The definition of "income" is pretty straightforward in most contexts. It's generally somewhere along the lines of, "the money I make at work" or the money received from regular benefits such as Social Security or a pension. It seems simple enough.
However, things get a bit more confusing in the bankruptcy context, as they normally do. Income is important in bankruptcy because it determines whether you can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or whether you must file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy (and if so, how much you must pay). The bankruptcy "means test" looks back at the six months before filing to determine your income during that period. So, you just need to look at your paystubs or benefit statements, right?
Nope... not that simple. "Income" as determined by the bankruptcy means test has a very broad definition. Yes, you will need to look at your traditional income, and your paystubs are a good start. But, "income" also includes one time payments, commissions, and bonuses. Income includes household contributions from friends or family members (something few people would think of as "income"). It includes lottery and gambling winnings. It also includes rent, dividends, interest, and royalties, or one time distributions. Most confusingly, it can include alimony or child support (which is normally not taxable), or even inheritances! The definition is so broad it occasionally precludes people in great need of debt relief from filing.
Another confusing aspect of this look back period is that the money is considered earned when it goes into your bank account, not when you actually do the work. So, if you perform a service in December, but are not paid the commission until the next April, it would be considered "income" in the look back period from August (for which April is in the six month look-back period). The means test can be counter-intuitive, so it is very important your attorney explains it and carefully reviews all income. If in doubt as to whether something is income, tell your attorney!
There are a few exceptions to what is considered income that can work to your favor. Social Security payments are not considered income. Loans are also not income, and neither is your tax refund. But, once again, assume any money coming into your possession in the last six months to be income. An experienced bankruptcy attorney will not lead you astray.
So, what can be done if a one time bonus or windfall is included in your look back period, preventing you from filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or artificially distorting your Chapter 13 payment? Wait! No... I don't mean wait for my answer. I mean wait to file!
Proper bankruptcy planning is an important part of my job. Sometimes it is necessary to wait before filing. If you wait a few months, these distorting payments will no longer be part of your look-back period. It's just good planning.
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you need to hurry up! If you know that you will soon receive a large bonus at work, you will want to file before it becomes your "income". Remember, it's not when you do the work, it is when you receive the payment. You can use that distinction to your advantage.
Contact us if you want to discuss whether or not your income (or your "bankruptcy income") prevents you from filing. I'd be happy to walk you through this sometimes confusing world!