Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Taxes Are for Chumps! Underwater Investment Properties Don't Have to Get Soaked!

Last week there were grand articles decrying the fact that not only did GE, maybe one of the largest businesses in the world, not pay any US tax, it got a refund.  So, GE, according to the articles soaked the US government and tax payers alike. I studied U.S. International taxation at the University of Florida to learn how to do and assist companies like GE in accomplishing exactly that outcome.  No U.S. tax.  Is it right?, the rules make it okay.  Is it ethical?  Now that is a debate for philosophers and charlatans.  Suffice it to say, that the Tax Code written by your duly elected congressmen is rife with loop holes that would allow a behemoth like GE to walk through and even some that a small real estate investor can squeeze through too, if he, or she, knows where to look.  Its tight fit, but it acts like a squeegee so you don't get soaked.

I do some digging on AVVO.com an attorney locating website that allows attorneys to answer questions and bump up their rankings.  There was a question presented by a woman, who prior to marrying her husband, had purchased a home to use as a rental income property.  She had the home up for short sale, which implies that it was underwater or upside down, and thus it was also possible it was in danger of foreclosure.  Right up my alley, right?  Her question was, "Is there something other than "insolvency" that I can claim so I don't have to pay "COD" income on the forgiven debt?"

First, let's define a few things.  COD or cancellation of debt, or discharge of indebtedness, income arises under Internal Revenue Code Section 61(a)(12) and is basically the theory that when you take out a loan, you have cash (even though you probably never saw the cash) and that when the loan is forgiven without paying for it, the cash you supposedly had is now income.  Next, insolvency is not bankruptcy insolvency, because the IRS doesn't allow for exemptions like a homestead.  Insolvency is basically you total up all your assets and subtract all your liablities, and if you come out with a negative number, you are insolvent.

The issue the woman was struggling with is that her other assets probably are fairing better than her rental property but she doesn't want to liquidate performing assets to pay the government for what she likely has as a loss on her rental property. Essentially, she isn't insolvent, does she still have to pay the tax.

The first poster to this woman's question went on and on about mortgage forgiveness act of 2007 and was really far off, because he never once looked at IRC section 108(a)(1)(D) which allows for the exclusion of qualified real property business indebtedness income, a fancy way of saying a mortgage on a rental property that is forgiven.

That section, for real estate investor who haven't put their property inside a C-Corporation, and anyone that puts real property in a corporation should shoot their adviser (can I say that in light of Arizona?), is like gold.  Its not perfect, because there are some things to be aware of, but essentially, the investor can exclude from gross income, the amount of COD income that is attributed to the house being underwater.  The investor must subtract that amount from the basis of depreciable property, so the investor will defer the tax, but as Professor Lokken used to say, and probably still says even though he is in Miami, deferment, if done long enough is like a credit. 

So, the doom sayers and charlatans that say your rental property is going to leave you with enormous debts to the IRS probably haven't read through the entire section on excluding COD income.  Remember, to read to the end of the page, otherwise you might get soaked.  Insolvency and Bankruptcy are not the only ways of avoiding this kind of taxable income and even a well healed investor with a bad property can side step paying taxes on COD income if they find the right adviser to keep them dry.

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