Friday, July 22, 2016

Spouses Owning Businesses, Divorce And Taxes

A fundamental concept in taxation is that an “accession to wealth” represents taxable income, unless the Code says otherwise.

There are limits on this, of course, otherwise you would be immediately taxed when your mutual fund or house went up in value. The Code will (usually) want to see a triggering event, such as a sale, exchange or disposition by other means. You don’t pay tax on your stock gain, for example, until you sell the stock.

But the concept also creates problems. For example, consider the recent development of crowdfunding. You have an idea for the next great breakfast sandwich, and you reach out on the internet for money to get the idea going. You have accession to wealth, but is the money taxable to you? The tax consequence can get very murky very quickly. For example:

·        If you provide investors with breakfast sandwiches, there is an argument that you sold sandwiches.
·        If investors instead receive ownership (say shares of stock), we would sidestep that sale-of-sandwiches thing, but you might have an issue with securities laws.
·        If investors receive nothing, one could argue that the monies were a gift. The closer you get to detached generosity without expectation of economic gain, the better the argument.

Let's next consider accession to wealth in a divorce context. Here is Code Section 1041:

(a) General rule. No gain or loss shall be recognized on a transfer of property from an individual to (or in trust for the benefit of)—
(1) a spouse, or
(2) a former spouse, but only if the transfer is incident to the divorce.

(c) Incident to divorce. For purposes of subsection (a)(2), a transfer of property is incident to the divorce if such transfer— 
(1) occurs within 1 year after the date on which the marriage ceases, or
(2) is related to the cessation of the marriage.

Believe it or not, the general definition of income could trigger when marital assets are divided upon divorce. That makes little sense, of course, so Section 1041 provides an escape clause.
Question: how much time do you have to separate the marital assets?
The first answer provided in (c)(1) is one year. It is immediately followed by (c)(2) which (appears to) expand the answer to any period as long as the asset transfer is related to the cessation of marriage. That is a bit open-ended, so the tax Regulations interpret (c)(2) as up to six years.

The Belots started a dance school in New Jersey in 1989. The wife was the dancer and creative force, while the husband attended to the business side. Eventually they had several dance studios, a corporation to manage them and a partnership to own the real estate. They did well. While owned 100% by the spouses, the husband and wife were not necessarily 50:50 owners in each entity.

They started divorce action in 2006,and adjusted their ownership in each entity to 50:50. The divorce was finalized in January, 2007.

There is a reason they got divorced. Tired of her ex-husband's participation, Ms. Belot bought-out his share in 2008 for $1,580,000.

Mr. Belot took the position that this was not taxable under Section 1041. The IRS took the opposite position and billed him almost $240,000 in tax and penalties.

Off to Tax Court they went.

The IRS argued that each and every transaction had to come under the umbrella of Section 1041. There was no question that the first transaction qualified, but the second transaction – cashing-out Mr. Belot entirely – did not because it represented an event arising after the divorce. The second settlement represented a business contingency and was not related to the divorce decree.

The IRS was following a hyper-technical interpretation of its Regulations.

The problem is that the Code does not say "pursuant to the divorce decree." It instead says "related to the cessation of marriage." The divorce decree is arguably the most vivid expression of such cessation, but it is not the only one. The Belots were clearly still dividing marital assets owned at the time of divorce.

The Court decided in favor of the Belots.

Why did the IRS even pursue this?

The IRS was enforcing the everything-is-taxable position, unless excluded by the Code somewhere. 

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