How the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act is helping homeowners

On December 18, 2007, Congress passed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 (Mortgage Debt Relief Act), providing some major assistance to certain homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments. The centerpiece of the new law is a three-year exception to the long-standing rule under the Tax Code that mortgage debt forgiven by a lender constitutes taxable income to the borrower. However, the new law does not alleviate all the pain of all troubled homeowners but, in conjunction with a mortgage relief plan recently announced by the Treasury Department, the Act provides assistance to many subprime borrowers.

Cancellation of debt income

When a lender forecloses on property, sells the home for less than the borrower’s outstanding mortgage debt and forgives all, or part, of the unpaid debt, the Tax Code generally treats the forgiven portion of the mortgage debt as taxable income to the homeowner. This is regarded as “cancellation of debt income” (reported on a Form 1099) and taxed to the borrower at ordinary income tax rates.

Example. Mary’s principal residence is subject to a $250,000 mortgage debt. Her lender forecloses on the property in 2008. Her home is sold for $200,000 due to declining real estate values. The lender forgives the $50,000 difference leaving Mary with $50,000 in discharge of indebtedness income. Without the new exclusion in the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, Mary would have to pay income taxes on the $50,000 cancelled debt income.

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act excludes from taxation discharges of up to $2 million of indebtedness that is secured by a principal residence and was incurred to acquire, build or make substantial improvements to the taxpayer’s principal residence. While the determination of a taxpayer’s principal residence is to be based on consideration of “all the facts and circumstances,” it is generally the one in which the taxpayer lives most of the time. Therefore, vacation homes and second homes are generally excluded.

Moreover, the debt must be secured by, and used for, the principal residence. Home equity indebtedness is not covered by the new law unless it was used to make improvements to the home. “Cash out” refinancing, popular during the recent real estate boom, in which the funds were not put back into the home but were instead used to pay off credit card debt, tuition, medical expenses, or make other expenditures, is not covered by the new law. Such debt is fully taxable income unless other exceptions apply, such as bankruptcy or insolvency. Additionally, “acquisition indebtedness” includes refinancing debt to the extent the amount of the refinancing does not exceed the amount of the refinanced debt.

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act is effective for debt that has been discharged on or after January 1, 2007, and before January 1, 2010.

Mortgage workouts

In addition to foreclosure situations, some taxpayers renegotiating the terms of their mortgage with their lender are also covered by the new law. A typical foreclosure nets a lender only about 60 cents on the dollar. When the lender determines that foreclosure is not in its best interests, it may offer a mortgage workout. Generally, in a mortgage workout the terms of the mortgage are modified to result in a lower monthly payment and thus make the loan more affordable.

More help

Recently, Treasury Department officials brokered a plan that brings together private sector mortgage lenders, banks, and the Bush Administration to help homeowners. The plan is called HOPE NOW.

Here’s how it works: The HOPE NOW plan is aimed at helping borrowers who were able to afford the introductory “teaser” rates on their adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), but will not be able to afford the loan once the rate resets between 2008 and 2010 (approximately 1.3 million ARMs are expected to reset during this period). The plan will “freeze” these borrowers’ interest rates for a period of five years. The plan, however, has some limitations that exclude many borrowers. Only borrowers who are current on their mortgage payments will benefit. Borrowers already in default or who have not remained current on their mortgage payments are excluded.

Under the HOPE NOW plan, borrowers may be able t

– Refinance to a new mortgage;

– Switch to a loan insured by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA);

– Freeze their “teaser” introductory rate for five years.

Without the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, a homeowner who modifies the terms of their mortgage loan, or has their interest rate frozen for a period of time, could be subject to debt forgiveness income under the Tax Code. This is why the provision of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act excluding debt forgiveness income from a borrower’s income is a critical component necessary to make the HOPE NOW plan effective.

If you would like to know more about relief under the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 and the Treasury Department’s plan, please call our office. We are happy to help you navigate these complicated issues.