One of the most important features of any bankruptcy filing is the automatic bankruptcy stay. This is the very powerful federal law that prevents any creditor from taking any action to collect a debt once any bankruptcy case is filed. It goes into effect immediately upon the filing of any bankruptcy case.
When it comes to tax debt, the automatic stay requires tax authorities to stop collection activity and release any tax levies.
The Co-Debtor Bankruptcy Stay
When a consumer files for Chapter 13 bankruptcy relief, the stay also protects any other individuals who are also obligated on the debt, even if they did not seek bankruptcy relief. This is set forth in Bankruptcy Code section 1301.
Thus, if a husband files for Chapter 13 protection and the wife does not, and the husband listed a credit card debt that they both signed for, then the bankruptcy stay protects both of them from collection efforts — even though the wife did not file.
The co-debtor stay only exists in Chapter 13 cases — not in Chapter 7 cases.
Co-Debtor Stay Only Applies to “Consumer Debts”
However, this protection only applies to “consumer debts.” Fortunately, the definition of consumer debts include almost all debts that the typical consumer would schedule in their bankruptcy petition — credit card obligations, car loans, mortgages, and medical debts.
The Bankruptcy Code does not define consumer debts to include tax debts. A consumer debt is a debt “incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.” Most bankruptcy court decisions have held that tax debts are not consumer debts.
Thus, the co-debtor stay does not protect a non-filing spouse from efforts of the IRS or New York State Department of Taxation to collect the tax debt. Of course, the bankruptcy stay does protect the party who files for bankruptcy relief; it just does not protect anyone else from collections on joint tax debt.
Since taxes are not considered consumer debt and there is no co-debtor stay for tax debt, serious thought should be given to including both spouses in a Chapter 13 filing when the joint tax debt is substantial.