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Canceled Student Loan Debt Creates Tax Nightmare

Gerri Detweiler

When Kim Thompson’s $91,000 student loan balance was canceled due to total disability, she thought she had put at least one of her problems behind her. Instead, she traded it for another: a massive debt to the IRS.

Three years ago, Thompson, who lives in New Jersey, was diagnosed with a tumor that eventually led to the removal of most of her small intestine, a pulmonary embolism, and 12-hour-a-day IV feeding sessions. She retired from her job on a disability pension in July 2010, and was able to get her federal student loans canceled.

There was no mention, however, that the debt would be reported to the IRS as Cancellation of Debt Income (CODI).

“They didn’t tell me it was taxable income,” she says. “I had no idea.”

The Tax Man Will Come

The IRS considers most types of canceled debt taxable income. Lenders must report canceled debts of $600 or more to the IRS on a 1099-C form. The IRS estimates some 6.3 million 1099-Cs — for all types of debts, including student loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc. — were filed reporting CODI for the 2011 tax year.

Not all canceled student loan debt is taxable. If Thompson’s debt had been forgiven because she worked in a job that qualified her to have some or all of her debt wiped out (certain medical, teaching or law enforcement positions, for example) she wouldn’t now owe the IRS some $26,000. In addition, she owes $5,000 to the state of New Jersey for cancellation of debt income.

But there is no tax break for student loan debt that has been canceled due to disability, despite the fact that borrowers who qualify for cancellation are considered totally and permanently disabled, and may never work again. In fact, the Department of the Treasury has specifically stated that student loans canceled due to the Death and Disability Discharge (Section 437(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965) are taxable.

Your Options

Another option, the insolvency exclusion, which requires debtors to be insolvent immediately prior to the discharge, may have allowed her to avoid paying taxes on some or all of the $91,000 of CODI. Thompson’s accountant concluded she did not qualify, though she’s has some doubt as to whether that’s true.

“The (IRS) forms are incredibly confusing,” she notes.

As a former social worker with a master’s degree, Thompson says she’s not intimidated by government forms. She filled out all her paperwork to file for disability on her own, for example. However, even though she spent hours researching the rules surrounding cancellation of debt income, she found no relief for her situation. She tried calling the IRS for assistance. The first time she called, she says the IRS representative hung up on her. The second time, she says she waited on hold for more than an hour and was then told to call back after she filed her tax return. She claims that ultimately she was warned that if she couldn’t pay the amount due, the IRS would put a tax lien on her house and report her to the credit reporting agencies. (We’ve reached out to the IRS a number of times on this and other issues relating to the 1099-C, but to date haven’t gotten a response.)

Thompson isn’t the only one who has been struggling with this issue. A reader, Debbie, recently commented on the Credit.com blog:

I have a friend that got two 1099-Cs for cancellation of student loans (federal) due to total disability due to cancer of her husband in Jan 2011.  However, her husband passed away in May 2011…This is just another burden on my friend and I am trying to help her out in all ways possible.  She really freaked since the total of the loans were close to $139,000 and she can’t afford to count that as income.

And reader T.Long commented on the same story:

I had student loan forgiven around for $75,000 this loan was in 1994 I have not a full time job since that time. I received 1099c from NElNet. What are the ways I can be exempt from this tax other then being insolvent by using form 982? If do have to use form 982 and claim insolvent what type attachments (do) I have send along with 982.

And another reader named Kim commented:

My student loans were discharged. I am on Social Security. Do I have to file the 1099-C I received for $62,000? My student loans were discharged due to total disability and I don’t file taxes because Social Security is non-taxable….HELP!!!!

Thompson, who says she would work if she could, is indignant about a policy that forces disabled borrowers like her to trade one type of debt for another.

“There’s a reason my student loans were wiped out and I think they should consider it,” she insists. “It’s just one more thing that I have to worry about.”

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