United States Court of Appeals
June 29, 2010
PUBLISH Elisabeth A. Shumaker
Clerk of Court
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
JAMES WINSLOW GRAVES,
d/b/a Custom Woods Construction,
LLC, and KATHRYN PATRICIA No. 08-1462
JEFFREY A. WEINMAN, Trustee,
JAMES WINSLOW GRAVES;
KATHRYN PATRICIA GRAVES,
APPEAL FROM THE TENTH CIRCUIT BANKRUPTCY APPELLATE
(BAP No. 08-038-CO)
Submitted on the briefs: *
After examining the briefs and appellate record, this panel has determined
unanimously that oral argument would not materially assist the determination of
this appeal. See Fed. R. App. P. 34(a)(2); 10th Cir. R. 34.1(G). The case is
therefore ordered submitted without oral argument.
Jeffrey A. Weinman, Appellant, pro se. Before BRISCOE, Chief Judge, HOLLOWAY, and EBEL, Circuit Judges. HOLLOWAY, Circuit Judge.
The issue in this case is narrow: is debtors? interest in a 2006 tax refund,
irrevocably applied pre-petition to 2007 taxes, subject to turnover under
11 U.S.C. Â§ 542(a)? The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) for this Circuit
answered in the negative. We hold that only the amount of any subsequent refund
of 2007 taxes attributable to pre-petition earnings is subject to turnover, and we
affirm with modification.
In July 2007, prior to becoming Chapter 7 debtors, James and Kathryn
Graves filed their 2006 tax return. Pursuant to that return, the Graveses were
entitled to a $3000.00 tax refund. Instead of choosing to receive a current refund
of that money from the IRS, the Graveses elected to leave those funds on deposit
with the United States and apply the overpayment to their future tax liability.
This election is irrevocable. Where an overpayment of tax is applied as a credit
on the next year's taxes, ?no claim for credit or refund of such overpayment shall
be allowed for the taxable year in which the overpayment arises.?
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26 U.S.C. Â§ 6513(d). Two months after filing their tax return, the Graveses filed
for bankruptcy protection.
Jeffrey A. Weinman, appellant and trustee of the bankruptcy estate
(?trustee?), filed a motion for turnover of debtors? 2006 tax refund under
11 U.S.C. Â§ 542(a). 11 U.S.C. Â§ 542(a) provides in relevant part that:
an entity, other than a custodian, in possession, custody,
or control, during the case, of property that the trustee
may use, sell, or lease under section 363 of this title, or
that the debtor may exempt under section 522 of this
title, shall deliver to the trustee, and account for, such
property or the value of such property, unless such
property is of inconsequential value or benefit to the
In his motion, the trustee argued that the refund amount was property of the
estate under 11 U.S.C. Â§ 541(a)(1), and that, since debtors were receiving the
benefit of the application of the refund, the funds should be treated as an account
receivable of the debtors, and debtors should therefore be required to turn over an
equivalent amount to the estate. The bankruptcy court denied the trustee?s
motion, and the BAP affirmed. Weinman v. Graves (In re Graves), 396 B.R. 70
(B.A.P. 10th Cir. 2008). The trustee filed a timely notice of appeal, triggering
our jurisdiction over the appeal under 28 U.S.C. Â§ 158(d)(1).
In agreeing with the bankruptcy court that debtors could not be ordered to
turn over that which they did not have, i.e., ?the amount they could have received
from the IRS in 2007, but did not,? In re Graves, 396 B.R. at 73, the BAP
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assumed, without deciding, that debtors? ?pre-payment constitutes estate property
as a contingent reversionary interest.? Id. at 75. The BAP further concluded,
however, that the Bankruptcy Code's turnover provision, 11 U.S.C. Â§ 542, does
not empower a trustee to demand turnover from a debtor under these
circumstances. Id. In doing so the BAP noted that, because of 26 U.S.C. Â§
6513(d), debtors ?had no current right to possession of the pre-paid taxes? at the
time they filed their petition or at the time the trustee filed the turnover action.
Id. Since the debtors? interest in the overpayment was limited at the time of the
petition, the trustee's right to possession was similarly limited. Id. The BAP
concluded that ?[a] contingent right to a refund in the event that the Debtors
overpaid their 2007 taxes is not something, in our opinion, that is subject to
?We review the BAP's decision de novo because [t]here are no factual
disputes and the issues on appeal pertain to the proper application of bankruptcy
statutes and interpretation of case law. . . . In this review, we independently
review the Bankruptcy Court's decision.? Zubrod v. Duncan (In re Duncan),
329 F.3d 1195
, 1198 (10th Cir. 2003) (quotation and citations omitted).
The bankruptcy estate is comprised of ?all legal or equitable interests of the
debtor in property as of the commencement of the case.? 11 U.S.C. Â§ 541(a)(1).
The statute is deliberately broad in scope. United States v. Whiting Pools, Inc.,
462 U.S. 198
, 204-05 (1983). Estate property does not have to be ?immediately
[End Page 4]
capable of being liquidated into cash in order to constitute property of the estate,?
and includes debtor's interests which ?cannot be liquidated and transferred by the
debtor.? Nichols v. Birdsell, 491 F.3d 987
, 990 (9th Cir. 2007).
One of the central precepts of bankruptcy law is that
a bankruptcy trustee succeeds only to the title and rights in property
that the debtor had at the time she filed the bankruptcy petition.
Filing a bankruptcy petition does not expand or change a debtor?s
interest in an asset; it merely changes the party who holds that
interest. Further, a trustee takes the property subject to the same
restrictions that existed at the commencement of the case. To the
extent an interest is limited in the hands of a debtor, it is equally
limited as property of the estate.
In re Sanders, 969 F.2d 591
, 593 (7th Cir. 1992) (citations and quotations
omitted); see also Collier on Bankruptcy Â¶ 541.01 at 541-8.3 (15th ed. rev. 2009)
(?Subdivision (d) of [Â§ 541] makes clear that the estate can only succeed to the
same property interest that the debtor possesses, and cannot achieve a greater
Applying this principle, it is clear that the trustee's interest in the
application of the tax refund must be limited to the same extent as the debtors?
interest ? here by the strictures of 26 U.S.C. Â§ 6513(d), which makes debtors?
refund-application election irrevocable. Debtors will have no right to any cash
from the $3000 refund applied as a prepayment of their 2007 taxes until after
their 2007 tax liability is determined, and then only if they are entitled to a
further refund. The portion of that further refund attributable to pre-petition
[End Page 5]
earnings would become property of the estate. Thus, we hold that the estate?s
interest in the pre-payment is limited to debtors? contingent reversionary interest
in the pre-payment attributable to pre-petition earnings. See In re Middendorf,
381 B.R. 774
, 778-80 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2008) (?The debtors? interest in a
pre-petition tax overpayment is a contingent reversionary interest pending the
final determination of the debtors? tax liability. Once the ultimate tax liability is
assessed and satisfied, the debtors? interest vests in the resulting refund
attributable to pre-petition funds.?); cf. Redmond v. Lentz & Clark, P.A. (In re
Wagers), 514 F.3d 1021
, 1029 (10th Cir. 2007) (recognizing that ?even a
contingent, reversionary interest is included in a debtor's estate under Â§ 541?). 1
Turning to whether turnover is appropriate under these circumstances, we
first consider the statutory language which requires that the turnover target, here
debtors, be ?in possession, custody, or control, during the case, of property that
the trustee may use, sell, or lease under [11 U.S.C. Â§] 363.? 11 U.S.C. Â§ 542(a).
We agree with the BAP that, after filing their Chapter 7 petition and at least
We acknowledge a line of authority holding that an applied tax refund is
not estate property. See United States v. Pritchard (In re Block), 141 B.R. 609
611 (N.D. Tex. 1992) (holding that monies were not property of the estate once
the irrevocable election had been made and thus were not subject to turnover);
Grant v. United States (In re Simmons), 124 B.R. 606
, 607-08 (Bankr. M.D. Fla.
1991) (same). Given that some part of an applied refund may be available after
the ultimate tax liability is determined and that part of that amount may be
attributable to pre-petition earnings, we think a more comprehensive result is as
[End Page 6]
through the culmination of the turnover proceeding, debtors were never in
?possession, custody, or control? of their contingent reversionary interest in the
prepayment of their 2007 taxes. See Maggio v. Zeitz (In re Luma Camera Serv.,
Inc.), 333 U.S. 56
, 64 (1948) (holding that ?the primary condition of [turnover]
relief is possession of existing chattels or their proceeds capable of being
surrendered by the person ordered to do so?). 2 This fact alone dooms the trustee?s
Resort to Â§ 542 cannot be used to broaden the trustee's interest in the
refund, the pre-payment of 2007 taxes or in any other estate property. United
Debtors presumably controlled the refund before they made their election to
apply it to future taxes, but that control was pre-petition and thus not ?during the
case? as required by Â§ 542(a).
The fact that debtors had never been in possession of the refund or the
prepayment during the case makes it unnecessary for us to engage in the debate
about whether Â§ 542(a) requires them to turn over the ?value? of the refund, given
the statutory language requiring a turnover target to deliver to the trustee
?property or the value of such property.? The cases relying on the ?value of such
property? language involve turnover targets who, at least some time during the
case, possessed the debtor's funds. See, e.g., Beaman v. Vandeventer Black, LLP
(In re Shearin), 224 F.3d 353
, 356 (4th Cir. 2000) (law firm, having possessed
year-end profits of debtor/partner during the case, forced to turnover equivalent
amount to trustee despite no longer having possession of the funds at the time of
the turnover proceeding); Boyer v. Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith &
Cutler, P.A. (In re USA Diversified Prods., Inc.), 100 F.3d 53
, 55-56 (7th Cir.
1996) (same, with law firm that possessed funds of debtor which it erroneously
returned to debtor's president and noting that Â§ 542 requires delivery of property
or the value of the property); Bailey v. Suhar (In re Bailey), 380 B.R. 486
(B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2008)(requiring debtors to turn funds over to the trustee equal to
the amount of the tax refund they obtained post-petition and transferred to their
[End Page 7]
States v. Neary (In re Armstrong), 206 F.3d 465
, 472 (5th Cir. 2000); French v.
Johnson (In re Coomer), 375 B.R. 800
, 806 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio 2007). In In re
Armstrong, the Fifth Circuit held that Â§ 542(a) cannot be used to avoid the statute
of limitations inherent in 26 U.S.C. Â§ 6511, the general tax-refund statute. The
Fifth Circuit noted that ?[b]ecause that right [to a refund] is created and
circumscribed by Â§ 6511 and nothing explicitly changes its terms, Â§ 542(a) cannot
be read to expand the right to file for a refund to give the trustee unlimited time
so long as the bankruptcy continues,? id. at 472. Further, ?[b]ecause the debtor
does not have a continuing interest in the tax overpayment under Â§ 541(a)(1),
other than that created by Â§ 6511, the trustee cannot use Â§ 542(a) to create
interests not otherwise in existence.? Id. at n.6 (emphasis added).
Similarly, in French v. Johnson, the trustee attempted to secure turnover of
the debtor's interest in a residential security deposit. In rejecting the trustee?s
contention that Â§ 542(a) gave him a substantive right to the deposit, the court
Section 542(a) is best viewed as an enabling provision, allowing the
trustee to obtain possession of property only where the debtor
otherwise had a right to possess the property. But where a debtor,
and thus the trustee, does not have a right to possess or use property
at the commencement of the case, the right generally cannot be
acquired through a turnover action under Â§ 542(a). That is, a
bankruptcy trustee may not compel the turnover of property pursuant
to Â§ 542(a) if the debtor had no right to obtain the property.
Id. (citation omitted). Because, at no time during the case up to the filing of the
[End Page 8]
turnover action, did debtors have the right to obtain their refund or prepayment
from the IRS, the trustee could not compel turnover of that amount, and the
bankruptcy court correctly denied the turnover motion.
Things may be different now, however, because it is likely that debtors?
2007 tax liability has been determined. If debtors were entitled to a refund after
their 2007 tax liability was satisfied, the trustee is entitled to demand turnover of
any amount of such refund attributable to pre-petition earnings. See In re
Middendorf, 381 B.R. at 778-80; Traina v. Orrill (In re Orrill), 226 B.R. 563
(Bankr. E.D. La. 1997).
In addition to the statutory basis underpinning our conclusion, we are also
of the opinion that, from policy and practicality standpoints, this is the proper
solution. A turnover order issued at the time the trustee requested it here would
have required debtors to expend post-petition earnings or exempt assets in order
to comply with the order. See In re Blagg, 372 B.R. 502
, 510 (Bankr. D. Kan.
2007). Such an outcome would have contravened the spirit of the bankruptcy
laws which aim to create a fresh start for Chapter 7 debtors. Id. Further, from a
practical standpoint, we agree with the bankruptcy judge who determined that a
turnover order under these circumstances would simply result in a contempt
procedure where the defense would most likely be impossibility, all resulting in a
waste of the court's time. Aplt. App. at 40.
[End Page 9]
We are aware that, to a large extent, this holding conflicts with the Ninth
Circuit's decision in Nichols, 491 F.3d 987
. There, in a case factually
indistinguishable from this one, the Ninth Circuit held that the entire refund
amount was property of the estate and implicitly subject to turnover from the
debtors. In doing so, however, the court focused entirely on whether the refund
was property of the estate and neither discussed turnover nor analyzed the case in
light of the language of Â§ 542(a). It is therefore unclear how the Ninth Circuit
would apply the statutory requirements for turnover, which clearly require
possession during the case, to the present situation.
We find some appeal in the reasoning of the Ninth Circuit that, by electing
to have their 2006 refund applied to 2007 taxes, the debtors in Nichols, like
debtors here, received something of value, i.e, a dollar-for-dollar reduction on
their 2007 taxes, money that could have been available to the bankruptcy estate
had the election not been made. The fact that all or part of a tax prepayment can
be estate property, however, does not determine the extent of the property interest
in the hands of the trustee nor, as discussed above, does it determine whether that
interest is subject to turnover.
In summary, we hold that the pre-petition portion of the refund is property
of the estate. We go further, however, to hold that only the part of the refund that
(1) is attributable to pre-petition earnings and (2) reverted to debtors after
[End Page 10]
application of the refund to their ultimate (2007) tax liability, is subject to
With the modifications discussed above, the judgment of the Bankruptcy
Appellate Panel is AFFIRMED.
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