Senate ‘Cliff’ Bill Retains Mortgage Cancellation Relief

Tax rates would remain the same for most households and mortgage cancellation relief is extended in a budget package passed by the U.S. Senate early this morning to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. The House today could take up the bill, which NAR has been monitoring closely because the fiscal cliff’s automatic tax increases and federal spending cuts involve programs important to real estate and impact household wealth. Based on what the House does, the provisions in the Senate bill could change in the final bill. UPDATE: President Barack Obama has signed the agreement into law.

The “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012’’ passed on a bipartisan 89-9 vote in the middle of the night and extends current tax rates for all households earning less than $450,000, and $400,000 for individual filers. For households earning above these limits, tax rates would revert to where they were in 2003, when taxes were reduced across the board. That means taxpayers in the highest bracket would pay taxes on ordinary income at a rate of 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent.

The tax rate on capital gains would also remain the same, at 15 percent, for most households, but for those earning above the $400,000-$450,000 threshold, the rate would rise to 20 percent.

Importantly from NAR’s perspective, the exclusion from taxes for gains on the sale of a principal residence of up to $500,000 ($250,000 for individuals) remains in effect, so only home sellers whose income is $450,000 or above and the gain on the sale of their house is above $500,000 would pay taxes on the excess capital gains at the higher rate (with corresponding numbers for individual filers). For the vast majority of home sellers, there is no change.

The bill also reinstates provisions that phase out personal exemptions and deductions for incomes over $250,000 for singles and $300,000 for couples.

A number of what lawmakers call extenders are in the bill. Extenders keep in place expiring tax provisions. Of most interest to real estate, the bill would extend mortgage cancellation relief for home owners or sellers who have a portion of their mortgage debt forgiven by their lender, typically in a short sale or foreclosure sale for sellers and in a modification for owners. Without the extension, any debt forgiven would be taxable, which, for underwater households, represents a financial burden. The extension is for one year and is in Sec. 202 of the bill.

Also extended is the deduction for mortgage insurance premiums.

In two other important provisions, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) is permanently adjusted for inflation, making it unnecessary for Congress to adjust it each year. The AMT was enacted in 1969 to help ensure a minimum tax bill for high-income households that would otherwise minimize their taxes by shielding much of their income in deductions and using other tax strategies. Because it was never indexed to inflation, AMT threatens to catch middle-income households in the tax, so Congress each year adjusts it. Now the adjustment would be permanent.

The other key provision is a change in the estate tax so that estates would be taxed at a top rate of 40 percent, with the first $5 million in value exempted for individual estates and $10 million for family estates. Currently, the top rate is 35 percent.

The other side of the fiscal cliff is hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts, with a disproportionate share of the cuts affecting defense spending. The Senate bill would push back the deadline for the cuts for two months.

Previous coverage of the fiscal cliff.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is director of multimedia communications for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. He can be reached at

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  1. Jon

    Did the bill do anything to the mortgage interest tax deduction?

  2. Steve

    We really needed to extend unemployment???? How about we make it a bit easier to put these people back to work and re-evaluate the testing to see who gets the extension?! There are thousands just milking the system and have no intention of going to work until they are forced to

  3. Robert Freedman

    The mortgage cancellation relief extension is for one year in Sec. 202 of the bill:

    21 (a) IN GENERAL.—Subparagraph (E) of section
    22 108(a)(1) is amended by striking ‘‘January 1, 2013’’ and
    23 inserting ‘‘January 1, 2014’’.

  4. In general sounds good. As usual they only go for a year at a time. I too would like to know about the mortgage interest deduction? Is it still intact? Tks for the good information.

  5. Julie Fisher

    Republicans and Democrats have failed to educate the public about Social Security and how it works and how it is funded. Both parties project the notion that Social Security is partly to blame for the high Federal deficit. It is NOT!

    There is NO reason why Social Security should be included in any Federal deficit reduction deal. Social Security is NOT and NEVER was funded by the general Federal budget. The Federal budget is funded by various other taxes, like income taxes.

    Social Security (SS) is its own seperate fund; it is an INSURANCE that is funded by a fee (the SS tax) that is charged to employees and employers and is totally seperate from the general (Federal) budget fund.

    Social Security is currently solvent (i.e. has sufficient funds) for about 30 years into the future and only needs very minor adjustments to make it solvent for about 45 years beyond that. So, yes, let’s make those minor adjustments, but that is an entirely seperate issue from the Federal deficit.

    Republicans are trying to reduce the Federal deficit by cutting Social Security benefits, which they call “an entitlement”. That word “entitlement” has a meaning. It means that you, by virtue of paying the Social Security tax, are ENTITLED to the benefits promised.

    Social Security is like car insurance or life insurance. You pay a fee, and you are entitled to collect payment from the insurance company under clearly defined circumstances.

    Imagine your reaction if you paid your car insurance fees for 40 years, but in year 40 you had a car accident, and the insurance company said, “Gee, we know you paid the fees and are still current on your payments, but we’ve decided that we are NOT going to pay you to fix your car; instead we’re going to send you a used skateboard for transportation. Also, we (the insurance company) made some really bad investments in a seperate account we have, and we lost a lot of money, so we’re going to use the money we saved by not paying for your car repair to balance that other entirely seperate and unrelated investment account.

    Would you agree to that? I think not! You paid the fees into an insurance fund, and you deserve (i.e. are “entitled to”) the full payout. That’s the Social Security deal, end of story.

    Medicare is also funded by an entirely seperate fee (tax) and is also its own seperate fund. Medicare has some serious problems that need to be corrected to make Medicare solvent into the future, but it can be done largely through increasing efficiency, like the Veterans Administration hospitals have done by streamlining administrative costs, largely by consolidated and centralizing medical records and access to those records. VA medical care has improved greatly and costs have been substantially lowered.

    George W. Bush and the Republicans pushed Medicare costs higher by NOT allowing Medicare Part D to negotiate lower rates with pharmaceutical providers. It was a windfall of profits for the drug companies, and it dramatically escalated Medicare costs. Any private company, particularly large companies, routinely negotiate with providers for much lower fees, so why can’t Medicare do the same?

    Let’s demand from our politicians that they speak of these SEPERATE funds seperately and make corrections to each fund (Federal Fund, Social Security Fund, and Medicare fund) independly from the other funds. To do otherwise is to simply steal money from one fund to pay off the debts of another fund, and that is NOT the promise that was made to Americans who paid for Social Security and Medicare insurances.

  6. Constance R walton

    I agree with the article by Julie. It appears that funds were borrowed from the Social Security Fund. Were those funds ever repaid? I am having a problem with the word “entitlement.” When these funds were being deducted from my paycheck I never heard the word entitlement.

  7. * Loan-to-Value Ratio (LTV) — The relationship of
    a mortgage to the appraised value of the property. After all you still need to budget for food, clothing,
    transportation and other living expenses, not to mention vacations
    and other leisure activities. Did you take out a shorter loan than you
    should have.