If you are one of the 97% of Americans whose home is worth significantly less than when they purchased it, you’ve likely been seeking out some type of debt modification with your lender. Or perhaps things have gotten so bad that you’re contemplating a foreclosure or short sale.
Here’s the thing: anytime a mortgage is modified (i.e., reduced), the borrower is required to recognize cancellation of indebtedness (COD) income under Section 61(a)(12). Similarly, if a property is sold at foreclosure or in a short sale and the underlying mortgage is recourse (meaning the borrower has personal responsibility for any excess loan deficiency remaining after the sale), then to the extent the remaining deficiency is forgiven, the borrower will again recognize COD income.
In the foreclosure or short sale context, this COD income is NOT treated as gain from the sale of the property, and thus is not eligible for exclusion under Section 121 (allowing a $500,000 exclusion for MFJ taxpayers who have owned/used the home as their principal residence for 2 of prior 5 years).
When the sh*t hit the fan in the real estate market in 2006 Congress recognized that something had to be done, as it seemed patently unfair to tax homeowners on COD income when they couldn’t even afford to service the underlying mortgage. And while exclusions to COD income have always existed under Section 108, prior to 2007 those exclusions were only of use to a homeowner if the homeowner were insolvent or bankrupt.
As a result, in 2007 Congress enacted Section 108(a)(1)(E), which provides that a taxpayer that is neither insolvent nor in bankruptcy can still exclude up to $2,000,000 of COD income related to the discharge (in whole or in part) of qualified principal residence indebtedness. This exclusion applies where a taxpayer restructures his or her acquisition debt on a principal residence, loses his or her principal residence in a foreclosure, or sells a principal residence in a short sale.
For these purposes:
- Qualified principal residence indebtedness is debt that meets the Section 163(h)(3)(B) definition of acquisition indebtedness for the residential interest expense rules but only with respect to the taxpayer’s principal residence (i.e., does not include second homes or vacation homes), and with a $2 million limit ($1 million for married filing separate taxpayers) on the aggregate amount of debt that can be treated as qualified principal residence indebtedness.
- Acquisition indebtedness includes refinanced debt to the extent the refinancing does not exceed the amount of the refinanced acquisition indebtedness.
- For purposes of these rules, a principal residence has the same meaning as under the Section 121 home sale gain exclusion rules.
Why do you care? Because as of today, this exclusion is set to expire on December 31, 2012. That means you have to ask yourself: How much do you trust Congress to get an extension done before year end? If you do, then by all means, take your time with your debt modification/foreclosure/short sale efforts. But if you don’t, you might want to get a sense of urgency about getting something done with your bank prior to year end, so you can take advantage of Section 108(a)(1)(e) while it’s here.