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California Association of REALTORS® President Kevin Brown announced this morning the successful outcome of C.A.R.’s work with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to protect distressed homeowners from debt relief income tax associated with a short sale in California. As part of this effort, Senator Boxer requested the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to provide guidance on whether mortgage debt forgiveness in a lender-approved short sale would be taxable income under federal law, given California’s recent non-recourse laws for short sales, which were hard fought victories by C.A.R.

The IRS has clarified in a letter that California’s troubled homeowners who sell their homes in a short sale are not subject to federal income tax liability on “phantom income” they never received. The IRS recognizes that the debt written off in a short sale does not constitute recourse debt under California law, and thus does not create so-called “cancellation of debt” income to the underwater home seller for federal income tax purposes. This clarification rescues tens of thousands of distressed home sellers from personal liability upon expiration of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 on December 31, 2013.

C.A.R. is seeking a similar ruling from the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB), which has been awaiting the IRS action. C.A.R. anticipates the FTB will act promptly. Short sales may raise other tax issues and, as always, homeowners should speak with their tax professional regarding the tax consequences of a short sale.

The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) is urging REALTORS® to contact their representatives in Congress and tell them to extend the Mortgage Forgiveness Tax Relief. The Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS® (SILVAR) is asking its members to answer NAR’s Call for Action because it is crucial to the continuation of a housing recovery that Congress extend this tax relief to distressed homeowners.

If Congress does not extend the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 by the end of this year, homeowners will have to pay income tax on the portion of their mortgage that is forgiven in a foreclosure, short sale or principal reduction. Homeowners should not be forced to pay a tax on money they have already lost with cash they never received. 

Despite many positive signs of recovery, the U.S. real estate market is still fragile. Over a quarter of all transactions still involve distressed properties. Without an extension, families engaged in loan modifications, short sales, or foreclosures will face a big tax bill, according to NAR.

The Issue Brief about the Mortgage Cancellation Tax Relief NAR has produced will provide more information on why it is important for Congress to extend the tax relief as soon as possible.

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