Sunday, June 24, 2018

Cincinnati Reds, Tax And Bobbleheads

Did you hear about the recent tax case concerning the Cincinnati Reds?

It has to do with sales and use tax. This area is considered dull, even by tax pros, who tend to have a fairly high tolerance for dull. But it involves the Reds, so let’s look at it.

The Reds bought promotional items - think bobbleheads - to give away. They claimed a sales tax exemption for resale, so the vendor did not charge them sales tax.

Ohio now wants the Reds to pay use tax on the promotional items.
COMMENT: Sales tax and use tax are (basically) the same thing, varying only by who is remitting the tax. If you go to an Allen Edmunds store and buy dress shoes, they will charge you sales tax and remit it to Ohio on your behalf. Let’s say that you buy the shoes online and are not charged sales tax. You are supposed to remit the sales tax you would have paid Allen Edmunds to Ohio, except that now it is called a use tax. 
The amount is not insignificant: about $88 grand to the Reds, although that covers 2008 through 2010.

What are the rules of the sales tax game?

The basic presumption is that every sale of tangible personal property and certain services within Ohio is taxable, although there are exemptions and exceptions. Those exemptions and exceptions had better be a tight fit, as they are to be strictly construed.

The Reds argued the following:

·      They budget their games for a forthcoming season in determining ticket prices.
·      All costs are thrown into a barrel: player payroll, stadium lease, Marty Brennaman, advertising, promotional items, etc.
·      They sell tickets to the games. Consequently, the costs – including the promotional items – have been resold, as their cost was incorporated in the ticket price.
·      Since there is a subsequent sale via a game ticket, the promotional items were purchased for resale and qualify for an exemption.

Ohio took a different tack:

·      The sale of tangible personal property is not subject to sales tax only if the buyer’s purpose is to resell the item to another buyer. Think Kroger’s, for example. Their sole purpose is to resell to you.
·      The purpose of the exemption is meant to delay sales taxation until that final sale, not to exempt the transaction from sales tax forever. There has to be another buyer.
·      The bobbleheads and other promotions were not meant for resale, as evidenced by the following:
o   Ticket prices remain the same throughout the season, irrespective of whether there is or isn’t a promotional giveaway.
o   Fans are not guaranteed to receive a bobblehead, as there is normally a limited supply.
o   Fans may not even know that they are purchasing a bobblehead, as the announcement may occur after purchase of the ticket.

The Ohio Board of Appeals rejected the Reds argument.

The critical issue was “consideration.”

Let’s say that you went to a game but arrived too late to get a bobblehead. You paid the same price as someone who did get a bobblehead, so where is the consideration? Ohio argued and the Board agreed that the bobbleheads were not resold but were distributed for free. There was no consideration. Without consideration one could not have a resale.

Here is the Board:
The evidence in the record supports our conclusion that the cost of the subject promotional items is not included in the ticket price.”
The Reds join murky water on the issue of promotional items. The Kansas City Royals, for example, do not pay use tax on their promotional items, but the Milwaukee Brewers do. Sales tax varies state by state.

Then again perhaps the Reds will do as the Cavaliers did: charge higher ticket prices for promotional giveaway games.

This is (unsurprisingly) heading to the Ohio Supreme Court. We will hear of The Cincinnati Reds, LLC v Commissioner again.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Deducting a Divorce

I am looking at two points on a case:

(1)  The IRS wanted $1,760,709; and

(2)  The only issue before the Court was a deduction for legal and professional fees.
That is one serious legal bill.

The taxpayer was a hedge fund manager. The firm had three partners who provided investment advisory services to several funds. For this they received 1.5% of assets under management as well as 20% of the profits (that is, the “carry”). The firm decided to defer payment of the investment and performance fees from a particular fund for 2006, 2007 and 2008.

2008 brought us the Great Recession and taxpayer’s spouse filing for divorce.

By 2009 the firm was liquidating.

The divorce was granted in 2011.

Between the date of filing and the date the divorce was granted, taxpayer received over $47 million in partnership distributions from the firm.

You know that point came up during divorce negotiations.

To be fair, not all of the $47 million can be at play. Seems to me the only reachable part would be the amount “accrued” as of the date of divorce filing.

He hired lawyers. He hired a valuation expert.

Turns out that approximately $4.7 million of the $47 million represented deferred compensation and was therefore a marital asset. That put the marital estate at slightly over $15 million.

Upon division, the former spouse received a Florida house and over $6.6 million in cash.

He in turn paid approximately $3 million in professional fees. Seems expensive, but they helped keep over $42 million out of the marital estate.

He deducted the $3 million.

Which the IRS bounced.

What do you think is going on here?
The issue is whether the professional fees are business related (in which case they are deductible) or personal (in which case they are not). Taxpayer argued that the fees were deductible because he was defending a claim against his distributions and deferred compensation from the hedge fund. He was a virtual poster boy for a business purpose.
He has a point.
The IRS fired back: except for her marriage to taxpayer, the spouse would have no claim to the deferred compensation. Her claim stemmed entirely because of her marriage to him. The cause of those professional fees was the marriage, which is about as personal as an event can be. The tax Code does not allow for the deduction of personal expenses.
The IRS has a point.
The tax doctrine the IRS argued is called origin-of-the-claim. It has many permutations, but the point is to identify what caused the mess in the first place. If the cause was business or income-producing, you may have a deduction. If the cause was personal, well, thanks for playing.
But a divorce can have a business component. For example, there is a tax case involving control over a dividend-paying corporation; there is another where the soon-to-be-ex kept interfering in the business. In those cases, the fees were deductible, as there was enough linkage to the business activity.
The Court looked, but it could not find similar linkage in this case.
In the divorce action at issue, petitioner was neither pursuing alimony from Ms [ ] nor resisting an attempt to interfere with his ongoing business activities.
Petitioner has not established that Ms [ ] claim related to the winding down of [the hedge fund]. Nor has petitioner established that the fees he incurred were “ordinary and necessary” to his trade or business.
While the hedge fund fueled the cash flow, the divorce action did not otherwise involve the fund. There was no challenge to his interest in the fund; he was not defending against improper interference in fund operations; there was no showing that her action led to his winding down of the fund.

Finding no business link, the Court determined that the origin of the claim was personal.

Meaning no deduction for the professional fees.
NOTE: While this case did not involve alimony, let us point out that the taxation of alimony is changing in 2019. For many years, alimony – as long as the magic tax words were in the agreement – was deductible by the payor and taxable to the recipient. It has been that way for my entire professional career, but that is changing. Beginning in 2019, only grandfathered alimony agreements will be deductible/taxable, with “grandfathered” meaning the alimony agreement was in place by December 31, 2018.
Mind you, this does not mean that there will be no alimony for new divorces. What it does mean is that one will not get a deduction for paying alimony if one divorces in 2019 or later. Conversely, one will not be taxed upon receiving alimony if one divorces in 2019 or later.
The Congressional committee reports accompanying the tax change noted that alimony is frequently paid from a higher-income to a lower -income taxpayer, resulting in a net loss to the Treasury. Changing the tax treatment would allow the Treasury to claw back to the payor’s higher tax rate. Possible, but I suspect it more likely that alimony payments will eventually decrease by approximately 35% - the maximum federal tax rate – as folks adjust to the new law.
Our case this time was Sky M Lucas v Commissioner.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

When Do You Really Start A Business?

It doesn’t sound like much, but it can present a difficult tax issue.

When does a business start?

It helps to have sales. Sales are good. But sometimes you do not have sales.

Then what?

The issue is that tax law allows deductions for expenses incurred in a trade or business. This presumes that the activity has started and is occurring on a regular and continuous basis. Before that point it is more like an intent or hope than an actual business.   

Let’s set-up our story.

Taxpayer was a tax specialist, although I am not sure what that means. His wife was a nurse. For 2013 and 2014 he reported self-employed real estate losses of $15 and $22 thousand, respectively.

Got it. He is tax specialist when is he is not working real estate.

In 2010 he obtained a real estate license. He got together with friends and family and decided to invest in residential real estate. They were going to flip houses. The investor group decided to look in West Sacramento, California, (fortuitously, where he lived). On Saturdays he would leave home, drive 192 miles to Marina, California and pick-up one or more members of the group. They would return to Sacramento to check out houses and then back to Marina. At days-end, our protagonist would finally return home to West Sacramento.

Fortunately, he kept logs for all this driving. He racked up 24,882 miles in 2013 and 25,220 in 2014.

They never bought any property.

He also made no money as a real estate agent.

The IRS audited 2013 and 2014 and bounced the real estate expenses.

Off they went to Tax Court.

His argument was simple: are you kidding me? He was a realtor. He kept mileage logs. He had third parties who could testify that he did what he said he did. What more did the IRS want?

The IRS said that – whatever he was doing – it was not a trade or business.

There was no evidence that he was regularly and continuously working as a real estate agent for those years. You know, no income and all. 

So, what did the IRS think he doing with the family-and-friends consortium?

He was trying to start a business, a business flipping houses. But he and they never flipped a house, Heck, they never even bought a house. He was as much a house flipper as I am a retired ex-NFL player.

That put him in a tough spot.

Here is the Tax Court:
At best, petitioner husband’s activity in 2013 and 2014 was in the exploratory or formative stages of forming a business of flipping houses. Carrying on a trade or business requires more than initial research into a potential business opportunity; it requires that the business have actually commenced.
Section 162(a) does not permit current deductions for startup or preopening expenses incurred by a taxpayer before beginning business operations.”
He lost.

The IRS now wanted penalties – “substantial underpayment” penalties. This is a “super” penalty, for when the regular penalty is just not enough.

Remember that taxpayer listed his occupation as “tax specialist.”

Bad idea when you are trying to get penalties abated.

Here is the Court:
Petitioner husband considered his occupation to be a “tax specialist” and operated a tax preparation services business as a sole proprietorship. However, in preparing their tax returns petitioners failed to exercise due care or to do what a reasonable person would do under the circumstances to determine whether petitioner husband was in a trade or business ….”

The case is Samadi v Commissioner, for the home gamers.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Self-Renting a Big Green Egg

Sometimes tax law requires you to witness the torture of the language. Other times it herds you through a sequence of “except for” clauses, almost assuring that some future Court will address which except is taking exception.

And then you have the laughers.

I came across an article titled: Corporation’s self-leasing rental expense deduction denied.”

I was curious. We tax nerds have an exceptionally low threshold for curiosity.

Before reading the article, I anticipated that:

(1)  Something was being deducted
(2)  That something was rent expense
(3)  Something was being self-leased, whatever that means, and
(4)  Whatever it means, the deduction was denied.

Let us spend a little time on (3).

Self-lease (or self-rental) means that you are renting something to yourself or, more likely, to an entity that you own. It took on greater tax significance in 1986 when Congress, frustrated for years with tax shelters, created the passive activity (PAL) rules. The idea was to separate business activities between actually working (active/material participation) and living the Kennedy (passive activity).

It is not a big deal if all the activities are profitable.

It can be a big deal if some of the activities are unprofitable.

Let’s go back to the classic tax shelter. A high-incomer wants to shelter high income with a deductible tax loss.

Our high-incomer buys a partnership interest in a horse farm or oil pipeline or Starbucks. The high-incomer does not work at the farm/pipeline/Starbucks, of course. He or she is an investor.

In the lingo, he/she is passive in the activity.

Contrast that with whatever activity generates the high income. Odds are that he/she works there. We would refer to that as active or material participation.

The 1986 tax act greatly restricted the ability of the high-incomer to use passive losses to offset active/material participation income.

Every now and then, however, standard tax planning is flipped on its head. There are cases where the high-incomer wants more passive income.

In the name of all that is holy, why?

Has to do with passive losses. Let’s say that you had $10,000 in passive losses in 2015. You could not use them to offset other income, so the $10,000 carried over to 2016. Then to 2017. They are gathering dust.

If we could create passive income, we could use those passive losses.

How to create passive income?

Well, let’s say that you own a company.

You rent something to the company.

Let’s rent your car, your office-in-home or your Big Green EGG XXL.

Rent is passive income, right? The tax on our passive income will be zero, as the losses will mop up every dollar of income.

That is the “self-rental” the tax Code is after.

But it also triggers one of those “except for” rules: if the self-rental results in income, the income will not qualify as passive income.

All your effort was for naught. Thank you for playing.

Back to the article I was reading.

There is a doctor. He is the only owner of a medical practice. He used the second story of his house solely for the medical practice. Fair be fair, he had the practice pay him rent for that second floor.

I have no problem with that.

The Tax Court disallowed the corporation a rent deduction.

Whaaat? That makes no sense.

The purpose of the passive/active/material participation rules is not to deny a deduction altogether. The purpose is to delay the use of losses until the right type of income comes around.

What was the Tax Court thinking?

Easy. The doctor never reported the rental income on his personal return.

This case has nothing to do with self-rental rules. The Court simply was not permitting the corporation a deduction for rent that its shareholder failed to report as income.

The case for the home gamers is Christopher C.L. Ng M.D. Inc.