As tax season approaches, and more importantly, the expiration of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007, it is important to review the tax consequences following a short sale. In general, the IRS will treat any canceled debt, such as forgiveness of a mortgage loan, as taxable income. Thus, if you live in a recourse state, such as Massachusetts, the only way to avoid tax consequences following a short sale is to qualify for a tax exemption. The most common exemptions are insolvency and bankruptcy. To prove insolvency, your total debts have to be greater than the total fair market value of your assets. A lesser known exemption, and one that is due to expire at the end of 2012, is the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007. According to the Debt Relief Act, a homeowner may exclude the forgiven debt as taxable income if you can prove to the IRS that the indebtedness was incurred on your “qualified principal residence.” Most homeowners qualify for tax relief under the Debt Relief Act. Keep in mind, however, that not all states recognize the Debt Relief Act and you should always check with a qualified tax professional prior to agreeing to a short sale. The following paragraphs will explain why the IRS considers forgiven debt as taxable income and how to qualify for a tax exemption following a short sale.
The IRS Treats Forgiven Debt As Taxable Income
According to current tax laws, if you owe a debt to a third party and they cancel or forgive that debt, the IRS considers the canceled debt as “taxable income.” In the case of a mortgage loan, if you don’t repay your debt, you will be taxed on the amount of the money you failed to repay the lender, commonly referred to as the loan deficiency. In other words, if default on your loan, and the lender waives their right to seek repayment, the unpaid loan proceeds are converted into taxable income because you no longer have the obligation to repay the lender. Thus, following a short sale in which the lien holder relinquishes their right to collect the deficiency amount, they are obligated to report any forgiven debt to the IRS on a Cancellation of Debt form 1099-C. Individuals are similarly required to report the forgiven debt to the IRS on Tax Form 982 and attach the form to your tax return.
Exceptions To The Rule
As mentioned above, the only way to exclude forgiven debt from taxable income is to qualify for a tax exemption. Unless you can prove insolvency or file for bankruptcy, the tax implications of a short sale will primarily depend on whether the property being sold is your primary residence and, if so, whether you qualify for a tax exemption. The most common scenarios when cancellation of debt is not taxable income involve the following:
- Qualified principal residence indebtedness: This is the exception created by the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007; The Act applies only to forgiven or canceled debt used to buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence, or to refinance debt incurred for those purposes. The maximum amount you can treat as qualified principal residence indebtedness is $2 million or $1 million if married filing separately. The Debt Relief Act expires at the end of 2012.
- Bankruptcy: Debts discharged through bankruptcy are not considered taxable income;
- Insolvency: If you are insolvent when the debt is cancelled, some or all of the cancelled debt may not be taxable to you. You are insolvent when your total debts are more than the fair market value of your total assets;
- Certain farm debts: If you incurred the debt directly in operation of a farm, more than half your income from the prior three years was from farming, and the loan was owed to a person or agency regularly engaged in lending, your cancelled debt is generally not considered taxable income; and
- Non-recourse loans: A non-recourse loan is a loan for which the lender’s only remedy in case of default is to repossess the property being financed or used as collateral. That is, the lender cannot pursue you personally in case of default. Forgiveness of a non-recourse loan resulting from a foreclosure does not result in cancellation of debt income. However, it may result in other tax consequences. It is important to determine whether your jurisdiction is considered recourse or non-recourse.
Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness
The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 is the most common exception to the rule that canceled debt is taxable income. According to the Debt Relief Act, taxpayers may exclude debt forgiven on their “qualified principal residence” if the balance of their loan is $2 million or less. Qualified principal residence indebtedness is limited to forgiven or cancelled debt used to buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence, or to refinance debt incurred for those purposes. Thus, even debt incurred as a result of a refinance loan will qualify for this exclusion, but only to the extent that the principal balance of the old mortgage would have qualified. In other words, if the debt forgiven was a result of a short sale of your qualified principle residence, and you never refinanced, you will qualify for the tax relief. If, however, you took out a refinance loan on your principal residence, you will qualify for tax relief only up to the principal amount of the original mortgage. This is a very important consideration and one that is overlooked by many so- called experts. Debt forgiveness on second homes, rental property, business property, credit cards or car loans does not qualify for the tax-relief provision of the Debt Relief Act. The Debt Relief Act of 2007 is set to expire at the end of 2012. Keep in mind, however, that not all states recognize the debt relief act and you should always check with a qualified tax professional prior to agreeing to a short sale.
Recourse Versus Non-Recourse States
Given the recent popularity of short sales, it bears mentioning that some states, such as California and Arizona, are non-recourse states, meaning that forgiveness of debt in non-recourse states generally does not result in taxable income. The lender’s sole recourse would be possession of the home, not repayment of the loan. This is not the case in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is a recourse state, meaning that lenders have the right to seek a deficiency judgment against a homeowner who defaults on a loan obligation. Thus, the lender will decide to either pursue the deficiency judgment against the homeowner or they will agree to cancel the remaining debt. If they choose to cancel the debt, the former homeowner will suffer tax consequences as a result of a short sale unless they provide the IRS with proof that they qualify for one of the aforementioned tax exemptions. Massachusetts does not recognize the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, therefore, in order to qualify for a tax exemption following a short sale you will likely have to prove insolvency or file for bankruptcy. For this reason, you should always consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional regarding your specific situation in order to determine whether a short sale will result in tax liability or legal consequences.
Tax Consequences Following a Short Sale
In summary, the general rule states that a homeowner will suffer tax consequences following a short sale because the IRS treats the forgiven debt as taxable income. The only way to avoid tax liability following a short sale is to qualify for the principal residence exemption, prove insolvency or file for bankruptcy. Regardless, the important thing to remember is that all of the exemptions require the homeowner to take affirmative action on their subsequent tax returns. Your lender is required to issue a 1099-C Form following a short sale. It is your responsibility, however, to prove to the IRS that you qualify for a tax exemption by filing Tax Form 982 . Tax liability is not negotiable, you either qualify or you don’t. You should never, under any circumstances, take a lender’s word that a short sale will not result in tax consequences. In fact, if the lender is agreeing to waive their deficiency rights, they are required to issue 1099-C stating that they canceled your debt. The IRS, in turn, will treat that canceled debt as income unless you prove to them that you qualify for an exception.
Massachusetts does not recognize the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, and it is unclear to me as to whether Massachusetts recognizes the insolvency exception. Thus, in order to qualify for both a federal and state tax exemption following a short sale, you will likely have to file for bankruptcy prior to the short sale. For this reason, however, you should always consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional regarding your specific situation in order to determine whether a short sale will result in tax liability or legal consequences.
For more tax information regarding cancellation of debt, including detailed examples, please see Publication 4681, Canceled Debts, Foreclosures, Repossessions, and Abandonments. Also see IRS news release IR-2008-17.
About the Author: Andrew Coppo of Greater Boston Short Sales, LLC (GBSS) is Massachusetts’ leading short sale negotiator. GBSS assists buyers, sellers, real estate agents and attorneys with getting their short sales closed. Contact us today if you are a homeowner facing foreclosure or a Realtor seeking assistance with a short sale transaction. GBSS is a MARS provider. Please read our disclaimer HERE.
If you are considering a Massachusetts short sale, and would like a free short sale consultation, please call Andrew Coppo at 617-264-0376 to schedule a free short sale consultation.
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