Sunday, March 25, 2018

Researching For Deductions

I was skimming a Tax Court case that almost made me laugh out loud.

It initially caught my attention because it involved a deduction for research costs.

The tax surrounding research costs come in two flavors:

·      What is deductible as research?
·      And – perhaps more importantly – can you get a tax credit for it?

Let’s talk this time about the first question, which may not be what you anticipate. Here is an example:

You build a garage to store your business equipment. The garage’s claim to fame is that it is built from natural fibers rather than bricks and lumber. It is the Kon-Tiki of garages. Can you deduct the cost of the garage as you build it?

At the end of the day, you will have a building. Granted, it may be unusual, but it is still a building. Can you deduct a building as you go along? Or do you have to accumulate (and defer) the cost until the building is ready for use? And then what - do you deduct the accumulated cost at that time or do you deduct the cost over a period of years?

You will be deducting the cost over a period of years, otherwise known as depreciation. You self-constructed a long-lived asset, and the tax Code (barring the unusual) will not let you deduct it immediately.

Let’s swing back to research costs.

What if the research costs result in a patent?

You have legal rights for a period of years to intellectual property, and the patent may be worth a fortune.

So we rephrase the question: can you immediately deduct the research costs resulting in that patent?

But CTG, you say, the two are not the same. Chances are that salaries make-up most of the research costs. It doesn’t seem right to capitalize and depreciate salaries. Sticks and bricks have staying power; they last for years. It makes more sense to depreciate those rather than salaries.

Hmmm. What about the wages of the tradesmen-and-women that constructed the building? Do we get to carve those out from the sticks-and-bricks and deduct them immediately?

Of course not.

You now get the issue with research costs.

To answer it the tax Code gives us Section 174:

        (a)  Treatment as expenses.
(1)  In general.
A taxpayer may treat research or experimental expenditures which are paid or incurred by him during the taxable year in connection with his trade or business as expenses which are not chargeable to capital account. The expenditures so treated shall be allowed as a deduction.

As long as the costs meet the definition of “research or experimental expenditures,” you have the option of deducting them immediately.

Problem solved.

Our case this time is Bradley and Hayes-Hunter v Commissioner.

Mr. Bradley was a litigation consultant. He reviewed evidence, provided expert testimony and conducted legal research. He was self-employed, and on his 2014 individual income tax return he deducted $25,000 as “Research.”

The IRS was curious what “research and experimental expenditures” a litigation coach could possibly have. It is well-trod ground that Section 174 addresses research in an “experimental” or “laboratory” sense. While one does not have to be in a Pfizer lab wearing a white coat, one likewise cannot be in a library shepardizing law cases.

What did he deduct?

I will give you a clue: his billing rate was $250 per hour.

He deducted $25,000.

And $25,000 divided by $250 is 100 hours.

Not only was he nowhere near a Section 174 research cost, he was also deducting his own time.

How I wish.

Who knows how much tax research I do over an average year. If I could only deduct my time, I would never pay income taxes again.

It won’t work for me, and it did not work for Mr. Bradley.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A CPA Draws A Fraud Penalty

I see that a CPA drew a fraud penalty.

There is something you don’t see every day.

The CPA is Curtis Ankerberg. He practices in Oregon, which means that I could not have met him. I however am certain that I have met his acolytes.

He graduated in 1994 and did the CPA firm route until 2005, when he went out on his own.

Good for him.

The IRS pulled his personal 2012, 2013 and 2014 returns.

Should be easy for a practicing CPA.

During those years he prepared 50 to over 70 individual returns for clients. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but those are just individual returns. It does not include business returns or any accounting he may also have done.

He maintained an office-in-home, which meant that the IRS examiner came to his house. The audit started off on a bad foot. The auditor added up his 1099s for one year and found that the sum exceeded what Ankerberg had reported as income. Needless to say, the auditor immediately recorded a write-up.
Comment: Folks, if you want to chum the waters for an IRA auditor, this is a good way to do so. I am – if anything – surprised that the IRS computers did not catch this before the auditor even showed up.
Emboldened, the auditor now presented a list of documents he wanted to review.

Our CPA said sure, but he never followed up. He was creative with his excuses, though:

·      He had cataract surgery coming up.
·      He was awaiting the outcome of a complaint he filed with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
·      He lost his records.
·      The auditor was messing around with one of the years, as the CPA had already agreed he had underreported income.
·      He had not attached necessary forms to his tax returns because to attach them was a “red flag.”
·      He had bank statements but he could not turn them over because he could not see well.

Alrighty then.

That last one cost him and big.

If the IRS wants your bank statements, they will get your bank statements. You can play it nice and provide copies yourself, or you can stick it to the man and have the IRS subpoena them from the bank. The latter may give you a momentary rush of I-am-a-bad-dude, but you have hacked off an auditor.

What is the first reason that comes to mind if one refuses to provide bank statements?


The IRS agent poured over those bank statements like they were winning lottery tickets. Our CPA had again underreported income. In each year.

Can you feel the penalty coming? Oh, it is going to be a biggun.

What more can a disgruntled agent do?

The agent disallowed the following expenses:

·      Insurance
·      Taxes and licenses
·      Office expenses
·      Repairs and maintenance
·      Utilities
·      Interest
·      Vehicle expenses
·      Office in home
·      And others

This is not fatal. Just provide the documents.

Which Ankerberg did not do.

Our CPA is before the Tax Court explaining how he got into this mess. I imagine the conversation as follows:

“Your honor,” he said, “I had serious medical issues, and those issues constitute reasonable cause. I had cataract surgery, and before then I was really a mess. This auditor caught me at a bad time.”

“Really?” asked the Court. “We are curious then how you prepared all those tax returns for all those clients.”

“Braille,” replied our CPA.

“You continued to drive a car,” continued the Court.

“Self-driving,” explained our CPA. “It is a Google car.”

“Interesting,” noted the Court. “How about that 2014 return, the one after your cataract surgery?”

“Phantom blindness,” offered the CPA generously.

“Let us see. Too little income. Too many deductions. A tax professional who knew the tax ropes. Someone who never provided bank statements or other documentation requested by the auditor. What does this sound like? Let us think… let us think...”

“Aha! We remember now: they sound like badges of fraud.”


BTW the fraud penalty is 75%.

Just provide the bank statements, Barney.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Fewer Like-Kind Exchanges in 2018

The new tax bill changed like-kind exchanges.

This is Section 1031, which was and is a tax provision that allows one to defer taxes on a property sale - if one follows the rules.

I suspect that almost every practicing tax accountant has met with a client who said the following:

·      I sold property last year,
·      I hear that there is a tax break if I buy another piece of property

Well, yes there MIGHT be a tax break, but you have to follow the rules from the beginning, not just months later when you meet with your accountant.

The normal sequence is to sell the property first. It doesn’t have to be that way – you can start with the buy – but that is unusual. The tax nerds refer to that as a “reverse.”

There are ropes:

(1)  You want the money held by a third party, such as an attorney or title company;
(2)  You have to identify the replacement property within 45 days (there is some latitude in identifying replacement properties); and
(3)  You have to complete the whole transaction – sell and buy – within 180 days.
(4) Anticipate that you will be buying-up: buy more than what you sold.
(5)  Debt is tricky. To be safe, increase your debt, at least a little bit.  
(6)  You never want to receive cash from the deal. Cash is income – period.

If you wait to until you meet with your accountant, then you have probably blown requirement (1).

The most common like-kind that I see – I kid you not – is vehicle trade-ins. They happen every day, to the point that we do not even pay them attention. In the tax world, however, trade-ins are like-kind exchanges.

The next most common are real estate exchanges. I have probably seen at least one a year for the last couple of decades. Those usually go through a title company or attorney, and I have the pleasure of looking over a binder of paperwork that would weigh down a Clydesdale.

There are others. One can like-kind exchange personal property, for example. The rules are stricter than the rules for real estate, and for the most part I have not seen a lot of those.

The new tax bill made a big change to like-kind exchanges.


Because personal property no longer qualifies for like-kind treatment.

So much for trade-ins.

But there is another kind that I thought of recently.

Think sports.

Yep, back in 1966 the IRS considered player contracts – if done correctly – to be property qualifying for like-kind.

I am unsure how professional sports will work-around this change. It is not an area I practice, although I would have loved to.

Why did Congress mess with this?

It wasn’t about player contracts. It rather had to do with art and collectibles. It had become de rigueur to like-kind exchange in the art world, as buyers had come to view art as just another tradable commodity. Think stocks, but with the option of delaying taxes until the end of time. This reached the attention of the Obama administration, which began the push to eliminate them.

It took another White House, but it finally got done.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Should I Have A Separate Bank Account For …?

One of the accountants recently told me that a client had asked whether he/she should set-up a separate bank account for their business.

The short answer is: yes.

It is not always about taxes. An attorney might recommend that your corporation have annual meetings and written minutes – or that you memorialize in the minutes deferring a bonus for better cash flow.  It may seem silly when the company is just you and your brother. Fast forward to an IRS audit or unexpected litigation and you will realize (likely belatedly) why the recommendation was made.

I am skimming a case where the taxpayer:

·      Had three jobs
·      Was self-employed providing landscaping and janitorial services (Bass & Co)
·      Owned and operated a nonprofit that collected and distributed clothing and school supplies for disadvantaged individuals (Lend-A-Hand).

The fellow is Duncan Bass, and he sounds like an overachiever.

Since 2013, petitioner, Bass & Co …, and Lend-A-Hand have maintained a single bank account….”

That’s different. I cannot readily remember a nonprofit sharing a bank account in this manner. I anticipated that he blew up his 501(c)(3).

Nope. The Court was looking at his self-employment income.

He claimed over $8 thousand in revenues.

He deducted almost $29 thousand in expenses.

Over $19 thousand was for

·      truck expenses
·      payment to Lend-A-Hand for advertising and rental of a storage unit

He handed the Court invoices from a couple of auto repair shops and a receipt from a vehicle emissions test.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was trying to show mileage near the beginning and end of the year, so as to establish total mileage for the year.

Seems to me he next has to show the business portion of the total mileage.

Maybe he could go through his calendar and deposits and reconstruct where he was on certain days. He would still be at the mercy of the Court, as one is to keep these records contemporaneously.  At least he would field an argument, and the Court might give him the benefit of the doubt.

He gave the Court nothing.

His argument was: I reported income; you know I had to drive to the job to earn the income; spot me something.

True enough, but mileage is one of those deductions where you have to provide some documentation. This happened because people for years abused vehicle expenses. To give the IRS more firepower, Congress tightened-up Code Section 274 to require some level of substantiation in order to claim any vehicle expenses.

And then we get to the $9,360 payment to Lend-A-Hand.

Let’s not dwell on the advertising and storage unit thing.

I have a bigger question:
How do you prove that his business paid the nonprofit anything?
Think about it: there is one checking account. Do you write a check on the account and deposit it back in?

It borders on the unbelievable.

And the Tax Court did not believe him.

I am not saying that the Court would have sustained the deduction had he separated the bank accounts. I am saying that he could at least show a check on one account and a deposit to another.  The IRS could still challenge how much “advertising” a small charity could realistically provide.

As it was, he never got past whether money moved in the first place.