WASHINGTON -- Struggling homeowners could be hit with an unexpected tax bill in the new year.
A law that spared people who owe more than their homes are worth from being saddled with extra taxes when their banks provide mortgage relief is expiring next week. Congress hasn't extended it.
Underwater homeowners often try to negotiate with their bank so that they can sell their homes for less than they owe in a short sale or have their mortgage balance reduced. But the difference between what the homeowner owes and the lower sales price approved by the bank is considered income for the homeowner and subject to tax by the Internal Revenue Service.
For example, someone with a $100,000 mortgage who is allowed to sell their house for $80,000 is supposed to pay taxes on the remaining $20,000.
But a law known as the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act saved such homeowners from the tax burden. Last year, Congress rushed to extend the law during negotiations about the so-called fiscal cliff, but only through the end of 2013. Now it's down to the wire again.
Lawmakers and housing advocates argue that the rule hurts those who are already financially strapped. Since 2009, more than 220,000 homeowners have sold their houses for less than they were worth through a short sale with help from a government program. There are more than 6 million homes still underwater across the country, according to a third-quarter report from research company CoreLogic.
That is down from more than 11 million homes during the peak of the housing crisis in 2009, but it shows that despite the sector's strong recovery, many homeowners aren't out of the woods.
"What you're looking at is people who have lost their house," said Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. "And then to have them hit with this [tax] just boggles the mind."
Maryland -- which has more than 214,000 homes with negative equity -- plans to extend a measure exempting its residents from state taxes even if the federal law expires. The state took the same step last year and was one of the few to do so.
"We saw that thousands of Maryland homeowners would be suddenly getting this tax burden," said Del. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery.
Zucker is among a group of Maryland lawmakers, including Gov. Martin O' Malley, D, who are pushing to get the measure extended as soon as the state legislature returns to session in January.
At the federal level, there are three bills -- two in the House and one in the Senate -- that call for the law's extension. One of the House bills enjoys strong bipartisan support, with 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans on board. The Senate bill -- which would extend relief through 2015 -- is sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Dean Heller, R-Nev. Stabenow sponsored the extension last year.
But it is unclear whether Congress will make the law a priority next year.
Last week, another group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent a letter urging Congress to pass the bill as soon as possible.
A separate letter from the National Association of Attorneys General made the same request.
"We're far from out of the foreclosure crisis," White said. "We hope that policymakers look at longer-term solutions."