Tax Impact of Principal Reduction

With the Obama administration and private lenders actively considering mortgage-principal-reduction programs to help financially distressed homeowners, the Internal Revenue Service has issued an advisory to taxpayers who receive — or seek to receive — such assistance if it’s offered.

Editor’s Note: The only thing I would add to this, for the moment, is that any principal reduction is basically an admission that your property is not worth the amount of the mortgage. If you have made demand for damages or relief based upon appraisal fraud or other causes of action in or out of court, the taxpayer can take the position that the debt reduction is also in lieu of payment of damages which often is not taxable. Under this theory — which may or may not apply — you would NOT be limited to your principal residence to claim an exemption. Consulting with a licensed attorney or accountant familiar both with federal and state tax law would be strongly advisable.

The reason I mention state law is that the reduction of principal might be the basis for contesting the assessed valuation of your home for real estate taxes, property insurance etc.

IRS tells homeowners how to get tax relief if a lender forgives part of their debt

Reduction of mortgage principal, usually considered taxable income, is expected to become more prevalent as the Obama administration and banks seek ways to prevent foreclosures.

By Kenneth R. Harney

March 14, 2010

Reporting from Washington

With the Obama administration and private lenders actively considering mortgage-principal-reduction programs to help financially distressed homeowners, the Internal Revenue Service has issued an advisory to taxpayers who receive — or seek to receive — such assistance if it’s offered.

The IRS gets involved in mortgage principal write-downs because the federal tax code generally treats any forgiveness of debt by a creditor in excess of $600 as ordinary taxable income to the recipient.

However, under legislation that took effect in 2007, certain home mortgage debt cancellations — such as through loan modifications, short sales or foreclosures — may be exempted from tax treatment as income.

Sheila C. Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., recently confirmed that her agency was working on a new program to expand the use of principal mortgage reductions to keep underwater borrowers out of foreclosure.

Most major banks and mortgage companies have preferred monthly payment reductions and other loan modification techniques over cuts of principal balances, but a handful have made limited use of the concept.

One of the largest servicers of subprime home loans, Ocwen Financial Services of West Palm Beach, Fla., has strongly advocated principal reductions to keep people out of foreclosure, and claimed broad success with them. Ocwen President Ron Faris testified to a congressional subcommittee this month that borrowers with negative equity were as much as twice as likely to re-default after a standard payment-reduction loan modification than those who receive partial forgiveness on their principal debt.

But what are the tax implications when your lender essentially says: OK, we recognize that you’re underwater, maybe you’re thinking about walking away, and we’re going to write off some of what you owe to keep you in the house?

IRS guidance issued March 4 spelled out step by step how financially troubled and underwater borrowers can qualify for tax relief when a lender agrees to lower their debt. Here are the basics, should you be considering a short sale or loan modification involving principal reduction.

First, be aware that the federal tax exclusion only applies to mortgage balances on your principal residence — your main home — and not on second homes, rental real estate or business property. The maximum amount of forgiven debt eligible under the law is $2 million for married taxpayers filing jointly and $1 million for single filers.

But there are some potential snares: Your debt reduction can only be for loan amounts that you’ve used to “buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence.” This includes refinancings that increased your total mortgage debt attributable to renovations and capital improvements of your house. But if you used the proceeds for other personal purposes, such as to pay off credit card bills, buy cars or invest in stocks, the mortgage debt attributable to those expenditures is not eligible for tax exclusion.

When your lender forgives all or part of your mortgage balance, the lender is required by law to issue you an IRS Form 1099-C, a “Cancellation of Debt” notice, which is also sent to the IRS. The form shows not only the amount of debt discharged but the estimated fair market value of the house securing the debt as well.

A few other noteworthy features of the IRS rules: If you’ve been foreclosed upon or you do a short sale and lose money in the process, don’t claim a tax loss on your federal filing. The IRS will turn you down. However, if you go to foreclosure and your lender agrees to cancel all or part of the unpaid mortgage balance as part of the deal, then you can file for an exemption from the IRS.

What if your lender reduces the debt on your house but you continue to own the property and live in it? There’s a tax wrinkle in the fine print: The IRS will require you to reduce your “basis” in the house — your “cost” for tax purposes — by the amount of the forgiven debt. But that’s not likely to be a big concern for most homeowners digging their way out.

Finally, if you want to claim the debt-forgiveness exemption, download IRS Form 982 at www.irs.gov and attach it to your return for the year in which the debt was forgiven. And don’t assume that this tax code benefit to homeowners will be around forever. It expires at the end of 2012.

kenharney@earthlink.net.

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group

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5 Responses

  1. Banks! People wanted to flip homes and generate income.
    If you couldnt afford it you should not have bought it.
    No we have to bail you out.

    If you have ten dollars you cant afford a $100 steak dinner!

  2. MAKE THE BANK PAY THE TAXES. THEY GOT US IN THIS MESS THEY GET US OUT OF THIS MESS.

    . PLUS THE BANKS NEED TO LEARN A LESSON. AND WHY NOT HAVE THEM PAY FOR OUR CHILDRENS SCHOOLS OUR ROADS LET THEM GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY THE STOLE FROM

    BANK OF AMERIFRAUD

  3. Here is what i found over a year ago.

    http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=179414,00.html

  4. Implicit in this post is that the debt is partially “forgiven,” an active event (somebody has to actually do the “forgiveness.”). Where this is going to get interesting is where the debt is abandoned, in the case where the debt (the Note) was dumped into some black-hole “trust” of which shares were sold around the globe to hundreds of others, who in turn walked away when the “trust” bent belly-up. Now what?

    If the write-down occurs because the Note was “non-negotiable” and was sold anyway, then that presents another set of events that the IRS has not thought about.

    And if the write-down was the result of Court ORder, including by Stipulated Judgment, then you have yet another set of events [and here I suspect, but cannot vouch, that Neil would have merit in the argument that the Judgment incorporated damages, thus non-taxable].

    Look for more litigation to spawn from all this. We are headed into uncharted territory. But remember: the IRS is a political creature. If you get the yank, go sit in the office of your member of Congress and complain. Let them call up the IRS auditor and tell them “what you are doing is not acceptable to this [Congressional} Office.” Puts the heat on.

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