Guillermo Arguello worked for Guggenheim Investments, a conglomerate of entities of uncertain purpose. Mr. Guggenheim struck up a business relationship with another corporation, Netrostar, that was intended to be symbiotic: Guggenheim Investments would share customer lists and provide financing, while Netrostar would provide web development work to the Guggenheim entities.
Times got tough at Netrostar, and Arguello, who performed some small bookkeeping services for the company, was asked to help bail it out.
First, Arguello spent $24,000 on a used Alfa Romeo that was needed — for some odd reason — to keep Netrostar alive, and sold it to the company in exchange for a note.
In addition, Arguello cosigned Netrostar credit card debt in excess of $35,000.
At the end of 2007, Arguello was still owed $21,000 on the Alfa Romeo note, and he was justifiably getting antsy with his precarious position as creditor of a dying corporation. As a result, Mr. Guggenheim worked up an agreement by which Netrostar would pay Arguello an additional $2,000 towards the note, and then Arguello would “forgive” the remaining $19,000 balance in exchange for his release as cosigner of the credit card debt.
On his 2007 tax return, Arguello claimed a worthless debt deduction of $19,000. The IRS promptly denied the debt, arguing that it had not become worthless during 2007.
Under Section 166, a taxpayer is entitled to a deduction for a debt, business or nonbusiness, that becomes wholly or partially worthless during the taxable year. There is no standard test for determining worthlessness; whether and when a ebt becomes worthless depends on all the facts and circumstances.[i] In general, the year of worthlessness must be established by identifiable events constituting reasonable grounds for abandoning any hope of recovery.[ii]
The Tax Court concluded that Arguello’s receivable from Netrostar did not become worthless during 2007, primarily because the debt was not forgiven due to Netrostar’s inability to pay, but rather in exchange for getting Arguello off the hook for this co-signed credit card debt:
We cannot assume, and do not find, that as of the close of 2007, Netrostar’s financial condition, although shaky, prompted petitioner to relinquish his rights to collect the balance on the note. The evidence shows, and we find, that the debt was extinguished not so much on account of Netrostar’s ability or inability to pay, but rather pursuant to an arrangement that allowed petitioner to avoid potential liabilities in connection with the credit card accounts.
The court summarized its decision thusly: “A debt is not worthless where the creditor for considerations satisfactory to himself voluntarily releases a solvent debtor from liability.”
The takeaway lesson, of course, is that in today’s economy, where debts are being forgiven left and right, when you are on the creditor side there is a distinction between a debt becoming uncollectible and simply forgiving the debt in exchange for some form of noncash consideration. Under the tax law, the debtor must establish that the debt has become wholly or partially worthless in order to secure a bad debt deduction.