Thursday, October 25, 2007

The IRS Giveth, and the IRS Taketh Away

If you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, when tax law changes to benefit one segment of the population (resulting in a loss of revenue to the IRS), there is usually some other change that reduces benefits to a different population segment, thus making up for the former loss.

Such is exactly what will happen if pending legislation passes into law.

HR 3648, or the Mortgage Cancellation Tax Relief Act, passed the House of Representatives Oct. 4, 2007 and is up for consideration in the Senate. If the bill becomes law, its tighter restrictions may require a new strategy for some investors.

Here is the gist in laymen’s terms of what this might mean to the average investor.

If you are in danger of foreclosure on your existing mortgage, a buyer may make a deal with your lender to purchase your home for less than what you owe. You are “forgiven” the difference from the lender, but under current tax law you must declare this forgiven amount as income on your tax return and pay income tax on money you don’t have. If you are already having trouble making mortgage payments, you often have trouble coming up with this extra tax payment and you are back to square one.

HR 3648 would exempt you from having to declare this as income in this situation. That’s the good news, but that’s a lot of money the IRS would be losing.

So, in order to save those with mortgage issues, the proposal is to tighten the rules for taking some personal exclusions on primary residences. Currently, if you own and live in your home for at least 2 of the last 5 years, you are allowed a personal exclusion of 250K if single and 500K if married filing jointly for capital gain when you sell.

What patient and savvy planners have been doing is selling their primary residences, taking the exclusion and moving into their appreciated second home or investment property for 2 years and then selling it and taking another exclusion to once again avoid capital gains tax.

What HR 3648 will do is limit the amount of exclusion available to you to the gain accrued only during the time you reside in that second property. So, if the property had increased in value by 300K prior to you moving in, then another 100K in the 2 years you resided in it, your exclusion would be limited to 100K when you sold and not the currently allowed 400K total gain (if married).

As with any tax law, if you are in neither of these situations you probably could care less. If you fall into the second category you will need a “plan B” to minimize your capital gains. Just be aware that laws constantly change and what is true today may be obsolete tomorrow. It’s a full time job just keeping up!

Paula Straub
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