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How to Avoid Taxes on Canceled Mortgage Debt

Updated for Tax Year 2015


"The Internal Revenue Service considers most cancelled debts as income for the recipient. The amount of a loan or mortgage forgiven by a lender is taxed as though the borrower earned that amount as income," says Cappy Pearson, tax preparation specialist. "However, the Mortgage Debt Relief Act does allow an exemption for certain mortgage or foreclosure situations."

Adding forgiven debts to income

If your forgiven debt is subject to taxation, you will usually receive a form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, from the lender, showing the amount of canceled debt. You’ll file the 1099-C with your federal tax return, and the amount of canceled debt is added to your gross income.

There are, however, exceptions and exclusions that may save you from the requirement to report canceled debt as part of your income.

Exceptions and exclusions

Not all canceled debt is subject to income tax. The IRS recognizes both exceptions to canceled debt rules as well as amounts that are excluded from gross income due to their origin.
Exceptions include:

  • Gifts, bequests or inheritances
  • Some qualified student loans
  • Any debt that, had it been paid, would have been a deductible item for the borrower
  • A qualified reduction in price offered by a seller
  • Certain payments on the balance of a mortgage under the Home Affordable Modification Program

When a loan is secured by property, such as a mortgage where the home and land stand as collateral, and the lender takes the property as full or partial settlement of the debt, it is considered a sale for tax purposes, not a forgiven debt. In that case, you may need to report capital gains or losses on the “sale” of the property, but you will not need to add forgiven debt to your income.
Exclusions include:

  • Debt canceled in a Title 11 bankruptcy or during insolvency
  • Canceled qualified farm debt
  • Canceled qualified real property business debt
  • Principal residence indebtedness under terms of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act (2007 through 2016). This can also apply to debt that is discharged in 2017 provided that there was a written agreement entered into in 2016.

If you claim an exclusion, you can’t claim tax credits or capital losses or otherwise improve your tax situation using the excluded property.

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007

Applying only to your principal residence, the Mortgage Debt Relief Act excluded as income any debt discharge up to $2 million. Provisions of the Act applied to most homeowners, and it included partial debt relief gained through mortgage restructuring as well as full foreclosure. Refinancing was also allowed, but only up to the amount of principal balance of the original mortgage.

The Act also covered loans and subsequent debt forgiveness for amounts borrowed to substantially improve a principal residence. You cannot use provisions of the Act for other canceled debts, and the relieved debt must be secured by the principal residence property. The Act covered debt forgiven within the calendar years of 2007 to 2016. This can also apply to debt that is discharged in 2017 provided that there was a written agreement entered into in 2016.

Extension of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act

The Act initially covered a three-year period between 2007 and 2010, but was extended four times, to 2012, 2013, 2014 and then to 2016. This can also apply to debt that is discharged in 2017 provided that there was a written agreement entered into in 2016.

Another way around the tax bite

If you’re not covered by the special tax break for principal residences described above, there are two very important exceptions to the “cancelled debt = taxable income” rule.

The cancelled debt is not income, even if you receive a Form 1099-C, if

  1. You received the cancelled debt due to bankruptcy filing, or
  2. To the extent you are insolvent immediately before the cancellation of the debt.

Insolvency means your debts exceed the value of all your assets. You can exclude cancelled debt from income up to the amount that you are insolvent. For example, if you had assets of $80,000 and debt of $100,000, you are considered to insolvent by $20,000. If you had $30,000 in debt cancelled at this time of insolvency, you would have to include only $10,000 ($30,000 minus $20,000) in your income.

Cancelled debt can be a challenging tax situation especially during hard financial times. TurboTax will guide you through the cancelled debt maze, including the new legislation, and help minimize the pain from in these tough situations.

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The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information designed to educate a broad segment of the public; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other business and professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other business and professional matters that affect you and/or your business.

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