Sunday, November 10, 2019

Repaying The Health Care Subsidy

Twice in a couple of weeks I have heard:
“They should check on the Exchange.”
The Exchange refers to the health insurance marketplace.

In both cases we were discussing someone who is between jobs.         

The idea, of course, is to get the subsidy … as someone is unemployed and can use it.

There might also be a tax trap here.

When you apply for Obamacare, you provide an estimate of your income for the coverage year. The answer is intuitive if you are applying for 2020 (as we are not in 2020 yet), but it could also happen if you go in during the coverage year. Say you are laid-off in July. You know your income through July, and you are guessing what it might be for the rest of the year.

So what?

There is a big what.

Receive a subsidy and you have to pay it back – every penny of it – if your income exceeds 400% of the poverty line for your state.

Accountants refer to this as a “cliff.” Get to that last dollar of income and your marginal tax rate goes stratospheric.

Four times the poverty rate for a single person in Kentucky is approximately $50 grand.  Have your income come in at $50 grand and a dollar and you have to repay the entire subsidy.

It can hurt.

How much latitude does a tax preparer have?

Not much. I suppose if we are close we might talk about making a deductible IRA contribution, or selling stock at a loss, or ….

There may be more latitude if one is self-employed. Perhaps one could double-down on the depreciation, or recount the inventory, or ….

Massoud and Ziba Fanaieyan got themselves into this predicament.

The Fanaieyans lived in California. He was retired and owned several rental properties. She worked as a hairstylist.

They received over $15,000 in subsidies for their 2015 tax year.

Four times the California poverty line was $97,000.

They reported adjusted gross income of $100,767.

And there was (what I consider) a fatal preparation mistake. They failed to include Form 8962, which is the tax form that reconciles the subsidy received to the subsidy to which one was actually entitled based on income reported on the tax return.

The IRS sent a letter asking for the Form 8962.

The Fanaieyans realized their mistake.

Folks, for the most part tax planning is not a retroactive exercise. Their hands were tied.

Except ….

Mr. Fanaieyan remembered that book he was writing. All right, it was his sister’s book, but he was involved too. He had paid some expenses in 2012 and 2013. Oh, and he had advanced his sister $1,500 in 2015.

He had given up the dream of publishing in 2015. Surely, he could now write-off those expenses. No point carrying them any longer. The dream was gone.

They amended their 2015 tax return for a book publishing loss.

The IRS looked at them like they had three eyes each.

To Court they went.

There were technical issues that we will not dive into. For example, as a cash-basis taxpayer, didn’t they have to deduct those expenses back in 2012 and 2013? And was it really a business, or did they have a (dreaded) hobby loss? Was it even a loss, or were they making a gift to his sister?

The Court bounced the deduction. They had several grounds to do so, and so they did.

The Fanaieyans had income over four times the poverty level.

They had to repay the advance subsidies.

I cannot help but wonder how this would have turned out if they had claimed the same loss on their originally-filed return AND included a properly-completed Form 8962.  

Failing to include the 8962 meant that someone was going to look at the file.

Amending the return also meant that someone was going to look at the file.

Too many looks.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

NCAA: From Cream Cheese To Endorsements

You may have read that the NCAA voted to allow students to benefit financially from the use of their name, image or likeness.

In truth, their hand was forced when California Governor Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act on Lebron’s television show “The Shop.” Other states, including Florida, were also lining up on the issue.

Newsom was striking at an organization that realized over a $1 billion in revenues last year from “student-athletes,” all the while banning players from receiving any compensation other than scholarships.

Mind you, this is the same organization that used to ban schools from serving bagels with cream cheese. The NCAA argued (with a straight face somehow) that a bagel was a snack but a bagel with cream cheese was a meal. Meals were a no-go.

The tax hook for this post came from North Carolina (U.S.) Senator Richard Burr, who indicated he would introduce a bill to tax scholarships if the student-athlete also earns money from endorsements.

Methinks that Senator Burr is not a fan of the new rule.

Alternatively, he may subscribe to the new-economics theory of taxing something until it stops doing whatever triggered its taxation in the first place.

Did you know that some scholarships are already taxable?

Yep, the plain-old variety.

Scholarships used to be tax-free until 1980. The Code was then changed to look at whether services were being performed as a requirement for receiving the scholarship. Teaching assistantships would now be taxable, for example.

There was further change in 1986, when the Code began taxing scholarships used for living expenses.  If one received a scholarship, it was now important to determine whether it was for tuition or for room-and-board. Tuition was tax-free but room-and-board was not.
COMMENT: This change seems erratic to me, considering that The College Board has reported that living expenses make-up over half the cost of undergraduate education.
Scholarships for non-degree students next became taxable.

I would have to think about what national existential peril we barely avoided with that change to the tax law.

Senator Burr would add another exception-to-the-exception if you could buy a jersey with someone’s name on it. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa comes to mind. Your being able to buy a jersey with his name and number would make his scholarship taxable. It probably means little in Tua’s case, as he is projected to be a first round NFL draft selection. Take someone in a less prominent sport and the result might not feel as comfortable.

Then again, someone less prominent would probably not get into a payment-for-name, image-or-likeness situation.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Stealth Tax On Your Social Security

Social security benefits first became taxable in 1983.

The law was relatively straightforward:

·        Half of one’s social security became taxable as adjusted gross income exceeded

o   $32,000 for marrieds filing jointly,
o   $25,000 for everyone else, except for
o   Marrieds filing separately, whose threshold was zero (-0-)

Clearly the tax law frowned on married social security recipients filing separately.

The Senate Finance Committee Report commented on why any social security was being taxed at all:
… by taxing social security benefits and appropriating these revenues to the appropriate trust funds, the financial solvency of the social security trust funds will be strengthened.”
Uh, sure.

In 1993 Congress laid a second grid on top of the 1983 law:

·        85% of one’s social security as adjusted gross income exceeded

o   $44,000 for marrieds filing jointly
o   $34,000 for everyone else, except for
o   Marrieds filing separately, whose threshold remained at zero (-0-)

Depending on where one is income-wise, part of one’s social security can be taxed at 50% and another part at 85%. Make enough and a clawback kicks-in: all your social security will be taxable at 85%.

Seems a bit complicated for a tax provision that snags ordinary people.

So in 1983, if you were married, filing joint and your income was less than $32 grand, your social security was not taxed.

I was curious: what is the equivalent of $32,000 of 1983 dollars in 2019?

Approximately $82 grand.


I was also curious: how have the income thresholds for social security changed over three-plus decades?

Here are the thresholds for 2018:

·        $32,000/$25,000
·        $44,000/$34,000

They have not changed at all.

Meanwhile you need almost three 2019 dollars to equal one dollar from 1983.

So let me get this right.

IRA deductions are indexed for inflation. Gift taxes are indexed for inflation. The income thresholds for the new 20% passthrough deduction are indexed for inflation.

But the tax on social security is not.

What a nice gimmick. Even if you started out below the tax threshold, inflation over time would probably put you above the tax threshold.

The cynicism from our politicians is stunning.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Losing Your Passport For Tax Debt

Here is something you don’t see every day:

There is a section in the tax Code that can affect your passport. It entered the tax law in 2015, and it allows the IRS to notify the State Department if you have a seriously delinquent tax debt.

How much tax debt are we talking about?

Around $52,000.

As a career tax CPA, I do not consider $52,000 enough to hold-up someone’s passport. Granted, my perspective is a bit skewed, as average folk (like you or me) are not likely to require my services, at least not on a repetitive basis. Still, I have had friends and acquaintances who have danced the tax tango near or above $52 grand, so I know that average folks can get there.

If the IRS notifies the State Department, the law requires them to deny your passport application or renewal.

That will put a chill on your travel plans.

How do you get out of this predicament?

As a generalization, the IRS does not want to chase you down. They certainly do not want to seize your assets or bounce your passport. What they want is your money.  

I do not immediately know Derrick Tartt’s issue with the IRS, but I can tell you that it has gone cold. If his issue was still being handled – in Appeals, Tax Court, a payment plan or whatnot – this should not have happened. I will not say “would not,” as I have been in practice long enough to see too many “would nots” land on my desk.

How should Mr. Tartt handle this?

He is going to have to move his file from cold to warm. This may mean writing a check or entering a payment plan.

That presumes he owes the tax.

What if he disagrees that he owes the tax, or at least disagrees that he owes all of it?

The situation becomes trickier. His file has moved to Collections, and that crowd does not care whether you owe or not. Their only concern is prying money from you.

Am I being unfair?

Let me give you an story. We have a client who got himself into a tax hole a few years ago. He has been working his way out, and he was very optimistic that his 2018 return would have a large enough refund to pay off the back taxes, interest and penalties. He was partially correct, as he did have a refund, but it was not enough for payoff in full. It did however put him close enough that he could write a check for the balance.

I called Collections to hold back the hounds. I requested that the refund be applied (which would happen automatically, but I wanted to talk to them) and requested a bit more time for the balance, as he is presently battling a second round of prostate cancer. His attention is … shall we say … elsewhere, understandably.

Understandable for you or me, but not for Collections. One would have to wheel in the Gran Telescopio Canarias telescope to find empathy in that universe. I may as well have been speaking with Arthur Fleck.

If Mr. Tartt disagrees that he owes tax (or some of it), his advisor will have to reopen his file. There may be several possibilities, depending on the facts and the amount of time lapsed, and he should seek professional advice.

That will not happen fast enough to get Mr. Tartt to the Dominican Republic or Cayman Islands in the near future, however.

I hope it works out for Mr. Tartt.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Use Certified Mail With The IRS

I am looking at Baldwin v U.S., at least as much as I can between the September and October 15th due dates.

In the blog equivalence of cinematic foreboding, the case comes out of the Ninth Circuit.

The Baldwins filed a 2007 joint tax return showing an approximate $2.5 million loss from a movie production business.

They filed to carry the loss back to 2005 for a refund.

They had three years to file the refund claim. The three years started with the filing of their 2007 return – that is, the year that showed the loss. They filed their 2007 return on extension, so three years later would be October 15, 2011.

They filed the refund claim on June 21, 2011.

Seems plenty of time.

They filed using regular mail.

The IRS said they never received the refund claim.


The three years expired. Sorry about your luck, Baldwins, purred the IRS.

You know this went to court.

It went to a California district court.

And we get to talk about the mailbox rule.

There is a provision in the tax Code that timely-mailing-equals-timely filing with the IRS. That is the reason you hear (not as much now in the era of electronic filing) of people heading to the post office on April 15th. Folks want to get that “April 15” stamped on the envelope, as that stamp means the return is considered timely filed with the IRS.

By the way, that provision did not enter the Code until 1954.

What did folks do before 1954?

They relied on common law.

Common law allows one to presume that a properly-mailed envelope will arrive in the ordinary time required to get from here to there. One would have to prove that one mailed the envelope, of course, but once that was done the presumption that the mail arrived in normal time would kick-in.

In 1954 Congress added the following:
§ 7502 Timely mailing treated as timely filing and paying.
(a)  General rule.
(1)  Date of delivery.
If any return, claim, statement, or other document required to be filed, or any payment required to be made, within a prescribed period or on or before a prescribed date under authority of any provision of the internal revenue laws is, after such period or such date, delivered by United States mail to the agency, officer, or office with which such return, claim, statement, or other document is required to be filed, or to which such payment is required to be made, the date of the United States postmark stamped on the cover in which such return, claim, statement, or other document, or payment, is mailed shall be deemed to be the date of delivery or the date of payment, as the case may be.
Section (c) is important here:
(c)  Registered and certified mailing; electronic filing.
(1)  Registered mail.
For purposes of this section , if any return, claim, statement, or other document, or payment, is sent by United States registered mail-
(A)  such registration shall be prima facie evidence that the return, claim, statement, or other document was delivered to the agency, officer, or office to which addressed; and
(B)  the date of registration shall be deemed the postmark date.

Section (c) is why accountants encourage the use of certified mail with tax returns.

But the Baldwins did not certify their mailing.

They instead argued that they met the common-law standard for timely filing.

Seems a solid argument.

The IRS went low.

There are Court cases out there (Anderson, for example) that decided that the common law standard continued to exist even after the codification of Section 7502. It makes sense – at least to me - as that is what common law means.

The IRS argued that Section 7502 did away with the common-law standard, and the cases deciding otherwise were decided erroneously.

Sounds like a truckload of fine-cut bull manure to me.

Let’s load the truck.

There was a case in 1984 called Chevron. From it came the Chevron doctrine, an administrative law principle that a government agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous or unclear statute should be respected by a court.

I get the concept.

The first thing the agency has to do is show that the statute is ambiguous or unclear.

Does Section 7502 appear ambiguous or unclear to you?

We are going to need a jump to get this truck going.

Let’s introduce National Cable & Telecommunications Association v Brand X. That case has to do with the internet and whether it is an information service or a telecommunication service.

Sounds boring.

Let’s look at the Ninth Circuit’s take-away from Brand X:
But [a] court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.”
Let me translate that word salad:
Since the prior Court decisions (let’s use Anderson as an example) did not specifically say that the statute was unambiguous, the statute is therefore ambiguous.

So, if I do not make clear that I am not a Robert Howard sword-and-sorcery, skilled, powerful and fearless giant weapon-wielding barbarian, then it can be deduced that I am that very said barbarian?


Brand X lets me say that Section 7502 is ambiguous, at which point Chevron kicks-in and allows me to argue that the underlying statute means anything I want it to say.

There is an aisle for this at Borders. It is called “Fiction.”

The Baldwins did not get to rely on common-law. Since they could not meet requirements of Section 7502(c), they lost out altogether. No carryback refund for them.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Excess Business Loss Problems

To a tax accountant, October 15 signifies the extended due date for individual tax returns.

As a generalization, our most complicated returns go on extension. There is a reason: it is likely that the information necessary to prepare the return is not yet available. For example, you are waiting on a Schedule K-1 from a partnership, LLC or S corporation. That K-1 might not be prepared until after April 15. There is only so much work an office of accountants can generate within 75 days, irrespective of government diktats.

More recently I am also seeing personal returns being extended because we are expecting a broker’s information report to be revised and perhaps revised again. It happens repetitively.

Let’s talk about a new twist for 2018 personal returns. There are a few twists, actually, but let’s focus on the “excess business loss” rule.

First, this applies only to noncorporate taxpayers. As noncorporate taxpayers, that could be you or me.

Its purpose is to stop you or me from claiming losses past a certain amount.

Now think about this for a moment.

Go out there, sign a sports contract for big bucks and Uncle Sam is draped all over you like a childhood best friend.

Get booted from the league, however, and you get a very different response.

How can losses happen?

Easy. Let me give you an example. We represent a sizeable contractor. The swing in their numbers from year-to-year can gray your hair. When times are good, they are virtually printing money. When times are bad, it feels like they are taking-on the national debt.

I presume one does not even know the meaning of risk if one wants to be an owner there.

To me, fairness requires that the tax law share in my misery when I am losing money if it also wants me to cooperatively send taxes when I am making money. Call me old-fashioned that way.

The “excess business loss” rule is not concerned with old-fashioned fairness.

Let’s use some numbers to make sense of this.

          Dividends                      100,000
 Capital gains                  400,000
          Schedule K-1                (600,000)

The concept is that you can offset a business loss against nonbusiness income, but only up to a point. That point is $250,000 if you are nonmarried and twice that if you are. Using the above numbers, we have:

 Dividends                       100,000
          Capital gains                  400,000
          Schedule K-1                (600,000)
          Excess business loss     100,000
Interest, dividends and capital gains are the classic nonbusiness income categories. You are allowed to offset $500,000 of nonbusiness income (assuming married) but you are showing $600,000 of business losses. The excess business loss rule will magically adjust $100,000 into your income tax return to get the numbers to work.

It is like a Penn and Teller show.

Let’s tweak our example:

Wages                            100,000
Dividends                       100,000
         Capital gains                  400,000
         Schedule K-1                (600,000)

What now? Do you get to include that W-2 as part of your business income, meaning that you no longer have a $100,000 excess business loss?

Believe it or not, tax professionals are not certain.

Here is what sets up the issue:

The Joint Committee of Taxation published its “Bluebook” describing Congress’ intention when drafting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In it, the JCT states that “an excess business loss … does not take into account gross income, or gains or deductions attributable to the trade or business of performing services as an employee.”        

The “trade or business of performing services as an employee” is fancy talk for wages and salaries.

However, the IRS came out with a shiny new tax form for the excess business loss calculation. The instructions indicate that one should add-up all business income, including wages and tips.

We have two different answers.

Let’s get nerdy, as it matters here.

Elsewhere in the Code, we also have a new 20% deduction for “qualified business income.” The Code has to define “business income,” as that is the way tax law works. The Code does so by explicitly excluding the trade or business of “being an employee.”

There is a concept of statutory construction that comes into play. If one Code section has to EXPLICITLY exclude wages (that is, the trade or business of being an employee), then it is reasonably presumable that business income includes wages.

Which means foul when another Code section pops up and says “No, it does not.”

Of course, no one will know for certain until a court decides.

Or Congress defies all reasonable expectations and actually works rather than enable the Dunning-Kruger psychopaths currently housed there.

Why does this “excess business loss” Code section even exist?

Think $150 billion in taxes over 10 years. That is why.

To be fair, the excess is not lost. It carries over to the following year as a net operating loss.

That probably means little if you have just lost your shirt and I am calling you to make an extension payment on April 15 – you know, because of that “excess business loss” thing.

Meanwhile tax professionals have to march on. We cannot wait. After all, those noncorporate returns are due October 15.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Horse Activity And Owning A Horse

Her story has been out there for a while.

I did a quick search and found that she appeared before the Tax Court in 2013. She was back in 2015 and now again in 2019.

Her name is Denise Celeste McMillan (McMillan), and she has to do with horses.

In the tax world, horses have to do with hobby losses.

Let’s take a moment on what that term means.

Let’s say that you take on a side gig. It is arguable how serious you are about the gig, but there is no argument that you are losing money doing it.

And you keep losing money … year after year.

The first thing you or I would ask is: why? The second question would be: how are you affording to do this?

There you have the two issues at the heart of a hobby loss challenge:

(1) Are you running your gig as a business? If the gig is lagging, a business owner would do something: market more effectively, swap-out products offered for sale, move to another location with better traffic, maybe even close the business and try something else.
(2) How can you afford this? Maybe you sold your business for huge bucks and are now following your lifelong dream of collecting every Ukrainian comic title printed from the 1950s through the 1970s. It is not a lucrative business, but it has a loyal following. You can afford to live the dream because of that big-bucks thing.

McMillan definitely loves horses. She started riding at age four and started formal lessons at age nine. She won numerous awards. She started a specialized business, taking difficult horses on consignment. She would retrain them and later sell them at a profit.

Sounds interesting.

She normally kept between one and six horses.

The more the better, methinks.

She went through a difficult stretch (ten years) owning just own horse (Goldrush).  Goldrush had issues and did not compete, show or breed.

Not good.

In 2007 she sent Goldrush to Australia to stand at stud.

That should get the revenues going again, hopefully.

In 2008 and two months after arriving in Australia, Goldrush died.


I guess she will have to get another horse or few and restart.

She did not.

What she did however is keep deducting horse-related expenses.

And now we have her third trip to Tax Court.

She says she has a business.

The IRS says she does not.

What do you think?

Here is the Court:
We believe Ms. McMillan when she says that she’s been continuously involved with horses since the 1970s. But her last horse died in 2008, at which point she hadn’t shown or bred in a decade. We therefore find that if her horse activity was ever a trade or business, that trade or business ended before 2010, and in that year she was at most looking at starting anew.”
The Court is being diplomatic here. It is saying that her previous activity had ended, but perhaps another had taken its place.

So the question is: had she started a new activity after the death of Goldrush?

Remember that in tax-speak, an activity requires “regular and continuous” involvement. It does not have to be a 24/7 thing, but it does have to be more than “someday isle” dreamweaving over beers with a friend.
Ms. McMillan’s ‘horse breeding/showing’ business hadn’t actually commenced or resumed by the end of 2010.”        
Guess not. The best she could get would be start-up expenses, to be deducted over time once that business in fact started.

The moral of story seems clear: if you want to say that you are in the horse business, you may want to own a horse.