Saturday, February 18, 2017

What’s Fair Got To Do With It?

I am reading a tax case with an unfortunate result.

It does not seem that difficult to me to have planned for a better outcome.

I have to wonder: why didn’t they?

Let’s set it up.

We have a law firm in New York. There is a “heavy” partner and the other partners, which we will call “everybody else.” The firm faced hard times, and “everyone else” kept-up their bleed rate (the rate at which they withdraw cash), with the result that their capital accounts went negative.
COMMENT: A capital account is increased by the partner’s share of the income and reduced by cash withdrawn by said partner. When income goes down but the cash withdrawn does not, the capital account can (and eventually will) go negative. 
Let’s return to our heavy partner.

He was concerned about the viability of the firm. He was further concerned that New York law imposed on him a fiduciary responsibility to assure that the firm be able to pay its bills. I applaud his sense of responsibility, but I have to point out that any increased uncertainty over the firm’s capacity to pay its bills might have something to do with “everybody else” taking out too much cash.

Just sayin’.

Our partner’s share of firm income was almost $500 grand.

Problem is that the cash did not follow the income. His “share” of the income may have been $500 grand, but he left around $400 grand in the firm to make-up for the slack of his partners.

And you have one of those things about partnership taxation:   

·      The allocation of income does not have to follow the allocation of cash.

There are limits to how far one can push this, of course.

Sometimes the effect is beneficial to the partner:

·      A partner tales out more cash than his/her share of the income because the partnership owns something with big-time depreciation. Depreciation is a non-cash expense, so it doesn’t affect his/her distribution of cash.

Sometimes the effect is deleterious to the partner:

·      Our guy took out considerably less cash than the $500K income.

Our guy did not draw enough cash to even pay the taxes on his share of the income.
OBSERVATION: That’s cra-cra.
What did he do?

He reported $75K of income on his tax return. Seeing how did not receive the cash, he thought the reduction was “fair.”

Remember: his partnership K-1 reported almost half a million.

The number on his personal return did not match what the partnership reported.
COMMENT: By the way, there is yet one more form to your tax return when you do not use a number reported by a partnership. The IRS wants to know. He might as well just have booked the audit.
Sure enough, the IRS sent him a notice for over $140,000 tax and $28,000 in penalties.

Off to Tax Court they went.

And he had … absolutely … no … chance.

Partnerships have incredibly flexible tax law. There is a reason why the notorious tax shelters of days past were structured around partnerships. One could send income here, losses there, money somewhere else and muddy the waters so much that you could not see the bottom.

In response, Congress and the IRS tightened up, then tightened some more. This area is now one of the most horrifying, unintelligible stretches in the tax Code.  It can – with little exaggeration – be said that all the practitioners who truly understand partnership tax law can fit into your family room.

Back to our guy.

The Court did not have to decide about New York law and fiduciary responsibility to one’s law firm or any of that. It just looked at tax law and said:
Your income did not match your cash. You set this scheme up, and – if you did not like it – you could have changed it. Once decided, however, live with your decision.
Those are my words, by the way, and not a quote.

Our law partner owed the tax and penalties.

Ouch and ouch.

I must point out, however, that the law firm’s tax advisors warned our guy that his “fiduciary” theory carried no water and would be disregarded by the IRS, but he decided to proceed nonetheless. He brought much of this upon himself.

What would I have recommended?

For goodness’ sake, people, change the partnership agreement so that the “everybody else” partners reported more income and our guy reported less. It is fairly common in more complex partnerships to “tier” (think steps in a ladder or the cascade of a fountain) the distribution of income, with cash being the second – if not the first – step in the ladder. The IRS is familiar with this structure and less likely to challenge it, as the movement of income would make sense.

Another option of course would be to close down the law firm and allow “everybody else” to fend for themselves.

I would argue that my recommendation is less harsh.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

“Destination-Based” “Border Adjustment” “Indirect Tax” … What?

The destination-based border adjustment tax.

I  have been reading about it recently.

If you cannot distinguish it from a value-added tax, a national sales tax, a tariff or all-you-can eat Wednesdays at Ruby Tuesday, you are in good company.

Let’s talk about it. We need an example company and exemplary numbers. Here is one. Let’s call it Mortimer. Mortimer’s most recent (and highly compressed) income statement numbers are as follows:

Cost of sales
Operating expenses
Net profit

How much federal tax is Mortimer going to pay? Using a 34% federal rate, Mortimer will pay $850,000 ($2,500,000 * 34%).

Cue the crazy stuff….

A new tax will bring its own homeboy tax definitions. One is “WTO,” or World Trade Organization, of which the U.S. is a part and whose purpose is to liberalize world trade. The WTO is a fan of “indirect taxes,” such as excise taxes and the Value Added Tax (VAT). The WTO is not so much a fan of “direct taxes,” such as the U.S. corporate tax. To get some of their ideas to pass WTO muster, Congressional Republicans and think-tankers have to reconfigure our corporate income tax to mimic the look and feel of an indirect tax.

One way to do that is to disallow deductions for Operating Expenses. An example of an operating expense would be wages.

As a CPA by training and experience, hearing that wages are not a deductible business expense strikes me as ludicrous. Let us nonetheless continue.

Our tax base becomes $6,500,000 (that is, $10,000,000 – 3,500,000) once we leave out operating expenses.

Not feeling so good about this development, are we?

Well, to have a prayer of ever getting out of the Congressional sub-subcommittee dungeon of everlasting fuhgett-about-it, the tax rate is going to have to come down substantially. What if the rate drops from 35% to 20%?

I see $6,500,000 times 20% = $1,300,000.

Well, this is stinking up the joint.

VATs normally allow one to deduct capital expenditures. We did not adjust for that. Say that Mortimer spent $1,500,000 on machinery, equipment and what-not during the year, What do the numbers now look like? 
  • Sales                                       10,000,000
  • Cost of Sales                            3,500,000
  • Operating Expenses                 4,000,000
  • Capital Additions                       1,500,000 

I am seeing $5,000,000 ($10,000,000 – 3,500,000 – 1,500,000) times 20% =  $1,000,000 tax.

Still not in like with this thing.

Let’s jump on the sofa a bit. What if we not tax the sale if it is an export? We want to encourage exports, with the goal of improving the trade deficit and diminishing any incentive for companies to invert or just leave the U.S. altogether.

Here are some updated numbers:

  • Sales                                        10,000,000 (export $3,000,000)
  • Cost of Sales                             3,500,000
  • Operating Expenses                  4,000,000
  • Capital Additions                        1,500,000 

I see a tax of: (($10,000,000 – 3,000,000) – (3,500,000 + 1,500,000) * 20% = 2,000,000 * 20% = $400,000 federal tax.

Looks like Mortimer does OK in this scenario.

What if Mortimer buys some of its products from overseas?

Oh oh.

Here are some updated, updated numbers:

  • Sales                                       10,000,000
  • Cost of Sales                            3,500,000 (import $875,000)
  • Operating Expenses                 4,000,000
  • Capital Additions                       1,500,000 

This border thing is a two-edged blade. The adjustment likes it when you export, but it doesn’t like it when you import. It may even dislike it enough to disallow a deduction for what you import.

I see a tax of: ($10,000,000 – (3,500,000 - 875,000) – 1,500,000) * 20% = 5,875,000 * 20% = $1,175,000 federal tax.

Mortimer is not doing so fine under this scenario. In fact, Mortimer would be happy to just leave things as they are.

Substitute “Target” or “Ford” for “Mortimer” and you have a better understanding of recent headlines. It all depends on whether you import or export, it seems, and to what degree.

By the way, the “border adjustment” part means the exclusion of export income and no deduction for import cost of sales. The “destination” part means dividing Mortimer’s income statement into imports and exports to begin with.

We’ll be hearing about this – probably to ad nauseum – in the coming months.

And the elephant in the room will be clearing any change through the appropriate international organizations. The idea that business expenses – such as labor, for example – will be nondeductible will ring very odd to an American audience.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Marty McFly and Future Interests In A Trust

Let’s talk about gift taxes.

Someone: What is an annual gift tax exclusion?

Me: The tax law allows you to gift any person on the planet up to $14,000 a year for any reason without having to report the gift to the IRS. If you are married, your spouse can do the same – meaning you can team-up and gift up to $28,000 to anybody.

Someone: What if you go over $14,000 per person?

Me: It is not as bad as it used to be. The reason starts with the estate tax, meaning that you die with “too many” assets. This used to be more of an issue a few years back, but the exclusion is now north of $5.4 million. There are very few who die with more than $5.4 million, so the estate tax is not likely to impact ordinary people.

Someone: What does the gift tax have to do with this $5 million?

Me: Congress and the IRS saw gifting as the flip side of the coin to the estate tax, so the two are combined when calculating the $5.4 million. Standard tax planning is to gift assets while alive. You may as well (if you can) because you are otherwise going to be taxed at death. Gifting while alive at least saves you tax on any further appreciation of the asset.

Someone: Meaning what?

Me: You will not owe tax until your gifts while alive plus your assets at death exceed $5.4 million.

Someone losing interest: What are we talking about again?

Me: Riddle me this, Batman: you transfer a gaztrillion dollars to your irrevocable trust. It has 100 beneficiaries. Do you get to automatically exclude $1,400,000 ($14,000 times 100 beneficiaries) as your annual gift tax exclusion?

Someone yawning: Why are we talking about this?

Me: Well, because it landed on my desk.

Someone: Do you make friends easily?

Me: Look at what I do for a living. I should post warnings so that others do not follow.

Someone looking around: How about hobbies? Do you need to go home to watch a game or anything?

Me: There is a tax concept that becomes important when gifting to a trust. A transfer has to be a “present interest” to qualify for that $14,000 annual exclusion.

Someone resigned: And a “present interest” is?

Me: Think cash. You can take it, frame it, spend it, make it rain. You can fold it into a big wad, wrap a hundred-dollar bill around it and pull the wad out every occasion you can.

Someone: What is wrong with you?

Me: Maybe it’s just me that would do that.

Me: I tell you what a “present interest” is not: cash in a trust that can only be paid to you when some big, bad, mean trustee decides to pay. You cannot party this weekend with that. You may get cash, but only someday … and in the future.

Someone: Hence the “future?”

Me: Exactly, Marty McFly.

Someone surprised: Hey, there’s no need ….

Me: Have you ever heard of a Crummey power?

Someone scowling: Good name for it. Fits the conversation.

Me: That is the key to getting a gift to a trust to qualify as a present interest.

Someone humoring: What makes it crummy?

Me: Crummey. That’s the name of the guy who took the case to court. Like a disease, the technique got named after him.

Someone looking at watch: I would consider a disease right about now.

Me: The idea is that you give the trust beneficiary the right to withdraw the gift, or at least as much of the gift as qualifies for the annual exclusion. You also put a time limit on it – usually 30 days. That means – at least hypothetically – that the beneficiary can get his/her hands on the $14 grand, making it a present interest.

Someone: I stopped being interested ….

Me: Have you heard of a “in terrorem” provision?

Someone: Sounds terrifying.

Me: Yea, it’s a great name, isn’t it? The idea is that – if you behave like a jerk – the trustee can just cut you out. Hence the “terror.”

Someone: I cannot see a movie coming out of this.

Me: Let’s wait and see what Ben Affleck can do with it.

Me: I was looking at a case called Mikel, where the IRS said that the “in terrorem” provision was so strong that it overpowered the Crummey power. That meant that there was no present interest.

Someone: Can you speed this up?

Me: The transfer to the trust was over $3.2 million ….

Someone: I wish I could meet these people.

Me: The trust also had around 60 beneficiaries.

Someone: 60 kids? Who is this guy – Mick Jagger?

Me: Nah, his name is Mikel.

Someone: I was being sarcastic.

Me: Mikel was Jewish, and he put a provision in the trust that beneficiary challenges to a trustee’s decision would go to a panel of 3 persons of Orthodox Jewish faith, called a beth din.

Me: I suppose if the beth din sides with the trustees, the beneficiary could go to state court, but then the in terorrem provision would kick-in. The beneficiary would lose all rights to the trust.

Someone: So some rich person gets cut-off at the knees. Who cares?

Me: The IRS said that the in terrorem provision was strong enough to make the gift a future interest rather than a present interest. That meant there was no $14,000 annual exclusion per beneficiary. Remember that there were around 60 beneficiaries, so the IRS was after taxes on about $800 grand. Not a bad payday for the tax man.

Someone: Sounds like they can afford it.

Me: No, no. The Court disagreed with the IRS. The taxpayer won.

Someone backing away: What was the court’s hesitation?

Me: The Court felt the IRS was making too many assumptions. If the beneficiaries disagreed with the trustees, they could go to the beth din. The beth din did not trigger the in terrorem. The beneficiaries would have to go to court to trigger the in terrorem. The Court said there was no reason to believe the beth din would not decide appropriately, so it was unwilling to assume that the beneficiaries were automatically bound for state court, thereby triggering the in terrorem provision.

Someone leaving: Later Doc.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Caution With S Corporation Losses

I was talking with a financial advisor from Wells Fargo recently.

No, it was not about personal investments. He advises some heavy-hitting clients, and he was bouncing tax questions off me.

The topic of entrepreneurial money came up, and I mentioned that I still prefer the S corporation, although LLCs have made tremendous inroads over the last decade-plus.

The reason is that S corporations have a longer – and clearer – tax history. One can reasonably anticipate the tax predicaments an S can get itself into. The LLCs – by contrast - are still evolving, especially in the self-employment tax area.

But predictability is a two-edged blade. Catch that S-corporation knife wrong and it can cost you big-time.

One of those falling knives is when the S corporation expects to have losses, especially over successive years.

Let’s take a look at the Hargis case.

Let’s say you buy and renovate distressed nursing homes. You spend cash to buy the place, then pay for renovations and upgrades, and then – more likely than not – it will still be a while before full-occupancy and profitability.

Granted, once there it will be sweet, but you have to get there. You don’t want to die a half mile from the edge of the desert.

Here is the flashing sign for danger:

26 U.S. Code § 1366 - Pass-thru of items to shareholders
(d) Special rules for losses and deductions

(1) Cannot exceed shareholder’s basis in stock and debt The aggregate amount of losses and deductions taken into account by a shareholder under subsection (a) for any taxable year shall not exceed the sum of—
(A) the adjusted basis of the shareholder’s stock in the S corporation (determined with regard to paragraphs (1) and (2)(A) of section 1367(a) for the taxable year), and
(B) the shareholder’s adjusted basis of any indebtedness of the S corporation to the shareholder (determined without regard to any adjustment under paragraph (2) of section 1367(b) for the taxable year).

An S corporation allows you to put the business income on your personal tax return and pay tax on the combination. This sidesteps some of the notorious issues of a C corporation – more specifically, its double taxation. Proctor & Gamble may not care, but you and I as a 2-person C corporation will probably care a lot.

Planning for income from an S is relatively straightforward: you pay tax with your personal return.

Planning for losses from an S – well, that is a different tune. The tax Code allows you to deduct losses to the extent you have money invested in the S.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Let’s go through it.

Your stock investment is pretty straightforward. Generally, stock is one check, one time and not touched again.

Easy peasy.

But you can also invest by lending the S money.
OBSERVATION: How is this an “investment” you ask. Because if the S fails, you are out the money. You have the risk of never being repaid.
But it has to be done a certain way.

That way is directly from you to the S. I do not want detours, sightseeing trips or garage sales en route. Here there be dragons.

Hargis did it the wrong way.

What initially caught my eye in Hargis was the IRS chasing the following income:

·      $1,382,206 for 2009, and
·      $1,900,898 for 2010

Tax on almost $3.3 million? Yeah, that is going to hurt.

Hargis was rocking S corporations. You also know he was reporting losses, as that is what caught the IRS’ eye. The IRS gave him a Section 1366 look-over and said “FAIL.”

Hargis’ first name was Bobby; his wife’s name was Brenda. Bobby was a nursing home pro. He in fact owned five of them. He stuck each of his nursing homes in its own S corporation.

Standard planning.

The tax advisor also had Bobby separate the (nursing home) real estate and equipment from the nursing-home-as-an-operating business. The real estate and equipment went into an LLC, and the LLC “leased” the same back to the S corporation. There were 5 LLCs, one for each S.

Again, standard planning.

Bobby owned 100% of the five nursing homes.

Brenda was a member in the LLCs. There were other members, so Brenda was not a 100% owner.

The tax problem came when Bobby went out and bought a nursing home. He favored nursing homes down on their luck. He would buy at a good price, then fix-up the place and get it profitable again.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

But it took money to carry the homes during their loss period.

Bobby borrowed money:

(1) Sometimes he borrowed from the LLCs
(2) Sometimes he borrowed from his own companies
(3) Sometimes he borrowed from a bank

Let’s discuss (1) and (2) together, as they share the same issue.

The loan to the S has to be direct: from Bobby to the S.

Bobby did not do this.

The loans were from the other companies to his S corporations. Bobby was there, like an NFL owner watching from his/her luxury box on Sunday. Wave. Smile for the cameras.

Nope. Not going to work.

Bobby needed to lend directly and personally. Didn’t we just say no detours, sightseeing trips or garage sales? Bobby, the loan had to come from you. That means your personal check. Your name on the personal check. Not someone else’s name and check, no matter how long you have known them, whether they are married to your cousin or that they are founding team owners in your fantasy football league.  What part of this are you not understanding?  

Fail on (1) and (2).

How about (3)?

There is a technicality here that hosed Bobby.

Bobby was a “co-borrower” at the bank.

A co-borrower means that two (or more) people borrow and both (or more) sign as primarily liable. Let’s say that you and I borrow a million dollars at SunTrust Bank. We both sign. We are co-borrowers. We both owe a million bucks. Granted, the bank only wants one million, but it doesn’t particularly care if it comes from you or me.

I would say I am on the hook, especially since SunTrust can chase me down to get its money. Surely I “borrowed,” right? How else could the bank chase me down?

Let’s get into the why-people-hate-lawyers weeds.

Bobby co-borrowed, but all the money went into one of the companies. The company paid any interest and the principal when due to the bank.

This sounds like the company borrowed, doesn’t it?

Bobby did not pledge personal assets to secure the loan.

Bobby argued that he did not need to. Under applicable state law (Arkansas) he was as liable as if the loan was made to him personally.

I used to like this argument, but it is all thunder and no rain in tax-land.

Here is the Raynor decision:
[n]o form of indirect borrowing, be it guarantee, surety, accommodation, comaking or otherwise, gives rise to indebtedness from the corporation to the shareholders until and unless the shareholders pay part or all of the obligation. Prior to that crucial act, ‘liability’ may exist, but not debt to the shareholders.”
Bobby does not have the type of “debt” required under Section 1366 until he actually pays the bank with some of his own money. At that point, he has a subrogation claim against his company, which claim is the debt Section 1366 wants.

To phrase it differently, until Bobby actually pays with some of his own money, he does not have the debt Section 1366 wants. Being hypothetically liable is not the same as being actually liable. The S was making all the payments and complying with all the debt covenants, so there was no reason to think that the bank would act against Bobby and his “does it really exist?” debt. Bobby could relax and let the S run with it. What he could not do was to consider the debt to be his debt until his co-borrower (that is, his S corporation) went all irresponsible and stiffed the bank.
COMMENT: Folks, it is what it is. I did not write the law.
Bobby failed on (3).

The sad thing is that the tax advisors could have planned for this. The technique is not fool-proof, but it would have looked something like this:

(1) Bobby borrows personally from the bank
(2) Bobby lends personally to his S corporation
a.     I myself would vary the dollars involved just a smidge, but that is me.
(3) Bobby charges the S interest.
(4) Upon receiving interest, Bobby pays the bank its interest.
(5) Bobby has the S repay principal according to a schedule that eerily mimics the bank’s repayment schedule.
(6) Bobby and the S document all of the above with an obnoxious level of paperwork.
(7) Checks move between Bobby’s personal account and the business account to memorialize what we said above. It is a hassle, but a good accountant will walk you through it. Heck, the really good ones even send you written step-by-step instructions.

Consider this standard CTG planning for loss S Corporations with basis issues.

The IRS could go after my set-up as all form and no substance, but I would have an argument – and a defensible one.

Hargis gave himself no argument at all. 

He owed the IRS big bucks.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Walk The Walk, Talk The Talk

We have another not-for-profit story.

Spoiler Alert: it failed.

Why did it fail?

Sometimes there is a great story, the churning of technical arcana and the tease of suspense.

This is not one of those times.

Our homespun protagonist this time is the Community Education Foundation. It had changed names several times over its life, but that appears to have been its last nom de jour.

It began life as a doe-eyed and enthusiastic 501(c)(3) back in 2001. It was going to change the world:
The …. is a conservative research and educational institute focusing on public policy issues that have particular impact on African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and heritage groups (the ‘Target Groups’).”
                COMMENT: “Heritage” groups?

Anyway …
The Foundation’s guiding principle is to encourage open inquiry about public policy issues that are of particular interest and educational values for the Target Groups and the public in general and to provide programs that highlight and educate the Target Groups and the public about these germane subjects and/or public policy issues.”
Wow. Good thing someone jumped on “educating” all those “target” groups on “germane” subjects.

The (c)(3) obviously had to do stuff to bring enlightenment to the benighted and wretched, including:

(1) Town hall meetings
(2) National workshops
(3) Congressional forums
(4) Billboards, radio, television, and other media, such as town criers, bodypainting and soothing rap music drifting through open car windows while waiting at a traffic light.

Fast forward. To 2012. Eleven years later. The IRS took a look at said (c)(3). It wanted to know how it was doing.

The IRS revoked the (c)(3).

Whoa. That seemed a bit strong.

What pray tell provoked such a response?

The Community Education Foundation had done nothing – zip, zero, the square root of nada – for 11 years.

The (c)(3) disagreed and took the matter to Tax Court.

It did have an argument: it turns out that it tried but failed to do some things in 2009 and 2010, including a “Presidential Inaugural Ball” to honor veterans.
COMMENT: I too have no idea what one has to do with the other.
The Tax Court pointed out the obvious: if you want to be a (c)(3), you have to …

·      Talk the talk, and
·      Walk the walk

In eleven years, the organization had performed none of the activities it had said it would when it applied for exempt status.

There was no walk to the talk.

The (c)(3) status was revoked.