Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Gambling With Tax Revenue 

As soda taxes gained voter approval in four cities earlier this month, Philadelphia continues to encounter challenges in its attempt to implement its version of the tax. Unlike those four cities, Philadelphia faces questions of state constitutional authority that have yet to be resolved because they are the subject of pending litigation.

The soda tax is deeply flawed. As I have pointed out in What Sort of Tax?, The Return of the Soda Tax Proposal, Tax As a Hate Crime?, Yes for The Proposed User Fee, No for the Proposed Tax, Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Shelved, But Will It Return?, Taxing Symptoms Rather Than Problems, It’s Back! The Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Returns, The Broccoli and Brussel Sprouts of Taxation, The Realities of the Soda Tax Policy Debate, Soda Sales Shifting?, Taxes, Consumption, Soda, and Obesity, Is the Soda Tax a Revenue Grab or a Worthwhile Health Benefit?, Philadelphia’s Latest Soda Tax Proposal: Health or Revenue?, What Gets Taxed If the Goal Is Health Improvement?, The Russian Sugar and Fat Tax Proposal: Smarter, More Sensible, or Just a Need for More Revenue, Soda Tax Debate Bubbles Up, Can Mischaracterizing an Undesired Tax Backfire?, The Soda Tax Flaw in Automotive Terms, Taxing the Container Instead of the Sugary Beverage: Looking for Revenue in All the Wrong Places, Bait-and-Switch “Sugary Beverage Tax” Tactics, How Unsweet a Tax, and When Tax Is Bizarre: Milk Becomes Soda, the tax is both too narrow and too broad. Though touted as a health improvement incentive, despite being attractive to politicians because of its revenue possibilities, it reaches items that are healthy and fails to reach all sorts of items that contribute to poor health. Taxing almond milk but not doughnuts belies the claim that the soda tax is designed to, and will improve, health.

Now comes news that despite the pending court challenges claiming that Philadelphia lacks the authority to enact the tax, the city is spending the revenue that it anticipates collecting. Reports are that Philadelphia has spent almost $12 million on a pre-K program, and $1.5 million on expansion of a community schools plan. The pre-K program is planned to begin on January 1, the same day that the tax goes into effect. The judge hearing the case has promised a decision by January 1. What happens if the judge rules that the city exceeded its authority? What happens if the judge holds in favor of the city but appeals are taken? What happens if eventually there is no soda tax revenue? Which existing programs are cut by $13.5 million to make up for the money that has been spent despite the uncertainties surrounding collection of the tax? The $13.5 million probably grow to a larger amount, because there is no reason to think that spending on the program will stop during December. And what happens to the children who have been enrolled in the program, and their families? Will they have time to make alternate plans?

To these questions, the answers are not forthcoming from Philadelphia officials, who refuse to comment on their contingency plans, assuming they have any, to deal with an adverse judicial decision. The only comment is that “As of today, the city has no existing streams of revenue to replace the anticipated funding.” No kidding.

The city signed a contract with an academy that operates pre-K programs, and the contract includes a clause making additional funding contingent on the soda tax revenue. The academy is renovating one of its classrooms and has hired four teachers to handle the expected enrollment increase. What happens if the revenue doesn’t materialize? The academy’s CEO explains, “If some sort of repeal was to occur, I think it would be devastating.” No kidding.

It is one thing to enact a tax and spend anticipated revenues before the tax goes into effect. It’s another thing to enact a tax that everyone knows will be challenged and that is, in fact, challenged and to spend anticipated revenues before the authority for enacting the tax has been confirmed. It’s reckless. If the tax is struck down, someone is going to pay. As usual, it won’t be the officials who made the gamble. It will be the people whose jobs are terminated, whose programs are cut, whose services are diminished, whose lives are disrupted.

It would have made more sense to delay the pre-K program until the beginning of the next academic year, in September. By then, the status of the tax would be known, and if it were upheld, eight months of revenue would have been collected and available for starting up the program. But it’s so easy to gamble with other people’s money.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A 180-Degree Tax Turnaround 

Five months ago, in A Not So Hidden Tax Increase?, I commented on the decision by New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie to explore the termination of the income tax reciprocity agreement between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I explained how the repeal of the agreement would increase income tax burdens on higher-salaried Pennsylvanians working in New Jersey and lower-salaried New Jersey residents working in Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, New Jersey’s governor terminated the agreement. Why? New Jersey needs revenue.

A little more than a month ago, in Tax Reciprocity Meets Tax Break Giveaways, I described the strong negative reaction to Christie’s decision articulated by executives of at least three of the companies that are beneficiaries of the tax breaks New Jersey hands out in attempts to generate economic development in the state. At least one corporate official explained that had the company known that the income tax reciprocity agreement was going to be terminated, it probably would not have agreed to the relocation required by the tax breaks.

Several days ago, New Jersey’s governor changed his mind. According to this report, he decided not to terminate the agreement, mere months after announcing that he would. At least he isn’t reneging on a campaign promise, because he said nothing about the agreement when he ran for the governor’s office. But, still, he created a good deal of angst among New Jersey residents who work in Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania residents who work in New Jersey. I wonder how many of those folks started job searches or took other steps to put in motion a relocation of their employment to their state of residence. Definitely corporate tax administrators in Pennsylvania have invested resources redesigning their systems to comply with the changes that termination of the agreement would require. Perhaps they should be reimbursed by New Jersey for being put in this disadvantageous position?

Christie’s explanation is that the revenue he projected would be raised for New Jersey by terminating the agreement no longer is required. He claims that recently enacted legislation would reduce health care costs for public employees, and thus eliminate a predicted state budget deficit that would have been offset by the projected revenue from the termination of the agreement.

I wonder if Christie changed his mind because he no longer saw a use for the revenue. I wonder if, perhaps, his decision was heavily influenced by the reaction of those corporate executives who considered themselves blindsided by the governor’s announcement of his intention to terminate the agreement. As I pointed out in Tax Reciprocity Meets Tax Break Giveaways, I have no access to the negotiations that preceded the individual tax break handouts to those executives’ corporations. I wrote, “I do not know if these companies even tried to negotiate promises that the overall tax and economic landscape would not be altered. I doubt that they tried, and I am confident that even if they did, no such promises were forthcoming. Otherwise they would be preparing to sue the state for breach of contract.” But perhaps they did negotiate for those things, and perhaps they were preparing to sue, and perhaps that triggered the abrupt U-turn by the governor. In the murky world of back-room politics and bargaining hidden from the public’s view, a practice that promises to go viral two months from now, it is difficult to know precisely who is getting what from whom. As I also wrote, “The entire situation demonstrates the dangers of trying to work out private deals to obtain tax and economic benefits superior to those available to the average citizen. When Americans who are angry about the tax and economic condition of the nation take the time to examine who is responsible, and to look beyond the headline-grabbing federal tax system to the state and local tax scene, they might discover who really is responsible for the mess, and vote accordingly.” For the moment, what is clear is that the 250,000 taxpayers caught in the confusion had no say in what happened. I doubt they have enjoyed being jerked around.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Tax Meets Constitutional Law Ignorance 

Several days ago I received an email containing a press release from a publicity specialist on behalf of DeVere Group, which describes itself as “one of the world’s largest independent advisors of specialist global financial solutions to international, local mass affluent, and high-net-worth clients.” The press release, which also can be found online, including at this site, is headlined “Trump must ‘show backbone’ and repeal Obama’s imperialistic global tax law.”

According to the press release, “Nigel Green, founder and CEO of deVere Group, is demanding that the president-elect addresses the issue of abandoning the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which adversely affects FFIs and millions of Americans around the world as ‘a priority.’” Green relies on the president-elect’s promise to “revoke some of Obama’s executive orders” and proposes, “I would urge him to make repealing FATCA one of those he revokes.”

No matter what one thinks of FATCA – its goals are laudable but its implementation is a morass of complexities and unintended consequences – no President can revoke it. FATCA is a law enacted by the Congress. Specifically, it is Public Law 111-147, introduced as H.R. 2847 and signed into law on March 18, 2010. Only Congress can repeal or change FATCA. FATCA is not an executive order. It cannot be revoked by executive order.

In Nigel Green’s defense, he presumably is a citizen of the United Kingdom and received his schooling there, though, like Bloomberg, I have been unable to ascertain any specifics. So it is highly unlikely that a United Kingdom individual, in the normal course of schooling, would learn much of anything about the legislative, executive, and judicial processes in the United States.

But Nigel Green focuses on international clients and international transactions. It is not too much to expect someone who is involved in global finance to hire or retain experts who are familiar with the laws applicable to those clients and transactions. There are plenty of professionals throughout the world, from dozens of countries, who understand how FATCA came into existence and who has the power to repeal it.

Surely a multi-billion-dollar entity can find someone who would have advised Nigel Green so that he would have said something along the lines of “I urge the president-elect to work with the United States Congress to repeal FATCA” or, because he agrees that, “Tackling tax evasion is a noble and worthwhile objective,” “I urge the president-elect to work with the United States Congress to modify FATCA so that it achieves its goals without subjecting people to undue complexity and unintended consequences.”

It is difficult for me to pay heed to pronouncements that are wrapped in error, and bereft of fact checking. It is particularly difficult when the pronouncements come from multi-billion-dollar entities and extremely wealthy individuals who can afford to pay someone to spare them from ignorance and its effects.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankfully Repetitive 

It has been said that love is something that can be shared without diminishing what remains to be shared again. The same can be said about expressions of gratitude. Saying “Thank you!” to someone doesn’t reduce the number of people to which that response can subsequently be presented. And so, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, the stream of “Thanks!” continues on MauledAgain.

For as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been sharing a Thanksgiving post to express my gratitude for a variety of people, events, and things. Aside from 2008, when I did not post and I don’t have any recollection of why or how that happened, I’ve dedicated a post on or around Thanksgiving. I started in 2004, with Giving Thanks, and continued in 2005 with A Tax Thanksgiving, in 2006 with Giving Thanks, Again, in 2007 with Actio Gratiarum, in 2009 with Gratias Vectigalibus, in 2010 with Being Thankful for User Fees and Taxes, in 2011 with Two Short Words, Thank You, in 2012 with A Thanksgiving Litany, in 2013 with “Don’t Forget to Say Thank-You”, in 2014 with Giving Thanks: “No, Thank YOU!” , and in 2015 with Thanks Again!.

As I stated the past three years, “I have presented litanies, bursts of Latin, descriptions of events and experiences for which I have been thankful, names of people and groups for whom I have appreciation, and situations for which I have offered gratitude. Together, these separate lists become a long catalog, and as I have done in previous years, I will do a lawyerly thing and incorporate them by reference. Why? Because I continue to be thankful for past blessings, and because some of those appreciated things continue even to this day.” When I re-read those lists, I realized that the people, events, and things for which I am appreciative are far from obsolete.

So when I look back on the past year, here are a handful of people, events, and things added to the list, even though some of these can be tagged as repetitive in some ways:Ten years ago, in Giving Thanks, Again, I shared my Thanksgiving advice. I liked it so much that I repeated it again, in 2009 in Gratias Vectigalibus, yet again in 2013 in “Don’t Forget to Say Thank-You”, still again in 2014 in Giving Thanks: “No, Thank YOU!” , and even yet again in 2015 in Thanks Again!. For me, it does not lose its impact:
Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Set aside the hustle and bustle of life. Meet up with people who matter to you. Share your stories. Enjoy a good meal. Tell jokes. Sing. Laugh. Watch a parade or a football game, or both, or many. Pitch in. Carve the turkey. Wash some dishes. Help a little kid cut a piece of pie. Go outside and take a deep breath. Stare at the sky for a minute. Listen for the birds. Count the stars. Then go back inside and have seconds or thirds. Record the day in memory, so that you can retrieve it in several months when you need some strength.
I am thankful to have the opportunity to share those words yet again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Write the Check to the Charity; It’s Easier 

A few days ago, someone posted a question to the Reddit Tax Forum.It’s the sort of question that can find its way onto an income tax exam but it’s also a question that surely has been faced by more than a few taxpayers. To quote the question, “Is an indirect donation (such as paying an expense on behalf of a charity) tax deductible to the donor and/or recognizable as revenue by the charity?” In other words, what are the tax consequences when a person pays a charity’s invoice due to an unrelated third party?

In substance, the person is paying the charity so that the charity can pay its bill. The practical problem is that if and when the IRS audits the person and asks for proof, the person will have a check made out to a business or other payee that is not the charity and likely is not itself a charity. Then the person must prove that it was paying on behalf of the charity. Does the person have a copy of the invoice sent to the charity by the third party? Does the person have an acknowledgement from the charity that the charity’s invoice was marked “paid in full” by the third party because of the person’s payment to the third party on behalf of the charity? Without the appropriate evidence, the person can end up without any deduction, as happened in Bell v. Comr., T.C. Summ. Op. 2013-20, though denial of the taxpayer’s deduction in that case also involved additional factors.

In the long run, it’s much easier simply to write a check payable to the charity, submit it to the charity, and obtain a receipt. The charity then has the funds to pay its invoices. As technology changes, perhaps the person, instead of writing the check, can make an electronic funds transfer. But it should be made to the charity. Why make things more complicated than they need to be?

Monday, November 21, 2016

When Tax Isn’t About Numbers: What is a Bank? 

Law students, not unlike people generally, think that tax “is all about numbers,” or, worse, “involves lots of math.” As I try to explain to anyone with those concerns, a substantial portion of tax law does not involve numbers or arithmetic. Whether someone is engaged in tax compliance, such as filing a return, or tax planning, that person’s brain will focus less on numbers than it will on words. A recent case illustrates this point.

On November 15, the United States Court of Appeals handed down its opinion in Moneygram International, Inc. v. Comr., No. 15-60527, on appeal from the United States Tax Court. The issue is one that can be stated simply: Is Moneygram International a bank?

Why does it matter if MoneyGram is a bank? The answer is simple. Banks are subject to special federal income tax rules, most of them beneficial to the bank. For example, although generally corporate taxpayers are permitted to deduct capital losses only to the extent of capital gains, banks are permitted to offset ordinary income with capital losses. The taxation of banks is not an area of tax law in which I have any particular expertise, and I have not taught the special rules in any of my courses, though I alert students that a set of special rules exist for banks, and insurance companies. Federal income taxation of banks is a narrow sub-specialty of tax law practice, and there are a handful of tax practitioners who are experts in that area. I’m not one of them.

Section 581 defines a bank as “a bank or trust company incorporated and doing business under the laws of the United States (including laws relating to the District of Columbia) or of any State, a substantial part of the business of which consists of receiving deposits and making loans and discounts, . . . and which is subject by law to supervision and examination by State, Territorial, or Federal authority having supervision over banking institutions.” The Tax Court held that MoneyGram was not a bank for two reasons. First, it did not meet the common meaning of the term “bank,” which the Tax Court defined to include “(1) the receipt of deposits from the general public, repayable to the depositors on demand or at a fixed time, (2) the use of deposit funds for secured loans, and (3) the relationship of debtor and creditor between the bank and the depositor.” Second, the Tax Court held that MoneyGram did not satisfy section 581 because “receiving deposits and making loans do not constitute any meaningful part of MoneyGram’s business, much less ‘a substantial part.’”

Section 581 does not define “deposits” or “loans.” The Tax Court defined “deposits,” in the context of § 581, as “funds that customers place in a bank for the purpose of safekeeping,” that are “repayable to the depositor on demand or at a fixed time,” and which are held “for extended periods of time.” The Tax Court held that money received by MoneyGram as part of its money order and financial services segments did not meet this definition because MoneyGram does not hold these funds for safekeeping or for an extended period of time. The Tax Court defined “loans” as an agreement, “memorialized by a loan instrument” that “is repayable with interest,” and that “generally has a fixed (and often lengthy) repayment period.” The Tax Court held that the Master Trust Agreements entered into between MoneyGram and its agents do not meet this definition and are therefore not loans, particularly because the agreement is facially a trust agreement and not a loan agreement, and does not charge interest.

On appeal, MoneyGram challenged both the Tax Court’s interpretation of section 581 as imposing the requirement that an entity be a bank within the common meaning of that term and its articulation of that common meaning. MoneyGram argued that the Tax Court’s interpretation impermissibly imposes an “ill-defined extra-statutory requirement that is inconsistent with the language and purpose of Section 581.” Rather, MoneyGram argued that the beginning of section 581 only requires that the entity be “incorporated and operating legally.”

The Fifth Circuit noted that section 581 “is not a model of statutory clarity,” pointing out that its construction and circular use of the term “bank” are inherently ambiguous. Yet it concluded that “the most consistent and harmonious reading of” section 581 “supports the Tax Court’s conclusion that being a ‘bank’ within the commonly understood meaning of that term is an independent requirement.

Moneygram, relying on the canon of interpretation against surplusage, which supports interpreting a statute “so that no part will be inoperative or superfluous, void or insignificant,” argued that the Tax Court’s interpretation rendered superfluous the requirement in section 581 that a substantial part of the taxpayer’s business consist of “receiving deposits and making loans and discounts” because the Tax Court’s definition of the common meaning of bank also includes the receipt of deposits and the making of loans. The IRS, also relying on the canon of interpretation against surplusage, argued that MoneyGram’s interpretation read “bank or trust company” out of section 581.

The Fifth Circult explained that MoneyGram’s interpretation, essentially translated the statute so that it read: “For purposes of sections 582 and 584, the term ‘bank’ means a . . . company incorporated and doing business under the laws of the United States (including laws relating to the District of Columbia) or of any State.” It rejected Moneygram’s interpretation. It also rejected MoneyGram’s argument that incorporating the common meaning of bank into the statute would render other portions of section 581superfluous. It concluded that although the Tax Court’s definition of the common meaning of bank overlapped with the deposit, loan, and discount requirements of section 581, the definition was not completely duplicative. The Fifth Circuit gave as an example an entity that is a bank under the common meaning of the term but that does not engage in receiving deposits and making loans as a substantial part of its business.

Though the Fifth Circuit agreed with the Tax Court that the term “bank” in section 581 is an independent component that must be given its common meaning, it disagreed with its definition of “deposits” and “loans.” The Tax Court defined “deposits” as “funds that customers place in a bank for the purpose of safekeeping” that are “repayable to the depositor on demand or at a fixed time” and which are held “for extended periods of time.” The Fifth Circuit, though accepting the first two aspects, disagreed with the third, because the only case on which the Tax Court relied involved valuation of a bank’s depositor relationships and not the definition of a deposit. The Tax Court defined “loan” as a memorialized instrument that is repayable with interest, and that “generally has a fixed (and often lengthy) repayment period.” The Fifth Circuit disagreed, looking to previous cases in which the term was defined, in the section 581 context, as “an agreement, either expressed or implied, whereby one person advances money to the other and the other agrees to repay it upon such terms as to time and rate of interest, or without interest, as the parties may agree.” Finally, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Tax Court did not address, nor did the parties argue, the meaning of the term “discounts,” which the Fifth Circuit held was a separate and required element of the definition.

For these reasons, the Fifth Circuit vacated the Tax Court order and remanded the case for reconsideration consistent with the Fifth Circuit’s analysis. Unless the parties settle, there will be, at some point, another Tax Court decision in this case.

The question of whether an entity is a bank is but just one example of the numerous instances in which a tax practitioner must analyze facts without being immersed in arithmetic. Sometimes numbers do enter into a definitional requirement, such as the support test that must be considered when determining if someone fits the definition of dependent. On the other hand, whether transfers are alimony or separate maintenance payments, whether an LLC is a partnership, whether a scholarship recipient is in fact receiving payment for compensation, whether a transfer is a gift, and whether work clothing is suitable for everyday use are questions that do not require numerical gymnastics to resolve.

Because the courses I have taught did not require students to explore the taxation of banks, I have never posed to them the question, “What is a bank?” I have made the “tax is not all about numbers and in fact is not all that much about numbers” point by asking, early in the basic income tax course, “What is a gift?” It’s a short question, most people, including law students, think they know the answer, and then the fun begins. Is it an eye-opener? Indeed. You can bank on that.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Deferring Death as a Tax Planning Tool 

In Four Post-Election Tax Moves To Make Today, Phil DeMuth offers three unsurprising suggestions, though the deferral of income and acceleration of deductions makes sense in most cases. The exception is an expectation of future year tax increases more than sufficient to offset the impact of the time value of money.

It is DeMuth’s fourth suggestion that gave me pause. He wrote:
I heard some disgruntled Hillary supporters saying, “Kill me now!” in the wake of the election. This is not smart. Trump has promised to eliminate the death tax. If your expiration date is getting near, your heirs will thank you if you can possibly hold off until Jan. 1, 2017.
One might expect that in most instances, deferring death is not an option available to the decedent. Yet some studies, such as several described in this report, suggest that deaths are deferred when there are tax advantages to doing so. As one study put it, “The results show a significant ‘death elasticity,’ meaning that the reported date of death responds significantly to changes in the estate tax.” Aside from deferred suicides and the implementation of extraordinary measures to keep alive a person who is on his or her deathbed, how can death be postponed? The authors of one of the studies admit that “We cannot rule out that what we have uncovered is not a real death elasticity, but instead ex post doctoring of the reported date of death to save on taxes.” If that is happening, I would not be surprised. On more than a few occasions, while gathering information for various genealogical databases, I have discovered all sorts of instances in which birth dates are misreported, particularly among those making themselves younger for purposes of the World War One Draft Registration and those making themselves older when applying for Social Security benefits. Understand, though, that in both of these situations, these sorts of events occurred decades ago. Changing a birth date nowadays would be much more challenging than it was when people simply were taken for their word when providing information.

Does the opposite happen? Would the prospect of an estate tax increase encourage people to accelerate death, which is much easier to accomplish than death deferral? In Fixing Everything: Government Spending, Taxes, Entitlements, Healthcare, Pensions, Immigration, Tort Reform, Crime...(2010), Nedland P. Williams, in discussing the transition from 2010, for which the federal estate tax did not apply, to 2011, when it would, asks, “Should the person in failing health or their relatives be forced into a decision to accelerate death before the January 1, 2011 deadline?” That question addressed an option facing far more people than does the possibility of deferring death.

Congress and state legislatures too often use tax law to encourage or discourage behavior. Though economic incentives can be powerful, and in some instances more influential than simple mandates for, or prohibitions on, specific behavior, using the tax law as to control behavior creates far more problems than it solves. But certainly messing around with the timing of death because of future tax law changes is unfortunate. In this instance, when the future changes are, unlike the revival of the estate tax already enacted and ready for implementation in 2011, mere guesses as to what a final package of tax changes might constitute, trying to cheat the Angel of Death for a few days or a few weeks could backfire. Is it worth paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills to keep someone artificially alive in order to save a few hundred thousand dollars of taxes?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Is a Tax Provision in a State Constitution Eternal? 

Last week, a reader directed me to this report explaining that voters in Missouri approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the imposition of the state’s sales tax on services. Sales taxes originally were applied to the sale of goods, but in recent years a handful of states have expanded the scope of sales taxes to include particular services.

The article’s lead under the headline states: “As states increasingly try to tax services like Netflix and yoga, Missouri voters have decided to keep that from ever happening.” I think that’s a bit misleading. It certainly is possible that in some future year, circumstances and voter preference triggers a repeal of the constitutional amendment that was just approved. I wonder if anyone thought that the amendment to the United States Constitution making Prohibition the law of the land meant that the amendment would keep widespread sales of alcoholic beverage “from ever happening.” Granted, it is more difficult to change a constitution than to change a statute, but it’s not impossible.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thinking About Chocolate and Taxes 

Seven years ago, in Tax Credit for Chocolate?, I facetiously suggested that the “growth, manufacture, sale, purchase, and consumption of chocolate be included as something within the scope of the education credits” because studies had been released at the time demonstrating that chocolate helps the learning process. It also increases heart attack survival rates, reduces cavities, and reduces blood pressure.

Three years later, in Chocolate? Yes!, I noted that more proof had been discovered that “chocolate is medicinal” because it contains the flavonoid epicatechin, a substance that has beneficial health effects. Current law does not permit taxpayers to claim a medical expense deduction for their chocolate purchases. Nor should it.

Now comes yet another report that weekly chocolate consumption enhances brain function. The headline suggests “Eating More Chocolate Might Make You Smarter.” Might? Does it? Let’s find out. Let’s have a “Chocolate Consumption” month. No tax breaks. No sales tax exemptions. It doesn’t take much to encourage people to consume chocolate. It’s wonderful. Imagine if the path to having a better-functioning brain was an increase in the consumption of brussel sprouts, or whatever food is on your “please, no thank you” list.

The new study gathered information over a several decades from almost 1,000 people. For six of those years, those conducting the study collected dietary information from the participants. The one substance found to “significantly improve mental function” was chocolate. As the report notes, other healthful activities, such as exercise, eating properly, reducing stress, though helpful, don’t have the impact that chocolate provides.

The study determined that weekly chocolate consumption improved “visual-spatial memory and [organization], working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and the mini-mental state examination.” The precise connection has yet to be identified, but researchers are guessing that cocoa flavanols are the cause. They also point to methylxanthines, found not only in chocolate but also in coffee and tea.

So, with the start of tax return preparation season only a few months away, perhaps it is time to begin prepping our brains to confront the mental challenges of taxation. Surely clients will appreciate the jar of chocolate goodies sitting in the reception area, helping them sharpen their minds for their meeting with the tax return preparer.

The world always hungers for good news. Well, this discovery qualifies. My only disappointment is that these advances in scientific research did not happen decades ago. Why? It would have made it easier, at least theoretically, to persuade my parents to raise the limits on my chocolate candy consumption.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Analyzing Gasoline Tax Increase Impacts 

New Jersey raised its gasoline tax and some people are quite unhappy. An article published last week reported that a Pennsylvania resident who commutes from Conshohocken to her job in Hamilton, N.J., roughly 50 miles away, claimed her cost of driving to and from work would increase by at least $50 a week. Shortly thereafter, Douglas K. Smithman submitted a letter to the editor contesting the $50 claim and providing computations showing that the increase would be $6.25 per week. Subsequently, the original article was amended to change the $50 to $5.

The article and Smithman’s letter encouraged me to think about the issues triggered by the New Jersey gasoline tax increase. What other considerations are relevant?

I wondered if the Conshohocken resident, who clearly was filling her tank in New Jersey, would be better off doing so in Pennsylvania. The answer, at least this week, is no. The tax increase in New Jersey brings the total cost of a gallon within pennies of the cost of a gallon of gasoline in the Conshohocken area. A similar outcome appears to be the case with fuel prices on either side of several bridges connection Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The original article also reported the reaction of a man who paid $41 to fuel his Kia Optima. He travels 66 miles a day to work and back. He claimed that the increase was “a lot more” out of his gasoline budget. Curious, I checked the fuel mileage for a Kia Optima. It is rated at 28 city, 39 highway. Because those numbers are usually optimistic (sorry), I used 30 miles per gallon, which means that he uses roughly 2.2 gallons a day. The 23-cent-per-gallon increase generates a price increase of 50.6 cents per day. That’s $2.53 per week, or, allowing for two weeks vacation, $126.50 per year. Hold that thought.

The original article also quoted an AAA representative who pointed out that, on average, motorists pay $600 a year for repairs required by potholes and other road hazards. Some sources suggest the cost could be as high as $1,200 per year. New tires, new wheels, and front-end alignments are expensive, and cost more than the fuel tax increases required to eliminate road hazards, as I have pointed out in previous posts such as Potholes: Poster Children for Why Tax Increases Save Money, When Tax Cuts Matter More Than Pothole Repair, Funding Pothole Repairs With Spending Cuts? Really?, Battle Over Highway Infrastructure Taxation Heats Up in Alabama, and When Tax and User Fee Increases Cost Less Than Tax Cuts and Tax Freezes. Add to that the cost of burning fuel sitting in traffic jams caused by inadequate road capacity. To return to the Kia owner, isn’t $126.50 a year a much better price to pay than the $600, $1,200, or more, that becomes increasingly likely as roads deteriorate and traffic increases? To return to the Conshohocken resident, is $5 per week a good insurance price to pay to reduce significantly the chance of a $600, $1,200, or worse, repair bill?

Making the calculus worse are the reports, also shared in the original article, of motorists taking their anger out on fuel station owners and operators. Those proprietors are not pocketing the increase. They are just as unhappy, because they are likely to lose their Pennsylvania customers and thus suffer from reduced sales volume. Informed individuals know this.

Smithman concluded his letter with a plea:
I make this point as an example of a larger problem. In our busy lives, we often re-Tweet and repeat what someone has said and allow it to become fact through repetition. It is important to think objectively about what we hear and apply common sense to those statements, particularly before we put them out there in such a manner that they might be quoted and an erroneous statement becomes fact.
It is uplifting to know that Smithman has the same concern that I have (and I’m also impressed with his math skills). Quality education is not just a matter of acquiring information, but also a matter of learning how to acquire information, learning how to acquire sufficient information, and learning how to dissect and analyze the information that is acquired. Figuring out the impact of the New Jersey gasoline tax increase, and deciding whether it is economically beneficial or detrimental, is important. It is not difficult to do. It requires looking a bigger picture than the numbers on a gasoline pump.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Is A Tax More Effective Than Licensing? 

Apparently there is a problem in Seattle. Eighty percent of dog owners fail to register their pets. The situation probably isn’t much different with respect to other animals that must be licensed. Because of the noncompliance, the animal control budget is inadequate to deal with the safety and protection of people.

In a Letter to the Editor of the Seattle Times, Ellen Taft suggests that it would be more effective to repeal the pet license law and replace it with a sales tax surcharge on pet food. The revenue would be dedicated to animal control enforcement. It would also be used to provide free spay and neuter clinics, and thus in the long run save money and reduce the rate of pet euthanasia. Taft does not mention any impact on the number of animals in shelters.

Would this work? In terms of revenue, perhaps. Perhaps pet owners in Seattle would purchase pet food outside the city. Perhaps they would order pet food online from vendors not subject to use tax collection requirements.

But the practical problem presented by the proposal is the loss of pet identification. Pet licenses permit animal control employees, police officers, and people trying to find the owners of lost pets to identify the pet and thus the owner. In the case of an animal bite, the identification is crucial in deciding whether the victim needs rabies treatment. Microchips are a solution, but relying on voluntary microchip implantation isn’t going to reach anywhere near all of the animals.

This is an instance in which a special tax doesn’t solve the problem. What is required is effective enforcement of the licensing laws, in order to protect people. The revenue from issuing pet licenses can be supplemented by the imposition of fines and penalties on pet owners who fail to comply.

Monday, November 07, 2016

An Entity That Doesn’t Exist Can’t Petition the Tax Court 

A recent United States Tax Court case, Urgent Care Nurses Registry, Inc. v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2016-198, takes the tax world into a twilight zone of entities that don’t exist existing for purposes of being told that they don’t exist. Surely there are lessons in this case, as strange as it is.

The taxpayer was incorporated in California on July 21, 2005, and was assigned a taxpayer identification number by the California Franchise Tax Board. On August 1, 2008, the Board suspended the taxpayer’s corporate charter under section 23301 of the Suspension and Revivor article of the California Revenue and Taxation Code. On July 26, 2016, the California secretary of state certified as follows: “The records of this office indicate that the . . . [Board] suspended . . . [taxpayer’s] powers, rights and privileges on August 1, 2008 . . . and that . . . [petitioner’s] powers, rights and privileges remain suspended.”

The taxpayer filed income and employment tax returns for 2009 through 2013 but enclosed no payments. It did not file other returns, and so the IRS prepared substitutes for returns that met the requirements of section 6020(b). The IRS assessed all of the taxes in question plus a penalty under section 6721 for failing to file Forms W-2. In January 2015, the IRS sent the taxpayer a Final Notice of Intent to Levy and Notice of Your Right to a Hearing. The taxpayer timely requested a collection due process hearing, and a settlement officer was assigned to the case. In June 2015 the settlement officer informed the taxpayer’s representative that the case history indicated that the taxpayer was no longer in business, that the revenue officer had been told the business was being operated as a sole proprietorship, and that the settlement officer was requesting copies of documents confirming the dissolution of the taxpayer. The taxpayer’s representative provided a copy of Form 966, Corporate Dissolution or Liquidation, and a certificate of dissolution of the taxpayer.

On June 26, 2015, a telephone collection due process hearing was held, and the settlement officer requested additional documents by August 3, 2015. On August 18, 2015, having received none of the requested documents, the settlement officer closed the case. On August 28, 2015, the IRS issued to the taxpayer a notice of determination sustaining the proposed levy. On September 28, 2015, the taxpayer timely sought review in the Tax Court. On July 28, 2016, the IRS moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, contending that the petition was not filed by a party with capacity to sue under Rule 60(c). On August 4, 2016, the court ordered the taxpayer to respond to the motion on or before September 2, 2016. No response was filed.

Under Rule 60(c) of the Tax Court, the capacity of a corporation to litigate in the court “shall be determined by the law under which it was organized.” Under applicable California law, the Board may suspend the powers, rights, and privileges of a California corporation for failure to pay tax, penalty, or interest. Once a corporation’s powers are suspended, it may not prosecute nor defend an action. The taxpayer’s powers were suspended in August 2008, and the taxpayer provided no proof that its powers had been revived or that it was current on its California tax liabilities. In fact, the California secretary of state confirmed that as of July 2016 the taxpayer’s powers continued to be suspended. Documents provided to the settlement officer by the taxpayer’s representative indicated that the taxpayer had been formally dissolved, and that its business was being conducted by a sole proprietorship. Accordingly, the Tax Court held that the taxpayer lacked the capacity to litigate when it filed the petition, and thus the IRS motion to dismiss was granted.

As logical as that appears to be, several questions arise. If the taxpayer does not exist for purposes of litigating in the Tax Court, does it exist for purposes of being the recipient of a notice of deficiency? Apparently it does. Does it matter that the IRS, which considers the taxpayer to exist for purposes of the notice of deficiency, is the party that moves for dismissal because the taxpayer no longer exists? Not really, because the dismissal in the Tax Court is under a rule of the court, not an overriding provision that denies the taxpayer’s existence for all purposes.

So what is the taxpayer to do? The classic answer when access to the Tax Court is blocked for any reason when the taxpayer receives a notice of deficiency is to “pay the tax and file a claim for a refund, and then commence a refund suit in district court if the refund claim is, as expected, denied.” But if the taxpayer does not exist, how does it pay the tax? It can’t. Is there transferee liability on the former shareholder who is apparently running the taxpayer’s former business? What happens if no one is operating the business after the taxpayer is dissolved? With the dismissal of the petition, where does the IRS turn to collect the taxes that are due? There are insufficient facts provided in the opinion to answer these questions. The outcome will be revealed, if at all, in a follow-up proceeding.

Friday, November 04, 2016

When Tax Is Bizarre: Milk Becomes Soda 

Philadelphia revenue officials are in the process of generating rules and regulations specifying in detail how the city’s new soda tax will be implemented, including not only procedural and filing issues but also the scope of the tax. The tax, of course, is flawed. It is mis-named, because it applies to more than soda. It reaches products that do not contain sugar. Though touted as a way to reduce sugar consumption, there are hundreds of sugar-containing items that escape the tax. I have explained these flaws in What Sort of Tax?, The Return of the Soda Tax Proposal, Tax As a Hate Crime?, Yes for The Proposed User Fee, No for the Proposed Tax, Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Shelved, But Will It Return?, Taxing Symptoms Rather Than Problems, It’s Back! The Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Returns, The Broccoli and Brussel Sprouts of Taxation, The Realities of the Soda Tax Policy Debate, Soda Sales Shifting?, Taxes, Consumption, Soda, and Obesity, Is the Soda Tax a Revenue Grab or a Worthwhile Health Benefit?, Philadelphia’s Latest Soda Tax Proposal: Health or Revenue?, What Gets Taxed If the Goal Is Health Improvement?, The Russian Sugar and Fat Tax Proposal: Smarter, More Sensible, or Just a Need for More Revenue, Soda Tax Debate Bubbles Up, Can Mischaracterizing an Undesired Tax Backfire?, The Soda Tax Flaw in Automotive Terms, Taxing the Container Instead of the Sugary Beverage: Looking for Revenue in All the Wrong Places, Bait-and-Switch “Sugary Beverage Tax” Tactics, and How Unsweet a Tax.

Despite all the attention I have paid to the soda tax issues, I discovered a few days ago that it is even worse than I had realized. In a Letter to the Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Michelle Pauls alerted readers to a startling development. Apparently the “soda” tax will be imposed on sales of almond milk, rice milk, and cashew milk. These “milks,” though not from a cow, goat, or other mammal, are derived from plants and are consumed not only by people who prefer them, but also by individuals who cannot digest, or who are otherwise adversely affecting from drinking, cow or other mammal milk. Pauls notes that the “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine cite research that ‘approximately 70 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 53 percent of Mexican Americans, and 74 percent of Native Americans were lactose intolerant.’” Lactose intolerance also affects substantial numbers of people with Italian, Greek, Jewish, and other ancestry from Mediterranean areas.

So what would be the justification for taxing plant-based milk but not mammal-based milk? It’s not the sugar content, because all these milks contain sugar. It’s not for health promotion purposes, despite the alleged justification for the soda tax, because all these milks are healthy. It’s not that they are beverages, because there are beverages not subject to the tax. So what is it? Could it be ignorance of what these milks are? Could it simply be revenue maximization? If it’s the former, it’s not all that difficult to become informed. If revenue maximization is the concern, then why not tax all sugar-containing products? Why let donuts, cookies, pies, and cakes off the hook?

It remains to be seen what will happen. I hope that wisdom and common sense prevail.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Do “Love Offerings” and “Love Gifts” Constitute Gross Income? 

One of the many areas of tax law in which facts matter as much as, if not more than, the statute and regulations is the determination of whether a transfer of money or property is a gift excluded from gross income or compensation included in gross income. The black letter law is simple. Section 102 provides that gifts are excluded from gross income. But what is a gift?

A recent case, Jackson v. Comr., T.C. Summ. Op. 2016-69, provides a helpful illustration of why facts matter. In 2012, the taxpayer was the pastor, a director, and the registered agent for a church. His wife also was a church director. The church had approximately 25 to 30 active members and as many as seven ministers, and offered services three days each week. The taxpayer had informed the church’s board of directors that he did not want to be paid a salary for his pastoral services but that he would not be opposed to receiving “love offerings,” gifts, or loans from the church. The taxpayer and his wife managed the church’s checking account, and apparently they jointly signed all of the church’s checks. During 2012, they signed numerous checks payable to the taxpayer, with handwritten notations such as “Love Offering” or “Love Gift” on the memo line.

From 1993 until 2015, one person served as the church’s bookkeeper. In 2012, the bookkeeper prepared and sent to the taxpayer a Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income, reporting nonemployee compensation of $4,815 from the church. When this bookkeeper left the church in late 2015, the taxpayer’s daughter became the church’s bookkeeper. When the taxpayer and his wife filed a joint federal income tax return for 2012, they did not include the $4,815 in gross income. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency based on the Form 1099, and the taxpayer and his wife filed a petition with the Tax Court.

The taxpayer did not deny receiving the $4,815. Instead, he claimed that it was improperly reported as nonemployee compensation. The taxpayer testified that he contacted the bookkeeper and asked her to retract the Form 1099 or issue a corrected one, but that did not happen. The bookkeeper was not called as a witness. The taxpayer claimed that the $4,815 represented nontaxable “love offerings,” gifts, or loans. Though the taxpayer’s daughter testified that some of that amount constituted a loan that the taxpayer could repay at his discretion, the taxpayer did not provide any documentation or records to support the assertion that the church made loans to the taxpayer.

The Tax Court explained that under existing case law, the key to identifying a gift is the intention of the transferor. This requires an examination of objective facts and circumstances rather than the recipient’s subjective characterization of the transfers. According to the court, the transfers were made to compensate the taxpayer for his services as pastor. The taxpayer had told the board of directors that he would accept “love offerings” and gifts a substitutes for a salary. The bookkeeper at the time considered the payments to be compensation, and reported them on the Form 1099. The frequency of the transfers and the fact they were made on behalf of the congregation strengthen the conclusion that they constituted compensation. The taxpayer failed to provide testimony by the board of directors or other evidence that would support a conclusion that the intent of the board of directors was to make gifts to the taxpayer.

So what is the answer to the question, “Do ‘Love Offerings’ and ‘Love Gifts’ Constitute Gross Income?” The answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the facts and circumstances. There certainly can be instances where a pastor, especially if receiving a full and adequate salary, is the recipient of transfers that are gifts from or on behalf of the congregation. Thus, it is inappropriate to conclude, from this case, that “love offerings do not constitute gifts excluded from gross income.” The desire for short sentences, 140-character tweets, and sound bites misleads people into thinking that simple rules provide all the answers all of the time. Occasionally they do, but often they do not.

What can be learned from this case is the need to document transactions before or as they occur. Documentation matters. Even when memories are keen, testimony too often is self-serving and twisted. Writing “love offering” on a check does not, in and of itself, make the transfer a gift. Nor does omission of that phrase, or any other words or phrases, prevent a conclusion that the transfer is a gift. Yes, it depends. It depends on facts and circumstances, and the best way to make certain the full set of facts and circumstances is considered is to maintain appropriate records.

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