Debt settlement ads are very attractive to individuals struggling with debt. The promise is to reach an agreement you can afford to pay. The debtor agrees to pay a percentage of the debt (usually in a lump sum), and the creditor agrees to release the remaining obligation. Sounds simple, right?
Unfortunately, many times the debtor will receive a nasty surprise in the mail: an IRS Form 1099-C: “Cancellation of Debt.” You see, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service considers forgiven or canceled debt as part of your income. In fact, any creditor who agrees to accept at least $600 less than the original balance is required to file a 1099-C form with the IRS and to send debtors a canceled debt notice. If you have negotiated a debt settlement, you must report the forgiven or canceled debt as income on your federal income tax return. This usually causes a tax debt, since no money was withheld from this “income.”
There is an exception to this situation. If you were insolvent at the time the debt was settled, the cancelled debt is not considered income. The IRS instructs the taxpayer to “determine your liabilities and the fair market value of your assets immediately before the cancellation of your debt to determine whether or not you are insolvent and the amount by which you are insolvent.” Let’s say your net assets after subtracting your liabilities amounts to $5,000. If you negotiate a debt settlement for $10,000, you must pay taxes on the first $5,000 of the cancelled debt. If your tax rate is 25%, you may Uncle Sam over a thousand dollars!
For debtors who have negotiated big savings through a debt settlement company, a large tax debt can be a slap in the face. Owing the federal government is much worse than owing a credit card company. Here are some interesting “facts” about owing the IRS:
- the IRS does not have to obtain a court judgment before garnishing your wages;
- recent tax debts are not dischargeable in bankruptcy;
- the IRS can intercept future tax refunds and even government benefits like social security to pay your income tax debt.
Congress has made sure that all debts discharged during bankruptcy are excluded from “Cancellation of Debt” income. If your debt is discharged, the debt cannot be collected from you in the future, and you owe no taxes on it. If you can afford to repay a part of a debt, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy will allow you to pay what you can afford, over three to five years, and the remaining debt is discharged without a “Cancellation of Debt” tax obligation. If you cannot afford to repay any part of the debt, a Chapter 7 can discharge the debt within a few short months.
Debt settlement often makes a bad situation worse. Before you commit to a settlement process to eliminate your debts, speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You deserve to know all of the consequences before agreeing to any financial program – including any potential tax liability. Your attorney can explain the pros and cons of debt settlement and bankruptcy, and can help you decide on the best course of action.