Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Tax Doctrine Of The Fruit And The Tree


I am uncertain what the IRS saw in the case. The facts were very much in the taxpayer’s favor.

The IRS was throwing a penalty flag and asking the Court to call an assignment of income foul.

Let’s talk about it.

The tax concept for assignment-of-income is that a transaction has progressed so far that one has – for all real and practical purposes – realized income. One is just waiting for the check to arrive in the mail.

But what if one gives away the transaction – all, part or whatever – to someone else? Why? Well, one reason is to move the tax to someone else.

A classic case in this area is Helvering v Horst. Horst goes back to old days of coupon bonds, which actually had perforated coupons. One would tear-off a coupon and redeem it to receive an interest check. In this case the father owned the bonds. He tore off the coupons and gave them to his son, who in turn redeemed them and reported the income. Helvering v Horst gave tax practitioners the now-famous analogy of a tree and its fruit. The tree was the bond, and the fruit was the coupon. The Court observed:

… The fruit is not to be attributed to a different tree from that on which it grew.”

The Court decided that the father had income. If he wanted to move the income (the fruit) then he would have to move the bond (the tree).

Jon Dickinson (JD) was the chief financial officer and a shareholder of a Florida engineering firm. Several shareholders – including JD – had requested permission to transfer some of their shares to the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund (Fidelity). Why did they seek permission? There can be several reasons, but one appears key: it is Fidelity’s policy to immediately liquidate the donated stock. Being a private company, Fidelity could not just sell the shares in the stock market. No, the company would have to buy-back the stock. I presume that JD and the others shareholders wanted some assurance that the company would do so.

JD buttoned-down the donation:

·      The Board approved the transfers to Fidelity.

·      The company confirmed to Fidelity that its books and records reflected Fidelity as the new owner of the shares.

·      JD also sent a letter to Fidelity with each donation indicating that the transferred stock was “exclusively owned and controlled by Fidelity” and that Fidelity “is not and will not be under any obligation to redeem, sell or otherwise transfer” the stock.

·      Fidelity sent a letter to JD after each donation explaining that it had received and thereafter exercised “exclusive legal control over the contributed asset.”

So what did the IRS see here?

The IRS saw Fidelity’s standing policy to liquidate donated stock. As far as the IRS was concerned, the stock had been approved for redemption while JD still owned it. This would trigger Horst – that is, the transaction had progressed so far that JD was an inextricable part. Under the IRS scenario, JD would have a stock redemption – the company would have bought-back the stock from him and not Fidelity – and he would have taxable gain. Granted, JD would also have a donation (because he would have donated the cash from the stock sale to Fidelity), but the tax rules on charitable deductions would increase his income (for the gain) more than the decrease in his income (for the contribution). JD would owe tax.

The Court looked at two key issues:

(1)  Did JD part with the property absolutely and completely?

This one was a quick “yes.” The paperwork was buttoned-up as tight as could be.

(2)  Did JD donate the property before there was a fixed and determinable right to sale?

You can see where the IRS was swinging. All parties knew that Fidelity would redeem the stock; it was Fidelity’s policy. By approving the transfer of shares, the company had – in effect – “locked-in” the redemption while JD still owned the stock. This would trigger assignment-of-income, argued the IRS.

Except that there is a list of cases that look at formalities in situations like this. Fidelity had the right to request redemption – but the redemption had not been approved at the time of donation. While a seemingly gossamer distinction, it is a distinction with tremendous tax weight. Make a sizeable donation but fail to get the magic tax letter from the charity; you will quickly find out how serious the IRS is about formalities. Same thing here. JD and the company had checked all the boxes.

The Court did not see a tree and fruit scenario. There was no assignment of income. JD got his stock donation.

Our case this time was Dickinson v Commissioner, TC Memo 2020-128.

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