Sunday, May 20, 2018

Blowing Up An IRA

I am not a fan of using retirement funds to address day-to-day financial stresses.

That is not to downplay financial stresses; it is instead to point out that using retirement funds too easily can open yet another set of problems.

Those who have followed me for a while know that I disapprove of using retirement funds to start a business: the so-called Rollovers as Business Startups, whose humorous acronym is ROBS. I know that – in a seminar setting – it is possible to mitigate the tax risks that ROBS pose. I do not however practice in a seminar setting. Heck, I am lucky if a client calls in advance to discuss whatever he/she is getting ready to do.

Let me give you a couple of ROBS pitfalls:

(1) You have your IRA buy a fourplex. You spend time cleaning, doing maintenance and repairs and routinely running to Home Depot.

Question: Is there a tax risk here?

(2) You have your IRA buy a business. You have your son and daughter run the business. You work there part-time and draw a paycheck.

Question: Is there a tax risk here?

The answer to both is yes. Consider:

(1) You are buying stuff at Home Depot, stuff that the IRA should have been buying - as the IRA owns the fourplex, not you. If you are over age 50, you can contribute $6,500 to the IRA annually. Say that you have already written that check for the year. You are now overfunding the IRA every time you go to Home Depot. Granted, one trip is not a big deal, but make routine trips – or incur a major repair – and the facts change. That triggers a 6% penalty – every year - until you take the money back out.

(2) There are restrictions on direct and indirect benefits from an IRA. You are receiving a paycheck from an asset the IRA owns. While arguable, I am confident that your paycheck is a prohibited benefit.

I am looking a Tax Court case where the taxpayer had her IRA lend $40,000 to her dad in 2005. A few years went by and she had the IRA lend $60,000 to a friend.

In 2013 she changed IRA custodians. The new custodian saw those two loans, and she had problems. Perhaps the custodian could not transfer the promissory notes. Perhaps there were no notes. Perhaps the custodian realized that a loan to one’s dad is not allowed. This part of the case is not clear.
COMMENT: It is possible to have an IRA lend money. I have a client who does so on a regular basis. Think however of acting like a bank, with due diligence, promissory notes, periodic interest and lending to nonrelated independent third-parties.
The IRS saw easy money:

(1)  There was a taxable distribution in 2013;
(2)  … and a 10% penalty for early distribution;
(3)  … and the “substantial understatement” penalty because the tax numbers changed enough to rise to the level of “substantial.”

How do you think it turned out for our tax protagonist?

Go back to the dates.

She loaned money to her dad in 2005.

Let’s glance over IRC Section 408(e)(2)
 (2)  Loss of exemption of account where employee engages in prohibited transaction.

(A)  In general. If, during any taxable year of the individual for whose benefit any individual retirement account is established, that individual or his beneficiary engages in any transaction prohibited by section 4975 with respect to such account, such account ceases to be an individual retirement account as of the first day of such taxable year.

The loan was a prohibited transaction. She blew up her IRA as of January 1, 2005. This means that she should have reported ALL of her IRA as taxable income in 2005, of which we can be quite sure she did not.

Can the IRS assess taxes for 2005?

Nope. Too many years have gone by. The standard statute of limitations for assessments is three years.

So, the IRS will tag her in 2013, right?

Nope, they cannot. For one thing, the prohibited transaction did not occur in 2013, and the IRS is not allowed to time-travel just because it serves their purpose.

But there is a bigger reason. Read the last part of Sec 408(e)(2) again.

There was no IRA in 2013. There could be no distribution, no 10% penalty, none of that, as “that” would require the existence of an IRA.

And there was no IRA.

The name of the case for the home gamers is Marks v Commissioner.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Penalties And Reliance On A Tax Professional

I am working a penalty appeal case. The owner was fortunate: the business survived. There was a time when his fate was uncertain.

The IRS is being … difficult. The IRS considers “reasonable cause” when considering whether to mitigate or abate many penalties. The idea is simple enough: would a “reasonable” person have acted the same way, knowing his/her responsibility under the tax law?

That is a surprisingly high standard, considering that there are professionals who spend a career mastering the tax law. There is stuff in there that no reasonable person would suspect. I know. I make a living at it.

Back to my appeal case: take an overworked and overstressed business owner. He is facing the more-than-unlikely possibility of bankruptcy. It is the end of the year and his accountant mails him W-2s for distribution to employees. He does so and puts the envelope on a stack of paperwork. He forgets to send the employer copies to the IRS. Granted, this is not as likely to happen today with electronic filing, but it did happen and not so many years ago.

The IRS nails him. Mind you, he distributed the W-2s to the employees. He filed all the quarterly reports, he made all the tax deposits. He had a bad day, a messy office and forgot to put a piece of paper in the mail.

Do you think he has reasonable cause – at least to reduce the penalties - considering all the other factors in his favor?  I think so. The IRS thinks otherwise.

Here is another one: you hire me to prepare an estate return. These things are rare enough. First of all, someone has to die. Second, someone has to have enough assets to be required to file. I tell you that the return is due next March. It turns out I am wrong, and the return is actually due in February.

The IRS sends a you a zillion-dollar penalty notice for filing the estate return late.

Do you have reasonable cause?

You might think this is relatively straightforward, but you would be wrong.

Let’s go through it:
(Q) Did you hire a professional?
(A) Yes
(Q) Was the professional qualified?
(A) I presume so. He/she had initials after their name.
(Q) Did you disclose all facts to the professional?
(A) I think so. Someone died. I presume the professional would prompt and question me on matters I would not know or have thought of.
(Q) Did you rely on the professional for matters of tax law?
(A) Uh, yes. Do you know what these accountants charge?
(Q) I mean, as opposed to something you can look up yourself.
(A) What do you mean?
That last one is alluding to a “ministerial” act. Think signing a return, putting a stamp on the envelope and dropping it in the mailbox. All the hard lifting is done, and it is time to break down and throw away the moving boxes.

Sounds easy enough.

Until someone pulls the rug out from underneath you by changing the meaning of “ministerial.”

That someone was the Supreme Court in Boyle, when it decided that a taxpayer’s reliance on a tax professional for an estate return’s due date was not enough. The taxpayer knew that a return was required. The taxpayer could not “delegate” the responsibility for timely filing by …. accepting the tax professional’s advice on when the return was due.

If that sentence makes no sense, it is because Boyle makes no sense outside the fantasy world of a tax zealot.

If you go to see a dentist, are you required to study-up on dental compounds, as the decision to use silver rather than composite could be deemed “ministerial?”

The IRS, sniffing an opportunity to ram even more penalties down your throat, has taken Boyle and characterized it to mean that reliance on a tax professional can never rise to reasonable cause.

As a tax professional, I take offense at that.

The IRS gets occasionally stopped in its tracks, fortunately, but not often enough.

I practice. I am only too aware that “it” happens. It is not a matter of being irresponsible or lacking diligence or other snarky phrases. It is a matter that one person – or a very small group of people – is multitasking as management, labor, owner, analyst, financier, ombudsman and so on. Perhaps you are a business owner thinking that you waited too long on replacing that employee who left…  did you call the insurance agent about the new business vehicle … you have to find time to talk to the banker about increasing your credit line… hey, did you see something from the accountant in the mail?

Yes, I get frustrated with the IRS and its unrealistic “reasonable” standard. Reasonable should be real-world based and not require pilgrimage to a Platonic ideal. Life is not a movie. “It” happens, even in an accounting firm. Yes, accountants make mistakes too.

Rounding back, though, there is one thing you must show if you are arguing that you relied on a tax professional.

I am reading the recent Keenan case. This thing has to do with Section 419 plans, which are employee welfare plans that were unfortunately abused by charlatans. The abuse is simple enough. Set up a welfare plan, preferably just for you. Stuff the thing to the gills with life insurance. Deduct everything for a few years. Then close the plan, buy the insurance for a pittance and meet with a financial planner about retirement.

The IRS got cranky – understandably - and starting looking at these things as tax shelters.

Which means outsized penalties.

So Keenan was in a penalty situation. He points at the accountant and says “Hey, I relied on you to keep me out of trouble.”

Problem: the taxpayer did whatever the taxpayer was going to so. There was sweet money at the end of that rainbow. Accountant? Please.

Not that the accountant was without fault. He should have researched these things harder. If he then had reservations, he should have either insisted on the correct tax reporting or have fired Keenan as a client.

The correct reporting is not hard. You can take the deduction, but you have to flag it for the IRS. The IRS can then pursue or not, but you met your responsibility. I have done so myself when a partner has brought in a hyper-aggressive client. By doing so I am protecting both my license and the client from those outsized penalties.

That was not going to happen with Keenan.

Keenan lost the case for the most obvious reason: to argue reliance on a professional you have to actually rely on a professional.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tax Return That Surprised An Accountant

Let’s do something a little different this time.

I want you to see numbers the way a tax CPA does.

Let’s say that you are semi-retired and you bring me your following tax information:

                    W-2                                         24,000
                    Interest income                            600
                    Qualified dividend income      40,000
                    Long-term capital gains          10,000
                    IRA                                         24,000

Looks to me like you have income of $98,600.

How about deductions?

                    Real estate taxes                    10,000
                    Mortgage interest                      5,000
                    Donations                                26,000

I am seeing $41,000, not including your exemptions.

You did some quick calculations and figure that your federal taxes will be about $6,500. You want to do some tax planning anyway, so you set up an appointment. What can you do to reduce your tax? 

What do I see here?

I’ll give you a hint.

Long-term capital gains have a neat tax trick: the capital gains tax rate is 0% as long as your ordinary income tax rate is 15% or lower. This does not mean that you cannot have a tax, mind you. To the extent that you have taxable income in excess of those capital gains, you will have tax.

Let’s walk though this word salad.

Income $98,600 – deductions $41,000 – exemptions $8,100 = $49,500 taxable income.

You have capital gains of $10,000.

Question: will you have to pay tax on the difference – the $39,500?

Answer: qualified dividends also have a neat tax trick: for this purpose, they are taxed similarly to long-term capital gains.
NOTE: Think of qualified dividends as dividends from a U.S. company or a foreign company that trades on an U.S. exchange and you are on the right path.
You have capital gains and qualified dividends totaling $50,000.

Your taxable income is $49,500.

All of your taxable income is qualified dividends and capital gains, and you never left the 15% tax bracket.

What is your tax?


How is that for tax planning, huh?

From a tax perspective, you hit a home run.

Let me change two of the numbers so we can better understand this qualified dividend/capital gain/taxable income/15% tax bracket thing.

                    W-2                                         36,000
                    Qualified dividends                 28,000

As you probably can guess, I left your taxable income untouched at $49,500, but I changed its composition.

You now have capital gains and qualified dividends of $38,000. Your taxable income is $49,500, meaning that you have “other” income in there. You are going to have to pay tax on that “other” income, as it does not have that qualified dividend/capital gain trick.

The tax will be $1,153.

You still did great. It is just that no tax beats some tax any day of the week.

It is something to consider when you think about retirement planning. We are used to thinking about 401(k)s, deductible IRAs, Roth IRAs, social security and so on, but let’s not leave out qualified dividends and capital gains. Granted, capital gains are unpredictable and not a good fit for reliable income, but dividend-paying stocks might work for you. When was the last time Proctor & Gamble missed a dividend payment, for example?

OK, I admit: if you leave the 15% tax bracket the above technique fizzles. That however would take approximately $76,000 taxable income for marrieds filing jointly. Congrats if that is you.

BTW I saw scenario one during tax season (I tweaked the numbers somewhat for discussion, of course). The accountant was perplexed and asked me to look at the return with him. The zero tax threw him.

Now he knows the dividend/capital gain thing, and so do you.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Taxing A Nondeductible IRA

Let’s say that you are married. Together you and your spouse earn $200,000.

BTW, congratulations. You have done well. Not Thurston Howell III well, but well enough that Congress considers you wealthy. Then again, one of the last times I paid attention Congress was working on a 10-percent approval rating.

How much of a Roth contribution can you make?

You know you can put away $5,500. If you are age 50 or over you can put away another $1,000. There are two of you – you and your spouse.

So, how much can you contribute?

Would you believe nothing?

Yep, zero. You make too much money.

How’s Lovey, Thurston?

And there is our segue to the nondeductible IRA. The “nondeduct” still exists, but it has been eclipsed (and rightfully so) by the Roth.

The nondeductible preceded the Roth. The idea is that you get no deduction going in, but only a percentage is taxable coming out.

Here is an example. You fund a nondeductible for a decade. You contribute $55,000. Years later, it is worth $550,000 and you start taking withdrawals. How is this taxed?

$55,000 divided by $550,000 is 10 percent. The inverse – 90 percent – is your gain. You pull out $20,000. Your taxable amount is $20,000 times 90% or $18,000.

This thing is a distant cousin to the Roth, where the whole $20,000 would be nontaxable. You would always Roth rather than nondeduct – if you can.

But you make $200 grand. No Roth for you.

But you can nondeduct. It is one thing the nondeduct brings to the party – there is no income limit. Make a zillion dollars and you can still put $5,500 into your nondeductible IRA.

If you do, the IRS wants you to attach a form to your return – Form 8606. It alerts them that a nondeductible exists, and it also reminds you of your accumulated contributions decades later when you begin withdrawals. You are going to need that number to calculate your percentage.

I was looking at case where the taxpayer had a nondeductible IRA and it was decades later. He had to calculate the taxable percentage, but he had never completed Form 8606 to do the calculation or to alert the IRS.

He withdrew $27,745. He did not report the $27,745 because it came from his nondeductible IRA.
COMMENT: And we know this is wrong. He was thinking of a Roth, where the whole thing is nontaxable. This is a nondeductible, and only a percentage is nontaxable.
The IRS wanted to tax it all. He had – gasp! – failed to attach…the…proper… form.

Problem was; he did not have the best documentation. No doubt it would been better to file and update that 8606 as he went along.

The Court looked at available documentation, which was sparse.

(1) There was a Citibank summary statement sometime around 1998 showing cost and value.
(2) The taxpayer had Forms 5498 from 2007 through 2013. If you have ever funded an IRA, then you have received one of these. Form 5498 shows your contributions for the previous calendar year. His 5498s showed that he put in no fresh money from 2007 onward.
(3) Taxpayer showed that he was high-income for the years before 2007 when he made his IRA contributions.

The Court gave him the benefit of the doubt. It knew that the IRA account was not a Roth. That left only deductible and nondeductible IRAs. If he was high income and covered by a plan at work, he could not have made a deductible IRA contribution. By process of elimination, the IRA had to be nondeductible.

He was not in the clear though. The Court reminded him that a nondeductible percentage of zero is almost impossible, as the IRA would have to go down in value. He had to calculate his percentage and would have taxable income, but not as much as the IRS wanted.

I suspect I will see this fact pattern as boomers with nondeductible IRAs enter retirement. The Tax Court has given us guidance on how to work around poor recordkeeping.

The case for the home gamers is Shank v Commissioner.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tattletaling on Sales Taxes

There is a tax case coming before the Supreme Court. It involves Wayfair, the online home goods company, and sales taxes.

The issue can be summarized as follows: if I do not have a building or inventory or employees in your state, can you force me to collect your taxes?

The Wayfair case is an evolution of the Quill case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1992. Quill is an office-supply company, and in 1992 the issue was whether North Dakota could tax Quill just because it sent catalogues to residents of the state.

North Dakota was adamant: Quill was regularly and systematically soliciting its citizenry. It did not care that Quill had no presence in the state. By that reasoning Norway could have also taxed Quill, but let’s not introduce common sense into this argument.

The Supreme Court was unwilling to go that far, recognizing that sales taxation was (and is) the wild west of taxation. Each state has its own rules and - depending upon the state - there can also be counties and cities imposing sales tax.  

What has changed since Quill? The internet, of course.

The new argument is that the internet has revolutionized how business is done.

But sales taxes are still eccentric, often cryptic and frustratingly inconsistent. The internet has not revolutionized that. Perhaps Amazon can wield the accounting staff necessary to comply, but a small business may have a different result.

I have a client that got mugged by the “tattletale” statutes that some states are now implementing.

Let’s look at Washington’s tattletale law.

It applies if you do not otherwise collect Washington sales tax.  

Let’s say that you sell promotional materials for old-time movies. You have a modest warehouse in a nondescript part of town, You sell exclusively over the internet, and you get paid almost exclusively through PayPal.

You have a sale in Washington state. Then two, four, ten…. You get the idea.

Washington is watching you.

Get to $10,000 in Washington sales and you have issues.

Oh, they cannot force you to collect sales taxes, but they can force you to:

(1) Conspicuously post on your website that sales taxes are due and that the purchaser must file a use tax return.

Fail to do so and there is an immediate penalty of $20,000.


Are we done?

Of course not.

Let’s say that you actually sell something.

(2) You must provide a notice with every sale that no sales tax is being collected, that the purchaser should file a use tax, and instructions on how to pay the use tax. The notice must be “prominently” displayed.

You write a standard notice and keep copies.

Are we done?

(3) At year end you must send the purchaser a list of everything they bought, by date. You again must provide the usual gospel on use tax and how to get information on its filing.

This starting to get expensive. Who has time for this nonsense?

Make time. The penalties begin at $5,000 and can increase exponentially.

(4) You must send a copy of that list to the state of Washington.

Fail to do so and penalties begin at $20,000.

By my math, if you sell $10,001 into Washington and do not become an unpaid agent of the Department of Revenue, you are exposed to $45,000 in penalties.

Washington of course says that it can waive penalties.

Fairy tales used to be for children. 

And the fairy tale is a one-off only. There is no second chance at a waiver.

Mind you, Washington’s state sales tax rate is 6.5%. Go to Seattle and you pick up a city sales tax, making the combined rate 9.6%

What pathological bureaucrat sets the bar at $650 in sales tax?

This is the standard structure of the tattletale laws: resistance is futile.

In ancient times – say the 1980s – there was a concept in state taxation called the Commerce Clause. This refers to the Constitution and its restriction on states to not so burden and fetter their laws so as to interfere with interstate commerce.

Seems to me that the Supreme Court should consider the Commerce Clause implications of a $45,000 penalty on $10,001 in sales when considering the Wayfair decision.

I know.

Fairy tales used to be for children.

Monday, April 2, 2018

When Do You Become A Landlord?

There is a requisite to being an NFL player – current or retired.

You must have played in the NFL.

There is a tax spiff on this point when you decide to landlord.

When does your rental start?

Probably when you place it in service, that is, when you have a tenant and begin receiving rent.

Can it start before then? Say that you are having trouble getting a tenant. Can you can say that you started renting before you have a tenant?

It probably can happen, but you had better line-up your facts in case of challenge.

I am looking at a case where the IRS assessed the following tax:

                 2004             $ 78,292
                     2005             $144,053     
                     2006             $218,228
                     2007             $143,729
                     2008             $252,777
                     2009             $309,060

Numbers like that will attract attention, the kind that can result in a challenge.

There is a doctor who now lives in Florida but used to live in Rhode Island. In 2004 he and his wife bought a mansion in Newport. The house was derelict, having been vacant for four decades.

It was uninhabitable, so the first thing they did was bring in a contractor.

It was a historic property, so there were also some tax credits in there.

Restoration started in 2002.

The work went into 2008.

That is a lot of restoration.

The family moved to Florida in 2005.

I suppose that answers the issue of whether this was ever a principal residence. It could not be if one could not live in it.

In 2006 they met a rental agent who specialized in luxury properties.

They got a temporary certificate of occupancy in 2007 and a final certificate in 2008.

Seems that one could argue that it was available for rent in 2007.

By 2007 the agent was hopeful she could attract a renter. She held up actively marketing it, however, as renovations were unfinished.

Sure enough, one of her clients expressed an interest in 2008.

The debt on this fiasco was ballooning, so the doctor and his wife decided to dump the house. The ante was upped when the bank increased their monthly payment in 2008 from $25 grand to $39 grand a month.

Count me out on ever renting this place.

In July, 2009 they sold the house.

They filed their 2009 tax return and reported a capital loss of a gazillion dollars.

Tax advisors are not overly fond of capital loses, as the only thing they can offset – with one exception – is capital gains. If you have no capital gains, then the loss just sits there – unused and gathering dust.

The doctor and his wife met a tax advisor who said that he could help: just treat the house as business property and the loss would be deductible. The good kind of loss – the kind you can actually lose.

They amended their 2009 return and reported a $8-plus million business loss.

Now they had a 2009 net operating loss. They carried the loss backward and forward. There were tax refunds and jollity aplenty.

However, numbers like that attract IRS attention, especially when you amend a return.

The IRS did not believe they had business property. If it was not business, then the initial reporting as capital loss was correct. The IRS wanted its money back.

Don’t think so, replied the doctor and his wife.

Off to Tax Court they went.

At issue was whether the house ever shifted to rental status, as that is the trigger for it to be business property.

There was one key – and punishing – fact: they never rented the house.

Here is the Court:
While we have no doubt that petitioners devoted a great deal of time, effort and expense to the renovation of Wrentham House Mansion, the record overwhelmingly confirms that Wrentham House Mansion was never held out for rent or rented after the restoration was complete. Quite simply, the rental activity with respect to Wrentham House Mansion never commenced in any meaningful or substantive way.”
Perhaps the doctor and his wife would have held on – at least long enough to rent for a while – if the monthly payment had not skyrocketed. They were pushed into a corner.

Still, no rent = no business = no business loss.

The best they could do was a capital loss.

What is the one exception to a capital loss I alluded to earlier?

You can deduct $3,000 a year against non-capital-gain property.

Which is no solace when you have an $8-plus million capital loss.

The case is Keefe v Commissioner for the homegamers.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Researching For Deductions

I was skimming a Tax Court case that almost made me laugh out loud.

It initially caught my attention because it involved a deduction for research costs.

The tax surrounding research costs come in two flavors:

·      What is deductible as research?
·      And – perhaps more importantly – can you get a tax credit for it?

Let’s talk this time about the first question, which may not be what you anticipate. Here is an example:

You build a garage to store your business equipment. The garage’s claim to fame is that it is built from natural fibers rather than bricks and lumber. It is the Kon-Tiki of garages. Can you deduct the cost of the garage as you build it?

At the end of the day, you will have a building. Granted, it may be unusual, but it is still a building. Can you deduct a building as you go along? Or do you have to accumulate (and defer) the cost until the building is ready for use? And then what - do you deduct the accumulated cost at that time or do you deduct the cost over a period of years?

You will be deducting the cost over a period of years, otherwise known as depreciation. You self-constructed a long-lived asset, and the tax Code (barring the unusual) will not let you deduct it immediately.

Let’s swing back to research costs.

What if the research costs result in a patent?

You have legal rights for a period of years to intellectual property, and the patent may be worth a fortune.

So we rephrase the question: can you immediately deduct the research costs resulting in that patent?

But CTG, you say, the two are not the same. Chances are that salaries make-up most of the research costs. It doesn’t seem right to capitalize and depreciate salaries. Sticks and bricks have staying power; they last for years. It makes more sense to depreciate those rather than salaries.

Hmmm. What about the wages of the tradesmen-and-women that constructed the building? Do we get to carve those out from the sticks-and-bricks and deduct them immediately?

Of course not.

You now get the issue with research costs.

To answer it the tax Code gives us Section 174:

        (a)  Treatment as expenses.
(1)  In general.
A taxpayer may treat research or experimental expenditures which are paid or incurred by him during the taxable year in connection with his trade or business as expenses which are not chargeable to capital account. The expenditures so treated shall be allowed as a deduction.

As long as the costs meet the definition of “research or experimental expenditures,” you have the option of deducting them immediately.

Problem solved.

Our case this time is Bradley and Hayes-Hunter v Commissioner.

Mr. Bradley was a litigation consultant. He reviewed evidence, provided expert testimony and conducted legal research. He was self-employed, and on his 2014 individual income tax return he deducted $25,000 as “Research.”

The IRS was curious what “research and experimental expenditures” a litigation coach could possibly have. It is well-trod ground that Section 174 addresses research in an “experimental” or “laboratory” sense. While one does not have to be in a Pfizer lab wearing a white coat, one likewise cannot be in a library shepardizing law cases.

What did he deduct?

I will give you a clue: his billing rate was $250 per hour.

He deducted $25,000.

And $25,000 divided by $250 is 100 hours.

Not only was he nowhere near a Section 174 research cost, he was also deducting his own time.

How I wish.

Who knows how much tax research I do over an average year. If I could only deduct my time, I would never pay income taxes again.

It won’t work for me, and it did not work for Mr. Bradley.