We all understand that when we borrow money, we’re legally obligated to repay it. What happens when you’re forgiven in part and don’t have to pay back the full amount? After many huzzahs, you discover that it’s not entirely forgiven. The amount of the canceled debt is taxable, and you must report it on your tax return for that year.
But there are subtleties. If you used property to secure your debt, the amount realized is the fair market value (FMV) of the property. Your ordinary income from the cancellation of the debt is the amount of the debt beyond the FMV that the lender forgives.
If your property was subject to a nonrecourse debt, you must realize the entire amount plus the FMV of any property you received. You won’t have ordinary income from the cancellation of the debt.
Other exceptions may include:
- Cancellation of debt as a gift — If you have a strict working relationship with banks or employers, then you can’t claim that canceled debt as a gift. However, a bequest or inheritance can be claimed as a gift.
- Debts canceled when you were insolvent — The exclusion applies only up to the amount of insolvency.
- Debts discharged in bankruptcy — If you filed for bankruptcy protection, don’t report the canceled debt as income.
- Student loans forgiven after you worked a period of time — If your student loans contain a loan forgiveness provision based on service in your field of work, don’t include the canceled debt as income.
- Certain federal student loans discharged by the U.S. Education Department Defense to Repayment or Closed School discharge process are exempt.
- Student loan debt forgiven because of death or disability may not be subject to taxes.
- Any pay-for-performance success payments that reduce the principal balance of your home mortgage under the Home Affordable Modification Program.
Amounts that meet the requirements for any of the following exclusions aren’t included in income, even though they’re canceled debt income:
- Debt canceled in a Title 11 bankruptcy.
- Cancellation of qualified farm indebtedness.
- Cancellation of qualified real property business indebtedness.
- Cancellation of qualified principal residence indebtedness that’s discharged subject to an arrangement that’s entered into and evidenced in writing before January 1, 2018.
If you exclude canceled debt from income under one of the exclusions listed above, you must reduce certain tax attributes — credits and carryovers, losses and carryovers, and basis of assets by the amount excluded.
It can get complicated, and it doesn’t help that rules in this area change: A “break” available one year may not be available the next. Basically, if you had debt forgiven, wiped out or negotiated away last year, you may owe income taxes on the amount of debt erased, and you need to discuss it with a financial professional. If a debt of $600 or more is forgiven or canceled, the IRS requires the creditor to issue a 1099-C tax form to you to show the amount of debt not paid. Be sure to have that form in hand when you speak with your tax preparer.