Monday, June 22, 2009

The Hidden Problems with Forgiven Credit Card Debt

Let’s be honest, the economy is a nightmare. No one’s job is safe, people are losing their homes, and relying on their credit cards to make ends meet. Credit card companies are feeling the pinch too, and are responding by settling delinquent accounts for a fraction of what is owed.

Why would they do this? Simple: collection activities cost credit card company’s money. They have to pay the person calling you to nag about payments, they have to pay for all the letters and notices. And they may never recover all the money you owe. So, when a customer offers a lump sum payment to settle the entire debt, many companies are jumping at the chance. Moreover, whatever balance is not covered by the lump sum, the credit card company just forgives. Which is great for consumers… in the short-term.

Aside from the damage to your credit (though the delinquent payments certainly are not any better), there is a problem laying in wait for you next tax season. If your credit card company forgave your debt, the IRS calls that taxable income, reported to the IRS on a 1099-C. Oh yes, if you settle your $25,000 Visa bill for only $5,000, the “forgiven” twenty grand is now considered income. So, if you are taxed at 15%, your tax bill will increase by $3,000. The increased “income” can even bump you up into a higher tax bracket!

(It is important to note that if your debt is mortgage-related and is forgiven, this may NOT qualify as taxable income, thanks to the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act of 2007.)

You get your credit card debt handled, only to find a brand new tax debt waiting for you. What a trade off, eh? Of course there are some ways to get around this. A title 11 bankruptcy can relieve you of the tax debt. Or you can claim insolvency (i.e. your total debts are higher than the fair market value of your assets). Neither option sounds very appealing.

One would hope that the government would see this problem as a major issue, given the large numbers of people currently dealing with overwhelming credit card debts. However, to date, no legislation on par with the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act of 2007 has been introduced. And with the inherent inefficiency of Congress, any new legislation would likely be too late to help the millions of struggling Americans with debt today.

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