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Troubled homeowners who get a break from their mortgage lenders could face a hefty tax bill next year if a key provision expires at the end of the year, though state laws could determine which borrowers will have to write a check to Uncle Sam.

bboxerHomeowners who live in states where mortgages are non-recourse—that is, where they aren’t personally liable for the unpaid balance—may avoid the potential tax hit even if Congress doesn’t act, according to a letter sent by the Internal Revenue Service released by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) on Friday.

In the letter to Sen. Boxer, the IRS clarified that certain non-recourse debt forgiven by lenders wouldn’t typically be considered taxable income by the IRS. This means that for most California borrowers, the expiration of the tax provision may not have a meaningful effect.

“California homeowners have struggled through years of economic hardships during the Great Recession,” said Ms. Boxer in a statement Friday. “I am relieved that these families will not face a burdensome tax penalty just as they are trying to rebuild their lives with a short sale.”

In the letter, the IRS wrote that “if a property owner cannot be held personally liable for the difference between the loan balance and the sales price, we would consider the obligation a non-recourse obligation.” As a result, the owner would not have to count that forgiven debt as income.

Other states with laws that prevent lenders from seeking so-called “deficiency judgments” to recoup defaulted debts from borrowers would likely be in the same camp as California, the letter said.

Short sales have fallen sharply as a share of overall sales over the past year as the housing market has rebounded and fewer homeowners have found themselves underwater. In California, short sales accounted for around 12.6% of homes that were resold last month, down from 26.7% one year earlier, according to research firm DataQuick.

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