Friday, July 25, 2014

The IRS Updates a Real Estate Professional Tax Rule

I am glad to see that the IRS has reversed course on an issue concerning real estate professionals.

You may remember that “passive losses” entered the tax Code in 1986 as retaliation against tax shelters. The IRS had previously battled tax shelters using challenges such as “at-risk,” but 1986 brought a new and updated weapon to the IRS armory.

The idea is simple: separate business activities into two buckets: one bucket for material participation and a second for passive. The classic material participation is an activity where one works more than 500 hours. Activities in the material participation bucket can offset each other; that is, losses can offset income.

Move on to the second bucket. Losses can offset income – but not beyond zero. The best one can do (with exceptions, of course) is get to zero. One cannot create a net loss to offset against net income from bucket one.

Consider that tax shelters were placed into bucket two and you understand how Congress changed the tax Code to pull the rug out from under the classic tax shelter.

It was quickly realized that the basic passive activity rules were unfair to people who made their living in real estate. For example, take a real estate developer who keeps a few self-constructed office condominiums as rentals. If one went granular separating the activities, then the real estate development would be a material participation activity but the condominium rentals would be a passive activity. This result does not make sense, as all the income in our example originated from the same “activity.”

So Congress came in with Section 469(c)(7):
469(c)(7)(A) IN GENERAL.— If this paragraph applies to any taxpayer for a taxable year—

469(c)(7)(A)(i)   paragraph (2) shall not apply to any rental real estate activity of such taxpayer for such taxable year, and
469(c)(7)(A)(ii)   this section shall be applied as if each interest of the taxpayer in rental real estate were a separate activity.
Notwithstanding clause (ii), a taxpayer may elect to treat all interests in rental real estate as one activity. Nothing in the preceding provisions of this subparagraph shall be construed as affecting the determination of whether the taxpayer materially participates with respect to any interest in a limited partnership as a limited partner.
469(c)(7)(B) TAXPAYERS TO WHOM PARAGRAPH APPLIES.— This paragraph shall apply to a taxpayer for a taxable year if—

469(c)(7)(B)(i)   more than one-half of the personal services performed in trades or businesses by the taxpayer during such taxable year are performed in real property trades or businesses in which the taxpayer materially participates, and
469(c)(7)(B)(ii)   such taxpayer performs more than 750 hours of services during the taxable year in real property trades or businesses in which the taxpayer materially participates.

Look at Section 469(c)(7)(B)(ii) and the reference to 750 hours. There was confusion on what happened to the plain-vanilla 500-hour rule. Was a real estate pro to be held to a higher standard?

Here for example is the Court in Bahas:

Mrs. Bahas misconstrues section 469. Because petitioners did not elect to aggregate their real estate rental activities, pursuant to Section 469(c)(7)(A) petitioners must treat each of these interests in the real estate as if it were a  separate activity. Thus, Mrs. Bahas is required to establish that she worked for more than 750 hours each year with respect to each of the three rental properties.”

How in the world did we get from 500 hours to 750 hours for each of Mrs. Bahas’ activities?  This is not what Section 469(c)(7) appears to say. There was a torrent of professional and academic criticism on Bahas and related decisions, but in the interim practitioners (me included) elected to aggregate all the real estate activities into one activity. Why? To make sure that one got to the 750 hours, that is why.

Academicians could argue the sequence of phrases and the intent of the law. Practitioners had to prepare annual tax returns, protect their clients and wait their time.

And now it is time.

The IRS released ILM 201427016 to discuss how the “750-hour test” works when one has multiple real estate activities. It includes the following obscuration:

However, some court opinions, while reaching the correct result, contain language which may be read to suggest that the election under Treas. Reg. 1.469-9(g) affects the determination of whether a taxpayer is a qualified taxpayer.”

The IRS finally acknowledged that the 750-hour rule is not a substitute or override for the generic 500-hours-to-materially-participate rule. A real estate taxpayer goes activity-by-activity to determine if he/she is materially participating in each activity. If it is advantageous, the taxpayer can also make an election to aggregate all real estate activities before determining material participation status.

Then, once all that is done, the IRS will look at whether the taxpayer meets the more-than-half and more-than-750-hours tests to determine whether the taxpayer is a real estate pro.

There are two separate tests. One is to determine material participation and a second to determine real estate pro status. 

A bit late for Mrs. Bahas, though.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Suboptimal Tax Laws Are Still Valid Tax Laws

I have a family member who has accepted in position in, and will be moving to, Chicago. You can bet that we have discussed the compensation package, and I am to review the deferred compensation package when provided. His is a “C suite” position, so deferred compensation means more than just the 401(k) with which you and I are familiar.

I find myself reviewing a Federal Court of Claims decision on an airline pilot that got on the wrong side of FICA taxation of deferred compensation.

His name is Louis Balestra, and he was a pilot with United Airlines from 1979 until his retirement in 2004. There may have been no tax case, except that United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

Let’s talk about the “general timing rule” for FICA taxation. It is easy: you pay FICA when you are paid. No pay, no tax. No fair to not cash your paycheck!

We also have deferred compensation, more specifically “nonqualified” deferred compensation, which means a retirement plan which deviates, either a little or a lot, from somewhat rigid IRS requirements in order to be “qualified.” There is then a ‘special timing rule” (I am not making this up, I swear), the purpose of which is to speed-up when the income is taxed for FICA. The Code section is 3121(v)(2):
3121(v)(2)(A) IN GENERAL.— Any amount deferred under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan shall be taken into account for purposes of this chapter as of the later of—

3121(v)(2)(A)(i)   when the services are performed, or
3121(v)(2)(A)(ii)   when there is no substantial risk of forfeiture of the rights to such amount.

We have a new shiny: “substantial risk of forfeiture.” If the company funds your benefit, for example, chances are that your FICA tax will be accelerated, perhaps many years before you actually receive any money.

Let’s work through this with an extremely simplified example. The company agrees to pay you $100,000 five years from now. Let’s also posit that you clear the second requirement of “no substantial risk of forfeiture.” Congratulations, you have FICA tax. Right now.

Being a tax accountant by training if not by temperament, I have to ask the question: how do I calculate the income to be taxed? Is it $100,000? That doesn’t make sense, as you will receive the money five years from now. A hundred grand then is not the same as a hundred grand now, if for no other reason than you could put it n a CD (if you received it now) and have more than a hundred grand five years hence. Is it the present value of the $100,000, discounted at some interest rate and for five years? That makes more sense, and that is the guidance provided by the Regulations.

Remember what I said about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy in 2002, two years before Balestra retired? Shouldn’t we take into consideration that United Airlines might not pay everything to which Balestra is entitled?

Makes sense to me. For example, Balestra paid FICA on approximately $289,000 of deferred compensation. United actually paid him approximately $63,000. He had paid FICA on that entire $289,000, and he wanted some of it back.

CLARIFICATION: It would be more correct to say that he paid the Medicare portion of FICA, as the social security side only applies up to an income limit.  Let’s continue. We are on a roll.

Balestra sued.  

And the Court was looking at the Shakespearean prose of Reg 31.3121(v)(2)-1(c):

(ii) Present value defined.— For purposes of this section, present value means the value as of a specified date of an amount or series of amounts due thereafter, where each amount is multiplied by the probability that the condition or conditions on which payment of the amount is contingent will be satisfied, and is discounted according to an assumed rate of interest to reflect the time value of money. For purposes of this section, the present value must be determined as of the date the amount deferred is required to be taken into account as wages under paragraph (e) of this section using actuarial assumptions and methods that are reasonable as of that date. For this purpose, a discount for the probability that an employee will die before commencement of benefit payments is permitted, but only to the extent that benefits will be forfeited upon death. In addition, the present value cannot be discounted for the probability that payments will not be made (or will be reduced) because of the unfunded status of the plan, the risk associated with any deemed or actual investment of amounts deferred under the plan, the risk that the employer, the trustee, or another party will be unwilling or unable to pay, the possibility of future plan amendments, the possibility of a future change in the law, or similar risks or contingencies.

Balestra tried, but he could not overcome the fact that the Regulations did not include “employer bankruptcy” as a possible reason to discount the amount of income accelerated for FICA tax – or, at least, to allow some of the FICA to be refunded once the actual payments are known.

Balestra lost his case.

The Court did realize the unfairness of the law, however.

It might have been wiser to have selected as a trigger something other than there being ‘no substantial risk of forfeiture’ … and instead considered the financial solvency of the employer – or to have deferred taxation while an employer is in bankruptcy, rather than until promised benefits are ‘reasonable ascertainable.”

You think?

But these are matters for law makers, not judges – suboptimal laws are still valid tax laws.”

I know. I would be more optimistic if I had any regard for the suboptimals in Congress.

Tile 26 of the United States Code would be a good deal shorter if the unwise tax laws could be purged by the judiciary.”

You must admit, it is easy to like this Court.

Friday, July 11, 2014

No Job Is Worth This Penalty

A few years ago someone asked me to “run their payroll.” This particular place had enough issues to fuel multiple seasons of Game of Thrones, among the least of which was an inability or unwillingness to pay their payroll on time.  It was just a matter of time until someone reported them to a government agency. I was to timely process the payroll, transfer funds, make tax deposits and so on.

My answer?

Not a chance.

I have no problem processing a payroll. The one thing I will not do however is involve myself with making payroll tax deposits.


There is an IRS penalty out there called the “responsible person” penalty, which we have previously referred to as the “big boy” penalty. This is gallows humor, and you want nothing to do with this boy. The IRS becomes very grim when one withholds payroll taxes and fails to remit them to the government. They consider it theft. The IRS roots around to learn who in the company had control over cash – that is, who decides who to pay, who can sign checks, that type of thing. If that person is you, you may be a “responsible person,” meaning that you are also liable for the payroll taxes. The IRS can chase the company, it can chase you, it can chase both of you. You have stepped into someone else’s problem.

Where have I seen this? Mostly it stems from severe cash flow pressures, such as after the 2008 business crash. My last responsible person penalty client was a contractor on the Kentucky side of Cincinnati. What made it frightening was the IRS interviewing the controller/office manager in addition to the owners. Why? Because, once in a blue moon, she would write a check, mostly if there was no one else available to sign. That woman was understandably terrified.

I am reading a District Court decision coming out of Virginia. From 1990 to 2000 Brenda Horne was the office manager for a medical practice. Her duties included:

·       Billing customers
·       Collecting accounts receivable
·       Making bank deposits
·       Writing checks
·       Preparing, signing and filing payroll tax returns
·       Decisions about hiring, firing and employee compensation

The company stopped making payroll tax deposits in 2006.  Brenda continued writing and signing checks to everyone but the IRS.

The IRS came in. The company owed over $2.8 million in back payroll taxes.

And now, so does Ms. Horne.

Perhaps she was part of this. Perhaps she was under-informed and went along in order to keep her job. She wouldn’t be the first. The fatal fact? That she could decide who to pay, who not to pay, and could sign checks accordingly. The IRS did not get paid, and they held her responsible.

Granted, the owners of the company are responsible long before an office manager is, but that is not the way the IRS approaches this. The IRS is happy to have several responsible persons. That increases the odds of collecting from someone. Theoretically, she could sue the medical practice and its owners for restitution if the IRS compelled her to pay. Considering that the company did not – or could not – pay the taxes when due, I am skeptical that it could pay Brenda Horne now.

It does not matter what she was paid for being an office manager. It cannot approach $2.8 million.

And the company’s loyalty to her?

She got fired at the end of 2010.

Friday, July 4, 2014

How Choosing The Correct Court Made The Difference

I am looking at a District Court case worth discussing, if only for the refresher on how to select a court of venue. Let’s set it up.

ABC Beverage Corporation (ABC) makes and distributes soft drinks and non-alcoholic beverages for the Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. Through a subsidiary it acquired a company in Missouri. Shortly afterwards it determined that the lease it acquired was noneconomic. An appraisal determined that the fair market rent for the facility was approximately $356,000 per year, but the lease required annual rent of $1.1 million. The lease had an unexpired term of 40 years, so the total dollars under discussion were considerable.

The first thing you may wonder is why the lease could be so disadvantageous. There are any number of reasons. If one is distributing a high-weight low-value product (such as soft drinks), proximity to customers could be paramount. If one owns a franchise territory, one may be willing to pay a premium for the right road access. Perhaps one’s needs are so specific that the decision process compares the lease cost to the replacement cost of building a facility, which in turn may be even more expensive. There are multiple ways to get into this situation.

ABC obtained three appraisals, each of which valued the property without the lease at $2.75 million. With the lease the property was worth considerably more.

NOTE: Worth more to the landlord, of course. 

ABC approached the landlord and offered to buy the facility for $9 million. The landlord wanted $14.8 million. Eventually they agreed on $11 million. ABC capitalized the property at $2.75 million and deducted the $6.25 million difference.

How? ABC was looking at the Cleveland Allerton Hotel decision, a Sixth Circuit decision from 1948. In that case, a hotel operator had a disastrous lease, which it bought out. The IRS argued that that the entire buyout price should be capitalized and depreciated. The Circuit Court decided that only the fair market value of the property could be capitalized, and the rest could be deducted immediately. Since 1948, other courts have decided differently, including the Tax Court. One of the advantages of taking a case to Tax Court is that one does not have to pay the tax and then sue for refund. A Tax Court filing suspends the IRS’ ability to collect. The Tax Court is therefore the preferred venue for many if not most tax cases.

However and unfortunately for ABC, the Tax Court had decided opposite of Cleveland Allerton (CA), so there was virtually no point in taking the case there. ABC was in Michigan, which is in the Sixth Circuit. CA had been decided in the Sixth Circuit. To get the case into the District Court (and thus the Circuit), ABC would have to pay the tax and sue for refund. It did so.

The IRS came out with guns blazing. It pointed to Code Section 167(c)(2), which reads:

            (2) Special rule for property subject to lease
If any property is acquired subject to a lease—
(A) no portion of the adjusted basis shall be allocated to the leasehold interest, and
(B) the entire adjusted basis shall be taken into account in determining the depreciation deduction (if any) with respect to the property subject to the lease.

The IRS argued that the Section meant what it said, and that ABC had to capitalize the entire buyout, not just the fair market value.  It trotted out several cases, including Millinery Center and Woodward v Commissioner. It argued that the CA decision had been modified – to the point of reversal – over time. CA was no longer good precedent.

The IRS had a second argument: Section 167(c)(2) entered the tax Code after CA, with the presumption that it was addressing – and overturning – the CA decision.

The Circuit Court took a look at the cases. In Millinery Center, the Second Circuit refused to allow a deduction for the excess over fair market value. The Sixth Circuit pointed out that the Second Circuit had decided that way because the taxpayer had failed its responsibility of proving that the lease was burdensome. In other words, the taxpayer had not gotten to the evidentiary point where ABC was.

In Woodward the IRS argued that professional fees pursuant to a stockholder buyout had to be capitalized, as the underlying transaction was capital in nature. Any ancillary costs to the transaction (such as attorneys and accountants) likewise had to be capitalized. The Sixth Circuit pointed out the obvious: ABC was not deducting ancillary costs. ABC was deducting the transaction itself, so Woodward did not come into play.

The Court then looked at Section 167(c)(2) – “if property is acquired subject to a lease.” That wording is key, and the question is: when do you look at the property? If the Court looked before ABC bought out the lease, then the property was subject to a lease. If it looked after, then the property was not. The IRS of course argued that the correct time to look was before. The Court agreed that the wording was ambiguous.

The Court reasoned that a third party purchaser looking to acquire a building with an extant lease is different from a lessee purchaser. The third party acquires a building with an income stream – two distinct assets - whereas the lessee purchaser is paying to eliminate a liability – the lease. Had the lessee left the property and bought-out the lease, the buy-out would be deductible.

The Court decided that the time to look was after. There was no lease, as ABC at that point had unified its fee simple interest. Section 167(c)(2) did not apply, and ABC could deduct the $6.25 million. The Court decided that its CA decision from 1948 was still precedent, at least in the Sixth Circuit.

ABC won the case, and kudos to its attorneys. Their decision to take the case to District Court rather than Tax Court made the case appealable to the Sixth Circuit, which venue made all the difference.