Donald Trump’s taxes have been a centerpiece of the election cycle — but the particular tax issues he’s faced have likely been beyond the pale for average Americans. Questions about releasing his returns, how much he’s donated to charity and whether his nine-figure losses should have offset his federal income tax responsibilities are not the kind of things most of us have to deal with as the April 15 tax deadline looms.
That changed a bit earlier this week, however, with a story in the New York Times that looked at how Trump was able to avoid reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in taxable income in the 1990s. It turns out the issues he may have been dealing with aren’t necessarily so different than those faced by millions of Americans — albeit on a much larger scale.
How Canceled Debt Affects Your Taxes
The issue revolves around canceled debt. When someone owes a bank some money, and they are no longer able to pay that money back, they may negotiate with the bank for a cancellation of all or a portion of that debt. This can happen in foreclosures, short sales and even when people owe money on their credit cards that they can’t afford to pay.
Let’s say, for example, you owe $25,000 on a credit card, but you simply can’t afford to pay it all back, and the interest and fees make it unlikely that you’ll ever be able to pay it back. You call up the bank and explain the situation and they agree to do a deal wherein you pay them $10,000 and they forgive the remaining $15,000. In addition to the credit consequences (that $15,000 in canceled debt will likely be documented on your credit report) there are tax consequences too. The IRS treats canceled debt like this as income, which means you’ll have to pay taxes on it, just as you would for your salary. People in this situation will often get a form called a 1099-C in the mail which documents this tax liability. Sometimes these forms come many years after the debt is forgiven. We’ve written about 1099-C problems extensively in the past and many people have no idea about potential tax liabilities when they are negotiating debt forgiveness with a financial institution. In fact, nearly 6 million Americans get 1099-Cs in the mail every year.
Trump’s Canceled Debts
So what does any of this have to do with Trump? A New York Times story by David Barstow, Mike McIntire, Patricia Cohen, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner published earlier this week looked at how the mogul allegedly dealt with his canceled debts in connection to overall losses in his casino business.
“As that empire floundered in the early 1990s, Mr. Trump pressured his financial backers to forgive hundreds of millions of dollars in debt he could not repay. While the cancellation of so much debt gave new life to Mr. Trump’s casinos, it created a potentially crippling problem with the Internal Revenue Service. In the eyes of the I.R.S., a dollar of canceled debt is the same as a dollar of taxable income. This meant Mr. Trump faced the painful prospect of having to report the hundreds of millions of dollars of canceled debt as if it were hundreds of millions of dollars of taxable income.”
So what did Trump do? According to the Times, he may have been able to offset those tax liabilities by using a stock-for-debt swap provision that existed in the tax code at the time. Here’s how the Times describes it:
“The strategy, known among tax practitioners as a “stock-for-debt swap,” relies on mathematical sleight of hand. Say a company can repay only $60 million of a $100 million bank loan. If the bank forgives the remaining $40 million, the company faces a large tax bill because it will have to report that canceled $40 million debt as taxable income.
Clever tax lawyers found a way around this inconvenience. The company would simply swap stock for the $40 million in debt it could not repay. This way, it would look as if the entire $100 million loan had been repaid, and presto: There would be no tax bill due for $40 million in canceled debt.
Best of all, it did not matter if the actual market value of the stock was considerably less than the $40 million in canceled debt. (Stock in an effectively insolvent company could easily be next to worthless.) Even in the opaque, rarefied world of gaming impenetrable tax regulations, this particular maneuver was about as close as a company could get to waving a magic wand and making taxes disappear.”
According to the Times, Trump allegedly stretched this strategy one step forward by swapping debt with partnership equity in his then-flailing casinos.
Trump, who is no fan of the New York Times, declined to comment for the article. (His campaign also did not respond immediately to Credit.com’s request for comment.) Trump’s spokesperson, Holly Hicks, did send the Times this statement in an email: “Your email suggests either a fundamental misunderstanding or an intentional misreading of the law… Your thesis is a criticism, not just of Mr. Trump, but of all taxpayers who take the time and spend the money to try to comply with the dizzyingly complex and ambiguous tax laws without paying more tax than they owe. Mr. Trump does not think that taxpayers should file returns that resolve all doubt in favor of the I.R.S. And any tax experts that you have consulted are engaged in pure speculation. There is no news here.”
So how does all of this this relate to the average American who may have gotten a 1099-C in the mail and is facing a steep tax bill because of canceled debt? Well, given Congress banned stock-for-debt swaps in 1993 and equity-for-debt partnerships back in 2004 in order to eliminate the potential for abuse, no one will be able to replicate the strategy The Times alleged Trump to have used. Nevertheless, imagine if this option were available to everyday Americans. What might it look like?
Let’s go back to our earlier example: the $25,000 credit card debt. Let’s say the bank has agreed to forgive the whole thing, but you don’t want to get stuck paying income taxes on that $25,000. Since you’re an average American who doesn’t have stock to trade away and can’t do a “stock-for-debt swap,” let’s call this a “sock-for-debt swap.” You send the bank a cardboard box full of your old socks and tell them that they are worth $25,000. They bank doesn’t really care, because they’ve already forgiven the debt and written it off their books, but you get to tell the IRS that the bank hasn’t really “forgiven” anything. You traded that credit card debt for $25,000 worth of fabulous, beautiful, old socks. So you’re in the clear.
What to Do if You Get a 1099-C
The reality is most Americans can’t make much of an argument when they get a 1099-C in the mail. Still, there are a few steps you can take if you are really in dire straits and can’t afford to pay.
Consumers might be able to avoid paying taxes on canceled debts by claiming the insolvency exclusion. Per the IRS, a taxpayer is insolvent when their total liabilities exceed his or her total assets. You may also be able to avoid paying if the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. You can go here to learn more about what to do if you get a 1099-C.
It also helps in these situations to pull a copy of your credit report. They can help you understand and confirm the dates and amounts listed on the form. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view your free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Michael Schreiber is Credit.com's Editor-In-Chief. He's worked in print and online news as well as documentaries for The New York Times, Frontline, ABC News, TheStreet.com and others. He attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he was also an adjunct professor. More by Michael Schreiber