Cancellation of Debt


If you owe a debt to someone who cancels or forgives all or some of the debt, you are usually treated as having received income for income tax purposes, and you may have to pay tax on this income.

A debt includes debt you’re fully liable for like credit card debt and debt that you’re liable for only up to the value of property securing the debt such as a mortgage debt secured by a home in some states. A debt secured by property may be considered canceled because of a foreclosure, a repossession, you voluntarily returned the property to the lender, you abandoned the property, or because of a loan modification.

The amount of canceled debt is included in your income unless an exception or exclusion applies. This concept is explained in detail in What should I do? section below.

In general, if you’re liable for tax because a debt was canceled, forgiven, or discharged, you’ll receive an IRS Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, from the lender or the person who forgave the debt.

  • You may receive an IRS Form 1099-C while the creditor is still trying to collect the debt. If so, the creditor may not have canceled it. Contact the creditor and verify your situation.
  • You must report the canceled debt (one that doesn’t qualify for an exception or exclusion from gross income) on your income tax return whether you receive an IRS Form 1099-C.

Cancellation of Debt is a complex topic. You may consider consulting with a tax professional if you have additional questions. Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, which do not prepare tax returns unless you have a controversy with the IRS, may be able to help qualifying taxpayers with this issue.

Assess the debt

Review any IRS Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, you received for the year. If you believe the information on the form is wrong, contact the lender to correct it. If the payer (lender) won't correct the IRS Form 1099-C document, report the amount on your tax return but include an explanation as to why the payer's information is incorrect.

List any debts canceled during the year for which you didn’t receive an IRS Form 1099-C.

Determine whether the cancellation of debt is taxable income or if it qualifies for an exception or exclusion, which means it isn't taxable income.

  • Even if a canceled debt isn't taxable income, you may need to complete IRS Form 982, Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness (and Section 1082 Basis Adjustment), see below.

Exceptions and exclusions

There are several EXCEPTIONS to the requirement that you include canceled debt in income.  Canceled debt that’s not included in income can be:

  • Debt that’s canceled as a gift, bequest, devise, or inheritance;
  • Certain cancellations of student loans;
  • A payment of the debt that would have been a deductible expense for the tax year in which it was paid; and
    • For example:  Your mortgage company cancels the mortgage on your home. Part of the forgiven debt is interest that you could have deducted on your tax return if you’d paid it. The amount of interest forgiven isn't included in income.
  • A qualified purchase price reduction given by a seller.

Canceled debts that qualify for EXCLUSION from gross income are:

  • Debt canceled in a Title 11 bankruptcy case;
  • Debt canceled during insolvency;
    • You are insolvent when your total liabilities (what you owe) exceed (more than) the value of your total assets. You may use IRS Publication 4681, Insolvency Worksheet, to determine if your were insolvent just before the cancellation.
  • Cancellation of qualified farm indebtedness;
  • Cancellation of qualified real property business indebtedness; and
  • Cancellation of qualified principal home indebtedness.
    • This exclusion allows taxpayers to exclude up to $2,000,000 ($1,000,000 if married filing separately) of canceled "qualified principal residence indebtedness".

This exclusion allows taxpayers to exclude up to $2,000,000 ($1,000,000 if married filing separately) of canceled "qualified principal residence indebtedness".  This exclusion expires after December 31, 2016, unless the indebtedness discharged is a qualified principal residence discharged (i) before January 1, 2017, or (ii) subject to a written arrangement entered into before January 1, 2017. 

Filing your tax return

You must report any taxable amount of a canceled debt as ordinary income on IRS Form 1040 or IRS Form 1040NR tax returns.

To report the amount qualifying for exclusion and other information that may affect your tax liability in future years, you must file IRS Form 982, Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness (and Section 1082 Basis Adjustment).

  • For example: For cancellation of debt on your qualified principal residence that you exclude from income, you must lower your basis in the residence. This may increase the amount of gain you have if you later sell the residence.

Cancellation of Debt is a complex topic. You may consider consulting with a tax professional if you have additional questions. Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, which don’t prepare tax returns unless you have a controversy with the IRS, may be able to help taxpayers with this issue.

Different types of debt may have different tax treatments. For example: If your debt is secured by property and the lender takes the property to fully or partially satisfy your debt, you are treated as having “sold” that property and may have a taxable gain or loss. The gain or loss on such a “sale” is separate from any cancellation of debt income that you need to include on your return.

If you don't report the taxable amount of the canceled debt, the IRS may send you a notice proposing to assess additional tax and may audit your tax return.  In addition, the IRS may assess additional tax, penalties and interest.

I filed for bankruptcy. What happens to debt amounts then? See Publication 908, Bankruptcy Tax Guide, for information on taxable items under bankruptcy. Generally, if debt is canceled under the U.S. bankruptcy laws it is excludable from taxable income, but some exceptions and requirements apply.

Have a different tax issue?  Browse common issues and situations at Get Help.

Is your tax problem more complex?  If your issue is causing you financial hardship, you have tried repeatedly and aren't receiving a response from the IRS, or you feel your taxpayer rights are being violated, consider contacting Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS).

Do you feel that you need help from a tax professional but can’t afford one? You may be eligible for representation from an attorney, certified public accountant (CPA), or enrolled agent associated with a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Last modified December 15, 2017