Friday, June 19, 2015

A Representative’s Tax Proposal for Credit Card Debt Forgivenesss

I am reading that Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) has proposed a change to the tax Code allowing forgiveness of credit card balances to be nontaxable.

I have two questions for you:

First, what is it with politicians from California?

Second, did you know that credit card forgiveness was taxable?

The tax Code is based on the concept of an increase in net wealth. The concept is simple, although it causes difficulty in application. Let’s look at the following example:
Monday morning you have to your name

Tuesday the credit card company forgave

Friday you got paid

You put gas in your car

You bought lunch all week

Friday afternoon you have to your name


You went from being worth $400 to being worth $1,425. Does that mean that you have $1,025 of income to report to the tax man? No, but you are thinking along the correct lines. Not every addition in our example is taxable, and not every subtraction is deductible. Let’s look at each.

  •  $125 of your credit card balance was forgiven.

Code section 108 addresses the taxability when somebody forgives your debt. There are five subcategories:

·        108(a)(1)(A) applies in bankruptcy
·        108(a)(1)(B) applies if you are insolvent
·        108(a)(1)(C) applies to farm debt
·        108(a)(1)(D) applies to certain business debt
·        108(a)(1)(E) applies to your mortgage

I am not seeing an exception for credit cards, so for the time being it looks like the $125 will be income. I am assuming that you are not insolvent (meaning that you owe more than you are worth) or in bankruptcy (which sometimes follows owing more than you are worth).

  • Your paycheck

That one is obvious. We should be thankful the government does not just decide to have all paychecks sent to them, allowing them to decide how much to return to us.

  •  Buying gas and a week’s worth of lunches

Code section 262 disallows tax deductions for personal, living and family expenses. Granted, another Code section may override and allow a deduction for specific expenses (such as medical), but in general one cannot deduct groceries, utilities, rent and similar day-to-day-living expenses.

I would say that you have taxable income of $125 plus $1,000 = $1,125.

The credit card is a subset of “forgiveness of indebtedness” taxation. The seminal case is Kirby Lumber, which was decided by the Supreme Court back in 1931. Kirby Lumber had previously issued bonds of over $12 million. They later bought back the bonds for $137,000 less. The question before the Court was whether that $137,000 represented taxable income. It does seem a bit odd that someone can have income just from transacting in debt, but if you think of it as accession to wealth the tax reasoning becomes clearer. At the end of the day Kirby Lumber was worth $137,000 more (as it had less net debt), and the government wanted its cut.

Back to Representative Sun-Dance-Whispered-By-Hidden-Shadow, or whatever he is called back in his native land.

He is proposing that forgiveness of credit cards be excluded from income.

However, the most that a person could exclude from lifetime income is capped at $2,500.

Say that you excluded $1,000 in 2014. Under his proposal, the most you could exclude – over the rest of your life – is another $1,500. You cannot exclude more than $2,500 over your lifetime.

My first thought is that $2,500 is not enough to move the needle, if someone really got into credit card and personal debt problems. I have known and heard of people who have run up a mortgage-level balance on their credit cards.

My second thought is whether this is a wise use of the public purse. Congress provided a mortgage interest deduction because it wanted to increase home ownership. It provided a charitable deduction to promote societal benevolence and reduce strain on the public safety net. What is Congress saying by providing an exclusion for not repaying credit card debt?

And you can see how bad tax law happens. There is no theory of wealth creation, case precedence or administrative practicality at play with this proposal. An elected bludger panders, laws are passed without being read and the tax system (both the IRS and advisors) is left to making sense out of nonsense.    

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