Monday, May 30, 2022

Reorganizing A Passive Activity


I am looking at a case that stacks a couple of different tax rules atop another and then asks: are we there yet?

Let’s talk about it.

The first is something called the continuity of business doctrine. Here we wade into the waters of corporate taxation and - more specifically - corporate reorganizations. Let’s take an easy example:

Corporation A wants to split into two corporations: corporation B and corporation C.

Why? It can be any number of things. Maybe management has decided that one of the business activities is not keeping up with the other, bringing down the stock price as a result. Maybe two families own corporation A, and the two families now have very strong and differing feelings about where to go and how to get there. Corporate reorganizations are relatively common.

The IRS wants to see an active trade or business in corporations A, B and C before allowing the reorganization. Why? Because reorganizations can be (and generally are) tax-free, and the IRS wants to be sure that there is a business reason for the reorganization – and avoiding tax does not count as a business reason.

Let me give you an example.

Corporation A is an exterminating company. Years ago it bought Tesla stock for pennies on the dollar, and those shares are now worth big bucks. It wants to reorganize into corporation B – which will continue the exterminating activity – and corporation C – which will hold Tesla stock.

Will this fly?

Probably not.

The continuity of business doctrine wants to see five years of a trade or business in all parties involved. Corporation A and B will not have a problem with this, but corporation C probably will. Why? Well, C is going to have to argue that holding Tesla stock rises to the level of a trade or business. But does it? I point out that Yahoo had a similar fact pattern when it wanted to unload $32 billion of Alibaba stock a few years ago. The IRS refused to go along, and the Yahoo attorneys had to redesign the deal.

Now let’s stack tax rules.

You have a business.

To make the stack work, the business will be a passthrough: a partnership or an S corporation. The magic to the passthrough is that the entity itself does not pay tax. Rather its tax numbers are sliced and diced and allocated among its owners, each of whom includes his/her slice on his/her individual return.

Let’s say that the passthrough has a loss.

Can you show that loss on your individual return?

We have shifted (smooth, eh?) to the tax issue of “materially participating” and “passively nonparticipating” in a business.

Yep, we are talking passive loss rules.

The concept here is that one should not be allowed to use “passively nonparticipating” losses to offset “materially participating” income. Those passive losses instead accumulate until there is passive income to sponge them up or until one finally disposes of the passive activity altogether. Think tax shelters and you go a long way as to what Congress was trying to do here.

Back to our continuity of business doctrine.

Corporation A has two activities. One is a winner and the other is a loser. Historically A has netted the two, reporting the net number as “materially participating” on the shareholder K-1 and carried on.

Corporation A reorganizes into B and C.

B takes the winner.

C takes the loser.

The shareholder has passive losses elsewhere on his/her return. He/she REALLY wants to treat B as “passively nonparticipating.” Why? Because it would give him/her passive income to offset those passive losses loitering on his/her return.

But can you do this?

Enter another rule:

A taxpayer is considered to material participate in an activity if the taxpayer materially participated in the activity for any five years during the immediately preceding ten taxable years.

On first blush, the rule is confusing, but there is a reason why it exists.

Say that someone has a profitable “materially participating” activity. Meanwhile he/she is accumulating substantial “passively nonparticipating” losses. He/she approaches me as a tax advisor and says: help.

Can I do anything?


What would that something be?

I would have him/her pull back (if possible) his/her involvement in the profitable activity. In fact, I would have him/her pull back so dramatically that the activity is no longer “materially participating.” We have transmuted the activity to “passively nonparticipating.”

I just created passive income. Tax advisors gotta advise.

Can’t do this, though. Congress thought of this loophole and shut it down with that five-of-the-last-ten-years rule.

This gets us to the Rogerson case.

Rogerson owned and was very involved with an aerospace company for 40 years. Somewhere in there he decided to reorganize the company along product lines.

He now had three companies where he previously had one.

He reported two as materially participating. The third he treated as passively nonparticipating.

Nickels to dollars that third one was profitable. He wanted the rush of passive income. He wanted that passive like one wants Hawaiian ice on a scorching hot day.

And the IRS said: No.

Off to Tax Court they went.

Rogerson’s argument was straightforward: the winner was a new activity. It was fresh-born, all a-gleaming under an ascendent morning sun.

The Court pointed out the continuity of business doctrine: five years before and five after. The activity might be a-gleaming, but it was not fresh-born.

Rogerson tried a long shot: he had not materially participated in that winner prior to the reorganization. The winner had just been caught up in the tide by his tax preparers. How they shrouded their inscrutable dark arts from prying eyes! Oh, if he could do it over again ….

The Court made short work of that argument: by your hand, sir, not mine. If Rogerson wanted a different result, he should have done - and reported - things differently.

Our case this time was Rogerson v Commissioner, TC Memo 2022-49.

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