Are Bitcoin Transactions Taxable?

In an IRS audit today I was amused by all the preliminary questions about income sources.  The auditor asked about wage income, 1099 income, interest, dividends, royalties, alimony, child support, law suit settlements & awards, reimbursements, gifts, inheritances, grants, scholarships, life insurance proceeds, tips, etc., etc.  But the one thing she failed to ask about was digital currencies, like Bitcoin.  And I don’t mention this because I think the auditor missed something or that the client failed to report all his income.  He probably wouldn’t even know what Bitcoin is.  I mention this to illustrate the fact that the IRS has been slow to recognize digital currencies as income and/or supply guidance as to the specific reporting requirements.  But they’re going to have to act on this soon because it is becoming more prevalent:

In the four months between July and December 2013, bitcoin usage has increased by over 75 percent — from about 1,700 transactions per hour to over 3,000.  Over the same period, the market value of bitcoins in circulation increased more than ten-fold from about $1.1 billion to $12.6 billion.  Over 10,000 businesses reportedly accept payment in bitcoin.

~ TAS 2013 Annual Report to Congress

The only guidance (if you can call it that) from the IRS is found on a single web page on entitled “Tax Consequences of Virtual World Transactions.”  The IRS essentially likens virtual currency to bartering, gambling, and hobby income:

The IRS has provided guidance on the tax treatment of bartering, gambling, business and hobby income – issues that are similar to activities in online gaming worlds.

It’s clearly not the same thing.  Legitimate law abiding geeky businesses (and individual geeks) deserve some more guidance from the IRS on this issue.

IRS closed – technical difficulties or government shutdown?

Because our elected representatives can’t do their job, the government has shutdown. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is not immune from the shutdown … but you are still responsible to make payments and meet IRS deadlines.

Curious as to how the government shutdown would impact the IRS collection officers I face off against on a daily basis; I started to make my normal phone calls to the IRS today. The IRS practitioner’s line has a pre-recorded message acknowledging that it is closed due to the government shutdown. The standard collections phone number used by the public at large has a pre-recorded message that it is having technical difficulties. I called a small sample of Revenue Officers that I know and got their voice messages (no surprise there). I also called a couple of the duty lines at my local IRS office. The duty lines were not staffed. One had a rather funny message recorded either yesterday or today, acknowledging the government shutdown and then the person recording the message was either yanked off the phone or spat a profanity into the message.

According to the IRS website, they softly acknowledge the government shutdown as follows:

“Due to the current lapse in appropriations, IRS operations are limited. However, the underlying tax law remains in effect, and all taxpayers should continue to meet their tax obligations as normal.”

Individuals and businesses should keep filing their tax returns and making deposits with the IRS, as they are required to do so by law. The IRS will accept and process all tax returns with payments, but will be unable to issue refunds during this time. Taxpayers are urged to file electronically, because most of these returns will be processed automatically.

If you have an upcoming appointment scheduled with the IRS, you should assume that the appointment is cancelled and will be rescheduled. The IRS will also continue to send its scary collection notices; however, correspondences received will not be reviewed (again, not a real surprise announcement).

I suppose what I’m really waiting for is for a prospective client to contact me with a stack of IRS levy notices that were issued at the eleventh hour on September 30, 2013 by an IRS official knowing they were going on a forced holiday for an undetermined amount of time.

Veterans Groups Resist IRS Audits

The IRS does a fairly good job taking care of American military families, but what about our veterans?

Some think the IRS is picking on the American Legion and other non-profit veteran organizations.  The American Legion is a veterans organization that was incorporated by Congress in 1919.  They are “the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, committed to mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in our communities, advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to our fellow servicemembers and veterans.”  They are also highly enthusiastic about baseball and that’s good enough for me.

Jerry Moran, a Senator from Kansas, is unhappy about audits that the IRS has undertaken of certain American Legion posts.  Apparently the IRS requires that they maintain dates of service and character of service records for all its members or face $1,000 per day penalties.  American Legion officials are claiming that they have never heard of this requirement.

Really this requirement is not unreasonable, given the fact that it is the IRS’ job to make sure all tax-exempt organizations are meeting the requirements for tax-exempt status.  But veteran groups are claiming that they have never been informed of the record-keeping obligations.  Moran wants to know when this requirement came about, under whose watch, and by what authority.  These are valid questions since the audits are being conducted pursuant to mere IRS “guidelines” found in the Internal Revenue Manual.  Moran is asking the IRS to point to the actual legal authority that grants them the right to conduct these audits and levy tax penalties for non-compliance.

Accounting Today asked about these audits.  The IRS’ response:

  • There is no special enforcement effort underway; just routine compliance activity
  • Authority for these audits is granted by Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(19)
  • The IRS HAS made efforts to inform veteran organizations of their obligations by way of outreach programs and special publications, so if they didn’t know, they should have known

IRS Launches New ACA Website

The IRS’ new Affordable Care Act website is up and running.  Most of the new content is organized into three main parts: (1) Individuals & Families, (2) Employers, and (3) Other Organizations.

The Individuals & Families page is further broken down into two subtopics designed to educate the public on what they need to consider immediately (in 2013) and what they should look forward to in 2014.  Individuals should explore and begin planning for open enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace, which opens October 1, 2013.

The Employers page has a separate set of instructions for small employers (fewer than 50 full-time employees) and large employers (50 or more full-time employees).  It helps to educate employers on their specific coverage and reporting requirements and also explains what employer credits might be available.

Some organizations will be subject to special rules under the Affordable Care Act.  These “other organizations” include insurers, miscellaneous business types, non-profits, and government agencies.

The ACA website features a nifty news bar so we can always stay informed of new developments related to the Affordable Care Act.  It also very neatly lists all the various tax provisions, both in layman’s terms and in the form of news releases, notices, regulations, revenue procedures, revenue rulings, and Treasury decisions for the tax lawyer and studious type.  Lastly, the new ACA website includes links to related federal government websites like the Department of Health & Human Services, the Small Business Administration, and the Department of Labor.

Changes to Innocent Spouse Program may Become Permanent

Married couples who file jointly have “joint and severable” liability for any resulting tax debts (i.e., the IRS can come after both, or either of them individually, for the entire tax liability).  But if one spouse is successful with his/her innocent spouse claim, then the IRS ceases collection of the tax debt as to that spouse

Historically the IRS innocent spouse program was not available to spouses who failed to file their claim for innocent spouse relief within two years from the date of the return.  However, the IRS has not enforced the two-year deadline at least since 2011.  And this week a proposal has been set in motion that would eliminate the two-year statute of limitation altogether.  Instead, an innocent spouse would have the full 10 years on the collection statute to file for tax relief.

Many of the taxpayers who are granted innocent spouse relief are victims of physical and/or emotional abuse.  These are people who probably did not do their due diligence in knowing what was on the return when they signed, but who were not in the best position to question what was on the return either.  They are people (usually women) who probably should have confirmed that the taxes were being paid, but who feared the repercussions of asking about it.  One thing that innocent spouses all have in common is that they were left in the dark about important financial information and decisions, including taxes.  So, later, when they get a bill or a collection notice, they are caught completely off guard.  The IRS recognizes that it isn’t fair to enforce the standard “joint & several” liability in these situations, and they appear to be moving in the direction of opening the innocent spouse program up to a lot more people.  Also, under the proposed rules, the IRS would not be permitted to take enforced collection actions while an innocent spouse application is pending.

"Citizens United" Hopes to Abolish the IRS

There are many taxpaying citizens, and even a handful of lawmakers, who are fed up with the IRS’ mistakes and scandals and would like to see the 100-year-old agency simply disappear.  One such lawmaker is Senator Rand Paul.  He and the group Citizens United are hoping to completely and immediately abolish the IRS.

You can read their petition here.

They believe that a “streamlined and easy to understand tax code” would eliminate the need for the IRS.  That sounds great.  Who doesn’t want to simplify the tax laws these days?  But I don’t know that there is too much substance to the position of Citizens United, at least none that I can find on their website.  It just seems way too radical and hasty the way they propose to make this transition.  The problem is that they don’t really propose any kind of transition at all; they just want to be done with the IRS immediately.  In their words:

Be it now therefore resolved that we, the undersigned, demand the immediate abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service . . . [t]hat the Internal Revenue Service be abolished in its entirety by Congress without delay, excuses, or prevarication.

“Prevarication” basically means lies.  But Senator Paul is lying to himself if he thinks we can really just abolish the IRS right away without a plan in place for the aftermath.  Our nation has contemplated comprehensive tax reform for years now, but nothing has really been done about it.  I’m not sure total abolishment of the IRS is a good idea, but even if it were, it would not be something we could realistically do overnight.  This kind of change would be much like turning a giant ocean liner; it’s a slow, incremental change.

Lawmakers Seek to Punish IRS and Reward TIGTA

A House subcommittee led by Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) agreed on a spending measure that would cut the IRS’ budget by 24 percent in 2014.  And on the other side of the coin, the bill would mean a $5.5 million budget increase for TIGTA (Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration), the agency that has brought to light so many of the recent IRS missteps.

The bill is meant to “crack down,” “clean house,” and otherwise encourage the agency to be more careful and responsible in its administration of the tax laws.  It would also specifically address most of the problems we have read about in the news these last several months:

  • political targeting
  • training videos
  • lavish conferences
  • employee bonuses

Basically it would withhold funding until the IRS implements TIGTA recommendations.  TIGTA’s primary responsibility is to keep an eye on the activities and procedures at the Internal Revenue Service.  They are continually conducting audits, reporting on their results, and offering “recommendations” to the IRS when it is shown that they have fallen short.  Well, lawmakers are now hoping to make certain recommendations mandatory — mandatory in the sense that if they don’t make the changes then they won’t get full funding.

But the bill still has a long ways to go: first to the full Appropriations Committee, then to the House floor, then on to the Democrat-controlled Senate where it will face plenty of opposition.

The TAS Approach to Tax Reform

image via

If you recently read (or re-read) the unabridged English version of Les Misérables in anticipation of the movie that came out on Christmas day, your eyes consumed approximately 531,000 words.  This is slightly less than the word count in the Bible, which is somewhere between 800,000 – 900,000 depending on who you ask.  And if you can even imagine it, the US Tax Code contains about 4 million words!  That is almost 4 times the length of the entire Harry Potter series!

Practically everyone agrees that our tax code is too complicated, too detailed, and too long.  Tax reform and simplification was the top concern expressed by Nina Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate, in her annual report to Congress.  The complexity of the tax code breeds a number of negative consequences, including uncertainty for those with tax questions and unfair results for those seeking tax relief.

The strategy that the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) recommends is to start with a clean slate by wiping out all “tax expenditures” such as exclusions, exemptions, deductions, and credits.  Then lawmakers would need to methodically decide what is absolutely necessary before bringing it back.  TAS calls this a “zero-based budgeting” approach.

I would call this the “messy closet” approach, and I like it.  Sometimes a closet gets to the point where the only way you can regain order is by taking everything out and starting over.

Fiscal Cliff Highlights

Payroll taxes increased for wage earners

There’s no tax relief for anybody in the fiscal cliff tax deal. For wage earners, your Social Security (FICA) tax withholdings will be deducted at 6.2 percent for the first $113,700 of earnings. This is a 2 percent increase from the 4.2 percent deduction that has been the withholding rate for the past two years. Unlike some of the other changes that won’t be felt until the 2013 tax season, this change will have an immediate impact on your next paycheck.

Income taxes increased only for the wealthy

Income tax rates will remain the same for individuals with annual income of less than $400,000, or $450,000 for those filing married joint returns. The income tax rate for those wealthy taxpayers will increase from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.

Investment taxes increased only for the wealthy

Capital gains and dividend tax rates will remain the same for those individuals earning less than $400,000, or $450,000 for married joint filers. The capital gains and dividend tax rates for the wealthy will increase from 15 percent to 20 percent.

Income tax deductions and exemptions limited for the wealthy

Individuals with annual income of at least $250,000, and those married filing jointly earning at least $300,000, will be limited on the personal exemptions and itemized deductions they can claim. Taxpayers with incomes above $422,500 will not qualify for a personal exemption. This is a throw-back to the limits on deductions and credits for the wealthy that were in force prior to the Bush era tax cuts, and that were eliminated in 2010.

Important tax credits extended

Tax credits created by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are extended for five years. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Debt Forgiveness Extended

Homeowners that weren’t able to complete their debt negotiations or procedures before December 31, 2012, were granted a reprieve. Forgiven mortgage debt will continue to not be treated as taxable income for an additional year.

The National Debt Ceiling: The "Other Cliff"

By now you probably know that the dreaded fiscal cliff has been averted, at least for a month or two.

The term fiscal cliff refers to the potential for a deeper recession that would have been triggered by the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 which was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2013. It was thought that if the Bush-era tax cuts were allowed to expire, thereby raising taxes for virtually everybody, at the same time that mandatory governmental spending cuts were scheduled to be implemented, there would be a devastating impact on the U.S. economy such that the economy would be in a free-fall … over the cliff.

The government narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff by passing the American Taxpayer Relief Act in these first days of 2013. The compromise that was reached focused primarily on tax relief and not spending cuts. The main impact will be on those taxpayers who are considered wealthy. However, if you were paying attention during the presidential campaigns, you will notice that the income threshold for those who are considered “wealthy” increased significantly from the time of campaigning to the thresholds established through this deal.

The next political hurdles are the negotiations on the spending cuts and the debt ceiling. Very simply, the debt ceiling is the maximum amount that the federal government can borrow at any given time and in-turn, pay its obligations that have already been incurred. If a compromise cannot be reached, the economy may go off the fiscal cliff despite the recent deal. Congress has about two months before it must raise the debt ceiling or risk causing the government to default on its bills and financial obligations. If a deal is not made, a federal government shutdown is possible. This may include suspension of the payment of federal benefits and payroll, in addition to the shutdown of government departments such as the Internal Revenue Service, during the height of tax season… of course.