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In certain circumstances, the IRS really can.

Question: I had a rough patch in my life and succeeded in getting some credit card debt “written off.” I thought this meant I didn’t have to pay anything.

But now I got a letter from the IRS saying I have to pay income tax! On the forgiven debt! How is DEBT considered to be INCOME? If I had income, I wouldn’t be in debt! SMH!

This is ridiculous! Can you explain this to me? Is it even legit? Or am I being scammed? If it’s true, what can I do? I’m nearly broke as it is, and I was actually thinking about bankruptcy. Would that help?

– Moses in California

— Nida in Pennsylvania

Jacob Dayan answers…

That is a great question, and I completely understand your frustration. I know it can seem almost like a cruel joke being played on you. But unfortunately this is not a scam. When credit card debt is forgiven, it’s rarely a simple process. Here’s a quick video primer…

Hi, I’m Jacob Dayan, the CEO and Co-founder of Community Tax. That is a great question, the answer to your question is relatively straightforward, but as always, I have to caution you that everyone’s tax circumstance is different. As such, it’s often advisable to speak with a tax professional prior to making a decision related to this. Before I break down the answer, let’s review some basics about collections and taxes.

The short answer is that a credit card company will write off a debtor’s balance after months if not years of collection efforts. The credit card company will issue the debtor a 1099 cancellation of debt. What this means, is that the debtor – you – are then required to pay back income tax on the amount that was canceled or forgiven.

The IRS essentially treats any unpaid, forgiven debt as income. And you definitely don’t want to ignore the IRS. If you want to know more about what happens if you do, read the report Understanding the IRS Collections Process available on Debt.com. There is, however, an exception to the requirement of paying taxes on any canceled credit card debt.

The taxpayer will not be responsible for paying taxes if they can prove they are insolvent at, or before, the cancellation of debt. Insolvent means that you have no assets or that your financial situation is basically upside down. Credit card companies will generally wait three years before issuing a 1099 cancellation of debt. Why? Because they must show a consistent attempt to collect the unpaid balance. Credit card companies are not in the litigation business. So, they tend to sell past due accounts to law firms that will collect on the outstanding debt.

If a credit card company fails to collect after roughly six months, they may engage a collections law firm to take over collections. The law firm will try to work out payments of the debt prior to filing suit in a civil court. After three years of attempting to collect, the credit card company will finally write off the debt and issue a 1099 cancellation of debt. I hope this helped clear things up. If you have any other questions, feel free to give myself or my team a call, or visit Debt.com

Now let’s dig into Moses’ particulars.

Yes, debts can be taxable

Under IRS guidelines, canceled debt counts as taxable income. In ordinary circumstances, receiving a loan is not considered income, and paying it back is not a deduction. But when a lender cancels the debt, the IRS treats the amount of canceled debt as if it is indeed taxable income.

There are exceptions

This is one of the harshest provisions in the tax code because it punishes folks who are already struggling. But there may be help! There are some instances when this “canceled debt income” can be excluded from income, and you can escape tax on it.

For example, if the canceled credit card debt was from a bankruptcy, or if you can prove to the IRS that you owed more total debt than the value of your assets (home, car, retirement accounts, etc.) at the time of the forgiveness, you may be able to avoid tax on the canceled debt income.

Resolution programs

The IRS also has resolution programs specifically designed for those with financial difficulties — such as a payment plan, “Currently Not Collectible” hardship status, or a settlement if you qualify. If you would like more information, we have tax professionals on staff who can conduct an investigation into your tax situation and determine if you might qualify for some relief.

Jacob Dayan is co-founder of Community Tax LLC, a full-service tax company helping customers nationwide with tax resolution, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and accounting.

For help with your tax debt, check out Debt.com’s Tax Debt Solutions.

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About the Author

Jacob Dayan

Jacob Dayan

Jacob Dayan was born and raised in Chicago and worked in New York City as a financial analyst at Bear Stearns. In 2009, he returned to Chicago to be with his family and pursue a career assisting consumers and small businesses with various financial needs. In 2010, he co-founded Community Tax LLC, a full-service tax company helping customers nationwide with all of their tax resolution, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and accounting needs. He’s a licensed attorney in Illinois who graduated Magna Cum Laude from Mitchell Hamline School of Law and has worked with more than 60,000 clients – resolving more than $400 million in tax liabilities.

Published by Debt.com, LLC