Monday, May 13, 2019


As a result of the GOP Tax Act, for tax years 2018 through 2025, or until new tax legislation is enacted, only mortgage interest on “acquisition debt” – money borrowed to buy, build or substantially improve the residence – is deductible on Schedule A.  Interest on home equity debt interest – money borrowed to buy a car, pay for college, pay down credit card interest, etc. – is not deductible, regardless of the amount.  Period.  And there is no grandfathering of existing home equity debt.

It has always been important for homeowners to keep separate track of acquisition debt and home equity debt, because of the previous $100,000 principal limitation on the deduction for home equity interest and the fact that home equity debt interest was not deductible in calculating the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax.  However, I do not know of a single homeowner who actually did this.  Even before the hastily written GOP Tax Act was scribblings on a cocktail napkin I had commented that the deduction for mortgage interest, both on Schedule A and Form 6251, was perhaps the area of the Tax Code where proper documentation and strict adherence to the law was the most overlooked (or actually ignored).    

But if the dreaded AMT was not a consideration this wasn’t an issue in most cases because of the $100,000 home equity principal threshold.  Now it is truly vital that his be done, going back to the original purchase mortgage for the property.

I explained this in detail to applicable 1040 clients last tax season when giving them their finished 2017 tax returns.  And I gave these clients worksheets with instructions and a detailed example to use to track the two different types of debt and offered to track the debt for them during the year at a slightly reduced hourly rate.

Nobody contacted me during the year to ask me to do it for them.  And this past tax filing season every single client either (1) assumed that they could not itemize, because I told them so last year and it didn’t matter, or (2) totally ignored the need to differentiate between acquisition debt and home equity debt and, like every other year, merely gave me their 1098s and expected me to either intuitively know the correct amount to claim or pull a number out of the air.

The one good thing about dealing with this issue during the tax filing season is that most clients who consistently itemized in the past can no longer itemize, regardless of the amount of mortgage interest paid, so it did not matter that they did not properly identify the correct amount of deductible interest.

Over the years most homeowners have refinanced their mortgage, often several times, for a variety of reasons, taken out home equity loans or lines of credits, also for a variety of reasons, and consolidated mortgage and equity loans.  In NJ, where most of my clients live, the market value of homes was excessively inflated at various times, creating the potential for additional borrowing.  There were many instances when a homeowner’s mortgage principal exceeded the original purchase price of the property and the cost of subsequent capital improvements.  Unless the homeowner purchased a new home recently, most, if not all, current mortgages include some combination of acquisition debt and home equity debt.

It is the responsibility of the taxpayer, and NOT the tax preparer, to separately track acquisition and home equity debt and properly identify the correct amount of deductible acquisition debt interest.  You can ask your tax pro to do this, or he or she may actually have been doing this on his or her own, but never assume or expect that he or she has been doing it. 

And it is the responsibility of the taxpayer to provide documentation for the amount of mortgage interest deducted if questions by the IRS.

Two important points to know when tracking the debt -

(1) Thankfully, to simply the tracking process, when applying principal payments to the different type of debt in mixed-use mortgages you first reduce home equity debt and any debt you have identified as investment debt.  Acquisition debt is paid down last.

(2) When a homeowner refinances, only that portion of the principal of the new loan that represents the pay-off of the principal on the original mortgage, if it is all acquisition debt, continues to be acquisition debt.  Any closing costs for a refinance that are included in the principal of the new loan is home equity debt.

The first step to determine the amount of current acquisition debt is to go back to the Closing or Settlement Statement for the very first refinance.  Look at the amount of principal of the original mortgage that was paid off in the refinance.  Compare this number to the 1/1/2018 principal balance reported on the Form 1098 for the current mortgage. 

If the pay-off of the initial mortgage is $100,000 and the 1/1/18 principal balance is 150,000 you then need to determine if any of the additional $50,000 was used to pay for capital improvements to the property.  If not, multiply the $100,000 by the rate of interest you are paying on the current mortgage.  If the rate is 3.5% than the Schedule A deduction is $3,500.

If the 1/1/2018 principal balance is $98,500 than all of the interest paid in 2018, and reported on the Form 1098, is fully deductible acquisition debt interest.

Of course, this example assumes you still have the Closing or Settlement Statement for that first refinance.  In discussing how long a taxpayer should keep records I recommend “if you own real estate keep all Closing or Settlement Statements for the purchase and refinancing of the property, and documentation of any capital improvements, for as long as you own the property plus four additional years”. 

For new homeowners going forward, if the limitation of the mortgage interest deduction to acquisition debt interest continues, and I personally believe it should despite the added complication -

(1) If you need to borrow money for home improvements open a separate home equity loan or line of credit and use this ONLY for home improvements that qualify as acquisition debt.  And keep documentation of the improvements. 

(2) If you need to borrow money for anything else - to pay down personal debt, pay for college, buy a car, etc - open a separate home equity loan or line of credit and use this ONLY for non-acquisition purposes.

(3) Never consolidate or combine the three mortgage accounts.  And if you refinance, always pay the closing costs in full with cash, or money from the non-acquisition home equity line of credit, and ONLY refinance the existing principal balance of the original mortgage.

So, homeowners who may still be able to itemize – read and understand this post carefully and either pay your tax professional to separately track your debt before the end of 2019 (and NOT during the 2020 filing season) or do it yourself. 

If you are going to do it yourself and want my worksheets and detailed instructions for doing this order my MORTGAGE INTEREST GUIDE.

Any questions?


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