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.


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