What Constitutes Income From The Cancellation Of Debt?

Posted on Monday, March 02, 2015

Debt that a borrower no longer is liable for because it is discharged by the lender can give rise to taxable income to the borrower. Debt forgiveness income or cancellation of debt income ("COD" income) is the amount of debt that a lender has discharged or canceled. However, in many situations, the canceled debt is excluded from taxable income.

Credit cards, car loans and mortgage debt are three of the most common consumer debts, yet many individuals don't know the tax rules surrounding discharges of these debts by lenders. In general, almost all types of discharged debt will be includable in the borrower's taxable income, unless a specific exclusion applies.

The creditor will generally report COD income to the IRS and to the debtor, using Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, even if an exclusion applies. The creditor may not be aware that the debtor can exclude the COD income. We can help you determine whether an exclusion applies.

Exclusions and reduction of attributes

There are four situations where cancelled debt does not result in taxable income:

1. The debt has been discharged through a bankruptcy proceeding under Title 11; 2. Insolvency (your total debts exceed your total assets); 3. The debt is due to a qualified farm expense ("qualified farm indebtedness"); and 4. The debt is due to certain real property business losses ("qualified real property business indebtedness").

When canceled debt is excluded from income, the debtor may be required to reduce tax attributes, such as a net capital loss or the basis of property. The reduction of attributes must be reported on Form 982, Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness, and attached to your federal income tax return.

Other exclusions may apply to student loans, disaster victims, gifts, general welfare payments, and payments that would have been deductible.

Mortgage debt forgiveness

For a limited period of time, certain mortgage debt that is discharged by the lender is excludable from COD income and therefore does not result in taxable income to homeowners. This debt is generally referred to as "qualified principal residence indebtedness." The cancellation of qualifying mortgage debt is excludable from income if it is incurred with respect to the taxpayer's principal residence for "acquisition" debt forgiven on or after January 1, 2007 and before January 1, 2013. Acquisition debt is indebtedness secured by the residence and incurred in the acquisition, construction or substantial improvement of the residence.

Certain debt used to refinance the debt is also eligible. Debt forgiven on a second home or rental property does not qualify for the exclusion.

Example. Anne's principal residence is subject to a $300,000 mortgage debt. Anne's creditor forecloses on the property in September 2010. Due to the depressed real estate market, Anne's home sold for $220,000. The creditor forgives the other $80,000 of debt. Anne has COD income totaling $80,000 ($300,000 - $220,000).

Credit card and car loan debt

Noticeably absent from the specific exceptions to COD income are two of the biggest consumer debt items: credit cards and car loans. Credit card debt or an unpaid debt on a car loan that is forgiven by the lender is includable in gross income, unless the debtor is bankrupt or insolvent. The lender will report the amount of forgiven debt on Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt.

Example. Michael has an outstanding credit card bill of $7,400. Michael cannot pay the total amount but reaches a compromise with his credit card company in which he settles the debt for $4,000. Assuming the debtor is not bankrupt or insolvent, the Internal Revenue Code treats him as having realized a personal net gain (and COD income) of $3,400, even though he did not actually receive any money. The credit card company will report the $3,400 as COD income on Form 1099-C, and the debtor must include it in his gross income.


If you had debt discharged in 2009 that does not qualify for an exception, you must include the amount of cancelled debt in your gross income on your tax return. If you have questions about COD income, the exclusions from income, or your reporting responsibilities, please contact our office.

Posted in Tax Topics For Individuals

Disclaimer: The information contained in Dulin, Ward & DeWald’s blog is provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial or legal advice on any subject matter. Before taking any action based on this information, we strongly encourage you to consult competent legal, accounting or other professional advice about your specific situation. Questions on blog posts may be submitted to your DWD representative.

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