POINTERS: A tax professional should analyze whether the obligation imposed by the government is a “tax” or merely a debt.  Any debt would be dischargeable in an individual Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  Any excise “tax” would be nondischargeable within the three year waiting period, but would be transformed into a dischargeable debt after the three year waiting period.

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