A blog post

What Does Insolvency Mean To The IRS?

Posted on the 07 August, 2012 at 10:06 pm Written by in Taxes

Shepherd v Commissioner is a pro se case before the Tax Court. “Pro se” means that the taxpayer is representing himself/herself, without a professional. Technically that is not correct, as a taxpayer can go into Tax Court with a professional and still be considered “pro se.” This happens if the professional (say a CPA) has not passed the examination to practice before the Court. The CPA can then “advise” but not “practice,” and the taxpayer is considered “pro se.”

Today we will be talking about cancellation-of-debt income. Tax pros commonly refer to this is “COD” income. For many years I rarely saw a COD issue. In recent years it seems to be endemic. There are two common ways to generate COD: a home is foreclosed or a credit card is settled. If one pays less than the balance of the debt, the remaining balance is considered to be income to the debtor.

How can that be, you may ask. Let’s use an example. Say you go to your bank and borrow $50,000. When the loan is due, you cannot afford to pay in full. The bank agrees to accept $36,000 as full payment on the loan. From the IRS’ perspective, you received and kept a net $14,000. Perhaps you bought a car, went on vacation, or paid for a kid’s college, but you had an accession to wealth. The IRS considers the $14,000 to be income to you.

There are exceptions, and Shepherd involves the “insolvency” exception. This is different from the bankruptcy exception. Granted, in both cases you are likely insolvent, but for the insolvency exception you do not have to file with a bankruptcy court.

Let’s quickly take a look at the wording for insolvency in the tax code:

                108(d)(3) INSOLVENT.— For purposes of this section, the term “insolvent” means the excess of liabilities over the fair market value of assets. With respect to any discharge, whether or not the taxpayer is insolvent, and the amount by which the taxpayer is insolvent, shall be determined on the basis of the taxpayer’s assets and liabilities immediately before the discharge.

 An easy way to understand insolvency is the following formula:

  • Add the fair market value of everything you own, then
  • Subtract everything you owe

If the result is negative, you are insolvent. You owe more than you own. You are negative or upside-down. There are special rules for assets such as a pension, but you get the concept.

The IRS says that – if you are insolvent – then COD income not be taxable to you to the extent you are insolvent. Let’s use numbers to help understand this:

  • You own $160,000
  • You owe $175,000
  • Visa forgives $22,000

Your COD income is $22,000 (what Visa forgave).

Your insolvency is $15,000 (175,000 – 160,000).

Therefore $7,000 of your COD income (22,000- 15,000) will be taxable to you. The rest is not taxable.

The tax law requires you to do the calculation of what you own and what you owe as of the date the debt is forgiven. It is not two years later or 18 months before. Remember: this is tax law not a tax suggestion.

Let’s swing over to Shepherd. He and his wife lived in New Jersey and owed Capital One Bank approximately $10,000. In 2008 they settled for approximately $5,500, leaving COD income of $4,500.

The Shepherds claimed insolvency and did not report the $4,500 as 2008 income. The IRS looked into it and found that the key to the insolvency calculation was the value Shepherd attached to two houses.

The first was his beach house. Shepherd received a property assessment of $380,000 for the 2010 tax year. He appealed the assessment, claiming a value closer to $340,000. He presented this as evidence before the Court. The Court had two immediate issues:

  • There is a long-standing tax doctrine that the value of property for local tax purposes is not determinative of fair market value for federal income tax purposes. This is the Gilmartin case, and it clearly established the tax code’s preference for an appraisal over property tax bills.
  • Shepherd did not present to the Court the methodology, procedures or analysis, including comparable sales, for thinking that the value was closer to $340,000. At that point it was just an opinion, and the Court was not bound by his opinion.

The Court pointed out that these events took place two years after the debt forgiveness and said fuhgeddaboudit to Shepherd’s valuation of the beach house.

The second was his principal residence.

  • Shepherd showed the Court a tax bill. The Court duly dismissed that under the Gilmartin doctrine.
  • Shepherd applied for a loan modification in 2011. Chase Home Finance showed a value of $380,000 in a modification letter. The Court wasn’t buying into this, noting that Chase’s letter did not show any analysis or procedures used in arriving at value, such as comparable sales. That is, it was not an appraisal. Oh, and by the way, the letter was three years after the debt discharge.

What is a tax pro’s take? Folks, Shepherd had virtually no leg to stand on. How can one read the tax code stating “immediately before the discharge” and reason that three years later – and after one of the worst housing markets in U.S. history – would constitute “immediately before”? This is simply not reasonable. You are going to lose this if challenged by the IRS. Shepherd’s position is so preposterous that I suspect he was truly “pro se” and did not have a professional, either when he prepared his return or when he was presenting his arguments in Court.