Sunday, July 5, 2020

Requesting A Payment Plan With Over $7 Million In The Bank

Sometimes I wonder how people get themselves into situations.

Let’s take a look at a recent Tax Court case. It does not break new ground, but it does remind us that – sometimes – you need common sense when dealing with the IRS.

The Strashny’s filed their 2017 tax return on time but did not pay the tax due.
COMMENT: In and of itself, that does not concern me. The penalty for failing to file a tax return is 10 ten times more severe than filing but not paying. If the Strashny’s were my client and had no money, I would have advised the same.
The 2017 return had tax due, including interest, of over $1.1 million.
COMMENT: Where did the money go? I am curious now.
In June, 2018 the IRS assessed the tax along with a failure-to-pay penalty.

In July, 2018 the Strashny’s sent an installment payment request. Because of the amount of money involved, they had to disclose personal financial information (Form 433-A). They wanted to stretch the payments over 72 months.
COMMENT: Standard procedure so far.
Meanwhile the IRS sent out a Notice of Intent to Levy letter (CP90), which seemed to have upset the Strashny’s.

A collection appeal goes before an IRS officer settlement officer (or “SO,” in this context). In April, 2019 she sent a letter requesting a conference in May.
COMMENT: Notice the lapsed time – July, 2018 to April, 2019. Yep, it takes that long. It also explains while the IRS sent that CP90 (Notice of Intent to Levy): they know the process is going to take a while.
The taxpayers sent and the SO received a copy of their 2018 tax return. They showed wages of over $200,000.

OK, so they had cash flow.

All that personal financial information they had sent earlier showed cryptocurrency holdings of over $7 million. Heck, they were even drawing over $19,000 per month on the account.

More cash flow.
COMMENT: Folks, there are technical issues in this case, such as checking or not checking a certain box when requesting a collection hearing. I am a tax nerd, so I get it. However, all that is side noise. Just about anyone is going to look at you skeptically if you cite cash issues when you have $7 million in the bank.
The SO said no to the payment plan.

The Strashny’s petitioned the Tax Court.
COMMENT: Notice that this case does not deal with tax law. It deals, rather, with tax procedure. Procedure established by the IRS to deal with the day-to-day of tax administration. There is a very difficult standard that a taxpayer has to meet in cases like this: the taxpayer has to show that the IRS abused its authority.
The Strashny’s apparently thought that the IRS had to approve their request for a payment plan.

The Court made short work of the matter. It reasoned that the IRS has (with limited exceptions) the right to accept or reject a payment plan. To bring some predictability to the process, the IRS has published criteria for its decision process. For example, economic hardship, ill health, old age and so on are all fair considerations when reviewing a payment plan.

What is not fair consideration is a taxpayer’s refusal to liquidate an asset.

Mind you, we are not talking a house (you have to live somewhere) or a car (you have to get to work). There are criteria for those. We are talking about an investment portfolio worth over $7 million.

The Court agreed with the IRS SO.

So do I.

Was there middle ground? Yes, I think so. Perhaps the Strashny’s could have gotten 12 or 24 months, citing the market swings of cryptocurrency and their concern with initiating a downward price run. Perhaps there was margin on the account, so they had to be mindful of paying off debt as they liquidated positions. Maybe the portfolio was pledged on some other debt – such as business debt – and its rash liquidation would have triggered negative consequences. That approach would have, however, required common sense – and perhaps a drop of empathy for the person on the other side of the table – traits not immediately apparent here.

They got greedy. They got nothing.

Our case this time was Strashny v Commissioner.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

This Is Why We Cannot Have Nice Things

I am looking at a case involving a conservation easement.

We have talked about easements before. There is nothing innately sinister about them, but unfortunately they have caught the eye of people who have … stretched them beyond recognition.

I’ll give you an example of an easement:

·      You own land in a bucolic setting.
·      It is your intention to never part with the land.
·      It is liturgy to the beauty and awe of nature. You will never develop it or allow it to be developed.

If you feel that strongly, you might donate an easement to a charitable organization who can see to it that the land is never developed. It can protect and defend long after you are gone.

Question: have you made a donation?

I think you have. You kept the land, but you have donated one of your land-related legal rights – the right to develop the land.

What is this right worth?

That is the issue driving this area of tax controversy.

What if the land is on the flight path for eventual population growth and development? There was a time when Houston’s Galleria district, for example, was undeveloped land. Say you had owned the land back when. What would that easement have been worth?

You donated a potential fortune.

Let’s look at a recent case.

Plateau Holdings LLC (Plateau) owned two parcels of land in Tennessee. In fact, those parcels were the only things it owned. The land had been sold and resold, mined, and it took a while to reunite the surface and mineral rights to obtain full title to the land. It had lakes, overlooks, waterfalls and sounded postcard-worthy; it was also a whole lot out-of-the-way between Nashville and Chattanooga. Just to get utilities to the property would probably require the utility company to issue bonds to cover the cost.

Enter the investor.

He bought the two parcels (actually 98.99%, which is close enough) for approximately $5.8 million.

He worked out an arrangement with a tax-exempt organization named Foothills Land Conservancy. The easement would restrict much of the land, with the remainder available for development, commercial timber, hunting, fishing and other recreational use.

Routine stuff, methinks.

The investor donated the easement to Foothills eight days after purchasing the land.

Next is valuing the easement

Bring in the valuation specialist. Well, not actually him, as he had died before the trial started, but others who would explain his work. He had valued the easement at slightly over $25 million.

Needless to say, the IRS jumped all over this.

The case goes on for 40 pages.

The taxpayer argument was relatively straightforward. The value of the easement is equal to the reduction in the best and highest use value of the land before and after the granting of the easement.

And how do you value an undeveloped “low density mountain resort residential development”? The specialist was looking at properties in North Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere in Tennessee. He had to assume government zoning, that financing would be available, that utilities and roads would be built, that consumer demand would exist.

There is a flight of fancy to this “best and highest” line of reasoning.

For example, I would have considered my best and highest professional “use” to be a long and successful career in the NFL. I probably would have been a strong safety, a moniker no longer used in today’s NFL (think tackling). Rather than playing on Sundays, I have instead been a tax practitioner for more than three decades.

According to this before-and-after reasoning, I should be able to deduct the difference between my earning power as a successful NFL Hall of Famer and my actual career as a tax CPA. I intend to donate that difference to the CTG Foundation for Impoverished Accountants.

Yeah, that is snark.

What do I see here?

·      Someone donated less than 100% of something.
·      That something cost about $6 million.
·      Someone waited a week and gave some of that something away.
·      That some of something was valued at more than four times the cost of the entire something. 

Nah, not buying it.

Neither did the Court.

Here is one of the biggest slams I have read in tax case in a while:

           We give no weight to the opinion of petitioner’s experts.”

The taxpayer pushed it too far.

Our case this time for the home gamers was Plateau Holdings LLC v Commissioner.

Monday, June 22, 2020

It’s A Cliff, Not A Slope

It is one of my least favorite areas of individual tax practice.

We are talking about health insurance. More specifically, health insurance purchased through the exchanges, coupled with advance payment of the premiums.


Because there is a nasty tax trap in there, and I saw the trap again the other day. It caught a client who gets by, but who is hardly in a position to service heavy tax debt.

Let’s set it up.

You can purchase health insurance in the private market or from government-sponsored marketplaces – also called exchanges. The exchanges were created under the Affordable Care Act, more colloquially known as Obamacare.

If you purchase health insurance through the exchange and your income is below a certain level, you can receive government assistance in paying the insurance premiums. Make very little income, for example, and it is possible that the insurance will be free to you. Make a little more and you will be expected to contribute to your own upkeep. Make too much and you are eliminated from the discussion altogether.

The trap has to do with the dividing line of “too much.”

Let’s look at the Abrego case.

Mr and Mrs Abrego lived in California. For 2015 he was a driver for disabled individuals, and he also prepared a few tax returns (between 20 and 30) every year. Mrs Abrego was a housekeeper.

They enrolled in the California exchange. They also did the following:

(1)  They provided an estimate of their income for 2015. Remember, the final subsidy is ultimately based on their 2015 income, which will not be known until 2016. While it is possible that someone would purchase health insurance, pay for it out-of-pocket and eventually get reimbursed by the IRS when filing their 2015 tax return in 2016, it is far more likely that someone will estimate their 2015 income to then estimate their subsidy. One would use the estimated subsidy to offset the very real monthly premiums. Makes sense, as long as all those estimated numbers come in as expected.

(2)  They picked a policy. The monthly premiums were $1,029.

(3)  The exchange cranked their expected 2015 numbers and determined that they could personally pay $108 per month.

(4)  The difference - $ 1,029 minus $108 = $921– was their monthly subsidy.

The Abregos kept this up for 10 months. Their total 2015 subsidy was $9,210 ($921 times 12).

Since the Abregos received a subsidy, they had to file a tax return. One reason is to compare actual numbers to the estimated numbers. If they guessed low on income, they would have to pay back some of the subsidy. If they guessed high, the government would owe them for underestimating the subsidy.

The Abregos filed their 2015 return.

They reported $63,332 of household income.

How much subsidy should they have received?

There is the rub.

The subsidy changes as income climbs. The subsidy gets to zero when one hits 400% of the poverty line.

What was the poverty line in California for 2015?

$15,730 for a married couple.

Four times the poverty line was $62,920.

They reported $63,332.

Which is more than $62,920.

By $412.

They have to pay back the subsidy.

How much do they have to pay back?

All of it - $9,210.

Folks, the tax rate on that last $412 is astronomical.

It is frustrating to see this fact pattern play out. The odds of a heads-up from the client while someone can still do something are – by the way – zero. That leaves retroactive tax planning, whose success rate is also pretty close to zero.

Our client left no room to maneuver. Why did her income go up? Because she sold something. Why did she not call CTG galactic command before selling – you know: just in case? What would we have done? Probably advised her to NOT SELL in the same year she is receiving a government subsidy.

How did it turn out for the Abregos?

They should have been toast, except for one thing.

Remember that he prepared tax returns. He did that on the side, meaning that he had a gig going. He was self-employed.

He got to claim business deductions.

And he had forgotten one.

How much was it?


It got their income below the magic $69,920 level.

They were on the sliding scale to pay back some of that subsidy. Some - not all.

It was a rare victory in this area.

Our case for the homegamers was Abrego v Commissioner.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Using A Liquidating Trust

I am reading a case where the IRS wanted taxes of almost $1.5 million.

I am not surprised to read that it involved a real estate developer.

Part of tax practice is working within someone’s risk tolerance (including mine, by the way). Some clients are so risk adverse that an IRS notice – on any matter for any reason – can be interpreted as a mistake by the tax practitioner. Then you have the gunslingers at the other end of the spectrum. These are the clients you have to rope-in, for their own as well as your sake.

My experience has been that real estate developers seem to cluster around the gunslinger end of the spectrum. We have one who recently explained to me that “paying taxes means that the tax advisor made a mistake.” That, folks, is a lot of pressure … on my partner.

Jason Sage is a developer in Oregon. He represented several companies, including JLS Customs Homes. You may recall that 2008 – 2009 was a rough time for real estate, and JLS took it in the teeth. It had three projects, dragging behind approximately $18 million in debt.

Eventually the real estate market collapsed. Sage had to do something. He and his advisors decided to utilize liquidating trusts. The idea is that one transfers everything one has into a trust, which might be owned by one’s creditors; then again, it might not. The creditors might accept the settling of the trust (a fancy term for putting money and assets into a trust) as discharge of the underlying debt; then again, they might not. Each deal is its own story, and the tax consequences can vary depending on the telling.

Our story involves the transfer of three projects to three liquidating trusts. Since real estate had tanked, these transfers – treated for tax purposes as sales - threw off huge losses. These losses were so big they created overall losses - called “net operating losses” (NOLs). Tax law at the time allowed the net operating losses to travel back in time, meaning that Sage could recoup taxes previously paid.
COMMENT: I see nothing wrong with this. If the government wants to participate in one’s profits, then it can also participate in one’s losses. To do otherwise smacks more of robbery than taxation.
The IRS took a look at this arrangement and immediately called foul.

Trust taxation looks carefully at whether the trust is a separate tax entity from the person establishing the trust, funding the trust or benefiting from the trust.  There is a type called a “grantor trust” which is disregarded as a separate tax entity altogether. The most common type of grantor trust is probably the “living trust,” which has gained popularity as a probate-mitigating tool. The idea behind the grantor trust is that the grantor – say me, for example – is allowed to put money in, take money out, change beneficiaries, even terminate the trust altogether without anyone being able to gainsay my decision.

Tax law considers this to be too much control over the trust, so the trust and I are considered to be the same person for tax purposes. I would have a grantor trust. Its tax return is combined with mine.

How do I avoid this result? Well, I have to start with limiting my otherwise unrestricted control over the trust. Yield enough control and the IRS will respect the trust as separate from me.

The IRS argued that Sage’s liquidating trusts were grantor trusts. They were not separate tax entities, and one cannot sell and create a loss by selling to oneself. Without that loss, there was no NOL carryover and therefore no tax refund.

Sage had to persuade the Court that the trusts were in fact separate from him and his companies.

After all, the trusts were for the benefit of his creditors. One has to concede that creditors are an adverse party, and the existence of an adverse party is an indicator that the trust is a separate tax entity. Extrapolating, the existence of creditors means that someone with interests adverse to Sage’s own had sway over the trusts. It was that sway that made these non-grantor trusts.

Persuasive, except for one thing.

Sage had never involved the creditors when setting up the trusts.

It was hard for them to be adverse when they did not even know the trusts were there.

Our case this time was Sage v Commissioner.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Paying Tax On Borrowed Money

I am looking at a Tax Court case where the IRS was chasing almost two-thirds of a million dollars. It involves an attorney and something called “litigation support agreements.”

There is a term you do not hear every day.

The taxpayer is a class-action lawyer.

You see, in a class action, the law firm sues on behalf of a group – or class - of affected parties. Perhaps numerous people were affected by a negligent act, for example, but there is not enough there for any one person to pursue litigation individually. Combine them, however, and you have something.

Or the lawsuit can be total malarkey and the law firm is seeking a payday, with little to no regard to the “class” it allegedly represents.

Ultimately, a class action is a tool that can be used for good or ill, and its fate depends upon the intent and will of its wielder.

Let get’s back to our taxpayer.

It takes money to pursue these cases. One has to bring in experts. There can be depositions, travel, cross-examinations. This takes money, and we already mentioned that a reason for class action is that no one person has enough reason – including money – to litigate on his/her own power.

Did you know there are people out there who will play bank with these cases? That is what “litigation support agreements” are. Yep, somebody loans money to the law firm, and – if the case hits – they get a very nice payoff on their loan. If the case fails, however, they get nothing. High risk: high reward. It’s like going to Vegas.

The taxpayer received over $1.4 million of these loans over a couple of years.

Then IRS came in.


I see two reasons, but I flat-out believe that one reason was key.

The taxpayer left the $1.4 million off his tax return as taxable income. The taxpayer thought he had a good reason for doing so: the $1.4 million represented loan monies, and it is long-standing tax doctrine that one (generally) cannot have income by borrowing money. Why? Because one has to pay it back, that is why. You are not going to get rich by borrowing money.

There are variations, though. It is also tax doctrine that one can have income when a lender forgives one’s debt. That is why banks issue Forms 1099-C (Cancellation of Debt) when they write-off someone’s credit card. How is it income? Because one is ahead by not having to pay it back.

Our taxpayer had different loan deals and agreements going, but here is representative language for one litigation support agreement:
… shall be a litigation support payment to [XXX] made on a nonrecourse basis and is used to pay for all time and expenses incurred by [XXX} in pursuant [sic] of this litigation. Said payment shall be repaid to …. at the successful conclusion of this litigation with annual interest to be paid as simple interest at the rate of …. as of the date of concluding this litigation.”
Let’s see: there is reference to repayment and an interest rate.

Good: sounds like a loan.

So where is the problem?

Let’s look at the term “nonrecourse.” In general, nonrecourse means that – if the loan fails – the lender can pursue any collateral or security under the loan. What the lender cannot do, however, is go after the borrower personally. Say I borrow a million dollars nonrecourse on a California house that subsequently declines in value to $300 grand. I can just mail the keys back to the lender and walk away without the lender able to chase me down. I am trying to divine what the broader consequence to society could possibly be if numerous people did this, but of course that is silly and could never happen.

Still, nonrecourse loans happen all the time. They should not be fatal, as I am technically still obligated on the loan - at least until the time I mail back the keys.

Let’s look at the next phrase: “successful conclusion of this litigation.”

When are you on the hook for this loan?

I would argue that you are on the hook upon “successful conclusion of this litigation.”

When are you not on the hook?

I would say any time prior to then.

The loan becomes a loan – not at the time of lending – but in the future upon occurrence of a distinguishable event.

The IRS was arguing that the taxpayer received $1.4 million for which he was not liable. He might be liable at a later time - perhaps when the universe begins to cool or the Browns win a Super Bowl – but not when that cash hit his hand.

Granted, chances are good that whoever lent $1.4 would pursue tort action if the taxpayer skipped town and sequestered on an island for a few years, but that would be a different legal action. Whoever put up the money might sue for fraud, nonperformance or malfeasance, but not because the taxpayer was liable for the debt. 

Let’s go back: what keeps one from having income when he/she borrows money?

Right: the obligation to pay it back.

So who did not have an obligation to pay it back?

The taxpayer, that’s who.

The IRS won the case. Still, what bothered me is why the IRS would go after this guy so aggressively. After all, give this arrangement a few years and it will resolve itself. The law firm receives money; the law firm spends money. When it is all said and done, the law firm will burn through all the money, leaving no “net money” for the IRS to tax.

So what fired up the IRS?

The taxpayer filed for bankruptcy.

Before burning through the money.

Meaning there was “net money” left.

He was depriving the IRS of its cut.

There is the overwhelming reason I see.

Our case this time was Novoselsky v Commisioner.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts In 2020

I was glancing over selected IRS interest rates and one caught my attention.

The Section 7520 rate for June, 2020 is 0.6%.

There are certain tax tools that work well in times of low interest rates. One is a grantor retained annuity trust, commonly referred to as a “GRAT.” One associates them with the fancy-pants rich, but I am thinking they can have broader appeal when the triggering interest rate is 0.6%.

Let’s talk about it. We will keep the discussion general as otherwise we would be going into a math class. Our purpose today is to understand what makes this tax tool work and why 2020 – with low interest rates and declining stock prices – are a perfect setup for a GRAT.

First, a GRAT is an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable means no take-backs.

A trust generally has three main players:

(a)  The settlor; that is, the moneybags who funds the trust. Let’s say that is me (CTG)
(b)  The trustee. That will be you.
(c)  The beneficiaries., There are two types:
a.    Income. For now, that will be me (CTG) as I receive the annuity.
b.    Remainder. That will be my grandkids (mini-CTGs), because they receive what is left over.

This trust will be taxed to me personally rather than pay taxes on its own. The nerd term for this is “grantor’ trust.

I fund the trust. Say that I put in $50 grand.

The trust will then pay me a certain amount of money for a period of time. Let’s say the amount is $10,000, and the trust will pay me for two years. I am retaining an annuity from the trust.

COMMENT: Truthfully, I think it would take at least 2 years to even qualify as an “annuity.” One payment does not an annuity make.

When the trust runs its course (two years in our example), whatever is left in the trust goes to the mini-CTGs.

If you sweep aside the details, you can see that I am making a gift to my grandkids. The GRAT is just a vehicle to get there.

Why bother?

Say that I just give $50 grand to my grandkids or to a trust on their behalf.

I made a gift.

Granted, I am not worried about gift tax on $50 grand given the current lifetime gift tax exemption of $11.5 million, but if someone moves enough money there can be gift tax.

Let’s say you can move enough money.

Congrats, by the way.

Is there a way for you to gift and also minimize the amount of gift tax?

Yep. One way is the GRAT.

Here is how the magic happens:

(1)  The tax Code backs into the amount of the gift. It does this by placing a value on the annuity. It then subtracts that value from the amount transferred into the trust ($50 grand in our example). The difference is the gift.

(2)  How can I maximize the value of the annuity?
a.    I want $10 grand. If I could get 5% interest, I would need $200,000 grand to generate that $10 grand.
b.    But I cannot get 5% in today’s economy. I might get lucky and get 1.5%. To get $10 grand, I would have to put in $666,667, which is a whole lot more than $200,000.
c.    This example is far from perfect, as I what I am describing is closer to an endowment than to an annuity. The takeaway however is valid: I have to put more money into an annuity as interest rates go down if I want to keep the payment steady.  

(3)  How does this affect the gift?
a.    Had I created the GRAT in June, 2018, I would have used a Section 7520 rate of 3.4%.
b.    It would require less money in 2018 to fund a $10,000 payment, as the money would be earning 3.4% rather than 0.6%.
c.    Flipping (b), it would require more money in 2020 to fund a $10,000 payment at 0.6% rather than 3.4%.
d.    As the value of the annuity goes up, the value of the gift goes down.

Let’s express this as a formula:

Gift = initial funding – value of annuity

e.    As the value of the annuity increased in 2020, the gift correspondingly decreased.
f.     That is how low interest rates power the GRAT as a gifting technique.

How do declining stock prices play into this?

Let’s look at Boeing stock.

Around March 1st Boeing was trading at approximately $275.

As I write this Boeing trades around $120.

Now, I do not want to get into Boeing’s story, other than this: let’s say you believe that Boeing will bounce back and bounce much sooner than eternity. If you believe that, you could fund the GRAT with Boeing stock. The mathematics will be driven-off that $120 stock price and Section 7520 rate of 0.6%.

What happens if you are right and the stock returns to $275?

Your annuity is unchanged, your gift is unchanged, but the value of Boeing stock just skyrocketed. Your beneficiaries will do very well, and there was ZERO added gift tax to you.

Another way to say this is that you want to fund that GRAT with assets appreciating at more than 0.6%.

Folks, that is a low bar.

There however be dragons in this area.

You could fund the trust and the assets could go down in value. It happens.

Or you could die when the trust is still in existence. That would pull the trust back into your estate.

Or the trust becomes illiquid and you start pulling back assets rather than cash. That is a problem, as the assets appreciating is part of what powers this thing.

Then there are variations on the payment. One could specify a percentage rather than a dollar amount, that way the dollar amount of the annuity would increase as the assets in the trust increase.

There is a technique where one uses the annuity to fund yet another GRAT. It is called a “rolling” GRAT, and it worked when interest rates were much higher.

BTW, there is a twist on a GRAT, and it involves working the math so that the gift comes out to exactly zero. One might want to do this if one has run out of lifetime exemption, for example. The tax nerds refer to it as a “Walton” GRAT, in honor of Audrey Walton, wife of Wal-Mart cofounder Bud Walton. It took a court case to get there, but the technique has thereafter assumed the family name.