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.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dog The Bounty Hunter And The IRS

The IRS has a form just to inform them that you moved.

Many, many years ago I was asked why this form existed, as the IRS would automatically update its files when you filed your next tax return.

After decades of practice, I have a very good idea why this form exists.

Let’s talk about Duane Chapman, whom you may know as Dog the Bounty Hunter. You may also remember that his wife – Beth – recently passed away from throat cancer.

The series Dog the Bounty Hunter aired from 2003 to 2012; the show took Duane and Beth to Hawaii and Colorado.

In 2012 the IRS was looking at their 2006 and 2007 tax returns.
COMMENT: You may be wondering why the statute did not close on the tax returns after 3 years. The IRS will – especially if there is complexity to the return – usually ask one to extend the statute period. I tend to accept such requests, as the alternative is for the IRS to disallow everything and issue a Notice of Deficiency before the statute expires.
Let’s highlight several dates.

Duane and Beth used their CPA’s address for their 2010 tax return.

Their favorite accountant left that CPA firm to start his own. Duane and Beth followed.

Duane and Beth then used this CPA’s new address for their 2011 return.

We therefore have two addresses in Los Angeles.

Mind you, the television show was in Honolulu.

And they also had a home in Colorado.

It was 2012 and the IRS was preparing a Notice of Deficiency, also known as the 90-day letter.  One has 90 days to appeal to the Tax Court.

The IRS was required to send the Notice to their “last known address.”

That presents a problem.

What address do you use?

The Appeals Officer had an IRS employee search for addresses, but eventually he sent copies of the Notice to both CPAs in Los Angeles.

The story now goes wonky.

The old CPA received the Notice but did not see fit to forward it to Duane and Beth, or at least to place a call or send an e-mail to either – you know, for old time’s sake.

I am thinking he may want to contact his insurance carrier, just in case.

The new CPA said he never received the Notice, but Post Office records show that it had been delivered. What makes this doubly peculiar is that the CPA had previously contacted the Appeals Officer explaining that he would soon be filing a power of attorney. And he did – but after delay and after the Officer had closed the file.

I am thinking he may want to contact his insurance carrier also.

The IRS assessed taxes, interest and penalties.

Duane and Beth challenged whether the IRS used their last known address. If the IRS did not, then the Notice of Deficiency was not properly served and any tax or penalty could not be reduced to assessment. Both parties would be back to square one.

Duane and Beth argued that any IRS notice should have gone to their address in Hawaii, as that is where they were. The IRS knew that the Los Angeles addresses were for their CPAs and not for them personally.

The Court had to address the meaning of “last known address.”

And it means pretty much what you would think.

The last known address was for their old CPA. The IRS had extended a courtesy by sending a copy to the new CPA, especially considering his delay in sending a power of attorney. Granted, the IRS knew – or should have known – that they were in Hawaii, but that is not what “last known address” means.

The taxpayer decides that address. By filing a return. Or by filing that change-of-address form noted at the beginning of this post.

Duane and Beth had decided it would be their CPA’s address.

They had filed with the Tax Court long after 90 days had expired.

So their filing was dismissed as untimely.

Our case this time was Chapman v Commissioner, TC Memo 2019-110.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The IRS Does Not Believe You Made A Loan

The issue came up here at command center this past week. It is worth discussing, as the issue is repetitive and – if the IRS aims it your way – the results can be brutal.

We are talking about loans.

More specifically, loans to/from yourself and among companies you own.

What’s the big deal, right? It is all your money.

Yep, it’s your money. What it might not be, however, is a loan.

Let’s walk through the story of James Polvony.

In 1996 he joined his wife’s company, Archetone Limited (Limited) as a 49% owner. Limited was a general contractor.

In 2002 he started his own company, Povolny Group (PG). PG was a real estate brokerage.

The real estate market died in 2008. Povolny was looking for other sources of income.

He won a bid to build a hospital for the Algerian Ministry of Health.

He formed another company, Archetone International LLC (LLC), for this purpose.

The Algerian job required a bank guaranty. This created an issue, as the best he could obtain was a line of credit from Wells Fargo. He took that line of credit to a UK bank and got a guarantee, but he still had to collateralize the US bank. He did this by borrowing and moving monies around his three companies.

The Algerian government stopped paying him. Why? While the job was for the Algerian government, it was being funded by a non-Algerian third party. This third party wanted a cut of the action. Povolny did not go along, and – shockingly – progress payments, and then actual job progress, ceased.

The deal was put together using borrowed money, so things started unravelling quickly.

International was drowning. Povolny had Limited pay approximately $241,000 of International’s debts.

PG also loaned International and Limited approximately $70 grand. PG initially showed this amount as a loan, but PG amended its return to show the amount as “Cost of Goods Sold.”
COMMENT: PG was making money. Cost of goods sold is a deduction, whereas a loan is not, at least not until it becomes uncollectible. I can see the allure of another deduction on a profitable tax return. Still, to amend a return for this reason strikes me as aggressive.
Limited also deducted its $241 grand, not as cost-of-goods-sold but as a bad-debt deduction.

Let’s regroup here for a moment.

  • Povolny moved approximately $311 grand among his companies, and
  • He deducted the whole thing using one description or another.

This caught the IRS’ attention.


Because it matters how Polvony moved monies around.

A loan can result in a bad debt deduction.

A capital contribution cannot. Granted, you may have a capital loss somewhere down the road, but that loss happens when you finally shut down the company or otherwise dispose of your stock or ownership interest.

Timing is a BIG deal in this area.

If you want the IRS to respect your assertion of a loan, then be prepared to show the incidents of a loan, such as:

  • A written note
  • An interest rate
  • A maturity date
  • Repayment schedule
  • Recourse if the debtor does not perform (think collateral)

Think of yourself as SunTrust or Fifth Third Bank making a loan and you will get the idea.

The Court made short work of Povolny:
·       The $241 thousand loan did not have a written note, no maturity date and no required interest payments.
·       Ditto for the $70 grand.
The Court did not find the commercially routine attributes of debt, so it decided that there was no debt.

Povolny was moving his own capital around.

He as much said so when he said that he “didn’t see the merit” in creating written notes, interest rates and repayment terms.

The Polvony case is not remarkable. It happens all the time. What it does, however, is to tentpole how important it is to follow commercially customary banking procedures when moving monies among related companies.

But is it all your money, isn’t it?

Yep, it is. Be lax and the IRS will take you at your word and figure you are just moving your own capital around.

And there is no bad debt deduction on capital.

Our case this time was Povolny Group, Incorporated et al v Commissioner, TC Memo 2018-37.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A BallPark Tax

I am a general tax practitioner, but even within that I set limits. There are certain types of work that I won’t do, if I do not do enough of it to (a) keep the technical issues somewhat fresh in my mind and (b) warrant the time it would require to remain current.

Staying current is a necessity. The tax landscape is littered with landmines.

For example, did you know there is a tax to pay for Nationals Park, the home to the Washington Nationals baseball team?

I am not talking about a sales tax or a fee when you buy a ticket to the game.

No, I mean that you have to file a return and pay yet another tax.

That strikes me as cra-cra.

At least the tax excludes business with gross receipts of less than $5 million sourced to the District of Columbia.

That should protect virtually all if not all of my clients. I might have a contractor go over, depending on where their jobs are located in any given year.

Except ….

Let’s go to the word “source.”

Chances are you think of “source” as actually being there. You have an office or a storefront in the District. You send in a construction work crew from Missouri. Maybe you send in a delivery truck from Maryland or Virginia.

I can work with that.

I am reading that the District now says that “source” includes revenues from services delivered to customers in the District, irrespective where the services are actually performed.


What does that mean?

If I structure a business transaction for someone in D.C., am I expected to file and pay that ballpark tax? I am nowhere near D.C. I should at least get a courtesy tour of the stadium. And a free hot dog. And pretzel.
COMMENT: My case is a bad example. I have never invoiced a single client $5 million in my career. If I had, I might now be the Retired Cincinnati Tax Guy.
I can better understand the concept when discussing tangible property. I can see it being packaged and shipped; I can slip a barcode on it. There is some tie to reality.

The concept begins to slip when discussing services. What if the company has offices in multiple cities?  What if I make telephone calls and send e-mails to different locations? What if a key company person I am working with in turn works remotely? What if the Browns go to the Super Bowl?

The game de jour with state (and District) taxation is creative dismemberment of the definition of nexus.

Nexus means that one has sufficient ties to and connection with a state (or District) to allow the state (or District) to impose its taxation. New York cannot tax you just because you watched an episode of Friends. For many years it meant that one had a location there. If not a location, then perhaps one had an employee there, or kept inventory, or maybe sent trucks into the state for deliveries. There was something – or someone – tangible which served as the hook to drag one within the state’s power to tax.

That definition doesn’t work in an economy with Netflix, however.

The Wayfair decision changed the definition. Nexus now means that one has sales into the state exceeding a certain dollar threshold.

While that definition works with Netflix, it can lead to absurd results in other contexts. For example, I recently purchased a watch from Denmark. Let’s say that enough people in Kentucky like and purchase the same or a similar watch. Technically, that means the Danish company would have a Kentucky tax filing requirement, barring some miraculous escape under a treaty or the like.

What do you think the odds are that a chartered accountant in Denmark would have a clue that Kentucky expects him/her to file a Kentucky tax return?

Let’s go back to what D.C. did. They took nexus. They redefined nexus to mean sales into the District.  They redefined it again to include the sale of services provided by an out-of-District service provider.

This, folks, is bad tax law.

And a tax accident waiting to happen.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

You Sell Your Lottery Winnings

I was looking at a case where someone won the New York State Lottery.

I could have worse issues, methinks.

But there was a tax issue that is worth talking about.

Let’s say you won $17.5 million in the lottery.

You elect to receive it 26 years.

          QUESTION: How is this going to be taxed?

Easy enough: the tax Code considers lottery proceeds to be the same as gambling income. It will be taxed the same as a W-2 or an IRA distribution. You will pay ordinary tax rates. You will probably be maxing the tax rates, truthfully.

Let’s say you collected for three years and then sold the remaining amounts-to-be-received for $7.1 million.

          QUESTION: How is this going to be taxed?

I see what you are doing. You are hoping to get that $7.1 million taxed at a capital gains rate.

You googled the definition of a capital asset and find the following:

            § 1221 Capital asset defined.

(a)  In general.
For purposes of this subtitle, the term "capital asset" means property held by the taxpayer (whether or not connected with his trade or business), but does not include-
(1)  stock in trade of the taxpayer or other property of a kind which would properly be included in the inventory of the taxpayer if on hand at the close of the taxable year, or property held by the taxpayer primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of his trade or business;
(2) property, used in his trade or business, of a character which is subject to the allowance for depreciation provided in section 167 , or real property used in his trade or business;
(3) a patent, invention, model or design (whether or not patented), a secret formula or process, a copyright, a literary, musical, or artistic composition, a letter or memorandum, or similar property, held by-
(A)  a taxpayer whose personal efforts created such property,
(B)  in the case of a letter, memorandum, or similar property, a taxpayer for whom such property was prepared or produced, or
(C)  a taxpayer in whose hands the basis of such property is determined, for purposes of determining gain from a sale or exchange, in whole or part by reference to the basis of such property in the hands of a taxpayer described in subparagraph (A) or (B) ;
(4) accounts or notes receivable acquired in the ordinary course of trade or business for services rendered or from the sale of property described in paragraph (1) ;
(5) a publication of the United States Government (including the Congressional Record) which is received from the United States Government or any agency thereof, other than by purchase at the price at which it is offered for sale to the public, and which is held by-
(A)  a taxpayer who so received such publication, or
(B)  a taxpayer in whose hands the basis of such publication is determined, for purposes of determining gain from a sale or exchange, in whole or in part by reference to the basis of such publication in the hands of a taxpayer described in subparagraph (A) ;
(6) any commodities derivative financial instrument held by a commodities derivatives dealer, unless-
(A)  it is established to the satisfaction of the Secretary that such instrument has no connection to the activities of such dealer as a dealer, and
(B)  such instrument is clearly identified in such dealer's records as being described in subparagraph (A) before the close of the day on which it was acquired, originated, or entered into (or such other time as the Secretary may by regulations prescribe);
(7) any hedging transaction which is clearly identified as such before the close of the day on which it was acquired, originated, or entered into (or such other time as the Secretary may by regulations prescribe); or
(8) supplies of a type regularly used or consumed by the taxpayer in the ordinary course of a trade or business of the taxpayer.

Did you notice how this Code section is worded: a capital asset is property that is not …?

You don’t see anything there that looks like your lottery, and you are thinking maybe you have a capital asset. The sale of a capital asset gets one to capital gains tax, right?

You call me with your tax insight and planning.

If tax practice were only that easy.

You see, over the years the Courts have developed doctrines to fill-in the gaps in statutory Code language.

We have spoken of several doctrines before. One was the Cohan rule, named after George Cohan, who showed up at a tax audit long on deductions and short on supporting documentation.  The Court nonetheless allowed estimates for many of his expenses, reasoning that the Court knew he had incurred expenses and it would be unreasonable to allow nothing because of inadequate paperwork.

Congress felt that the Cohan rule could lead to abuses when it came to certain expenses such as meals, entertainment and travel. That is how Code section 274(d) came to be: as the anti-Cohan rule for selected expense types. No documentation means no deduction under Sec 274(d).

Back to our capital gains.

Look at the following language:
We do not see here any conversion of a capital investment. The lump sum consideration seems essentially a substitute for what would otherwise be received at a future time as ordinary income."
The substance of what was assigned was the right to receive future income. The substance of what was received was the present value of income which the recipient would otherwise obtain in the future. In short, consideration was paid for the right to receive future income, not for an increase in the value of the income-producing property."

This is from the Commissioner v PG Lake case in 1958.

The Court is describing what has come to be referred to as the “substitute for ordinary income” doctrine.

The easiest example is when you receive money right now for a future payment or series of future payments that would be treated as ordinary income when received.

Like a series of future lottery payments.

Mind you, there are limits on this doctrine. For example, one could argue that the value of a common stock is equal to its expected stream of future cash payments, whether as dividends or in liquidation. When looked at in such light, does that mean that the sale of stock today would be ordinary and not capital gain income?

The tax nerds would argue that it is not the same. You do not have the right to those future dividends until the company declares them, for example. Contrast that to a lottery that someone has already begun collecting. There is nothing left to do in that case but to wait for the mailman to come with your check.

I get the difference.

In our example the taxpayer got to pay ordinary tax rates on her $7.1 million. The Court relied on the “substitute for ordinary income” doctrine and a case from before many of us were born.

Our case this time was Prebola v Commissioner, TC Memo 2006-240.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Foreign Investment In U.S. Rental Real Estate

We have spoken about Congress’ and the IRS’ increasing reliance on penalties.

Here is one from the new Taxpayer First Act of 2019:

The minimum penalty for filing a return more than 60 days later will now be no less than the lesser of:

·        $330 or
·        100% of the amount required to be shown on the tax return.

The previous marker was $205, adjusted for inflation.

Thanks for saving the republic from near-certain extinction there, Congress.

There is another one that has caught my attention, as it impacts my practice.

By happenstance I represent a fair number of foreign nationals who own rental real estate in the U.S.

Why would a foreign national want to own rental real estate in Georgetown, KY, Lebanon, OH or Arlington, TN?

I don’t get it, truthfully, but then I am not a landlord by disposition. I certainly am not a long-distance landlord.

There is a common structure to these arrangements. The foreign national sets up an U.S.-based LLC, and the LLC buys and operates the rentals. Practitioners do not often use corporations for this purpose.

There is a very nasty tax trap here.

There is special reporting for a foreign corporation doing business in the United States. As a flip to that coin, there is also special reporting for a U.S. corporation that is 25%-or-more owned by nonresidents. We are referring to Form 5472, and it is used to highlight “reportable transactions,” with no dollar minimum.

“Reportable transactions” sounds scary. I suppose we are looking for laundering of illicit money or something similar, right?

Here is an example of a “reportable transaction”:

·        borrowing money

Here is another:

·        paying interest on borrowed money

Yep, we are going full CSI on that bad boy.

Let’s play with definitions and drag down a few unattentive tax practitioners, why don’t we?

An LLC with one owner can be considered to be the same as its owner for tax purposes.

Say that Emilio from Argentina sets up an Ohio LLC.  He is the only owner. The LLC goes on to buy rental properties in Cincinnati and Columbus.

For federal income tax purposes, the LLC is disregarded and Emilio is deemed to own the properties individually.

For purposes of information reporting, however, the IRS wants you to treat Emilio’s single-member LLC as a corporation.

A “corporation” that is more-than-25% owned by a nonresident.

Meaning that you have a Form 5472 filing requirement.

What happens if the tax practitioner doesn’t catch this wordplay?

An automatic penalty of $10,000 for not filing that 5472.

Granted, the practitioner will fight the penalty. What choice is there?

Let’s up the ante.

Buried in the new tax law for 2018 (that is, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act), Congress increased the minimum penalty from $10,000 to $25,000.

So a foreign national buys a rental house or two in name-a-city, and somehow he/she is on par with an Alibaba or Banco Santander?

The IRS automatically charges the penalty if the form is filed late. The practitioner would have to provide reasonable cause to have the penalty abated.  

Remember next that the IRS does not consider an accountant’s error to be necessarily provide reasonable cause, and you can anticipate how this story may not turn out well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The IRS Cryptocurrency Letter

Do you Bitcoin?

The issue actually involves all cryptocurrencies, which would include Ethereum, Dash and so forth.

A couple of years ago the IRS won a case against Coinbase, one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges. The IRS wasn’t going after Coinbase per se; rather, the IRS wanted something Coinbase had: information. The IRS won, although Coinbase also scored a small victory.
·       The IRS got names, addresses, social security numbers, birthdates, and account activity.
·       Coinbase however provided this information only for customers with cryptocurrency sales totaling at least $20,000 for years 2013 to 2015.
What happens next?

You got it: the IRS started sending out letters late last month- approximately 10,000 of them. 

Why is the IRS chasing this?

The IRS considers cryptocurrencies to be property, not money. In general, when you sell property at a gain, the IRS wants its cut. Sell it at a loss and the IRS becomes more discerning. Is the property held for profit or gain or is it personal? If profit or gain, the IRS will allow a loss. If personal, then tough luck; the IRS will not allow the loss.

The IRS believes there is unreported income here.

Yep, probably is.

The tax issue is easier to understand if you bought, held and then sold the crypto like you would a stock or mutual fund. One buy, one sell. You made a profit or you didn’t.

It gets more complicated if you used the crypto as money. Say, for example, that you took your car to a garage and paid with crypto. The following weekend you drove the car to an out-of-town baseball game, paying for the tickets, hotel and dinner with crypto. Is there a tax issue?

The tax issue is that you have four possible tax events:

(1)  The garage
(2)  The tickets
(3)  The hotel
(4)  The dinner

I suspect that are many who would be surprised that the IRS sees four possible triggers there. After all, you used crypto as money ….

Yes, you did, but the IRS says crypto is not money.

And it raises another tax issue. Let’s use the tickets, hotel and dinner for our example.

Let’s say that you bought cryptos at several points in time. You used an older holding for the tickets. 

You had a gain on that trade.

You used a newer holding for the hotel and dinner.

You had losses on those trades.

Can you offset the gains and losses?

Remember: the IRS always participates in your gains, but it participates in your losses only if the transaction was for profit or gain and was not personal.

One could argue that the hotel and dinner are about as personal as you can get.

What if you get one of these letters?

I have two answers, depending on how much money we are talking about.

·       If we are talking normal-folk money, then contact your tax preparer. There will probably be an amended return. I might ask for penalty abatement on the grounds that this is a nascent area of tax law, especially if we are talking about our tickets, hotel and dinner scenario.

·       If crazy money, talk first to an attorney. Not because you are expecting jail; no, because you want the most robust confidentiality standard available. That standard is with an attorney. The attorney will hire the tax preparer, thereby extending his/her confidentiality to the preparer.

If the IRS follows the same game plan as they did with overseas bank accounts, anticipate that they are looking for strong cases involving big fish with millions of dollars left unreported.

In other words, tax fraud.

You and I are not talking fraud. We are talking about paying Starbucks with crypto and forgetting to include it on your tax return.

Just don’t blow off the letter.