Thursday, January 26, 2017

Caution With S Corporation Losses

I was talking with a financial advisor from Wells Fargo recently.

No, it was not about personal investments. He advises some heavy-hitting clients, and he was bouncing tax questions off me.

The topic of entrepreneurial money came up, and I mentioned that I still prefer the S corporation, although LLCs have made tremendous inroads over the last decade-plus.

The reason is that S corporations have a longer – and clearer – tax history. One can reasonably anticipate the tax predicaments an S can get itself into. The LLCs – by contrast - are still evolving, especially in the self-employment tax area.

But predictability is a two-edged blade. Catch that S-corporation knife wrong and it can cost you big-time.

One of those falling knives is when the S corporation expects to have losses, especially over successive years.

Let’s take a look at the Hargis case.

Let’s say you buy and renovate distressed nursing homes. You spend cash to buy the place, then pay for renovations and upgrades, and then – more likely than not – it will still be a while before full-occupancy and profitability.

Granted, once there it will be sweet, but you have to get there. You don’t want to die a half mile from the edge of the desert.

Here is the flashing sign for danger:

26 U.S. Code § 1366 - Pass-thru of items to shareholders
(d) Special rules for losses and deductions

(1) Cannot exceed shareholder’s basis in stock and debt The aggregate amount of losses and deductions taken into account by a shareholder under subsection (a) for any taxable year shall not exceed the sum of—
(A) the adjusted basis of the shareholder’s stock in the S corporation (determined with regard to paragraphs (1) and (2)(A) of section 1367(a) for the taxable year), and
(B) the shareholder’s adjusted basis of any indebtedness of the S corporation to the shareholder (determined without regard to any adjustment under paragraph (2) of section 1367(b) for the taxable year).

An S corporation allows you to put the business income on your personal tax return and pay tax on the combination. This sidesteps some of the notorious issues of a C corporation – more specifically, its double taxation. Proctor & Gamble may not care, but you and I as a 2-person C corporation will probably care a lot.

Planning for income from an S is relatively straightforward: you pay tax with your personal return.

Planning for losses from an S – well, that is a different tune. The tax Code allows you to deduct losses to the extent you have money invested in the S.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Let’s go through it.

Your stock investment is pretty straightforward. Generally, stock is one check, one time and not touched again.

Easy peasy.

But you can also invest by lending the S money.
OBSERVATION: How is this an “investment” you ask. Because if the S fails, you are out the money. You have the risk of never being repaid.
But it has to be done a certain way.

That way is directly from you to the S. I do not want detours, sightseeing trips or garage sales en route. Here there be dragons.

Hargis did it the wrong way.

What initially caught my eye in Hargis was the IRS chasing the following income:

·      $1,382,206 for 2009, and
·      $1,900,898 for 2010

Tax on almost $3.3 million? Yeah, that is going to hurt.

Hargis was rocking S corporations. You also know he was reporting losses, as that is what caught the IRS’ eye. The IRS gave him a Section 1366 look-over and said “FAIL.”

Hargis’ first name was Bobby; his wife’s name was Brenda. Bobby was a nursing home pro. He in fact owned five of them. He stuck each of his nursing homes in its own S corporation.

Standard planning.

The tax advisor also had Bobby separate the (nursing home) real estate and equipment from the nursing-home-as-an-operating business. The real estate and equipment went into an LLC, and the LLC “leased” the same back to the S corporation. There were 5 LLCs, one for each S.

Again, standard planning.

Bobby owned 100% of the five nursing homes.

Brenda was a member in the LLCs. There were other members, so Brenda was not a 100% owner.

The tax problem came when Bobby went out and bought a nursing home. He favored nursing homes down on their luck. He would buy at a good price, then fix-up the place and get it profitable again.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

But it took money to carry the homes during their loss period.

Bobby borrowed money:

(1) Sometimes he borrowed from the LLCs
(2) Sometimes he borrowed from his own companies
(3) Sometimes he borrowed from a bank

Let’s discuss (1) and (2) together, as they share the same issue.

The loan to the S has to be direct: from Bobby to the S.

Bobby did not do this.

The loans were from the other companies to his S corporations. Bobby was there, like an NFL owner watching from his/her luxury box on Sunday. Wave. Smile for the cameras.

Nope. Not going to work.

Bobby needed to lend directly and personally. Didn’t we just say no detours, sightseeing trips or garage sales? Bobby, the loan had to come from you. That means your personal check. Your name on the personal check. Not someone else’s name and check, no matter how long you have known them, whether they are married to your cousin or that they are founding team owners in your fantasy football league.  What part of this are you not understanding?  

Fail on (1) and (2).

How about (3)?

There is a technicality here that hosed Bobby.

Bobby was a “co-borrower” at the bank.

A co-borrower means that two (or more) people borrow and both (or more) sign as primarily liable. Let’s say that you and I borrow a million dollars at SunTrust Bank. We both sign. We are co-borrowers. We both owe a million bucks. Granted, the bank only wants one million, but it doesn’t particularly care if it comes from you or me.

I would say I am on the hook, especially since SunTrust can chase me down to get its money. Surely I “borrowed,” right? How else could the bank chase me down?

Let’s get into the why-people-hate-lawyers weeds.

Bobby co-borrowed, but all the money went into one of the companies. The company paid any interest and the principal when due to the bank.

This sounds like the company borrowed, doesn’t it?

Bobby did not pledge personal assets to secure the loan.

Bobby argued that he did not need to. Under applicable state law (Arkansas) he was as liable as if the loan was made to him personally.

I used to like this argument, but it is all thunder and no rain in tax-land.

Here is the Raynor decision:
[n]o form of indirect borrowing, be it guarantee, surety, accommodation, comaking or otherwise, gives rise to indebtedness from the corporation to the shareholders until and unless the shareholders pay part or all of the obligation. Prior to that crucial act, ‘liability’ may exist, but not debt to the shareholders.”
Bobby does not have the type of “debt” required under Section 1366 until he actually pays the bank with some of his own money. At that point, he has a subrogation claim against his company, which claim is the debt Section 1366 wants.

To phrase it differently, until Bobby actually pays with some of his own money, he does not have the debt Section 1366 wants. Being hypothetically liable is not the same as being actually liable. The S was making all the payments and complying with all the debt covenants, so there was no reason to think that the bank would act against Bobby and his “does it really exist?” debt. Bobby could relax and let the S run with it. What he could not do was to consider the debt to be his debt until his co-borrower (that is, his S corporation) went all irresponsible and stiffed the bank.
COMMENT: Folks, it is what it is. I did not write the law.
Bobby failed on (3).

The sad thing is that the tax advisors could have planned for this. The technique is not fool-proof, but it would have looked something like this:

(1) Bobby borrows personally from the bank
(2) Bobby lends personally to his S corporation
a.     I myself would vary the dollars involved just a smidge, but that is me.
(3) Bobby charges the S interest.
(4) Upon receiving interest, Bobby pays the bank its interest.
(5) Bobby has the S repay principal according to a schedule that eerily mimics the bank’s repayment schedule.
(6) Bobby and the S document all of the above with an obnoxious level of paperwork.
(7) Checks move between Bobby’s personal account and the business account to memorialize what we said above. It is a hassle, but a good accountant will walk you through it. Heck, the really good ones even send you written step-by-step instructions.

Consider this standard CTG planning for loss S Corporations with basis issues.

The IRS could go after my set-up as all form and no substance, but I would have an argument – and a defensible one.

Hargis gave himself no argument at all. 

He owed the IRS big bucks.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Walk The Walk, Talk The Talk

We have another not-for-profit story.

Spoiler Alert: it failed.

Why did it fail?

Sometimes there is a great story, the churning of technical arcana and the tease of suspense.

This is not one of those times.

Our homespun protagonist this time is the Community Education Foundation. It had changed names several times over its life, but that appears to have been its last nom de jour.

It began life as a doe-eyed and enthusiastic 501(c)(3) back in 2001. It was going to change the world:
The …. is a conservative research and educational institute focusing on public policy issues that have particular impact on African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and heritage groups (the ‘Target Groups’).”
                COMMENT: “Heritage” groups?

Anyway …
The Foundation’s guiding principle is to encourage open inquiry about public policy issues that are of particular interest and educational values for the Target Groups and the public in general and to provide programs that highlight and educate the Target Groups and the public about these germane subjects and/or public policy issues.”
Wow. Good thing someone jumped on “educating” all those “target” groups on “germane” subjects.

The (c)(3) obviously had to do stuff to bring enlightenment to the benighted and wretched, including:

(1) Town hall meetings
(2) National workshops
(3) Congressional forums
(4) Billboards, radio, television, and other media, such as town criers, bodypainting and soothing rap music drifting through open car windows while waiting at a traffic light.

Fast forward. To 2012. Eleven years later. The IRS took a look at said (c)(3). It wanted to know how it was doing.

The IRS revoked the (c)(3).

Whoa. That seemed a bit strong.

What pray tell provoked such a response?

The Community Education Foundation had done nothing – zip, zero, the square root of nada – for 11 years.

The (c)(3) disagreed and took the matter to Tax Court.

It did have an argument: it turns out that it tried but failed to do some things in 2009 and 2010, including a “Presidential Inaugural Ball” to honor veterans.
COMMENT: I too have no idea what one has to do with the other.
The Tax Court pointed out the obvious: if you want to be a (c)(3), you have to …

·      Talk the talk, and
·      Walk the walk

In eleven years, the organization had performed none of the activities it had said it would when it applied for exempt status.

There was no walk to the talk.

The (c)(3) status was revoked.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Tax Shelter In The Making

Have you ever heard of a “captive” insurance company?

They have become quite cachet. They have also drawn the IRS’ attention, as people are using these things for reasons other than insurance and risk management.

Let’s walk through this.  

Let’s say that you and I found a company manufacturing sat-nav athletic shoes
COMMENT: Sat-nav meaning satellite navigation. That’s right: you know you want a pair. More than one.
We make a million of them, and we have back orders for millions more. We are on the cover of Inc. magazine, meet Jim Cramer and get called to the White House to compliment us for employing America again.


Then tax time.

We owe humongous taxes.

Not sweet.

Our tax advisor (I am retired by then) mentions a captive.
LET’S EXPLAIN THIS: The idea here is that we have an insurable risk. Rather than just buying a policy from whoever-is-advertising-during-a-sports-event, we set up our own (small) insurance company. Granted, we are never going to rival the big boys, but it is enough for our needs. If we can leap through selected hoops, we might also get a tax break from the arrangement.
What risks do you and I have to insure?

What is one of those shoes blows out or the satellite-navigation system shorts and electrocutes someone? What if it picks up contact from an alien civilization – or an honest political journalist? We could get sued.

Granted, that is what insurance is for. The advisor says to purchase a policy from one of the big boys with a $1.2 million deductible. We then set up our own insurance company – our “captive” – to cover that $1.2 million.

We are self-insuring.

There is an election in the tax Code (Section 831(b) for the incorrigible) that waives the income tax on the first $1.2 million of premiums to the captive. It does pay tax on its investment income, but that is nickels-to-dollars.

You see that I did not pick the $1.2 million at random.

Can this get even better?

Submitted for your consideration: the You & Me ET Athletic Shoe Company will deduct the $1.2 million as “Insurance Expense” on its business return.

We skip paying tax on $1.2 million AND we deduct it on our tax return?

Easy, partner. We can still be sued. We would go through that $1.2 million in a heartbeat.

Is there a way to MacGyver this?

Got it. Three ways come quickly to mind, in fact:

(1) Let’s make the captive insurance duplicative. We buy a main policy with a reputable insurance company. We then buy a similar – but redundant -  policy from the captive.  We don’t need the captive, truthfully, as Nationwide or Allstate would provide the real insurance. We do get to stuff away $1.2 million, however – per year. We would let it compound. Then we would go swimming in our money, like Scrooge McDuck from the Huey, Dewey and Louie comics.

(2) A variation on (1) is to make the policy language so amorphous and impenetrable that it is nearly impossible to tell whether the captive is insuring whatever it is we would submit a claim for. That would make the captive’s decision to pay discretionary, and we would discrete to not pay.
(3) We could insure crazy stuff. Let’s insure for blizzards in San Diego, for example. 
a.    Alright, we will need an office in San Diego to make this look legitimate. I volunteer to move there. For the team, of course.

The tax advisor has an idea how to push this even further. The captive does not need to have the same owners as the You & Me ET Athletic Shoe Company. Let’s make our kids the shareholders of the captive. As our captive starts hoarding piles of cash, we are simultaneously doing some gifting and estate tax planning with our kids.

Heck, we can probably also put something in there for the grandkids.

To be fair, we have climbed too far out on this limb. These things have quite serious and beneficial uses in the economy. Think agriculture and farmers. There are instances where the only insurance farmers can get is whatever they can figure-out on their own. Perhaps several farms come together to pool risks and costs. This is what Section 831(b) was meant to address, and it is a reason why captives are heavily supported by rural state Senators.

In fact, the senators from Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa were recently able to increase that $1.2 million to $2.2 million, beginning in 2017.

Then you have those who ruin it for the rest of us. Like the dentist who captived his dental office against terrorist attack.

That nonsense is going to attract the wrong kind of attention.

Sure enough, the IRS stepped in. It wants to look at these things. In November, 2016 the IRS gave notice that (some of) these captive structures are “transactions of interest.” That lingo means that – if you have one – you must file a disclosure (using Form 8886 Reportable Transaction Disclosure Statement) with the IRS by May 1, 2017.

If this describes you, this deadline is only a few months away. Make sure that your attorney and CPA are on this.

Mind you, there will be penalties for not filing these 8886s.

That is how the IRS looks at things. It is good to be king.

The IRS is not saying that captives are bad. Not at all. What it is saying is that some people are using captives for other than their intended purpose. The IRS has a very particular set of skills, skills it has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make the IRS a nightmare for people like this. If these people stop, that will be the end of it. If they do not stop, the IRS will look for them, they will find them, and they will ….

Ahem. Got carried away there.

When this is over, we can reasonably anticipate the IRS to say that certain Section 831(b) structures and uses are OK, while others are … unclear. The IRS will then upgrade the unclear structures and uses to “reportable” or “listed” status, triggering additional tax return disclosures and potential eye-watering penalties.

In the old days, listed transactions were called “tax shelters,” so that will be nothing to fool with.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

An Extreme Way To Deduct Expenses Twice

The estate tax is different from the income tax.

The latter is assessed on your income. This puts stress in defining what is income from what is not, but such is the concept.

The estate tax on assessed on what you own when you die, which is why it is also referred to as the “death” tax. If you try to give away your assets to avoid the death tax, the gift tax will step in and probably put you back in the same spot.

Granted, a tax is a tax, meaning that someone is taking your money. To a great extent, the estate tax and income tax stay out of each other’s way.

With some exceptions.

And a recent case reminds us of unexpected outcomes when these two taxes intersect.

Let’s set it up.

You may recall that – upon death – one’s assets pass to one’s beneficiaries at fair market value (FMV). This is also called the “step up,” as the deceased’s cost or basis in the asset goes away and you (as beneficiary) can use FMV as your new “basis” in the asset. There are reasons for this:

(1) The deceased already paid tax on the income used to buy the asset in the first place.
(2) The deceased is paying tax again for having died with “too many” assets, with the government deciding the definition of “too many.” It wasn’t that long ago that the government thought $600,000 was too much. Think about that for a moment.
(3) To continue using the decedent’s back-in-time cost as the beneficiary’s basis is to repetitively tax the same money. To camouflage this by saying that income tax is different from estate tax is farcical: tax is tax.

I personally have one more reason:

(4) Sometimes cost information does not exist, as that knowledge went to the grave with the deceased. Decades go by; no one knows when or how the deceased acquired the asset; government and other records are not updated or transferred to new archive platforms which allow one to research. The politics of envy does not replace the fact that sometimes simply one cannot come up with this number.

Mr. Backemeyer was a farmer. In 2010 he purchased seed, chemicals, fertilizer and fuel and deducted them on his 2010 joint return.
COMMENT: Farmers have some unique tax goodies in the Code. For example, a farmer is allowed to deduct the above expenses, even if he/she buys them at the end of the year with the intent to use them the following year. This is a loosening of the “nonincidental supplies” rule, which generally holds up the tax deduction until one actually uses the supplies.
So Mr. Backemeyer deducted the above. They totaled approximately $235,000.

He died in March, 2011.

Let’s go to our estate tax rule:

His beneficiary (his wife) receives a new basis in the supplies. That basis is fair market value at Mr. Backemeyer’s date of death ($235,000).

What does that mean?

Mr. Backemeyer deducted his year-end farming supplies in 2010. In tax-speak,” his basis was zero (-0-), because he deducted the cost in 2010. Generally speaking, once you deduct something your basis in said something is zero.

Go on.

His basis in the farming supplies was zero. Her basis in the farming supplies was $235,000. Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational step-up.

Is that a Rogue One allusion?

No, it is Return of the Jedi. Shheeessh.

Anyway, with her new basis, Mrs. Backemeyer deducted the same $235,000 again on her 2011 income tax return.

No way. There has to be a rule.

          That is what the IRS thought.

There is a doctrine in the tax Code called “economic benefit.” What sets it up is that you deduct something – say your state taxes. In a later year, you get repaid some of the money that you deducted – say a tax refund. The IRS takes the position – understandably – that some of that refund is income. The amount of income is equal to a corresponding portion of the deduction from the previous year. You received an economic benefit by deducting, and now you have to repay that benefit.

It is a great argument, except for one thing. What happened in Backemeyer was not an income tax deduction bouncing back. No, what set it up was an estate tax bouncing back on an income tax return in a subsequent year.

COMMENT: She received a new basis pursuant to estate tax rules. While there was an income tax consequence, its origin was not in the income tax.

The Court reminded the IRS of this distinction. The economic benefit concept was not designed to stretch that far. The Court explained it as follows:

(1) He deducted something in 2010.
(2) She deducted the same something in 2011.
(3) Had he died in 2010, would the two have cancelled each other out?

To which the Court said no. If he had died in 2010, he would have deducted the supplies; the estate tax rule would have kicked-in; her basis would have reset to FMV; and she could have deducted the supplies again.

It is a crazy answer but the right answer.

Is it a loophole? 

Some loophole. I do not consider tax planning that involves dying to be a likely candidate for abuse.