If you’ve ever settled a debt for less or had an account forgiven entirely, there’s a good chance you got a bit of a surprise in the mail come tax season: the dreaded 1099-C form. See, the Internal Revenue Service generally considers forgiven debt a source of income — and you’re expected to pay taxes on it to Uncle Sam. That 1099-C is the form you’re expected to file to report that income. But, if you got one in the mail, don’t rush to despair: There are a few exclusions that apply, so you can conceivably avoid paying taxes on a canceled debt. The big one? Bankruptcy — which isn’t to say you should rush to file. Debts canceled prior to the filing won’t likely qualify. (Plus, bankruptcy will crush your credit — more here.) Smaller exclusions include cancellation of certain student loans, amounts specifically excluded from income by law (like gifts or bequests) and debts canceled due to insolvency. Read on to find out more about these and other exclusions — and what to do if you think you qualify for one.
What Is a 1099-C?
A 1099-C reports Cancellation of Debt Income (CODI). According to the IRS, if a debt is canceled, forgiven or discharged, you must include the canceled amount in your gross income, and pay taxes on that “income,” unless you qualify for an exclusion or exception. Creditors who forgive $600 or more are required to file Form 1099-C with the IRS. (You can find some tips for negotiating with creditors here.)
The form is way more common than you may think. According to the IRS’s Office of Research Publication 6961, it received almost 6.4 million 1099-Cs in 2015. And estimates (in round numbers) for the following five tax years are as follows:
- 2016: 5.7 million
- 2017: 6.1 million
- 2018: 6.5 million
- 2019: 6.9 million
- 2020: 7.3 million
What Should I Do if I Get a 1099-C?
The first rule of 1099-Cs: If you’ve received one, don’t ignore it.
“A copy of that 1099 has been mailed to the Internal Revenue Service,” warned Steven J. Elliott, CPA, MST, Tax Director for Schwartz and Company, LLC. “The IRS is looking to have that income included in the tax return, unless there is an exception or exclusion.”
Elliott goes on to caution that “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.”
Next, you’ll want to figure out whether you quality for an exclusion or exception. If you don’t get it right (or ignore it all together), you may pay more in taxes than you have to. But figuring out how much you must pay may be easier said than done. As such, if you are accustomed to doing your own taxes, this is one situation where it can really pay to get expert advice from a tax professional* who has experience with this particular issue. Together with your tax adviser, you will be trying to determine whether you can avoid or reduce the amount of canceled debt on which you have to pay taxes due to one of the following exceptions or exclusions:
Canceled Debt that Qualifies for Exclusion from Gross Income:
1. Cancellation of qualified principal residence indebtedness.
2. Debt canceled in a Title 11 bankruptcy case.
3. Debt canceled due to insolvency.
4. Cancellation of qualified farm indebtedness.
5. Cancellation of qualified real property business indebtedness.
Canceled Debt that Qualifies for Exception to Inclusion in Gross Income:
1. Amounts specifically excluded from income by law such as gifts or bequests
2. Cancellation of certain qualified student loans
3. Canceled debt that if paid by a cash basis taxpayer is otherwise deductible
4. A qualified purchase price reduction given by a seller
My Debt Qualifies for an 1099-C Exception? How Do I Get One?
If you qualify for an exception or exclusion, you will have to fill out IRS Form 982. It may not be easy. The title of the form alone — Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness (and Section 1082 Basis Adjustment) — is intimidating. But we can help you get started by taking a look at two of the most common exclusions that may apply.
1. Debt Canceled in a Title 11 Bankruptcy Case
You do not have to pay tax on debt successfully discharged in bankruptcy. (Title 11 refers to the section of U.S. Code that is referred to as the Bankruptcy Code. It does not mean only debts wiped out in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy qualify for this exclusion).
However, if you settled a debt before you filed for bankruptcy, the creditor may still send you a 1099-C indicating the forgiven amount, and you will have to research whether there are other exceptions or exclusions you can use to avoid paying taxes on that amount.
“We are seeing where some taxpayers have received 1099-Cs and they subsequently filed for bankruptcy,” Karla Dennis, Enrolled Agent and CEO of Cohesive Tax, said back in 2011. “Only debts discharged in bankruptcy are covered (by the bankruptcy exclusion). If you settled a debt in January and filed bankruptcy later in the year, chances are you probably were insolvent in January but that’s a separate calculation that needs to be done.”
2. Debt Canceled Due to Insolvency
Along with bankruptcy, this is one of the most common exclusions taxpayers will use to avoid paying taxes on canceled debt. Here’s how it works.
You make a list of the value of all your assets and a list of all the debts you owe (including debts that may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy, such as student loans, for example.) You are insolvent to the extent that your liabilities (debts) exceed your assets. Here are a couple of examples provided by Elliott:
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.
You will still have to fill out Form 982 to demonstrate to the IRS why you aren’t including the amount listed on the 1099-C in your taxable income.
“Timing is everything,” William J. Purdy, III, an attorney with a Master’s degree in taxation who practices in the Law Office of Simmons & Purdy in California, said. “Take a look at your finances right before the debts were forgiven. Include student loans, debts to family members, everything that you owe everyone on the planet. List every single debt you have (on Form 982). On the other side you list the Fair Market Value of everything you have. For millions of people, their debts exceed the value of everything they have.”
What Can I Do if I Paid Taxes on a Debt That Was Excluded?
All three advisers explained that taxpayers who erroneously paid taxes on forgiven debt may go back and amend prior year’s tax returns — for up to three years — and may actually get a refund.
If you’re worried about how your debt or other issues could be impacting your credit, you can check your credit each month using Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card. This completely free tool will break down your credit score into sections and give you a grade for each. You’ll see, for example, how your payment history, debt and other factors affect your score, and you’ll get recommendations for steps you may want to consider to address problems. In addition, you’ll also find credit offers from lenders who may be willing to offer you credit. Checking your own credit reports and scores does not affect your credit score in any way.