If you settle a debt with a creditor for less than the full amount, or a creditor writes off a debt you owe, you might owe money to the IRS. The IRS treats the forgiven debt as income, on which you might owe income taxes.
Here's how it works. Creditors often write off debts after a set period of time—for example, one, two, or three years after you default. The creditor stops its collection efforts, declares the debt uncollectible, and reports it to the IRS as lost income to reduce its tax burden. The same is true when you negotiate a debt reduction. The creditor will report the amount you didn't pay as lost income to the IRS.
Of course, the IRS still wants to collect tax on this money, and it will turn to you for payment. Because you no longer have to pay the full amount of the debt, the IRS treats the forgiven amount as gained income, for which you should pay income taxes.
Foreclosures. This rule applies even to debts you owe after a foreclosure. In this situation, the law can seem especially cruel: Not only have you lost your property, but you'll also have to pay income tax on the difference between what you originally owed the lender and what it was able to sell your property for—called the "deficiency"—if the deficiency is forgiven (but not in the case of nonrecourse loans).
However, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 changed this for certain loans partially or wholly forgiven during 2007 through 2017 (as well as potentially debt discharged in 2018 if there was a written agreement entered into in 2017). The law provides tax relief if your deficiency stems from the sale of your primary residence (the home that you live in). Here are the rules:
To learn more about the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, see Nolo's article Canceled Mortgage Debt: What Happens at Tax Time?
If you don't qualify for an exception under the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, you might still qualify for tax relief. If you can prove you were legally insolvent, you won't be liable for paying tax on the deficiency. See "Exceptions on Reporting Income," below, for details on the insolvency exception.
Any financial institution that forgives or writes off $600 or more of a debt's principal (the amount not attributable to interest or fees) must send you and the IRS a Form 1099-C at the end of the tax year. These forms are for reporting income, which means that when you file your tax return for the tax year in which your debt was settled or written off, the IRS will make sure that you report the amount on the Form 1099-C as income.
Even if you don't get a Form 1099-C from a creditor, the creditor may very well have submitted one to the IRS. If you haven't listed the income on your tax return and the creditor has provided the information to the IRS, you could get a tax bill or, worse, an audit notice. This could end up costing you more (in IRS interest and penalties) in the long run.
There are several reporting exceptions stated in the Internal Revenue Code. For example, if the financial institution issues a Form 1099-C, you do not have to report the income on your tax return if you were insolvent before the creditor agreed to settle or write off the debt.
Insolvency means that your debts exceed the value of your assets. To figure out whether or not you were insolvent, you will have to total up your assets and your debts, including the debt that was settled or written off.
Example 1: Your assets are worth $35,000 and your debts total $45,000, so you are insolvent to the tune of $10,000. You settle a debt with a creditor who agrees to forgive $8,500. You do not have to report any of that money as income on your tax return.
Example 2: Your assets are worth $35,000 and your debts still total $45,000, but the creditor writes off a $14,000 debt. You don't have to report $10,000 of the income, but you will have to report $4,000 on your tax return.
If you conclude that your debts exceed the value of your assets, include IRS Form 982 with your tax return. You can download the form off the IRS's website at www.irs.gov.
Tax laws are complicated, and there are exceptions and exclusions that might save you from having to report canceled debt as part of your income. If you have questions about whether your canceled debt is taxable, consider talking to a tax attorney. If you can't afford an attorney, you might qualify for free or low-cost assistance from a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.