The IRS is just another creditor that you can get immediate protection from by filing bankruptcy. With some exceptions.
The “Automatic Stay”
The filing of a bankruptcy case—either Chapter 7 or 13—triggers one of the most powerful tools of bankruptcy—the “automatic stay.” That’s the aggressively protective law that goes into effect 1) automatically the instant your bankruptcy case is filed at court 2) to stay—which means stop—all collection activity against you and against any of your assets.
The Bankruptcy Code includes a list of what creditors cannot do because of the “automatic stay.” Here are some of them (focusing on those readily applicable to the IRS):
- start or continue a lawsuit or administrative proceeding to recover a debt you owe
- take possession or exercise control over property you own as of the time your bankruptcy is filed
- create or enforce a lien against such property
- collect by any means any debt that existed before the bankruptcy filing
Applied to the IRS
The IRS and similar state agencies are certainly not treated like your conventional creditors when it comes to the discharge (legal write-off) of your debts. But in most respects they ARE treated the same for purposes of the “automatic stay.”
The Bankruptcy Code says that the “automatic stay” “operates as a stay, applicable to all entities.” (11 U.S.C. Section 362 (a).) Is the IRS an “entity”? The Code explicitly defines that term to include “governmental unit.” (Section 101(15).) So the IRS and all tax collecting “governmental units” are governed by the “automatic stay.”
What If the IRS Still Tries to Collect
Just like any other creditor, the IRS can get slapped pretty hard if it violates the “automatic stay” by continuing to collect on a debt or taking any other of the forbidden actions. If you are
“injured by any willful violation of [the automatic] stay… [you] shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages” against the IRS. (Section 362(k).) Indeed on occasion the IRS HAS been slapped hard. It now tends to follow the law and respect the “automatic stay” quite faithfully.
Special Exceptions to the “Automatic Stay” for “Governmental Units”
The IRS and state tax agencies do have some specialized exceptions—things they can continue doing in spite of your bankruptcy filing. (Section 362(b)(9).) But these are sensible exceptions that apply more to the determination of amount of a tax debt than to its actual collection. These tax agencies can demand that you file your tax returns, can make an assessment of the tax and tell you how much you owe, and can do an audit to figure out the amount you owe. They cannot create a tax lien or take any other collection action.