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Income Tax Traps

Short Sales And Foreclosures: Income Tax Traps For The Unwary Homeowner

Short Sales and Foreclosures: Income Tax Traps for the Unwary Homeowner

by Stuart Pack, J.D. and Kelly C. Mooney, J.D., L.L.M.

When considering a short sale, foreclosure or other strategic default under the terms of a mortgage or deed of trust, most homeowners and many professionals focus on the immediate concern of whether the transaction will result in personal liability for any debt deficiency resulting from the short sale or foreclosure.

However, the income tax consequences of a short sale or foreclosure should also be given serious consideration, as, in many cases, the possibility of negative income tax consequences could outweigh any potential benefits of a decision to short sell or walk away from the property.

For federal income tax purposes, a short sale of real property or a foreclosure upon real property (whether via a judicial foreclosure or a trustee’s sale) can trigger two distinct types of income tax consequences, depending on whether the debt at issue is “recourse” or “non-recourse” for federal tax purposes. These income tax consequences and the differences between recourse and non-recourse debt are discussed below.

1. Tax Consequences of a Short Sale or Foreclosure With Respect to Recourse Debt

If the debt in question is recourse debt for federal tax purposes, any short sale or foreclosure that involves the forgiveness or cancellation of all or a portion of the debt typically triggers the recognition of (a) cancellation of indebtedness (“COD”) income to extent that the amount of the forgiven debt exceeds the fair market value of the foreclosed upon or short sold property; and (b) gain or loss from a “deemed” sale or exchange of the foreclosed upon or short sold property (i.e., the taxpayer is treated as though he or she sold the property for federal income tax purposes). Consequently, the federal income tax consequences of a short sale or foreclosure with respect to recourse debt are bifurcated between the recognition of COD income on the one hand and the recognition of gain or loss on a deemed sale or exchange of the property on the other.

(a) The COD Income Component

COD income is the term tax professionals use to describe the kind of income that arises for tax purposes when debt is cancelled or forgiven for less than its full face or principal amount.  COD income is specifically included in a taxpayer’s gross income under Section 61(a)(12) of the Internal Revenue Code.  Importantly, COD income is always treated as “ordinary” income for federal tax purposes, such that the tax rates applicable to ordinary income (which can be as high as 35% for individuals) apply to COD income.

(b) The Sale or Exchange Component

Like any sale or exchange of real property, the “deemed” sale or exchange of the short sold or foreclosed upon property that occurs upon the cancellation of recourse debt can trigger the recognition of gain or loss.  The amount of gain or loss is determined by comparing the fair market value of the property at the time of the short sale or foreclosure to the taxpayer’s adjusted tax basis in the property.

Most often, due to the current economic situation, short sales or foreclosures result in a loss because the taxpayer’s basis in the property exceeds the property’s fair market value.  In the event that the taxpayer held the property as a capital asset for a sufficient period of time, the gain or loss recognized on the deemed sale will be treated as capital gain or capital loss for federal income tax purposes.

While the recognition of capital gain can be beneficial, due to the lower (i.e., 15%) tax rate on capital gain, the recognition of capital loss may not be as helpful.  In general, capital losses can only be used to offset capital gain and cannot be used to offset ordinary income (like COD income), although individuals can use up to $3,000 in capital losses each year to offset ordinary income.

2. Tax Consequences of a Short Sale or Foreclosure With Respect to Non-Recourse Debt

If the debt in question is non-recourse debt, any short sale or foreclosure that involves the forgiveness or cancellation of all of a portion of the debt will only trigger the recognition of gain or loss on a “deemed” sale or exchange of property.  The forgiveness of non-recourse debt, in cases involving a short sale or foreclosure on real property, does not trigger the recognition of COD income.  In cases involving non-recourse debt, the amount of the gain or loss is determined by comparing the outstanding amount of the debt to the taxpayer’s adjusted tax basis in the property.  Again, the character of the gain or loss depends on whether the taxpayer held the property as a capital asset.

3. Distinguishing Recourse from Non-Recourse Debt

Often, the most difficult component in determining the likely tax consequences of a short sale or foreclosure is ascertaining whether the debt at issue is recourse or non-recourse for federal tax purposes.  In essence, “recourse” debt is debt for which the borrower is personally liable and “non-recourse” debt is debt for which the borrower is not personally liable, but which is usually secured by other assets, such as real estate.  That being said, a number of factors go into determining whether a particular debt is recourse or non-recourse, such as the language of the debt instrument, the applicability of any State anti-deficiency statutes (for example, Arizona’s anti-deficiency statutes may be viewed as turning an otherwise recourse debt into a non-recourse debt in cases in which the debt is purchase money and the other statutory requirements are satisfied), and, in some cases, the manner in which the debt is foreclosed upon.  Given the complexities that can arise, it is recommended that a tax or real estate professional be contacted for appropriate advice.

4. Exceptions and Exclusions

In cases in which a foreclosure or short sale is likely to trigger the recognition of taxable income, whether the income is COD income or capital gain, all may not be lost.  The Internal Revenue Code provides a number of exceptions and exclusions to the recognition of these types of income, one or more of which might apply.  Again, in cases in which the recognition of COD income is likely, a tax professional should be consulted to determine if any exceptions or exclusions are likely to apply.

(a) COD Income

Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code provides a number of exclusions and exceptions to the recognition of COD income.  In cases involving a short sale or foreclosure, the most commonly applicable exclusions include:

i. Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act

Codified as Section 108(a)(1)(E) of the Internal Revenue Code, this Act enables taxpayers to exclude up to $2 Million of COD income, so long as the cancelled debt was secured by the taxpayer’s principal residence and was incurred in the purchase, construction, or substantial improvement of the principal residence.  However, this exclusion is only in effect through December 31, 2012.

ii. Insolvency

When a taxpayer is “insolvent” for federal income tax purposes immediately before the event triggering the recognition of COD income, the COD income can be excluded from federal income tax to the extent of the taxpayer’s insolvency.

iii. Bankruptcy

If a bankruptcy petition is filed prior to the short sale or foreclosure, the taxpayer will not be required to recognize COD income by reason of the discharge.  However, if the bankruptcy petition is filed after the short sale or foreclosure then, unless some other exclusion applies, COD income would be recognized.

(b) Capital Gain

Under Section 121 of the Internal Revenue Code, any capital gain recognized on a “deemed” sale or exchange of a principal residence can be excluded from taxable income to the extent of $500,000 for married persons filing joint tax returns or $250,000 for unmarried persons.

Example
Taxpayer (T), a confirmed bachelor, buys a one family house in 1990 for $100,000 and finances it, in part, with a $50,000, 15-year mortgage loan.  In 2005, immediately after the mortgage loan is paid off in full, T decides to take advantage of the skyrocketing increase in real estate prices by taking out a new interest only mortgage loan in the amount of $300,000.  As part of the mortgage process, T’s house was appraised by his mortgage lender at $400,000.  T uses $250,000 of the new mortgage loan to buy a vintage DeLorean automobile and pay off his credit card debt and uses the other $50,000 to substantially improve the house.  In 2010, T comes to the unhappy realization that the fair market value of his house has plummeted to $200,000 and decides to short-sale the house.  T finds a buyer for $200,000 and T’s lender agrees to accept the $200,000 short sale proceeds to release the house from the lender’s deed of trust (and, in writing, the lender also agrees to release T from personal liability for the $100,000 deficiency).  What are the likely federal income tax consequences to T?

1. Capital Gain from the “Deemed” Sale of House

Since T bought the house in 1990 for $100,000 and made $50,000 of substantial improvements to the house, T’s adjusted tax basis in the house is $150,000.  Since T was deemed to have sold the house as part of the short sale in 2010 for $200,000, T will recognize $50,000 of capital gain (even thought T’s lender and not T, will receive all of the proceeds from the short sale).  If the house is T’s primary residence and other requirements of Internal Revenue Code Section 121 are satisfied, the $50,000 capital gain can be excluded from T’s taxable income because of the $250,000 exclusion right.  If the house was not T’s primary residence, then the $250,000 exclusion does not apply and T will be required to recognize the $50,000 of capital gain.

2. Cancellation of Debt Income

Assuming the new mortgage loan is recourse debt for federal tax purposes (because the debt is non-purchase money, the debt may not be treated as non-recourse under an applicable anti-deficiency statute in the case of a short sale), T would also recognize $100,000 of COD income.  If the house was T’s primary residence, then the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act would enable T to exclude up to $50,000 of the $100,000 of COD income (because $50,000 of the $300,000 loan was used to substantially improve the house, it would be considered “qualified principal residence indebtedness”).  However, because the other $50,000 of the $100,000 deficiency was used to purchase the DeLorean and pay off T’s credit card debt, the other $50,000 would be taxable as ordinary COD income, unless T can establish he was insolvent at the time of the short sale or one of the other exclusions to the recognition of COD income applies.  If the house was not T’s primary residence, then the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act would not apply and the entire $100,000 deficiency would be treated as taxable COD income, unless T can establish he was insolvent at the time of the short sale or one of the other exclusions to the recognition of COD income applies.

Of course, as each individual homeowner’s situation may vary, it is vital in considering any short sale or foreclosure to discuss your individual income tax situation with a tax professional.

For more information about income tax traps:

Stuart Pack, J.D. is a partner with the law firm of Nagle Law Group, P.C. in Scottsdale, Ariz. He concentrates his practice in the area of commercial and residential real estate law. He can be reached at Stuart.Pack@naglelaw.com or 602-595-6951 (x122).

Kelly C. Mooney, J.D., L.L.M. (Taxation) is a shareholder with the law firm of Gallagher & Kennedy, P.A. in Phoenix, Ariz. She practices in the area of federal tax law, with an emphasis on the taxation of individuals, corporations, partnerships, tax-exempt entities, and civil tax controversy matters. She can be reached at kcm@gknet.com or 602-530-8075.

What It Takes To Form A Nonprofit Or Tax-Exempt Organization

It usually starts with a phone call from a client, or maybe another attorney in your office. Someone wants to set up a nonprofit corporation, usually a tax-exempt charity, often on behalf of a pro-bono client, and assumes it should be pretty easy.

Unfortunately, it’s not.

First, “nonprofit” is not the same as “tax-exempt,” although many people use the terms interchangeably. Nonprofit is a state law concept and is governed by the relevant state statute for nonprofit corporations. In Arizona, that would be Article 10, Chapters 24-40 of the Arizona Revised Statutes. Tax-exempt usually refers to being exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. Furthermore, there are different types of tax-exempt organizations. The most common are 501(c)(3) organizations such as schools, hospitals, museums, community foundations, etc. But there are also other types of 501(c) organizations such as trade associations, which are exempt under section 501(c)(6), and social welfare organizations, which are exempt under section 501(c)(4).

Second, although the state filings to establish a nonprofit corporation are not unduly burdensome, there are a number of technical requirements that need to be followed. Also, the IRS exemption application, Form 1023, is not a simple one-page form; instead, it requires anywhere from 12-20 pages of information depending on the nature of the organization. With few exceptions, such as churches, an organization must file Form 1023 and receive a determination letter from the IRS in order to be tax-exempt, and cannot represent to potential donors that it is tax-exempt until such time as it receives such letter.

State law requirements for Arizona nonprofit corporations
In order to create the corporation under state law, an Arizona nonprofit corporation must file articles of incorporation. These will contain the name, purpose, powers and directors of the corporation, as well as the statutory agent for the corporation. The articles will also state whether the corporation will have members. Nonprofit corporations are not required to have members; in the absence of members, the directors will govern the corporation. However, if there are members, the members will elect the directors and will vote on major corporate actions. The procedure for electing members, and the rights of such members, is often set forth in the articles, but can also be contained in the bylaws of the corporation.

The articles are signed by the incorporator of the organization and are filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission. The filing fee is $40 ($75 if expedited treatment is desired). The articles are accompanied by a certificate of disclosure, which must be signed by the incorporator and any individuals who are directors or officers at the time the articles are filed. The articles must then be published (within 60 days after the articles are filed) in a newspaper of general circulation in the county in which the corporation carries on its business for three consecutive publications.

Once incorporated, the organization must file annual reports with the Arizona Corporation Commission and the Charities Division of the Secretary of State. The filing fees for such reports are nominal.

IRS tax-exempt filing (Form 1023)
IRS Form 1023 requires fairly extensive information about the operation of the organization. The two most important sections are Part IV (narrative description of activities) and Part IX (financial data). The IRS will want to know, in some detail, what activities the organization will carry on. In order to qualify under section 501(c)(3), the organization must be operated “exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific … literary, or educational purposes.” The narrative description should go into some detail (at least a page) outlining the exempt purposes of the organization and why such purposes qualify under Section 501(c)(3). If possible, prior IRS rulings relating to similar organizations should be cited as evidence that the new organization qualifies as exempt.

In Part IX, assuming the organization in question is a new organization, Form 1023 asks for projected budgets for the current year, plus the next two years. These budgets require both income information Ñ expected contributions, investment income, operational income Ñ and expense information, such as outgoing grants, fundraising expenses, wages, rent, interest and professional fees. The organization should make a good-faith attempt to be as detailed and accurate as possible, even though it is understood that actual operations may diverge from the projections. The IRS is simply interested in understanding the scale of magnitude of the organization’s operations, as well as the relative allocation between internal administrative expenses, and expenses directly used to carry out the exempt purposes of the organization.

The filing fee is currently $750 (reduced to $300 if the organization expects its annual receipts to be under $10,000). The form should be filed within 27 months of its date of incorporation and, if approved by the IRS, will be retroactive to the date of incorporation. The IRS review time will vary substantially depending on the complexity and size of the organization. For a simple charity with no complications, IRS approval may only take six to eight weeks. However, if the organization has substantial activities or is expected to be involved in significant transactions with private parties, such as an organization focused on community development, it may take six to 12 months for IRS approval. If the IRS has any questions or concerns, it will contact the organization in writing while the application is pending and will normally give the organization 21 days to respond.

Once approved, the organization will be required to annually file Form 990 disclosing the income and expenses of the organization, the compensation paid to officers, directors and key employees, and other information. Form 990 does not normally require the payment of any tax, but is an information return for the IRS to monitor the activities of the organization. Form 990, and Form 1023, are publicly available documents and must be disclosed if someone contacts the organization requesting copies. Thus, organizations should keep such potential disclosure in mind when preparing the forms.

Conclusion
Forming a nonprofit and securing tax-exempt status is a little bit more involved than simply filing two pieces of paper with the state and with the IRS. Anyone working with a new nonprofit should also work with an accounting or legal professional that is familiar with the state and federal requirements pertaining to such organizations.

Michael G. Meissner is a partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey’s Cleveland office. He works with the firm’s Phoenix office on tax issues. Meissner can be reached at (216) 479-8593 or at mmeissner@ssd.com. The firm’s Phoenix office can be reached at (602) 528-4000.