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Debt Help

The Debt & Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Monday, January 05, 2009

Short Sale, Long Consequences

Short Sale, Long Consequences: A story about divorce, foreclosure and the IRSIt is August 2008 and I have been divorced for two years now. What a two years it has been. Left with nearly $15,000 in credit card debt by my reckless and deceitful ex-husband, and just out of graduate school working part-time jobs to get by, it seemed like I would never catch up. Oh, and there is the deadly “foreclosure proceedings begun” on my credit report, which I’m told will be there for the next seven years. Nonetheless, it is August 2008; I am divorced, happy, and free, with a new love in my life, and more than two thirds of the debt paid off. I am able to go off the debt management program that has helped me reach this goal. I plan, and take, my first vacation in more than five years.

What do I come home to? A notice and bill from the IRS that they are increasing my 2006 reported income by more than $5,000, meaning I owe them about $800, because my ex and I sold our foreclosed house in a short sale more than two years ago.

Just when I think life is getting better, something surfaces, something bites my (thankfully, tanned) backside.

Of course, my first reaction is that this is an injustice. For one, the mortgage company (since gone bankrupt itself) never told me that I would be liable for claiming the waived debt as income, and never furnished me with a 1099 form. (In a recent phone call, their rep claimed they sent it to my ex, logical as he was the primary borrower.) For another, there is the sting of personal injustice: my ex had let the home fall into foreclosure behind my back. I still don’t know what happened to all the money that was supposedly going towards mortgage payments, thousands and thousands of dollars. (Of course, I do have my suspicions, most of which involve my ex’s internet affairs, substance abuse, and sending money to his con-artist brother in Europe for weird and always unsuccessful business ventures.)

The irony is, it was me who decided to file taxes separately for 2006, although we were technically still married for half of it, because I didn’t want to be associated with him any longer, even in the eyes of the IRS. If we’d filed jointly, he’d now be liable for half the short sale income. In fact, I might even be eligible for an IRS protection called “Innocent Spouse,” that waives the liability of a spouse when debt or income has been concealed. (He never shared the 1099.) As it is, however, two tax professionals and the IRS help desk in Providence, RI have convinced me that I am liable for the amount and will be held responsible, especially since my ex doesn’t seem to have filed income taxes at all for that year. As both of the accountants told me, “The IRS goes after the person with the deeper pockets.” It seems unimaginable but that person is me!

Ademola, another member of the www.DebtHelp.tv blog, wrote an entry about this recently. Bush and Co. have issued a special moratorium that currently prohibits taxing short sale amounts. It’s a good idea; with so many people facing foreclosure and crisis, this waiver is a welcome relief, I’m sure. After all, in my case the short sale amount, and subsequent tax, wasn’t thousands and thousands of dollars. In today’s market, however, large short sale amounts are a distinct possibility for those trying to sell their homes, especially if there’s a need to sell quickly. Read more about the moratorium here.

My story, though, is still a teaching story, I think. When you’re in financial and personal crisis, as I was when I negotiated the short sale, it’s easy to jump at the first relief without considering the long-term consequences. Don’t get me wrong, the short sale was probably still my best option, but I would have handled the taxes differently. I wish I had slowed down and asked myself questions, not yes/no questions, but open questions like: What do I need to know about a short sale?

That’s the thing about crisis: It seems like the time to act fast. Maybe, that’s really the time to slow down and do research. To ask an expert. To ask yourself: how will this affect me two years from now, when I come home from vacation, tanned, happy, and newly in love? How will this affect me when I’m almost-financially-secure again? How might this affect me in eight years or eighteen? In the moment when it’s hardest to think about long-term, we sometimes most need to.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don't Forget: There Is A 3 Year Moratorium On Tax Liability For Debt Forgiveness

The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007On December 27, 2007, President Bush signed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act[1] of 2007 (HR 3648) into law.

This law established a 3 year moratorium that prevents any debt forgiven by a lender from being counted as income by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Basically, if a homeowner negotiates a short sale or any other type of debt forgiveness with a lender, the homeowner will not be liable for any taxes on the forgiven debt.

For example, if a homeowner in foreclosure gets a bank to agree to take $400,000 for an original loan amount of $500,000, then the homeowner will not have to pay any taxes on the forgiven $100,000 ($500,000 minus the $400,000).

The Mortgage Debt Relief act also extends the private mortgage insurance deductions through 2010. The deduction for private mortgage insurance allows families with an adjusted gross income of $109,000 or less to deduct all or some of their premium payments.

As it stands, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act only applies to a primary residence. So second homes and investment properties are out. Still, even with a second home or an investment property you may not have to pay any tax on the forgiven debt, so long as you can prove to the IRS that you were insolvent at the time. Which may or may not be tough to do.

With the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, as long as it’s your primary residence, you don’t have to prove anything to the IRS.

If a short sale is the best option, then this is the time to negotiate one.

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