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How Bankruptcy Can Stop A Tax Garnishment

July 11, 2011

The Internal Revenue Service has enormous power to garnish a tax debtor’s wages. The IRS does not require a court order to garnish assets or wages, called an administrative levy, and can levy upon wages, bank accounts, social security payments, accounts receivables, insurance proceeds, real property, and, in some cases, a personal residence. The IRS has only a few simple requirements to meet before garnishing wages:

  • The IRS must assess a tax debt and send a Demand for Payment;
  • The tax debtor must neglect or refuse to pay the tax; and
  • The IRS must send a Notice of Intent to Levy and Notice of Your Right to a Hearing at least 30 days before the garnishment.


Bankruptcy can stop an IRS tax levy. Under the automatic stay provisions of the federal Bankruptcy Code, once a bankruptcy case is filed, the IRS must stop garnishing the tax debtor’s wages. The relief is immediate, whether or not the IRS knows about the bankruptcy filing. If wages are garnished after the bankruptcy case is filed, they must be returned immediately. This legal injunction continues until the bankruptcy discharge is entered, the case is dismissed, or the stay is lifted by the bankruptcy court.


Some tax debts can be discharged in bankruptcy. In general, an income tax debt may be discharged if the tax is more than three years old. Additionally, if the income tax debt is discharged, any tax penalty is also discharged. If the underlying tax debt is not discharged, in some cases the tax penalty may be discharged.


Even when a tax debt cannot be discharged, a tax debtor may find relief through the bankruptcy process. Since the IRS cannot garnish wages during the bankruptcy case, a tax debtor may delay a tax levy for up to five years by filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. During that time some or all of the tax debt can be repaid and no new tax penalties will accrue.


In some cases the debtor may consider filing bankruptcy and then making the IRS an Offer in Compromise for any non-dischargeable tax debt. The IRS will not consider an Offer in Compromise during a bankruptcy case. After the bankruptcy has discharged, the IRS will consider an Offer in Compromise, and, in many cases, the recent bankruptcy filing will serve as powerful evidence of the inability of the IRS to collect on the tax debt.


The federal Bankruptcy Code can protect you from IRS garnishment and can help you resolve your tax debt. Bankruptcy can provide you with time to repay your obligation, without the threat of IRS seizure or garnishment; or, in some circumstances, can permanently discharge your tax debt. Your bankruptcy attorney can explain your legal rights and the available opportunities to free yourself from your income tax burden.

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