Rights of Creditors to Reach Joint Federal Income Tax Refund Claim

In this era of failed real estate projects, defaulting loans and creditors pursuing guaranties, a frequent inquiry is about the rights of creditors to reach a joint federal income tax refund due the debtor and his or her spouse. This is a very critical issue since so many debtors generated large net operating losses in 2008 which they can now carry back to prior years. Because these debtors paid substantial taxes in those prior years a refund, often substantial, is due the debtor and his spouse. The law will differ depending upon the debtor’s state of residency but in Michigan once a joint federal income tax refund check is issued to husband and wife it will constitute an “evidence of indebtedness” and be protected from the creditors of just one spouse the same as entireties property. MCL557.151; Probert, 482 Mich. 858 (2008). But this is not the end of the story. What if the creditor garnishes the IRS prior to the IRS issuing the check–that is the garnishment is served after the return is filed and while it is being processed but prior to check issuance? In the case of Jahn v. Regan, 584 F. Supp. 399 (E.D.Mich. 1984), a tax overpayment that had not ripened into a refund check was not considered to fall within the ambit of MCL557.151 and therefore the debtor’s interest in the overpayment was reachable by his separate creditors. Strategies exist to protect against this possibility but practitioners need to be aware of the issues and plan accordingly.