Friday, March 31, 2017

A Sad Grandma Story

 You know a tax case is going to irritate when you read this sentence early on:

The Commissioner does not defend the justice of this result, but says the law requires it.”

The story involves a grandmother, a son and daughter-in-law and two grandkids. Grandma appears to be the only one working and that as a nursing assistant in Texas. She also collected social security, which was just enough to keep the household afloat.

          []’s job is hard, and it does not pay much.”

It was 2012. He son did not work. Her daughter-n-law…

          … stayed home and took care of the babies.”

She filed her 2012 tax return and claimed the two grandchildren as dependents. That made sense, as she was the only person there with a job.

This allowed her to claim head of household and the dependent exemptions. Much more important than that, however, it allowed her to claim the child and earned income credits. She got a refund of almost $5,300, almost half of which was those credits.

Good for grandma.

The IRS sent her a notice. They wanted the money from the credits back.

Being the warm, fuzzy IRS we have come to know, she was also assessed a $1,000 penalty.

She figured ID theft. Somebody else must have claimed the kids.

She was right, partially. Somebody else did claim the kids.

Their parents.

That would be her son, the one who …
… did not work, and he was into dealing with drugs.”

We all know what a child is, but in the tax Code must rise to the level of a “qualifying child” before the tax goodies flow. There are requirements, of course – such as age and where they live – and grandma easily met those.

But only one person can claim each qualifying child, which is why one is required to include dependent social security numbers on the return. The IRS tracks those numbers. If you are the second person to use a dependent’s number, the IRS will bounce (or at least hold up) your return.

Grandma was the second to file, so she got bounced.

Now, there are families where more than one person can say that a child was his/her qualifying child. Congress anticipated this and included tie-breaker rules. For example, if two people contest and have equal claim, then the tie-breaker goes to the person with more income.

Or if the parents and someone else claim, then the parents win the tie-breaker.

However, this can be sidestepped if the parents DO NOT claim the child.

In grandma’s case, her son and daughter-in-law filed and claimed.

Can this situation be saved?

You bet.


Amend the return. Have the parents “unclaim” the kids.

To their credit, the son and daughter did amend. They handed the amended return to the IRS attorney.

And here we have the technicality that makes you cringe.

Filing a return means sending it on to a service center or handing it to “any person assigned the responsibility to receive hand-carried returns in the local Internal Revenue Service office.”

Problem: the IRS attorney is not “assigned the responsibility” to receive or handle returns. Handing him/her a return is the equivalent of giving your return to a convenience store clerk or a Starbucks barista.

I suppose the attorney could bail you out by filing the return on your behalf upon returning to the office, but that did not happen here.

The return was never filed. Without an amended return, the son and daughter never revoked their dependency claim.

As the parents, they took priority over grandma, who only supported everyone that year.

And grandma could not claim the kids a second time.

Which cost her the child and earned income credits.

She had to repay the IRS.

The Court did not like this, not even a little bit.
We are sympathetic to []’s position. She provided all the financial support for …, had been told by her son that she should claim the children as her dependents, and is now stuck with a hefty tax bill. It is difficult for us to explain to a hardworking taxpayer like [] why this should be so, except to say that we are bound by the law.”

At least the Court reversed those blasted penalties.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Almond Not-Joy

How much do you know about almond trees?

I know they are water-intensive and they come from California. I am uncertain whether they can be used for furniture. I presume they make good firewood.

So what would be a tax angle to this topic?

Growing almond trees.

Which gets us to farm taxation.

Farmers want (usually) to be cash-basis. This means that they report revenue when they receive cash and deduct expenses when they pay cash. It makes for relatively easy accounting, as one can almost get to a tax return from adding together 12 bank statements.

Then there are those issues.

I will give you one:

You buy a tractor-trailer load of seed and fertilizer late in December. Can you deduct it?

The issue here is whether you have incidental or nonincidental supplies. Incidental supplies (think printer paper to an accountant’s office) is deductible when purchased. Nonincidental supplies (think refilling an underground fuel tank of a trucking company) might be deductible only when used and not before.

Spend some big bucks on that fuel and the trucking company is keenly concerned about the answer.

Likewise, spend big bucks on seed and feed and the farmer is also keen on the answer.

Farmers have some nice tax bennies in the Code, and a large one is being able (in many cases) to use the cash basis of accounting. The Code furthermore allows farmers to deduct that year-end seed-and-feed (with some limitations) when purchased.


That covers a lot of tax territory for row crops (that is: one growing season).

Let’s go next to orchards. Apples. Pears.


What new issue do we have here?

For one, orchards take years to become productive. There is no crop in the early years.

Is there any difference in the tax treatment?

Yep. It’s a sneaky one, too.

Let us talk about “uniform capitalization.” We have touched on this topic before, but never concerning almond trees. I am pretty sure about that.

The idea here is that the tax Code wants one to capitalize (that is, not immediately deduct) certain costs associated with inventory, self-produced assets any certain other specialized categories.

Almond trees are sort-of, kind-of “self-produced.”

Here is the fearsome tax beast in its canopied jungle home:

26 U.S. Code § 263A - Capitalization and inclusion in inventory costs of certain expenses

            (a) Nondeductibility of certain direct and indirect costs
(1) In general In the case of any property to which this section applies, any costs described in paragraph (2)—
(A) in the case of property which is inventory in the hands of the taxpayer, shall be included in inventory costs, and
(B) in the case of any other property, shall be capitalized.

I would argue that almond trees are “other property” per (a)(1)(B) above.

(2) Allocable costs The costs described in this paragraph with respect to any property are—
(A) the direct costs of such property, and
(B) such property’s proper share of those indirect costs (including taxes) part or all of which are allocable to such property.

Any cost which (but for this subsection) could not be taken into account in computing taxable income for any taxable year shall not be treated as a cost described in this paragraph.

The (B) above worries me. If this applies, then we have to “capitalize” real estate taxes on those trees.

Let’s look further at the definition of “property”:

(b)Property to which section applies Except as otherwise provided in this section, this section shall apply to—
(1) Property produced by taxpayer
Real or tangible personal property produced by the taxpayer.
(2) Property acquired for resale
(A) In general
Real or personal property described in section 1221(a)(1) which is acquired by the taxpayer for resale.

OK, I am getting worried. That (b)(1) sounds a lot like the almond trees. They are being “produced” (I guess) while they are growing and nonproductive.

Is there an out?

Here is something:

            (d)Exception for farming businesses
(1) Section not to apply to certain property
(A)In general This section shall not apply to any of the following which is produced by the taxpayer in a farming business:
(i) Any animal.
(ii) Any plant which has a preproductive period of 2 years or less.

I am zeroing-in on (d)(1)(A)(ii).

What is the growing (“preproductive”) period for almond trees?

Google says more than 2 years.

We are hosed.

We have to capitalize real estate taxes. 
COMMENT: Folks, that means “not deduct.” It gets expensive fast.

You know what else gets pulled-in via the gravitational pull of Sec 263A(a)(2)(B) above?


We better not have any bank debt.

Arrggghhh! We have bank debt, meaning we have interest. We are going to have to capitalize that too.

The way this is going the only thing we are going to be able to deduct is the postage for the envelope in which we are sending a big check to the IRS.

We began the discussion by talking about how the cash basis of accounting lets farmers deduct stuff when they pay for them. Then we marched through the Code to find another section that tells us that we cannot deduct what we could deduct only a moment before.
COMMENT: I have heard a common lament over my years in practice: when to stop researching? There is no hard answer, but this case is an example of why tax practitioners fear and ask the question.
Our case this time was Wasco Real Properties I, LLC et al v Commissioner, for the home gamers.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Out On A Limb

I met a new client recently.

He made me laugh.

Not to his face, though. That would be rude.

He was running me through a series of HSA/single member LLC/loan transactions.  And then the inevitable: will this get me in trouble with the IRS?

This is not as easy a question to answer as it used to be.

The IRS is experiencing a phenomenal brain drain, as its baby boomers are retiring left and right. They are replacing 25-or-more-years of tax experience with … well, let’s just say that they are not comparable. Add in the Congressional budget restrictions. Continue with the new-and-novel political presumption that every known societal problem can be addressed through the tax Code, and the IRS is having issues.

Will he get in trouble? Well, if he is unfortunate enough to be audited, he likely will face an examiner with fewer years of experience than the shoes I am wearing. His or her group manager is unlikely to be much better. This raises our risk profile, as they probably will not (a) understand and/or (b) care for our “novel” tax ideas. Now we go to Appeals. I have to draft the written appeal, with cites and arguments and precedents. It can be a hassle, and I won’t be cheap.

How much money is he saving by climbing-out on a far limb of the tax tree?

My point exactly. I am not a fan of taking nine-standard-deviations-from-the-mean positions on a tax return just to save $50. Folks, the Empire can strike back. I have seen it hit and hit hard.

There was a dentist in 2002 and 2003 that wanted to climb one of those high and far branches. There were several issues in the case, but the one that interests us is the vehicle deduction. It was a husband and wife team, with the husband being a dentist. She might have some argument for business use of the vehicle if she was the office manager, as perhaps she was going to the bank or post office, for example. Still, that is unlikely to amount to much. His argument was much more tentative. Was he visiting patients? Was he running to/from the dental lab(s)? What exactly would a dentist do that would rack up any significant business mileage?

Let’s climb up that tax tree. Let’s edge out on that limb. Let’s gaze into the verdant valley below.

Their argument?

Here is the first: He had applied veneers to his wife’s teeth, so whenever she went somewhere she was …
“… a walking, talking billboard for [the] dental office.”
Alrighty then. There is a journalism career in there for that depth of intellect.

How about a second?
Additionally, each vehicle had a license plate holder that displayed the name of the dental practice.”
Petitioners contend that even when the vehicles were being used for personal reasons they provided a valuable advertising service to the practice.”
These people are like giving a fish a bath.

You can anticipate how this turned out: the Court bounced the entire vehicle deduction, even the part that may have been legitimate.

Was it a novel argument? Yes .... It wasn’t a good one, though.

The case for the home players is Willock v Commissioner.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ducking Taxes With A Dynasty Trust

Dynasty trust are back in the news. Dynasty trusts are the province of the ultrawealthy, and are not likely to impact you or me much.

However, allow one or two favorable turns of fate and you or I might find ourselves interested in such things. Let’s hope for the best.

What sets up the discussion is three main issues:

(1)  Estate taxes
(2)  Generation-skipping taxes
(3)  The rule against perpetuities

Estate taxes are also called death taxes and apply to your net worth (everything you own less everything you owe) at death. If you own too much, you owe estate tax – short and sweet. Granted, it is getting harder and harder too own too much. The threshold for 2017 is $5.49 million per person, or almost $11 million per married couple.

I would say that – if you have accumulated $11 million – you have done well.

The estate tax intends for every generation to pay tax.

Let’s say that you are worth $15 million. The estate tax will apply. Your assets go to your child. Let’s presume that the assets inherited bounce back to $15 million (remember: there were taxes at your death) and the exemption remains at $5.49 million. The estate tax presumes that your child will pay tax again, repeating a virtuous cycle.

Well, an advisor can break that cycle pretty quickly: have some of the assets go to the grandkids. That skips the estate tax on (at least some of) the assets upon your child’s death.

Congress figured this out too and introduced the generation-skipping tax (GST). Its purpose was straightforward: to tax the assets that skipped tax when your child died. Those assets would otherwise have “skipped” a generation of estate tax.

A favored and common way to transfer assets across multiple generations is through use of a trust. There are more varieties of trusts than there are flavors of  Baskin Robbins ice cream. We however are looking at one trust and one only: the shy and elusive dynasty trust, which has rarely been captured on camera.

Tax archeologists believe that the dynasty trust evolved in response to state liberalization of the rule against perpetuities. Trusts themselves are created under state law, and all 50 states used to prohibit a trust from existing more than 21 years after the death of the last beneficiary who was alive when the trust was created.

To rephrase: the law (1) looked at the beneficiaries born when the trust was created; (2) took the youngest beneficiary; (3) waited until his/her death; and (4) said “All right, boys and girls, you have 21 years to finish this”

The point is that the trust had to eventually wrap up its affairs. It could not be “perpetual.”

In that context, the estate tax – GST tax value meal worked relatively well in identifying and taxing transfers of intergeneration wealth. No matter how complex, trusts simply had to give up the ghost eventually.

However, several states have since either modified or abolished their rule against perpetuities (Alaska and Nevada come to mind). A trust created in one of these jurisdictions can last for … who knows how long.

This has tax implications.

Because the trust is not required to terminate, tax planners can more easily get around the estate and GST combo that worked well enough in an earlier, simpler era.

It is relatively easy to avoid the estate tax issue: the planner simply does not give the beneficiary so much authority that the trust would be pulled into the beneficiary’s estate at death. While a minefield, it is a relatively well-trod minefield.

The GST is a bit more complicated.

I now go where many tax nerds would refuse to go: to give a quick overview of how a dynasty trust and the GST interact. We are venturing to the Mordor of tax practice.

Here goes:

(1)  You have a GST exemption equal to your estate tax exemption. Therefore, if the estate exemption is $5.49 million, your GST exemption is the same amount.
(2)  Meaning you can transfer $5.49 million across as many generations as you like without triggering the GST.
(3)  Rule (2) is not interpreted the way you expect when using a trust.
a.     One would think that trust distributions over $5.49 million to a skip beneficiary would trigger the GST tax.
b.    But not necessarily. The planner instead applies the $5.49 million test at a different point in time. Instead of waiting until the trust actually writes checks to a grandkid or great-grandkid decades from now (that is, the distribution date), the planner measures at the moment the settlor puts money into the trust.
c.     Here is an example. Say your great-grandkid is 15 months old, and you put $5.49 million into a dynasty trust. You next burn your $5.49 million GST exemption on the trust.
d.    We calculate a ratio: GST Exemption Used/Total Gift. Let’s give the ratio a name. We will call it “Jackson.” In our example, Jackson is $5.49 million/$5.49 million or “1.0.”  
e.    We next calculate a second ratio: 1.0 – Jackson. We will call this the “inclusion ratio.” Our inclusion ratio is 1.0 – 1.0 or zero (-0-).
f.      Tax nirvana is an inclusion ratio of zero (-0-).
                                                              i.     The magic to an inclusion ration of zero (-0-) is that future distributions from this trust are exempt from any more GST. That happens because you are multiplying [it doesn’t matter the number] by zero.
                                                            ii.     If the inclusion ratio was 45%, then 45% of future distributions from the trust would be subject to GST.
g.     To press the point, if the trust is worth a quantazillion dollars decades from now but has an inclusion ratio of zero (-0-), it is still exempt from GST.
                                                              i.     There are of course ways to ruin this outcome. One way is to put more money into the trust. The result would be to increase the denominator with no increase in the numerator. The resulting inclusion ratio would not be zero. A tax planner would tell you to NOT DO THAT.

To recap, the change in some states concerning the rule against perpetuities allowed planners to devise near-immortal trusts.

And the estate, gift and GST exemptions have been increasing every year and are now at $5.49 million per person. A married couple can of course double that.

Take the near-immortal trusts, stir in the big-bucks exemption, add a few spices (like family limited partnerships or remainder annuities) and you have a very nice tax tool for keeping wealth within the family across generations.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Just Pay The Tax, Boris

I have no problem with minimizing one’s tax liability.

But then there are people who will go to extremes.

Boris Putanec is one of these. I am skimming over a 34-page Tax Court case about a tax shelter he used.

Let’s travel back in time to the dot-com era.

Putanec was one of the founders of Ariba, a business-to-business software company. The initial idea was simple: let’s replace pencil- and pen-business functions with a computerized solution. There are any number of areas in business accounting - routine, repetitious, high-volume – that were begging for an easier way to get things done.

Enter Ariba.

Which eventually went public. Which meant stock. Which meant big bucks to the founders, including Putanec.

Up to this point I am on his side.

This guy wound-up owning more than 6 million shares in a company valued (at one point) around $40 billion.

How I wish I had those problems.

You can anticipate much of the next stretch of the story.

Most of Putanec’s money was tied-up in Ariba stock. That is generally considered unwise, and just about every financial planner in the world will tell you to diversify. When 90-plus-% of your net worth is held in one stock, “diversify” means “sell.”

Now Putanec acquired his stock when the company was barely a company. That meant that he paid nothing or close to nothing to get the stock. In tax talk, that nothing is his “basis.” Were he to sell his stock, he would subtract his basis from any sales proceeds to calculate his gain. He would pay tax on the gain, of course. Well, when you subtract nothing (-0-) from something, you have the same something left over.

In his case, big something.

Meaning big tax.

Rather than just paying the tax and celebrating his good fortune, Putanec was introduced to a tax shelter nicknamed CARDS.


CARDS stands for “custom adjustable rate debt structure.” Yes, it sounds like BS because it is. Tax shelters tend to have one thing in common: take a tax position, pretzel it into an unrecognizable configuration and then bury the whole thing in a series of transactions so convoluted and complex that it would take a team of tax attorneys and CPAs a half-year to figure out.

Let’s go through an example of a CARDS deal.
  1. Someone has a gigantic capital gain, perhaps from selling Ariba sock.
    1. CARDS deals routinely started at $50 million. That threshold easily weeds out you and me.
    2. There will be a foreign bank (FB) involved. 
    3. There will be foreign currency involved. 
    4. The promoter forms a limited liability company (LLC) somewhere. 
    5. The FB loans money (let’s say $100 million) to the LLC. 
      1. The LLC deposits around 85% of the money in a bank – probably the same bank (FB) that started this thing. 
      2. The LLC keeps the other 15%. 
      3. The FB wants collateral, so the LLC gives the FB a promissory note. 
        1. That note is special. The bank probably has 85% of its money in an account by this point, but the note is for 100%. Why? It’s part of the BS. 
        2. There is also something crazy about this note. It can stretch out as long as 30 years, although the bank reserves the right to call it early (probably annually).
    6. We now have an LLC somewhere on the planet with an $85 million CD or savings account, a $15 million checking account, and a $100 million promissory note. Just to remind, this is all happening overseas and in foreign currency.
  2. Now we leave the rails. 
    1. Someone (say Putanec) assumes joint and several liability for that $100 million loan. 
      1. Remember that $85 million is already sitting in a CD or likewise, so this is not as crazy as it seems.
    2. The LLC will continue to pay the bank interest on the loan. Said someone is not to be bothered. Goes without saying that the bank (FB) will eventually slide the $85 million to itself and make the loan go away.
    3. Said someone also takes control of the $15 million parked in that foreign checking account. 
      1. In the tax universe, the conversion of that foreign currency to American dollars is a taxable event. Let’s now add gas to the fire.
    4. Remember that gain = proceeds – basis.
    5. Proceeds in this case are $15 million.
    6. Basis in this case … 
      1. Is $100 million. 
      2. Huh? Yep, because that someone gets to add that $85 million promissory note to his/her $15 million paid in cash.
    7. The LOSS therefore is $15 million – $100 million = $85 million.
Now, this could make sense – if said someone had to - some day - write a check to the bank for $85 million.

Not going to happen. The bank already has that $85 million tucked-away in a CD or savings account it controls. The bank never has to leave its front door to get its hands on that $85 million.

But our someone has a sweet yet nutritiously-balanced $85 million capital loss to offset a capital gain.

If only we could come up with a capital gain…. What to do? What can we …? Visualize severe forehead frown.

Got it!!

Let’s sell that Ariba stock. That will generate the gain to absorb that $85 million loss.

Call me He-Man, Tax Master of the Universe.

Yes folks, that is what the gazillion-dollars-a-year “consultants” were peddling to people to avoid paying taxes on something with a huge, latent capital gain.

 Of which Boris Putanec was one.

 The Court bounced him with the following flourish:
The deal is the stuff of tax wizardry, while the Code treats us all as mere muggles. The loan he assumed wasn’t all genuine debt, and any potential obligation he had to repay the entire loan was unlikely or at best contingent.”
I suppose winning the lottery was not enough.

Just pay the tax, Boris.