Mortgage relief help may get extension
WASHINGTON — Here's some encouraging news for financially stressed homeowners across the country: The Senate Finance Committee approved a bipartisan bill before heading home for summer recess that would extend the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act through 2013.
Why is this important? The debt relief law spares homeowners who receive principal reductions on their mortgages from being hit with hefty federal income taxes on the amounts forgiven. Without it, millions of owners who go through foreclosure or leave their homes following short sales would experience even more financial stress.
The law — which has also provided relief to thousands of people who have debt balances written off as part of loan-modification agreements and is crucial to the $25 billion federal-state robo-signing settlement with large banks — is set to expire Dec. 31. Some Capitol Hill analysts predicted that, along with a host of other special-interest tax benefits, an extension might have trouble making it through the partisan gantlet in an election year.
But the Senate committee managed to pull together enough votes Aug. 2 to pass the debt-relief extension. The bill, which now moves to the full Senate for possible action next month, also would extend tax write-offs for mortgage insurance premiums for 2012 and through 2013, and continue some energy-efficiency tax credits for remodelings and new home construction.
Under the federal tax code, all types of forgiven debt are treated as ordinary income, subject to regular tax rates. But in 2007, Congress saw the fast-mounting distress in the housing market on the horizon and agreed to temporarily exempt certain mortgage balances that are forgiven by lenders. The limit is $2 million in debt cancellation for married individuals filing jointly, $1 million for single filers. This special exemption, however, came with a time restriction. The current deadline is Dec. 31. Without a formal extension by Congress, starting on Jan. 1 all mortgage balances written off by banks would be fully taxable.
The mortgage insurance deduction is another key housing benefit that made it into the Senate committee's 11th-hour extender bill. Mortgage insurance generally is required whenever home purchasers make small down payments, whether on conventional, private market loans or government programs. Under a provision in the tax code that expired last December, certain borrowers could write off their mortgage insurance premiums on their federal income taxes, just as they do with mortgage interest. To qualify for a full deduction, borrowers could not have adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000 ($50,000 for married taxpayers filing separate returns).
The Senate's bill would extend the write-off retroactively to this past Jan. 1, and would continue it through December 2013. No buyer or owner who planned to write off premiums during 2012 would be penalized, in other words, despite the expiration last December.
The outlook for the extenders: Given the popularity of the housing deductions and credits, look for supporters to press the full Senate for early action in September in order to get these issues settled before Election Day. If there are serious objections in the Republican-controlled House, however, then all bets are off until the lame-duck session, when election losers as well as winners get to write federal tax policy.