Saturday, July 28, 2018

Spotting A Contribution

Do you think you could spot a tax-deductible donation?

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the qualifier “tax-deductible” kicks it up a notch. Give $300 to the church on Christmas Eve service and you have made a donation. Fail to get a letter from the church acknowledging that you donated $300, receiving in return only intangible benefits, and you probably forfeited the tax deductibility.

Let’s set it up:

(1)  There was a related group of companies developing a master-planned community in Lehi, Utah.
(2)  There were issues with density. The company had rights to develop if it could receive approval from the city council.
(3)  The city council said sure – but you have to reduce the density.
a.     Rather than reduce the number of units, the developer decided to donate land to the city – 746.789 acres, to be exact.

I see couple of ways to account for this additional land. One way is to add its cost to the other costs of the development. With this accounting you have to wait until you sell the units to get a deduction, as a slice of the land cost is allocated to each unit.

That wasn’t good enough for our taxpayer, who decided to account for the additional land by …

(4) … taking a charitable donation of $11,040,000.

What do you think? Does this transaction rise to the level of a deductible contribution and why or why not?

In general, a contribution implies at least a minimal amount of altruism. If one receives value equivalent to the “donation,” it is hard to argue that there is any altruism or benevolence involved. That sounds more like a sale than a donation. Then there is the gray zone: you donate $250 and in turn receive concert tickets worth $60. In that case, one is supposed to show the contribution as $190 ($250 - $60).

Sure enough, the IRS fired back with the following:

(1)  The transfer was part of a quid pro quo arrangement to receive development approvals.

That seems a formidable argument, but this is the IRS. We still have to bayonet the mortally wounded and the dead.

(2)  The transfer was not valid because [taxpayer] did own the development credits (i.e., someone else in the related-party group did).
(3)  The contemporaneous written acknowledgement was not valid.
(4)  The appraisal was not a qualified appraisal.
(5)  The value was overstated.

Yep, that is the IRS we know. Moderation is for amateurs.

A quid pro quo reduces a charitable deduction. Quid too far and you can doom a charitable deduction. Judicial precedence in this area has the Court reviewing the form and objective features of the transaction. One can argue noble heart and best intentions, but the Court was not going to spend a lot of time with the subjectivity of the deal.

The taxpayer was loaded for bear: the written agreement with the city did not mention that taxpayer received anything in return. To be doubly careful, it also stated that – if there was something in return – it was so inconsequential as to be immeasurable.

Mike drop.

The IRS pointed out that – while the above was true – there was more to the story. The taxpayer wanted more than anything to have the development plan approved so they could improve the quality of life make a lot of money. The city council wanted a new plan before approving anything, and that plan required the taxpayer to increase green space and reduce density.

Taxpayer donated the land. City council approved the project.

Nothing to see here, argued the taxpayer.

The Court refused to be blinkered by looking at only the written agreement. When it looked around, the Court decided the deal looked, waddled and quacked like a quid pro quo.

The taxpayer had a back-up argument:

If there was a quid pro quo, the quid was so infinitesimal, so inconsequential, so Ant-Man small as to not offset the donation, or at least the lion’s share of the donation.

I get it. I would make exactly the same argument if I were representing the taxpayer.

The taxpayer trotted out the McGrady decision. The facts are a bit peculiar, as someone owned a residence, a developer owned adjoining land and a township was resolute in preserving the greenspace. To get the deal to work, that someone donated both an easement and land and then bought back an odd-shaped parcel of land to surround and shield their residence. The Court respected the donation.

Not the same, thundered the Tax Court. McGrady had no influence over his/her deal, whereas taxpayer had a ton of influence over this one. In addition, just about every conservation easement has some incidental benefit, even if the benefit is only not having a crush of people on top of you.

The quid quo pro was not incidental. It was the key to obtaining the city council’s approval. It could not have been more consequential.

And it was enough to blow up a $11,040,000 donation.

Whereas not in the decision, I can anticipate what the tax advisors will do next: capitalize the land into the development costs and then deduct the same parcel-by-parcel. Does this put the taxpayer back where it would have been anyway?

No, it does not. Why? Because the contribution would have been at the land's fair market value. Development accounting keeps the land at its cost. To the extent the land had appreciated, the contribution would have been more valuable than development accounting.

Our case for the home gamers was Triumph Mixed Use Investments II LLC, Fox Ridge Investments, LLC, Tax Matters Partner v Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2018-65.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What Is Unclaimed Property?

I was reading an IRS Revenue Ruling that made me laugh, albeit in a cynical way.

Here is the issue:
If an IRA is being sent to a state unclaimed property fund, can the IRS force the trustee to withhold and remit taxes?
There are several things going on here, beginning with: what is an unclaimed property fund?

An easy example is a deceased person’s bank account. Take Florida. If someone dies in Florida without a will and without requiring probate, you as an inheritor are going to have difficulties getting to their bank account – unless you name is also on the account. You likely have to hire an attorney to obtain a court letter to provide the bank stating that you are a valid inheritor of said bank account.

How many folks do think just leave the bank account unclaimed because it isn’t worth the cost of an attorney?

It is not just bank accounts. Unclaimed funds can include uncashed dividend or payroll checks, utility security deposits, safety deposit boxes, retirement accounts and a hundred variations thereon. The concept is that you are holding somebody else’s money, and that somebody disappears. It is referred to as dormancy, and the definition is what you would expect: there has been no activity in the account or contact with the owner for a while; account statements are returned because of an invalid address; phone numbers are no longer active.

The “while” depends on the state and the type of asset. In Ohio, an uncashed payroll check is considered dormant after one year whereas a customer overpayment requires three years.

Who reports this?

The business, of course. The business is supposed to try to locate the account owner, but sometimes there simply is no one to contact. When the dormancy period is up, the business then transfers the monies with its best available information to the state. The state holds the property until the owner comes forward to claim it.

The legal reasoning behind unclaimed property goes back to common law and real property. If one abandons real property, there is a legitimate public concern that it soon might become blighted. That concern prompts the transfer (the nerd term is “escheat”) of the abandoned property to the Crown – or, these days, to the State.

Unclaimed property is not technically taxation, but its laws operate similarly to tax statutes.

Many states have used unclaimed property as a means to fund their coffers. Delaware is one of the most egregious offenders, with unclaimed property being its third-largest source of state revenues. Delaware can do this because it is home to so many banks.

Here is a link if you are interested in your own unclaimed property search:

Back to the IRS Revenue Ruling. Here is a short paragraph from the lead-in:
Under the facts presented, is the payment of Trustee Y of Individual C's interest in IRA O to the State J unclaimed property fund, as required by State J law, subject to federal income tax withholding under Section 3405 of the Internal Revenue Code?”
A bracing read, isn’t it? I couldn’t put it down.

Anyway, how do you think the IRS answered this question?

Pretty much the way you would expect. The IRS is getting its cut at some point, and this is as good a point as any. Send the IRS its money, Trustee Y.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Bank Of America Horror Story

A major corporation hounds you almost to the point of death. You sue. You receive a settlement. Is it taxable?

Like so much of tax law, it depends. For example, did the attorney include the magic words that complete the incantation?  

Mr. and Mrs. French received a deficiency notice for their 2012 tax year. The IRS wanted $7,231 in taxes and $1,446 in penalties.

At issue was whether a settlement payment was taxable.

Let’s lay out the story:

·      In 2008 the French’s bought a house.
·      Shortly thereafter Bank of America bought their mortgage.
·      In August, 2009 Bank of America transferred their loan to a subsidiary, BAC Home Loan Servicing.
·      In December, 2009 Mr. and Mrs. French signed a loan modification agreement. The modification was to become effective February 1, 2010.

A loan modification means that that payments were temporarily suspended, an interest rate was changed, the loan term was lengthened and so on. There was a lot of modifications going on around that time.

·      Mrs. French suffered from a very bad back. She was admitted to the hospital in October, 2009 for surgery.
·      From late 2009 into early 2010 Bank of America began calling the French’s on a routine basis, sometimes up to 5 times a day. They were hounding the French’s that their mortgage was about to go into foreclosure.
·      Mr. French was concerned about the effect of these endless calls on his wife. He requested that Bank of America call him on another line, that way he could shield his wife from the stress. Bank of America couldn’t care less. If anything, they were continued receiving multiple calls from multiple people across multiple BAC offices.
·      Mrs. French went into the hospital in December, 2009 and again in January, 2010.
·      In January, 2010 Mr. French spoke with a BAC representative. He explained the loan modification. The representative had no idea what Mr. French was talking about. He explained that – whoever Mr. French sent the modification to – it was not BAC. He instructed Mr. French to redo the paperwork, stop payment on the old check and enclose a new check.
·      After much hassle, Mr. French was told that the modification was accepted and that he should start making payments per the new agreement. He made 10 payments of $1,067.10.
·      When she was finally discharged from the hospital on January 21, 2010, a Bank of America representative called to tell Mrs. French that “officers were on their way to evict” them.
·      On January 23, she started experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath. She went back to the hospital. He suffered two pulmonary emboli, passed away twice but was resuscitated. She was discharged February 4, 2010.
·      BAC did not process the first modification as they promised Mr. French. BAC kept their higher monthly payments and interest rate. To make matters worse, they posted their monthly payments to a non-interest- bearing escrow account and treated the payments as if they were processing fees.
·      In October 2010 BAC told Mr. French that they were not honoring the first modification and that the loan was severely delinquent. They sent a second modification, with conditions and terms injurious to the French’s. For example, the second modification did not even address the 10 payments the French’s had previously sent. Mr. French, his back to a wall, signed the second modification in November, 2010.
·      BAC continued, increasing their monthly payment from $1,067.10 to $1,081.49. In September, 2011, BAC sent the French’s a notice that their checks would not be applied and would instead be returned if not for the higher amount.

Finally, the French’s hired an attorney.

The phone calls stopped.

The French’s sued on six claims, alleging fraud, integration of the first and second loan modifications, punitive damages, additional damages, attorney fees and so forth.

What they did not sue for was personal damages to Mrs. French’s health. 

They settled in 2012. The French’s received $41,333, and the attorneys received $20,666.

The French’s did not report the settlement as income on their 2012 tax return.

The IRS wanted to know why.

The French’s presented several arguments:

(1)  $7,500 of the settlement was not taxable under the “disputed debt” doctrine.

If one party does not agree to the terms of a debt, later settlement does not necessarily mean income. It may mean repayment of amounts improperly charged the borrower, for example. An interesting argument, but the Court noted that the settlement agreement never mentioned disputed or contested debt.

(2)  They were being repaid their own money.
(3)  IRC Section 104(a)(2)
 § 104 Compensation for injuries or sickness.
 (a)  In general.
Except in the case of amounts attributable to (and not in excess of) deductions allowed under section 213 (relating to medical, etc., expenses) for any prior taxable year, gross income does not include-
(1)  amounts received under workmen's compensation acts as compensation for personal injuries or sickness;
(2) the amount of any damages (other than punitive damages) received (whether by suit or agreement and whether as lump sums or as periodic payments) on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness;
To me, this was – by far – their best argument.

But it is one that BAC would never, ever put in writing.

The Court was however willing to look back to the six claims the attorneys filed for Mr. and Mrs. French. Unfortunately, the only language it found was the following:
… suffered lost time, inconvenience, distress [and] fear, and have been denied the benefit of the loan modification they were promised, and are being charged too much on their loan.”
These, folks, are not the magic words to open the Section 104(a)(2) door. For one thing, the words referred to both Mr. and Mrs. French.

The French’s owed the tax, but the IRS relented on the penalties.

Too bad the attorneys did not run the paperwork past a competent tax practitioner before it was too late.

Our case this time was French v Commissioner, T.C. Summary Opinion 2018-36.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Amending Your Way Into A Penalty

I have a set of tax returns in my office for someone who dropped off the tax grid for years. I suspect we will be fighting penalties and requesting a payment plan in the too-near future.

It reminded me of why not filing returns is a bad idea.

Here’s one: she has refunds she cannot use because the statute period has expired.

She could have used the refunds, as she has other years with tax due.

There is another reason.

Let’s say that you file a return, but you file it late. For example, you extend the return to October, but you don’t get around to filing until the following January or February. You have a refund so you do not care.

Many tax professionals would agree with you. Penalties apply on tax due. If there is no tax due, then – voila – no penalty (generally speaking).

But you later amend the return. Or the IRS adjusts the return for you. However it happened, you now owe tax.

Consider this:

          § 6651 Failure to file tax return or to pay tax
(a)  Addition to the tax.
In case of failure-
(1)    to file any return required under authority […]on the date prescribed therefor (determined with regard to any extension of time for filing), unless it is shown that such failure is due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect, there shall be added to the amount required to be shown as tax on such return 5 percent of the amount of such tax if the failure is for not more than 1 month, with an additional 5 percent for each additional month or fraction thereof during which such failure continues, not exceeding 25 percent in the aggregate;

This is called the “late filing” penalty.

I am looking at a tax case from 1998. Greg Vinikoor (GK) married Melissa Vinikoor (MV). Best I can figure, her dad must have been loaded, as he was repeatedly transferring shares of stock to the newlyweds. GK graduated from college and took a job making $12 grand a year. They got everything out of that $12 grand, including:

·      trips to Hawaii, San Diego, Scottsdale and San Francisco
·      shopping trips to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrum
·      membership at the Tucson Country Club

We both know that they were not paying for this on that $12,000 salary. They were either borrowing against or selling stock that dad had transferred.

The IRS wanted to know why they were not reporting stock gains on their tax returns. There had been quite the run-up in value since dad had acquired the stock. In the case of a gift, dad’s low basis in the stock would carryover to the couple. Since gain = price – basis, that low basis meant a juicy gain, and the IRS wanted its cut.

Good question.

Uhhh…. Because we bought the stock from dad, they answered. Yeah, that’s it. We have a new – and higher! - basis because we bought the stock. We bought it on loan, and we have to pay dad back.

Fine, said the IRS. Show us the loan agreement.

Don’t have one, they replied.

Show us where you paid interest to dad.

We haven’t – not yet, they responded.

Is there a fixed repayment date?

Just an understanding, they susurrated.

How about security? Did you give any collateral for the loan?

No, not really, they murmured.

The Court was zero impressed.
After the stock rose, XXX [dad], the supposed creditor in these transactions never made any demand on petitioners for repayment, even though the value of the stock had increased substantially and petitioners were diminishing the stock with spendthrift habits.”
The Court decided this was a gift. There was gain, there was tax.

Guess who failed to file their tax return on time?

Yep, the Vinikoors.

Now they had penalties.

More specifically, that 25% penalty we talked about. It totaled over $38 grand.

And there is the trap. That late filing can haunt and hurt you if you later amend or the IRS adjusts the return to increase income. That penalty goes to back when, not the date you amended or the IRS adjusted.

File those returns on time, folks. Amend later if you do not have all the information, but at least you got the horse over the wire on time.

Our case this time – as you may have guessed – was Vinikoor v Commissioner.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

TurboTax and Penalties

I am looking at a case that deals with recourse and nonrecourse debt.

Normally I expect to find a partnership with multiple pages of related entities and near-impenetrable transactions leading up to the tax dispute.

This case had to do with a rental house. I decided to read through it.

Let’s say you buy a house in northern Kentucky. You will have a “recourse” mortgage. This means that – if you default – the mortgage company has the right to come after you for any shortfall if sales proceeds are insufficient to pay-off the mortgage.

This creates an interesting tax scenario in the event of foreclosure, as the tax Code sees two separate transactions.


          The house cost               $290,000
          The mortgage is             $270,000
          The house is worth        $215,000

If the loan is recourse, the tax Code first sees the foreclosure:

          The house is worth        $215,000
          The house cost               (290,000)
          Loss on foreclosure       ($75,000)

The Code next sees the cancellation of debt:

          The mortgage is worth  $270,000
          The house is worth        (215,000)
          Cancellation of debt       $55,000

If the house is your principal residence, the loss on foreclosure is not tax deductible. The cancellation-of-debt income is taxable, however.

But all is not lost. Here is the Code:
§ 108 Income from discharge of indebtedness.
(a)  Exclusion from gross income.
(1)  In general.
Gross income does not include any amount which (but for this subsection) would be includible in gross income by reason of the discharge (in whole or in part) of indebtedness of the taxpayer if-
(E)  the indebtedness discharged is qualified principal residence indebtedness which is discharged-
(i)  before January 1, 2018, or
(ii)  subject to an arrangement that is entered into and evidenced in writing before January 1, 2018.

The Section 108(a)(1)(E) exclusion will save you from the $55,000 cancellation-of-debt income, if you got it done by or before the December 31, 2017 deadline.

Let’s change the state. Say that you bought your house in California.

That loan is now nonrecourse. That lender cannot hound you the way he/she could in Kentucky.

The taxation upon cancellation of a nonrecourse loan is also different. Rather than two steps, the tax Code now sees one.

Using the same example as above, we have:

          The mortgage is             $270,000
          The house cost               (290,000)
          Loss on foreclosure       ($20,000)  

Notice that the California calculation does not generate cancellation-of-debt income. As before, the loss is not deductible if it is from your principal residence.

Back to the case.

A married couple had lived in northern California and bought a residence. They moved to southern California and converted the residence to a rental. The housing crisis had begun, and the house was not worth what they had paid.

Facing a loss of over $300 grand, they got Wells Fargo to agree to a short sale. Wells Fargo then sent them a 1099-S for taking back the house and a 1099-C for cancellation-of-debt income.

Seems to me Wells Fargo sent paperwork for a sale in Kentucky. Remember: there can be no cancellation-of-debt income in California.

The taxpayer’s spouse prepared the return. She was an attorney, but she had no background in tax. She spent time on TurboTax; she spent time reading form instructions and other sources. She did her best. You know she was reviewing that recourse versus nonrecourse thing, as well as researching the effect of a rental. She may have researched whether the short sale had the same result as a regular foreclosure.
COMMENT: There was enough here to use a tax professional.
They filed a return showing around $7,000 in tax.

The IRS scoffed, saying the correct tax was closer to $76,000.

There was a lot going on here tax-wise. It wasn’t just the recourse versus nonrecourse thing; it was also resetting the “basis” in the house when it became a rental.

There is a requirement in tax law that property convert at lower of (adjusted) cost or fair market value when it changes use, such as changing from a principal residence to a rental. It can create a no-man’s land where you do not have enough for a gain, but you simultaneously have too much for a loss. It is nonintuitive if you haven’t been exposed to the concept.

Here is the Court:
This is the kind of conundrum only tax lawyers love. And it is not one we've been able to find anywhere in any case that involves a short sale of a house or any other asset for that matter. The closest analogy we can find is to what happens to bases in property that one person gives to another.”
Great. She had not even taken a tax class in law school, and now she was involved with making tax law.

Let’s fast forward. The IRS won. They next wanted penalties – about $14,000.

The Court didn’t think penalties were appropriate.
… the tax issues they faced in preparing their return for 2011 were complex and lacked clear answers—so much so that we ourselves had to reason by analogy to the taxation of sales of gifts and consider the puzzle of a single asset with two bases to reach the conclusion we did. We will not penalize taxpayers for mistakes of law in a complicated subject area that lacks clear guidance …”
They owed about $70 grand in tax but at least they did not owe penalties.

And the case will be remembered for being a twist on the TurboTax defense. Generally speaking, relying on tax software will not save you from penalties, although there have been a few exceptions. This case is one of those exceptions, although I question its usefulness as a defense. The taxpayers here strode into the tax twilight zone, and the Court decided the case by reasoning through analogy. How often will that fact pattern repeat, allowing one to use this case against the imposition of future penalties?

The case for the homegamers is Simonsen v Commissioner 150 T.C. No. 8.