In computing income tax in the USA, taxpayers may claim a deduction for business debts that become worthless during the year. 26 USC 166 The amount of deduction is the taxpayer’s basis in the debt. A taxpayer must demonstrate that a particular debt became worthless during the year in order to claim the deduction. The debt owed to the taxpayer must have become worth nothing, not just declined in value. Taxpayers may not claim deductions for reserves related to bad debts, only for specific bad debts. The portion of a specific debt that is charged off (abandoned) during a year may be deducted, subject to IRS approval as to validity of the charge off and the amount.
For the taxpayer to get a deduction, two conditions must exist:
- The taxpayer must have basis in a debt, and
- The debt must have become worthless during the year.
What Is a Debt?
A business debt is any amount owed to a taxpayer that arose in connection with a trade or business. This includes an account or note receivable from sale of goods, performance of services, rental or provision of property, or any other business activity. The form of the debt is usually irrelevant. Thus an informal promise to pay a fee for professional services is a debt owed to the professional under the terms of the informal promise.
Amount of Bad Debt Deduction
A deduction for bad debts or worthlessness is allowed only for the taxpayer’s basis in the property. Debts are property in the hands of the holder of the debt (the creditor), but are not property in the hands of the borrower or issuer of the debt. Cleveland, Painesville, and Ashtabula Railroad Company v. Pennsylvania, 82 US 179 (1873) A holder of debt has basis by virtue of either buying the debt (or otherwise acquiring it in a transaction that gives rise to basis) or by having recognized income in transactions giving rise to the debt. An accrual basis business has basis in amounts receivable from customers to the extent the business recognized income. Thus, sale of inventory for a promise to pay gives a business basis in the resulting account receivable.
Example: Punchy Papers sells $1,000 of paper inventory to Small’s Office Supply in January on open account. In February, Punchy issues a credit memo to Small’s for $80, for a net balance due of $920. Punchy recognized $1,000 of sales in January and $80 of returns and allowances in February. Punchy’s basis is the receivable from Small’s is $920. See Income Tax in the USA, Chapter 32, Accounting Periods and Methods, regarding Punchy’s requirement to use the accrual method with respect to sales of inventory.
Individuals, partnerships of individuals, and smaller corporations may use the cash method of accounting for everything except inventories and sales of inventory in computing income tax in the USA. Such businesses do not have basis in amounts receivable from customers for other than sales of inventory, with one exception. Where income …