It happens almost every week. Somebody comes into our office with a serious tax problem — caused by a shoddy tax preparer, either through incompetence, negligence or sometimes downright fraud.

It boggles my mind that there is no regulation of tax preparers. I thought I was the only one who had noticed this problem. But no.

The National Consumer Law Center, a consumer watch-dog group, has recently issued a very good report on this. Following is from the press release announcing the report:

(BOSTON) One of the most surprising aspects about paying taxes in the United States isn’t about marginal rates, deductions, or loopholes – it’s the lack of regulation for most tax preparers.

Each year, tens of millions of consumers rely upon paid tax preparers to help them file accurate and compliant tax returns, yet the majority of these preparers are not subject to any minimum educational, training,competency, or other standards.

A new report from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) documents how a lack of regulation has allowed incompetence and abuses by tax preparers to flourish.

“All 50 states regulate hairdressers, but only three regulate tax preparers,” stated Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and author of the report. “Yet an inaccurate tax return can cause a lot more harm than a bad haircut.”

Continue reading

A layperson is often at a disadvantage when defending against a debt collection suit filed by an attorney. The debtor as a defendant does not know the “rules of the game” and sometimes takes the advice or direction of court staff (who by the way should not be giving legal advice but often do.)

Talking to clients who have appeared to defend in small claim collection suits in this area (Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and DC), I am surprised that many will meekly follow court staff instructions to come back to court on another date — when the collector’s attorney fails to show up or is late! This failing is a perfect opportunity to have the case thrown out!

You have a right to ask the court to proceed on the case. Tell the clerk that you are present and ready for the case to be called. When the case is called, proceed to the podium and ask the court to have the case “dismissed with prejudice.” That very important qualifier — “with prejudice” — means that you are asking the court to dismiss forever.

A blog post here last month discussed the growing wave of lawsuits by lenders for the balance of mortgage loans left over from foreclosures (and in some cases short sales), known legally as lawsuits for the recovery of “deficiencies.”

As discussed, in most foreclosures the lender bids only a part of his loan to win the collateral (the house) at the auction. In most jurisdictions, including Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, the balance will still be owing and the lender has a right to sue the signer of the mortgage for that balance, and many are beginning to do just that.

So you had a foreclosure on your house a few years ago. How do you know if there is still a balance owing and whether you may be facing a lawsuit? The bad news is, unless the value of the house was more than the loan, you are probably owing something, since lenders will only bid a part of the loan, especially if the house is devalued, and that is the case for houses bought during the peak of the market, around 2007, before the crash.

It’s just another kick in the teeth. After losing homes in foreclosure a few years ago, borrowers may be getting another big surprise soon as mortgage lenders are now gearing up to file lawsuits against homeowners for the balance of the mortgage.

A Washington Post article this past weekend highlighted the rise in so-called mortgage “deficiency” court actions.

Many homeowners who were foreclosed upon don’t know it, but most still owe money to the mortgage lender.

It happened again this week. The client comes into the consultation smiling broadly. He just needs help with a loan modification, he argues. He doesn’t have any other debts. “Look,” he says, pointing at his credit report, “it’s been charged off!”

Sorry, that’s not what it means. A “charge off” is an accounting entry by the lender declaring that the debt is uncollectible, a determination that helps the lender deduct it as a loss against his taxes.

The “charged-off” account is still a live debt of the borrower until such time as the statute of limitations runs out and that can vary from three to seven years and depends also on the type of debt. In this area — Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — you will need to check the law in the jurisdiction in which you reside.

Despite the image and stigma associated with bankruptcy, financial reorganization of failing businesses (and nonprofit organizations) through Chapter 11 bankruptcy is actually helping the economy by giving companies a chance to find new financing, reject onerous contracts, renegotiate leases, and expedite the sale of assets.

Harvard Business School recently published an article reviewing comments made by Stuart C. Gilson, a Harvard business professor and advocate of Chapter 11 bankruptcies in his new book, “Creating Value Through Corporate Restructuring: Case Studies in Bankruptcies, Buyouts, and Breakups.” Gilson believes that the first step is getting the public to realize that Chapter 11 is not about “dying companies,” but about “reviving” them.

During the financial crisis of 2008, debt restructuring and Chapter 11 played a heroic role in reviving the US economy. Not only does it speed up a company’s reorganization process, but it focuses in on what is necessary to “rehabilitate” the company rather than focusing solely on paying back creditors and stakeholders. (US bankruptcy laws differ from other countries in that they strive to restore the companies facing bankruptcy in order to make them viable and competitive rather than simply liquidating them.)

Bankruptcy is designed as a way for an insolvent debtor, one who cannot pay his or her creditors, to get a fresh start. Depending on the type of bankruptcy involved–Chapter 7, Chapter 11, or Chapter 13 for example–among the main functions of a bankruptcy court are to liquidate assets, discharge certain debts, or confirm a payment plan for non-dischargeable debts.

It can also serve as a way to dispute taxes, as illustrated in a recent Virginia bankruptcy court decision . In Harris v. Commonwealth, the debtor and his wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

In Chapter 7, also known as a liquidation bankruptcy, a trustee takes control of the “nonexempt” assets of the debtor’s and reduces them to cash from which creditors will be paid. (Note that before the case is filed you and your attorney will know if there are any nonexempt assets, and can plan accordingly.) While certain unsecured debts are discharged under Chapter 7, certain types of debt, like child support and income taxes less than three years old, are not dischargeable.

A significant consideration in filing your bankruptcy case is “venue” — that’s legalese for the physical location of the court in which you file.

It’s a powerful feature of bankruptcy — especially for business bankruptcy cases under Chapter 11 – that you may be able to pick the court, and that, in turn, can have a bearing on the legal outcome.

A federal statute, 28 U.S.C. 1408(1), specifies where a bankruptcy case may be filed and applies to all types of bankruptcy, from Chapter 7 through Chapter 13. The statute provides options for filing your bankruptcy case.

I had to smile when I read the news that the banks were now lobbying to keep former Harvard bankruptcy professor and Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren from getting appointed to the Senate banking committee.

Lobbying is not cheap. It runs into the millions of dollars for a campaign. And, like most good businesspersons, I am sure the banks did some cost-benefit analysis in making this decision.

This action by the financial industry must mean they see a big threat to profits. And consequently, since bank profits and consumer losses are a zero-sum game, it also means her appointment to the committee could mean a big financial win for consumers. Granted, one person alone will not do it all, but the banks perceive she could have a significant effect on the outcome.

Baseball.jpg
By now, many have heard the news that well-known former baseball player Jose Canseco recently filed for bankruptcy, mainly to deal with back taxes. What many have not seen, however, is the screed he published on the website, Vice.Com, and titled: “Jose Can Say So – I’m Broke and It’s the Government’s Fault.”

Undoubtedly he intended it as a tirade against the government. But interestingly it also serves very well as a testimonial to the dangers of tax debt I have written about in the website of our DC-based tax and bankruptcy law firm. Some excerpts from his harangue and my comments:

” . . . [I]t’s my duty to warn you: It can happen to anyone.

Contact Information