Is Excise Tax Payable on Short Sale Debt Forgiveness?

The Washington State Department of Revenue (DOR) seems to think so.  Background: At an Escrow Association of Washington (EAW) meeting on Nov 13, 2008, Mel Kirpes and Steve Bren from  WA DOR spoke at a regional dinner meeting where it was announced that when there is a short sale, the DOR considers the debt forgiven as additional consideration above the contracted sales price between the parties and that the DOR will be pursuing the home seller for payment of the excise tax. (Reference is a EAW letter dated Nov 25, 2008 from EAW Director Cindi L. Holstrom)
Naturally this had a chilling effect amongst escrow officers.  The DOR responded on Dec 12, 2008 in a letter from Gilbert Brewer, Assnt Director of the DOR:

RCW 82.45 imposes an excise tax on the sale of real estate unless specifically exempt from statute. “The measure of the tax is based on the total selling price of the property conveyed. The incidence of the tax is usually on the seller.  However, if the tax is not paid in full, the tax (together with any interest and penalties) becomes a lien on the real property. This is mandated by RCW 82.45.030 …which defines “selling price” as the “true and fair value of the property conveyed.” If a property has been conveyed in an arm’s length transaction between unrelated persons for a valuable consideration, a rebuttable presumption exists that the selling price is equal to the total consideration paid or contracted to be paid to the transferor, or to another for the transferor’s benefit….”total consideration paid or contracted” to be paid as including “money or anything of value, paid or delivered or contracted to be paid or delivered in return for the sale, and shall include the amount of any lien, mortgage, contrat, indebtedness, or other incumbrance, either given to secure the purchase price, or any part thereof, or remaining unpaid on such property at the time of the sale.”

Since there is an exemption from real estate excise tax in the event of foreclosure or a deed in lieu of foreclosure (see WAC 458-61A-208) this DOR opinion may unfortunately motivate homeowners to consider foreclosure a more viable option. Perhaps the home seller’s Realtor can negotiate with the lender to pay for the additional excise tax lien as well.  However, then that extra amount paid by the lender may also be subject to excise tax.
The Seattle King Co Assoc of Realtors and Washington Realtors believes DOR’s position is incorrect and problematic.  On Jan 8, 2009, The Northwest Multiple Listing Association posted a notice to their real estate agent members as follows:

RCW 18.86 requires agents to advise their clients to seek expert advice on matters relating to the transaction that are beyond the agent’s expertise.  This duty exists in every transaction but is particularly important in short sale transactions where unique legal and tax issues exist.”

We’ve been saying the same on RCG for many years now. Short sales are way more complex for real estate agents than the average transaction and homeowners are best served when they have retained their own legal counsel to help them understand the lender paperwork as well as this current DOR trainwreck. You may be thinking, “homeowners in financial distress can’t afford an attorney.” However, some attorneys offer low cost options for homeowners facing foreclosure.

January 13, 2009
Department of Revenue: “After receiving extensive input from interested stakeholders and industry representatives about the nature of these transactions, we have carefully reconsidered how real estate excise tax statutes apply to these unique transactions [short sales]….we now see that these short sales are distinguishable from other transactions involving the forgiveness of debt because the seller negotiates separately with the lender for any debt reduction/forgiveness, apart from the actual purchase and sale of the property.  As a result, the loan forgiveness is not “paid or delivered in return for the sale” of the property, as required by RCW 82.45.030.”   Margaret J. Partlow, Senior Policy Counsel, Dept of Revenue. 

(Hat tip Rhonda Porter and Kary Krismer.)

Translation: We are not going to require sellers to pay excise tax on the debt forgiveness  with a short sale.

40 representatives from escrow, title, real estate, attorney, and short sale faciliator companies showed up in Olympia to help educate the Dept of Revenue. Thank you, Escrow Association of Washington, for bringing this to our attention and taking on the state head to head.