Friday, February 24, 2017

The $64 Million Question

Let’s talk about hard rules in the tax Code.

Let’s say that you donate $500 to your church or synagogue. You come to see me to prepare your taxes. I ask you whether you have received a letter concerning that $500 donation.

You think that I am a loon. You after all have the cancelled check. What more does the government want?

That’s the problem.

Here’s the rule:

A single contribution of $250 or more – whether by cash, check or credit card – must be supported by a receipt that meets the following requirements:
a.    It must identify the amount.
b.    It must state that no goods or services were given in exchange (alternatively, it must subtract said goods and benefits from the donation if such were given); and
c.     The taxpayer must have such receipt before filing his/her tax return.

To restate this: you can give the IRS a cancelled check and it will not be enough to save your contribution deduction - if that deduction is over $250.

The tax Code is spring-loaded with traps like this. Congress and the IRS say this is necessary for effective tax administration. Nonsense. What they are interested in is taking your money.

There is a super-sized type of charitable deduction known as an “easement.” Think real property, like land or a building. The concept is that real estate is a combination of legal rights: the right to ownership, to development, to habitation, to just leave it alone and look at it.

Let’s say that you own a historical building in name-a-town USA. Chances are that restrictions are in place disallowing your ability to upsize, downsize, renovate the place or whatever. You decide to donate a “façade” easement, meaning that you will not mess with the exterior of the building. Well, messing with the exterior of the building is one of those legal rights that together amalgamate to form real estate, and you just gave one such right away. Assuming that a value can be placed on it, you may have a charitable donation.   

There are a couple of questions that come to mind immediately:

(1) Depending upon the severity of town restrictions, you may not have had a lot of room to alter the exterior anyway. You may not have given away much, in truth.
(2) Even hurdling (1), how do you value the donation?

Sure enough, there are people who value such things.

That is one thing about the tax Code: Congress is always employing somebody to do something whenever it changes the rules, and it is forever changing the rules. Virtually all tax bills are jobs bills. We can question whether those jobs are useful to society, but that is a different issue.

You will not be surprised that a super deduction brings with it super rules:

(1) One must attached a specific tax form (8283)
(2) One must attach a qualified appraisal
(3) One must attach a photograph of the building exterior
(4) One must attach a description of all restrictions on the building

There is an LLC in New York that claimed a 2007 easement deduction of $64.5 million.

Folks, you know this is going to be looked at.  

Let’s set the trap:

The LLC received a letter from the charity acknowledging the easement. Assuming the return had been extended, this would have been a timely letter.

However, the letter did not contain all the “magic words” necessary to perform the required tax incantation. More specifically, it did not say whether the charity had provided any benefits to the LLC in return.

Guess who gets pulled for audit in 2011? Yeah, a $64 million-plus easement donation will do that.

While preparing for audit, the tax advisors realized that they did not have all the magic words. They contacted the charity, which in turn amended its 2007 Form 990 to upgrade the information provided about the donation.

Strikes you as odd?

Here is what the LLC was after:

IRC Section 170(f)(8):

(A) General rule
No deduction shall be allowed under subsection (a) for any contribution of $250 or more unless the taxpayer substantiates the contribution by a contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the contribution by the donee organization that meets the requirements of subparagraph (B).

(D) Substantiation not required for contributions reported by the donee organization
Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to a contribution if the donee organization files a return, on such form and in accordance with such regulations as the Secretary may prescribe, which includes the information described in subparagraph (B) with respect to the contribution.

The LLC was after that “(A) shall not apply if the donee organization files a return” language. The charity amended its return, after all, to beef-up its disclosure of the easement donation.

Nix, said the IRS. All that hullabaloo was predicated on “regulations as the Secretary may prescribe.” And guess what: the Secretary did not prescribe Regulations.

Do you remember about a year ago when we talked about charitable organizations issuing 1099-like statements to their donors? We here at CTG did not care for that idea very much, especially in an era of increasing identity theft. Many charities are small and simply do not have the systems and resources to secure this information.

Well, that was also the IRS trying to prescribe under Section 170(f)(8)(D). You may remember the IRS took a tremendous amount of criticism, after which it withdrew its 1099-like proposal.

The LLC argued that Congress told the IRS to issue rules under Section 170(f)(8)(D) but the IRS did not. It was unfair to penalize the LLC when the IRS did not do its job.

The IRS took a very different tack. It argued that Section 170(f)(8)(D) gave it discretionary and not mandatory authority. The IRS could issue regulations but did not have to. In the jargon, that section was not “self-executing.”

The Tax Court had to decide a $64 million question.

And the Tax Court said the IRS was right.

At which point the LLC had to meet the requirements discussed earlier, including:
The taxpayer must have such receipt before filing his/her tax return.
It had no such receipt before filing its return.

It now had no $64.5 million deduction. 

The taxpayer was 15 West 17th Street, and they ran into an unforgiving tax rule. I am not a fan of all-or-nothing-magic-tax-incantations, as the result appears ... unfair, inequitable, almost cruel ... and as if tax compliance is a cat-and-mouse game.

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