Briefing Underway in Ninth Circuit on Question of Mortgage Interest Deduction for Non-married Couples

February 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Individual, Interest, Sophy

Last spring, the Tax Court held in Sophy v. Commissioner, that the limitations on indebtedness for the mortgage interest deduction are applied on a per residence rather than per taxpayer basis.  The taxpayers appealed to the Ninth Circuit (Nos. 12-73257 and 12-73261), and filed their opening brief on January 30.  The government’s response is due in March.

Under I.R.C. § 163(h)(3), taxpayers are allowed to deduct “qualified residence interest,” which includes interest paid or accrued on acquisition indebtedness with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer, or home equity indebtedness with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer.  For purposes of the deduction, acquisition indebtedness is capped at $1 million and home equity indebtedness is capped at $100,000, for a total indebtedness limit of $1.1 million on up to two residences.  The taxpayers, an unmarried couple registered as domestic partners with the State of California, had approximately $2.7 million of indebtedness associated with their primary residence in Beverly Hills and secondary residence in Rancho Mirage, California.  They argued that, together, they should be able to deduct interest paid on up to $2.2 million of indebtedness, or $1.1 million each.  The Tax Court rejected this position.  Parsing the language of the statute, the Tax Court noted repeated references to “residence” in the provisions on the indebtedness limitations and concluded that the limitations are “residence focused rather than taxpayer focused.”  The Tax Court also found support for treating the $1.1 million limitation as a per residence rather than per taxpayer limitation in the subsection of § 163(h) that provides that married taxpayers who file separate returns are limited to half of the otherwise allowable amount of indebtedness, and in the general rule that married couples filing jointly are subject to the $1.1 million limitation.

On appeal, the taxpayers argue that § 163(h) should be construed consistently with I.R.C. § 121, which limits the exclusion of gain from the sale of a taxpayer’s “principal residence” to $250,000.  Under the regulations, the limitation is applied on a per taxpayer, not per residence basis.  Section 163(h) defines “principal residence” with reference to § 121.  The taxpayers also argue there is no reason to treat non-married couples the same as married couples for purposes of § 163(h) because differential treatment “is consistent with various provisions of the Code where there is a different result for similarly situated taxpayers based on filing status.”

Sophy – Tax Court Opinion

Sophy – Taxpayers’ Opening Brief