Thursday, September 10, 2015

Taxing A Corvette



I came across an old case recently. It made me smile, as it reminded me of earlier – and skinnier – times.

Let’s set this up.

There are, broadly speaking, two accounting methods when deciding whether you have reportable income for a period: the cash method and the accrual method. There are a variety of sub, sorta- and who-actually-understands-this methods, but cash and accrual are enough for right now.

The cash method is easy: if you can deposit it at the bank you have income.  Maybe you decide not to deposit at the bank until next week, but it is still income today. Why? Because you can deposit it. The definition is “can” not “did.”

Accrual is trickier. Generally it means that you sent an invoice to someone. The act of invoicing means you have income, as someone owes you. What if you delay invoicing for a week or two? Well, then you have a variation on the above cash-basis reasoning: you could have but didn’t. Again, it is the “could,” not the “did,” that drives the test.

What if you are on the cash method and somebody pays you with property instead of cash? You have income. It makes sense when you remember that cash is a form of property. We have just gotten so used to it that we don’t think of cash that way. For tax purposes, though, someone paying you in asiago cheese and gluten-free crackers still represents income. Granted, we have to translate cheese-and-crackers into dollars, but income it is.

Let’s say that you played football. Not just any football, however. You were Vince Lombardi’s running back. It is December 31, and you and Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers are playing the New York Giants in the National Football League Championship.

COMMENT: NFL historians will immediately recognize that this was before the Super Bowl era. There was no game called the Super Bowl until the two leagues – the National Football League and the American Football League – merged in 1966. The first two Super Bowls were won tidily by Lombardi and the Packers. In Super Bowl 3 Joe Namath famously led the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts.

So it is the championship game. You are the running back. It is December 31 and you are playing outside in Green Bay. I presume you are freezing. You run wild and score 19 points, establishing a league record. You are selected after the game by Sport Magazine as the most valuable player, which comes with the prize of a new Corvette. 


Sweet.

By the way, your Corvette is waiting for you in New York. It is now the evening of December 31, 1961.

Tax issue: Do you have income (the value of that Corvette) in 1961?

The IRS said you did.

But you throw the IRS a loop: the car is not income. No, siree. It was a gift. Alternatively, it is nontaxable to you as a prize or award.

I give you kudos, but the concept of a gift requires the presence of detached and disinterested generosity. While a creative argument, it could not be reasonably argued that a for-profit magazine was awarding an expensive car to the most valuable player of a televised sporting event out of a detached and disinterested generosity. It was much more likely that both Sport Magazine and General Motors were expecting publicity, advertising and social buzz from the award.

You still have your second argument, though.

Problem is, the prize or award exception requires you to receive it for an educational, artistic, scientific or civic achievement.

You argue your point: being a star football player “calls for a degree of artistry” requiring techniques based on “scientific” principles.

Seriously.

The Court decides:

We believe that petitioner should be caught behind the line of scrimmage on this particular offensive maneuver.”

You have income. And the Court gave us a great quote.

But when do you have income: 1961 or 1962?

The Court reasons through the obvious. You are in Green Bay. The car is in New York. You cannot get to that car - much less title it - unless you had Star Trek technology. However, it is 1961 and Star Trek is not on television yet. You have income in 1962, the following day.

Your tax case is seminal in developing the tax doctrine of constructive receipt. Normally constructive receipt accelerates when you have income, but it did not in your case.You could not have made it to the bank even if you wanted to.

So why did the IRS push the issue of 1961 versus 1962? They didn’t. Remember that you were arguing that the Corvette wasn’t taxable. The IRS had to fight back on that issue. The 1961 thing was a sidebar, albeit that is what the case is remembered for all these years later.

By the way, do you know which football player we have been talking about?


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