Showing posts with label forgiven debt as taxable income. Show all posts
Showing posts with label forgiven debt as taxable income. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Senator Elizabeth's Student-Loan Forgiveness Plan Isn't Radical: The Feds are Already Forgiving Billions of Dollars in Student Debt

Adam Levitin, writing for Credit Slip, made a profound observation about Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal to forgive massive amounts of student-loan debt.  Her harsh critics, Levitin, writes, moan and grown about the morality of contracts, the unfairness of allowing some student borrowers to escape their legal obligations, and the enormous cost of forgiving billions of dollars of accumulated student-loan debt.

In Levitin's view, these critics are only demonstrating that they don't know anything about how the federal student-loan program works. If they did, Levitin explains, they would know that "we crossed the debt forgiveness Rubicon long, long ago." In fact, enormous debt forgiveness is already "baked into the federal student loan program."

Levitin is absolutely right. Far less than half of student borrowers who have entered into repayment are paying down the principal of their loans. Millions of student-loan debtors have their loans in deferment, which means they aren't paying anything on their debt. Another 7.5 million borrowers are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) with their repayment schedules set so low that their monthly payments don't even cover accruing interest on their loan balances.

And then we have the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which allows qualified public-service workers to make income-based payments for 10 years, after which their loan balances are forgiven. How many people are in the PSLF  program (or think they are in it)? We don't really know, but well over a million student borrowers have applied to become PSLF eligible.

Even Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, publicly admitted that the student loan program is a mess. As DeVos revealed last November, only one borrower out of four are paying down both principal and interest on their student-loan debt.  Almost one out of five borrowers are delinquent on their loans or in default. And 43 percent of student loans, by DeVos's calculation, are currently "in distress."

As Mr. Levitin succinctly put it:
The only real difference between Senator Warren's proposal and the existing forgiveness  feature in the student loan program is whether the forgiveness comes in a fell swoop or is dribbled out over time. Given the federal government's infinite time horizon, the difference is really just an accounting matter. 
In other words, to baldly state the point, millions of student-loan debtors aren't paying back their loans and never will. Probably half of the $1.56 trillion in outstanding student loans will never be paid back.

Levitin argues that all student borrowers should be enrolled in income-based repayment plans by default when they finish their studies.  But I disagree. Putting every college graduate into a 20- or 25-year repayment plan is basically making these degree recipients indentured servants for the government--bound to pay a percentage of their wages to the Department of Education for a majority of their working lives.  If we do that, we will have basically created a permanent underclass of 21st century sharecroppers.

Moreover, as Levitin correctly points out, there is an enormous psychological benefit to Senator Warren's plan, which grants immediate debt forgiveness rather than dribbling it over over two decades or more in income-based repayment plans. "Consumers feel weighed down by the stock of their debt, even if they won't actually have to repay a large chunk of it." Indeed, it is well established that student-loan debt is preventing Americans from buying homes, having children, or saving for their retirement.

And then there is a rarely discussed problem with  the current debt-forgiveness system: tax liability. People whose loans are forgiven after a quarter century of making income-based payments will get tax bills for the amount of their forgiven debt because the IRS considers forgiven loans as taxable income.  Of course that problem could be easily fixed if Congress would enact legislation making forgiven student-loan debt nontaxable.

But Congress hasn't done that. Why? Because our politicians want to pretend that the federal student loan program isn't broken. It's like that old explanation of the Russian economy during the days of the Soviet Union. "The government pretends to pay us," a proletarian explained, "and we pretend to work."

Student-loan debtors: The new sharecroppers



Sunday, October 22, 2017

Department of Education forgives student-loan debt owed by a wounded veteran, but the IRS sends him a tax bill for $62,000

At age 40, Will Milzarski, an attorney, took leave from his state government job to return to the U.S. Army. After completing officer training, he served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. where he led more than 200 combat missions.

On his last day in combat, Milzarski was wounded in the face, which left him with a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  He was later determined to be totally disabled.

Milzarski returned to civilian life with $223,000 in student-loan debt, most of it acquired to obtain a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. In accordance with its policy, the Department of Education forgave all of that debt due to Milzarski's disability status.

But then this wounded veteran received a surprise. The IRS considers forgiven debt to be taxable income, and thus it sent Milzarski a tax bill for $62,000.

Milzarski summarized his experience well. "One part of our government says, 'We recognized your service, we recognize your inability to work," Milzarski said. "The other branch says 'Give us your blood.' Well, the U.S. Army already took a lot of my blood."

Nearly 400,000 disabled Americans have student-loan debt, and this obscure tax provision impacts nearly all of them. Although they are entitled to have their student loans forgiven due to their disability status, this forgiveness comes with a tax bill.

And disabled student-loan debtors are not the only people affected by the IRS forgiven-loans rule. More than 5 million student-loan debtors are in long-term, income-driven repayment plans (IDRs), and most of them are making monthly payments so low that they are not repaying the accumulated interest.

Under the terms of all IDRs (there are several varieties), college borrowers who successfully complete their 20- or 25-year repayment plans are entitled to have any remaining debt forgiven. But IDR participants, like retired Lieutenant Milzarski, will get a tax bill for the forgiven debt.

Obviously, this state of affairs is insane. President Obama recommended a repeal of the IRS rule when he was in office, but nothing  came of his suggestion.

Surely a bill to repeal the IRS forgiven-debt rule would receive bipartisan support in Congress. Who could decently oppose a repeal? In fact, President Trump can probably reverse the rule that is persecuting Mr. Milzarski simply by signing an executive order.

I predict, however, that  that nothing will be done about this problem--either legislatively or by executive action. Washington DC is in so much partisan turmoil that almost nothing positive is getting done. Under current tax law, millions of student borrowers in income-driven repayment plans will have huge tax bills waiting for them when they complete their repayment obligations and have their remaining student-loan debt forgiven.

And unlike retired Lieutenant Milzarski, who is in his forties, most IDR participants will be in their sixties or seventies when their tax bills arrive in the mail. And if they can't pay their taxes, that will not be the government's problem. The IRS will simply garnish their Social Security checks.


Retired Lieutenant Will Milzarski (photo credit Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP
References

Associated Press. Wounded Michigan vet gets student loan debt forgiven, but now IRS wants $62,000. Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2017.

Jillian Berman. Why Obama is forgiving the student loans of almost 400,000 peopleMarketwatch.com, April 13, 2016.

Judith Putnam. Student debt forgiven, but wounded vet gets $62,000 tax bill. USA Today, October 20, 2017.

Michael Stratford. Feds May Forgive Loans of Up to 387,000 BorrowersInside Higher Ed, April 13, 2016.