Congress Extends the Income Exclusion for 1099 ‘Forgiven’ Mortgage Debt to Tax Years 2015 and 2016

For a more detailed discussion on tax debt and other tax resolution issues, be sure to read Wartchow Law’s Tax Blog.

On December 18, 2015, Congress extended certain tax breaks to apply for both tax years 2015 and 2016, including the income exclusion for forgiven mortgage debt on a qualified principal residence. “Forgiven” or “cancelled” mortgage debt on a Form 1099-C occurs usually after a homestead is foreclosed, short sold or otherwise a defaulted mortgage goes unpaid for the statutory period of time. Upon the occurrence of these events, banks are required to treat the unpaid balance as “forgiven” and issue a Form 1099-C to the homeowner for the balance that is cancelled. (The term “forgiven” is a gross misnomer since, in fact, the mortgage balance remains lawfully collectible in full—more on that later in this article).

As of October 20, 2015, the Mortgage Debt Relief Act had not yet been extended to tax year 2015. However since President Obama approved an extension of the tax relief for the next two tax years (i.e., 2015 and 2016), this means that homeowners receiving a 1099 for mortgage debt will not be required to declare mortgage debt as taxable income on their federal income tax return. In past years, Congress has typically waited until December to extend the Act’s tax relief to homeowners (better last minute than never).

The Internal Revenue Service and state taxing authorities treat the 1099’d mortgage debt as taxable income unless an exclusion is claimed by the taxpayer on Form 982 for the tax year for which the 1099 is issued. This means that a 1099 received on even a mortgage balance of $30,000, for example, can result in significant federal and state income tax liability upwards of $5,000 or more for just a middle-income taxpayer. For higher income earners, this 1099 could result in massive tax consequences into the tens of thousands. The exclusion operates to exclude the 1099 from taxable income if the amount forgiven was “qualified principal residence indebtedness”. For current information on this and other income exclusions, see IRS Publication 4681.

This income tax exclusion for forgiven mortgage debt dates back to 2007 and Congress’s then-response to overwhelming consumer need for protection against tax liability contained in the Mortgage Foreclosure Debt Forgiveness Act. This most recent bill passing by Congress now allows for homeowners to claim the income exclusion on their 2015 and 2016 tax returns (assuming the 1099-C is issued for 2015 or 2016).

Tax year 2017 is currently without any extension of the mortgage debt income exclusion–look for that decision to be before Congress in December 2017. Other income exclusions may still be available however, for example the insolvency exclusion or the exclusion for a discharge received in bankruptcy.

This income tax “relief” for forgiven mortgage debt is not to be taken without a heaping measure of caution, however.

First, a 1099 does not actually denote that the mortgage balance forgiven and, in fact, the homeowner still owes the entire amount to the bank which can be collected upon via lawsuit and other means. Wait, back that up. The bank declares the mortgage forgiven and takes their tax benefit, the homeowner is personally responsible for the resulting income tax on the forgiven amount, but yet the homeowner can STILL be held accountable for the mortgage balance owed? Yes, actually. Practically, this means that the bank may still lawfully report the entire balance as due, owing and in default on a homeowner’s credit report, potentially ruining their credit. More significantly, perhaps, this also means that a homeowner can be sued for the forgiven balance and, if judgment is obtained, their wages garnished and bank account levied.

There are many state courts around the country—including here in Minnesota—that have declared that issuance of a Form 1099-C does not alone operate to legally extinguish a debt and, therefore, the full balance remains outstanding absent some operation of the law, such as a discharge received in a bankruptcy proceeding. These courts rely on an IRS Information Letter dated December 30, 2005, which explained: “The Internal Revenue Service does not view a Form 1099-C as an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection.” See I.R.S. Info. 2005-0207, 2005 WL 3561135 (Dec. 30, 2005). How’s that for deceptive wording?

Second, the timing of asserting the exclusion on your income tax return is tight to say the least. Assuming a homeowner timely receives the 1099-C following the end of the tax year for which it is issued, they still have time to report the income and claim the exclusion via IRS Form 982. But for homeowners who did not timely receive the 1099-C from the bank, the deadline to amend their tax return to claim the exclusion is six months from the date the return was originally due, which is usually April 15th of the following year. As an illustration, if a homeowner was in an active bankruptcy proceeding when the bank declared the mortgage forgiven on a home foreclosed prior to filing bankruptcy, the bank may have issued a 1099-C to the IRS yet simply never sent the 1099-C to the homeowner due to their being in bankruptcy at the time (or instead of bankruptcy, perhaps the 1099 was lost in the mail or the bank sent it to the wrong address). In this example, the homeowner may not find out about the 1099-C until years later when the IRS sends a collection letter for the additional income tax due on the forgiven mortgage—and all in spite of the bankruptcy. The result is that the homeowner is outside of the 6-month deadline for amending their 2013 tax returns to claim the income exclusion and is now strapped with the additional tax debt and a battle against both the bank and the Internal Revenue Service. Try unwinding that tax debacle.

For more about 1099s and the insolvency exclusion, see Received a Form 1099-C on Foreclosed Home? You May Qualify for the Mortgage Forgiveness Exclusion to Cancellation of Debt Income.

What is the “Means Test” and Why Does it Matter in Bankruptcy?

The “Means Test” was one of the major and most controversial additions to consumer bankruptcy law that occurred as part of the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA”). Part of the congressional intent of BAPCPA was to limit a person’s ability to obtain Chapter 7 relief and instead direct them into filing Chapter 13. While there are many reasons why some consumer debtors actually prefer to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy, Chapter 7 is still widely available and common, only now with a few additional hurdles to pass.

These “hurdles” to qualify to Chapter 7 that were added in 2005 as part of BAPCPA are collectively referred to as the “Means Test”. In actuality, the Means Test is an 8-page calculation that determines one’s eligibility for Chapter 7 using criteria such as the debtor’s income (as based on the last six months), household size, expenses and any special circumstances that may justify relief under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. While many of the numbers used are drawn from IRS standard allowances for food, utilities, and similar routine expenses, a person’s actual payments made monthly on secured debts such as mortgages and car loans are included to reduce their income. Generally speaking, if a person has no disposable income remaining at the end of the month after payment of all these standard and actual expenses, they may qualify for Chapter 7.

However, if when the last six months of income is annualized (i.e., doubled) and the person falls above the median income for their household size and state, they are instead steered toward filing Chapter 13, which includes a monthly repayment plan. As of 11/01/2015, the median income in Minnesota for a household of one person is $51,199, for two people $68,515, for three people $80,804, and $98,447 for four people. The median income adjusts at least once per year and these amounts reflect the median income as last adjusted on November 1, 2015 which will again be adjusted in April of 2016.

Even if someone is above the median income for Minnesota, they may still qualify for Chapter 7 (also referred to as “passing the Means Test”) based on other circumstances.

One job of your bankruptcy attorney is to give you all your bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy options, including calculating the Means Test for you and advising you on whether you qualify for Chapter 7 or if you may want or need to file Chapter 13 instead.

Wartchow Law Office is a law firm located in Edina, Minnesota with an exclusive practice in Chapter 7, Chapter 13 and Chapter 11 bankruptcy law, representing individual consumer and business clients throughout the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13 Bankruptcy: A Primer

Most often the people that come to me for help in bankruptcy do not initially know the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which Chapter may be better for them or even which form of bankruptcy protection they qualify for.

The similarities between these two Chapters are fairly straightforward: both are forms of consumer bankruptcy protection that can discharge debts such as credit cards, medical liabilities, home mortgage deficiencies, personal guarantees and even taxes. Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 require that a petition and schedules be filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota, listing all assets, creditors and certain financial information for the last two years. Both require one mandatory appearance with a bankruptcy trustee at what’s called the “341 Meeting of Creditors”. Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy  are eligible for a discharge of some or all of the debtor’s debts.

The differences are distinct and some of the forms of protection afforded under each Chapter need to be understood. Chapter 7 is what’s called a “straightforward” or “liquidation” bankruptcy: once filed, your assets are reviewed to see if you have non-exempt assets which need to be turned over to the trustee, and within three months a discharge of the debts is ordered. Chapter 7 has income qualifications under the “means test”, in that you generally must be around or below the median income for the state of Minnesota in order to qualify. As of May 1, 2012, the median income in Minnesota for one person is $47,618 or $63,101 for a household of two, $74,050 for a family of three, $86,910 for a household of four, and so on. If your gross household income is above this threshold, you are generally steered toward Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead.

Chapter 13 is distinctly different than Chapter 13 in that it requires a monthly payment of three to five years to be made to the Chapter 13 trustee under a Chapter 13 plan. After the successful completion of all monthly payments made under the Chapter 13 plan, the debtor is then discharged of any remaining debt. Unlike most Chapter 7 cases where creditors usually receive zero money, Chapter 13 affords most creditors some fractional repayment of the total amount owed. Determining the monthly Chapter 13 payment is something that your bankruptcy attorney will need to help determine using Minnesota standard allowances and some actual expenses, such as mortgage and car payments, domestic support obligations and other monthly liabilities that are not necessarily discharged in bankruptcy.

Most recently, homeowners have been taking more advantage of Chapter 13 bankruptcy to strip a second or even third mortgage on their homes. This is relatively new law in Minnesota and as of the date of this post is still pending on appeal in the 8th Circuit. Nevertheless, most other states recognize second mortgage stripping and Minnesota is following that trend. Your bankruptcy lawyer can help determine when a mortgage may be strippable in Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

In order to understand what form of bankruptcy protection is right for you and what you want to achieve long-term, you should consult a bankruptcy attorney for assistance that is specific to your situation. Wartchow Law Office is an exclusive bankruptcy practice offering free consultations to analyze your circumstances and offer practical guidance on your options in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy and even on-bankruptcy alternatives.

Located in Edina, Minnesota, Lynn Wartchow represents clients in all Chapters of bankruptcy in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Ramsey and Hennepin County, and throughout
Minnesota.