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Reporting Cancellation of Debt

TaxAlerts Tax Article

March 2010 | Written by: Karen Reed, EA

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If you had a debt forgiven and you were personally liable for the debt*, you will likely receive a Form 1099–C, Cancellation of Debt, from the financial institution reporting the amount discharged. The amount of the forgiven debt is taxable income to you unless you qualify under one of the provisions that allows you to exclude the cancelled debt from income.

If the debt was related to your primary residence and the loan funds were used only to purchase, build or improve your home, you may be able to exclude the debt (up to $2 million for joint filers and $1M for single filers) under the Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness Exclusion. If only a portion of the loan qualifies, you can use the exclusion only to the extent that the outstanding balance exceeds the amount that does not qualify.

The qualified principal residence exclusion is not available for a debt forgiven on a second home, rental or business property, auto loan or credit card, but another provision may apply. If you were insolvent, had the debt discharged in a bankruptcy, or if you had a forgiven debt that was related to a Midwest disaster, you might not have to pay taxes on the cancelled debt income if certain requirements are met. Additional exclusions are available to farmers and business owners whose debt relates to real property used in a business.

The insolvency provision allows you to exclude cancelled debt from income to the extent that your liabilities exceeded your assets immediately before the debt was discharged. To determine whether or not you were insolvent at the time the debt was forgiven, list all of your assets, including clothing, cars, collectibles, business and rental property, and balances in bank and investment accounts and pension plans. Your list of liabilities should include all loans and outstanding bills and debts. Keep your worksheets and supporting documentation in case the IRS questions your claim.

A foreclosure that occurs in connection with cancelled debt is considered a sale for tax purposes, and you may have a reportable gain or loss, depending on the property involved. A gain on your main home may be tax–free if you owned and used the home as your principal residence for two of the five years before the foreclosure, and if you did not exclude gain on another home you sold during the two years before the foreclosure. While a loss on your main home or other personal property is not allowed, you may have a qualified business loss on a foreclosed business asset or rental property.

Each of the exclusions has its own set of requirements for giving up future tax benefits, known as “tax attributes.” If you exclude income under the Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedess exclusion and you continue to own your home, you are required to reduce your home’s basis by the amount of the discharged debt. Claiming other exclusions requires you to give up or reduce capital loss carryovers and tax credits, and/or you may have to reduce the basis in depreciable property you own. If you have no tax attributes, certain exclusions require that you reduce the bases in your personal assets, such as jewelry, collectibles, clothing and automobiles.

*In certain states, you will not have reportable debt cancellation income if your home is financed entirely by “nonrecourse” debt. This means that the lender has a right to recover the value of the home only and cannot legally pursue you if the sale price of the loan collateral is less than the outstanding loan. Homeowners who have never refinanced their homes generally fall into this category in certain states. Loan modifications and short sales can change the nature of a loan from nonrecourse to recourse.