Bitcoin, Taxes & Statehood

bitcoin currency state taxation tax

Bitcoin: Stateless Currency

In our earlier post about the taxation of bitcoin, we pointed out the fact that bitcoin taxation brings up a number of potentially problematic, complicating issues. For one, we mentioned that there could be issues with bitcoin’s basic classification as “investment property” given that it is a digital currency. There could be many, many other issues presented by the taxation of bitcoin, some superficial and some fundamental. One of the most important – and most interesting – fundamental issues with bitcoin taxation is related to its status as a stateless currency. As discussed before, bitcoin is essentially a self-perpetuating currency system based on complex verification processes which are managed by bitcoin users; and because bitcoin verification processes are so difficult and its structure is so finely developed, there is no need for bitcoin to be managed by a central authority. What we is have a truly independent medium of exchange which is capable of operating freely outside and over traditional boundaries of nation and state.

But the stateless aspect of bitcoin brings up a critical question: given that taxation is essentially forcible compliance with the financial demands of a state, how does bitcoin factor into the taxation paradigm? Let’s put the matter this way: how can property be taxed if it’s derived from a system which is designed to avoid taxation? Bitcoin and the U.S. dollar are based on two totally dissimilar value systems, and simply retroactively applying preexisting tax laws to bitcoin fails to address this basic discrepancy. If bitcoin continues to rise in market value – and many reputable financial experts predict that this will happen – it seems likely that this fundamental issue will receive more and more attention. At some point, those who seek to tax (or otherwise control) bitcoin may be forced to ask the question: why are so many people flocking to this digital currency in the first place?

Historically, populations have depended on currency as a medium of exchange because currency allows large quantities of value to be shifted much more easily. And states have imposed taxes on their populations because they’ve had the means to do so, and also because states have had a hand in establishing the legitimacy of a currency. We have faith in the U.S. dollar because it comes with the imprimatur of the U.S. government; it is “secured” by its affiliation with the state. And of course the U.S. dollar and other currencies around the globe benefit from various efforts to ensure that any digital transfer of currency be guarded by the most advanced cryptographic processes available. But bitcoin is a system unto itself because it is originally based upon and perpetuates itself through its own highly sophisticated cryptographic verification system. It does not have the “legitimacy” of statehood because it has no need for it. It exists outside, above and around statehood, rather than coexisting side by side.

What if many of the issues associated with bitcoin are unsolvable because they’re not really meant to be solved? What if the fundamental issue with bitcoin is the fact that it’s not intended to fit into any existing state system, no matter how much force is used to make it otherwise?

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A Basic Introduction to Reverse Section 1031 Tax Deferred Exchanges

Here on HTW, we’ve spent considerable time and effort exploring the complexities of Section 1031 tax deferred exchanges. And this is for good reason: if performed correctly, a 1031 like-kind exchange can be an extremely useful wealth maximization tool. Like-kind exchanges not only allow taxpayers to defer the capital gain taxes which would normally be owed, they also allow more capital to be reinvested in the newly acquired property, and this leads to even greater returns. In other words, Section 1031 doesn’t just permit tax deferral, it allows your capital to work more effectively on your behalf. The clear financial benefits of Section 1031 explain the impressive rise in popularity of these transactions in recent years.

As if the existing complexity of 1031 were insufficient, it turns out that there are variations on the standard like-kind exchange which taxpayers may choose to conduct. One of these variations is known as a “reverse exchange.” Given the advantages which this variation can confer in certain contexts, reverse exchanges have become increasingly common. Let’s look more closely at the mechanics of reverse exchanges and then discuss some of the unique benefits of this type of transaction.

Basic Mechanics

In a standard – or “delayed” – exchange, the original property owned by the taxpayer is disposed of prior to the acquisition of the replacement property. In a reverse exchange, the order is flipped, and the replacement property is acquired first and the original property (the “relinquished property”) is sold subsequent to the acquisition of the replacement property. Superficially, this process seems simple, but other aspects of this variation make it considerably more complicated than a standard exchange.

Under current tax law, taxpayers are not permitted to simultaneously hold title to both the relinquished property and the replacement property. This makes intuitive sense, because simultaneous ownership of both properties would conflict with the basic exchange concept. In order to solve this problem, the entity facilitating the exchange for the taxpayer – referred to as the “qualified intermediary” – develops a separate corporate entity which exists solely to temporarily hold title to the replacement property prior to the disposition of the relinquished property. In 1031 nomenclature, the replacement property is “parked” in the entity and then title to the replacement property is transferred to the taxpayer after the relinquished property is sold. This parking arrangement has been approved by the IRS; in fact, the IRS has issued specific guidelines regarding the mechanics of these transactions.

Reverse exchanges also require more documentation and preparatory work compared to standard exchanges. The fees for these transactions are typically much higher given the additional complexity involved.

Unique Benefits

Reverse exchanges carry unique benefits for investors. Perhaps the most important of these benefits is the timing of the acquisition of the replacement property. The impetus for a reverse exchange usually relates to the desirability of the replacement property; the investor needs to close on the replacement property immediately, or else face the possibility of either losing it to another investor or receiving inferior financing. In some cases, investors know exactly which replacement property they want to acquire and simply haven’t arranged a buyer for their replacement property; but in many other cases, reverse exchanges are a response to market trends.

Another key benefit of reverse exchanges is the effective elimination of the identification requirement. In standard exchanges, replacement property ordinarily must be identified within 45 days after the closing of the relinquished property; reverse exchanges solve this issue from the outset because the replacement property is acquired first. Though it may seem like an easy enough rule to comply with, more than a few exchanges have failed simply because the investor could not properly identify a new property within the specific time window.

There’s much, much more to reverse exchanges, but this serves as a good introduction. In the future, we will go over the structure of reverse exchanges in greater detail and discuss further why they are uniquely beneficial for investors in many cases.

The Debate to Preserve or Eliminate Section 1031

Real Estate Exchange Property 1031 Section Tax Deferred

Real Estate 1031 Exchange

As lawmakers of the federal government struggle to deal with our ever-increasing national debt, Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code has come under scrutiny and may face extinction. Now that Republicans control both sides of the Congress (and the White House), Section 1031 could be seriously threatened if GOP lawmakers feel that reducing or eliminating the advantages of 1031 would prove financially beneficial for the nation as a whole. Discussions have surfaced previously about eliminating Section 1031, but current discussions appear to be more serious given the dire financial situation in which the country is encased.

Not all legislators view Section 1031 as a target for elimination; some lawmakers concur with many real estate professionals that 1031 actually contributes mightily to the national economy in a variety of ways. Let’s look at both sides of the debate in greater detail.

Section 1031 as a Tax Loophole

Under Section 1031, taxpayers are able to defer capital gains tax when they exchange their business or investment property for another property of like-kind (which essentially means another business or investment property). In practice, this can mean the deferral of hundreds of thousands ? and even millions ? of dollars in capital gains tax which would otherwise be collected by the federal government.

Though no lawmaker questions the permissibility of like-kind exchanges as they have developed under current regulations, there is doubt as to whether Section 1031’s true purpose was to defer gain in this particular way. The roots of Section 1031 stretch all the way back to 1921; at that time, however, the exchanges typically consisted of neighboring farmers who wished to swap their property in order to clarify property lines. Numerous common law opinions which occurred decades later shaped the current Section 1031 industry. Though it’s clear that like-kind exchanges do confer at least some benefits to the wider economy, it would be hard for even the most fervent 1031 supporter to deny that current like-kind exchanges are conducted with the same underlying purpose as those which occurred many decades ago.

Section 1031 as an Engine of Economic Activity

On the other side, many (if not most) professionals in the real estate industry contend that Section 1031 benefits the national economy in myriad ways. For one, they claim that Section 1031 encourages economic activity beyond the exchange itself in the form of construction services, title insurance services, real estate agent services, and so forth. Curtailing or eliminating Section 1031 would simultaneously reduce this related economic activity as well.

Furthermore, at least one formal study has concluded that the vast majority of like-kind exchanges eventually result in a taxable sale. In addition to supporting claims about the general economic benefit of 1031, a study by Professors David C. Ling (of the University of Florida) and Milena Petrova (of Syracuse University) stated that as high as 88 percent of exchanges ultimately result in taxable sales.

In our financially troubled state, Section 1031 faces arguably its toughest challenges. We shall have to wait and see whether this decades-old provision will either be preserved or meet its demise.

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The (Relatively) Uncharted Territory of Bitcoin Taxation

Bitcoin Investment Property Tax Capital Currency Gain

Taxation of Bitcoin

Though still largely unfamiliar to the general public, the cryptocurrency known as “bitcoin” has received more and more attention in the last several years. This is due in part to its impressive rise in market value — as of today, bitcoin’s market value fluctuates in the low $4,300 range, but only a few years ago it was exchanged for just a fraction of that amount. Its increase in popularity also stems from its habit of drawing attention from governments across the globe: a number of countries have banned its usage, and other countries seem to be on the verge of banning it in the near future. One big issue surrounding bitcoin has to do with its taxation: given that bitcoin is a fully “digital” currency, and that it isn’t backed by any specific state or government, how do traditional tax laws apply? In this article we will briefly describe the mechanics of bitcoin and then provide a basic introduction to the issue of how it is taxed. In the future, we will examine the taxation of bitcoin in greater detail.

How Bitcoin Works

As stated, bitcoin is a “digital” currency, which means that it does not have any physical existence. There are no physical bitcoins which are physically traded or exchanged for goods or services. Possessing bitcoin means having the ability to transfer bitcoin from one “digital wallet” to another. Digital wallets can be obtained fairly easily and are designed to hold bitcoins just as a physical wallet holds physical currency.

The genius of bitcoin lies in its security as a medium of exchange. When people transact using bitcoin, their transactions are verified by parties who are outside of the transaction, and the verification process depends on complex cryptographic mathematical problem-solving. In other words, in order to verify that a transaction using bitcoin is valid, an outside party has to solve a complex problem. Once a transaction has been verified in this way, the transaction becomes logged in a public record which is viewable to anyone. In this way, bitcoin seeks to be a more transparent medium of exchange which is also more secure than traditional electronic transfer of physical currency.

Taxation of Bitcoin

As mentioned, the market of value of bitcoin has grown exponentially in recent years. Whether its value will rise or fall is uncertain, but what is clear is that many individuals have profited enormously due to bitcoin’s spectacular improvement. And whenever someone profits by any means, we have to expect that the taxman will soon be there to receive his cut. Thus far, the IRS has issued guidelines which have tried to classify bitcoin as “investment property” like other financial instruments such as stocks and bonds. Under this classification, someone who bought bitcoin back when its value was only a fraction of its current market value would simply pay at the familiar capital gains tax rates. And those who “mined” bitcoin — an issue to be covered in the future — would claim the bitcoin as if it were received as employment income instead.

We can commend the IRS for at least attempting to bring clarity to this novel situation; but as soon as we look deeper and consider some of the unique aspects of bitcoin, we can see that this straightforward application of preexisting tax laws becomes quite problematic. For instance, it’s all well and good to view bitcoin as investment property — after all, its value has skyrocketed lately — but remember, its primary function is as currency, and so bitcoin users regularly spend their bitcoin to acquire things just as they would spend ordinary physical currency. How will the cost basis of bitcoin be affected when bitcoin is spent as currency? Stock is regularly received as compensation, but it cannot be spent freely like currency. When we retroactively apply pre-established tax laws to bitcoin, we can see easily that the situation is very much like attempting to push a square peg into a round hole.

There are myriad other issues which add complexity to the taxation of bitcoin. In the future, we will dive into these issues in more detail. Stay tuned!

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Towne v. Eisner & the Definition of Income

Income Tax Rule Gain Financial

Income Tax

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, many of the most basic terms in tax law were being argued and debated as recently as one century ago. We tend to think of many terms in tax law – particularly very elementary terms such as “property” and “income” – as things which simply emerged with fixed definitions, presenting little or no controversy since their inception. Here at HTW, we know better: in fact, oftentimes the most elementary terms have been fraught with the greatest level of uncertainty. The average person may not realize it today, but the clarity of many of our essential tax law concepts is the result of an immense amount of mental energy on the part of our legal and political establishment.

The case of Towne v. Eisner (1918) is one example of such mental energy being expended to settle a seemingly simple term. In this case, the full breadth of the term “income” came under contention when a shareholder challenged the tax authorities on the issue of the taxability of stock dividend transactions. This case is significant for a number of reasons, but one reason for its significance stands out among others: through this case, the basic principle that income places someone in an advantageous position was firmly pinned down. This “principle of advantageous position,” to coin a phrase, is still at the heart of our definition of income today.

Let’s look at the (relatively simple) factual scenario of this case in greater detail.

Facts

After a company transferred $1.5 million in profits to its capital account, the taxpayer received a stock dividend consistent with his preexisting ownership stake in the company. The newly received stock had a value of roughly $417,450. The authorities contended that this stock dividend was income within the meaning of the tax law of 1913 – and that this construction of the term “income” within the tax law of 1913 was also consistent with the construction of the same term in the sixteenth amendment – and assessed a tax liability on the taxpayer. Though the taxpayer received additional shares, he did not take a cash dividend, and so the question before the court was whether a valid tax liability could be assessed given that the taxpayer was not actually placed in a financially superior or advantageous position following the stock dividend.

Law

The applicable law was the Revenue Act of 1913. This act contained an income tax provision which was freed from the traditional rule of apportionment present in previous eras. The taxpayer claimed that stock dividends fell outside of the definition of “income” as construed within this act.

Ruling

The court (the Supreme Court of the U.S.) ruled in favor of the taxpayer and threw out the tax liability assessed by the tax authorities. The court cited several earlier cases involving corporate stock dividends in its decision; the essential fact which decided the matter was that the taxpayer was not placed in a financially superior position by way of the transaction. What had occurred was merely a reissuing of stock certificates in order to properly reflect the proportional interests of the shareholder. The taxpayer did not actually “gain” anything from the transaction, he was not placed in a more advantageous position, and so the court ruled that it would be incorrect to say that the taxpayer had received taxable income.

As mentioned above, this basic principle has endured up to the present day and continues to inform our conception of taxable income. This principle informed the construction of the term “income” in various other contexts as well; for instance, the provisions of section 1031 of the tax code follow from the idea that gain should not be taxable if it were merely theoretical rather than actual. Again, though we may see this principle as self-evidently true today, this was not always so, and the case of Towne v. Eisner contributed mightily to the development of this principle.

Source

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Helvering v. Brunn & the Issue of Taxable Gain

Taxable Gain Income Tax Amendment

Taxable Gain

After a great deal of suspense, drama and record-breaking levels of nail-biting on the part of our readers, Huddleston Tax Weekly is proud to announce that we will be picking up our XVI Amendment series. We will contribute a few more articles to this series before we move on to other things. The purpose of our XVI Amendment series is twofold: firstly, our aim is to show how important this political act was to American society; and secondly, by examining some of the issues which were sparked by this amendment, our other goal is to provide our readers with a sense of the complexity of tax law as a field. This latter goal, if realized, should confer significant benefits to our readers: if you’re familiar with some of the essential issues in the field of tax law, the likelihood is strong that you’ll be more effective in how you handle your own tax situation.

One of the things which makes tax law such a fascinating field is that it forces you to formally analyze many terms which are casually – and often carelessly – used in everyday conversation. In common parlance, terms such as “income,” “gain” and “property” are understood intuitively and require little or no clarification. But tax law does not operate in this same way. In tax law, these terms, along with many others, have much more narrow and occasionally shifting meanings which must be carefully examined in whatever context they originally appeared in order to produce a sustainable legal result. Though they may appear simple, these terms can create all sorts of complexity in tax litigation.

The case of Helvering v. Brunn (1940) is a good example of a case which involved formal analysis of a term which is typically grasped very rapidly. The judicial officers had to determine whether the events which occurred in the case could be construed as “taxable gain.” The XVI Amendment only removed the restrictions on the taxing power of Congress, it did not contribute to the issue of what constitutes taxable gain. The case of Helvering v. Brunn explored this issue, and it added an important layer to our understanding of taxable gain. In a sense, it helped to clarify the full scope of the amendment by showing what can – and what cannot – be taxed.

Let’s look at this case more closely to get a sense of its full significance.

Facts

The respondent (a landowner) executed a lease with a tenant which provided, among other things, that any improvements or buildings added to the land during the time of the lease would be surrendered back to the respondent when the lease expired. The tenant destroyed an existing building on the land and then developed a new building in its place. The difference in value between the old building and the new one was approximately $51,434.25. The tenant forfeited the lease when he was unable to keep up with rent and taxes. Subsequently, the IRS claimed that the respondent realized a gain of $51,434.25 as a consequence of the new building which had been added to the land. The respondent disputed this claim and contended that any value conferred by the new building did not qualify as taxable gain under the prevailing construction of this term.

Law

The prevailing definition of “gross income” derived from the Revenue Act of 1932. The central question of the case was whether the value conferred by the new building should be treated as a taxable gain under the bounds established by this act.

Ruling

The court (the Supreme Court of the U.S.) ruled that the respondent had in fact realized a taxable gain when the tenant added the new building to the land. The respondent highlighted the importance of transferability (or exchangeability) to the definition of taxable gain in certain contexts. The new building was not “removable” or “separable” from the land in the sense that it could not be taken off the land and still maintain its current market value. The respondent argued that this lack of transferability made the value bestowed by the new building nontaxable. In support of this of position, the respondent cited a number of cases which apparently held that transferability was a key component of taxable gain in stock dividend transactions. The court stated that the logic underlying the importance of transferability was limited to those types of transactions and did not apply to the present situation.

The key point to gather from Helvering v. Brunn is that gain can be taxable even outside of a traditional business transaction. And the gain needn’t be transferable, at least not in most contexts. Taxable gain can be triggered whenever value has been added or an event places someone in a financially superior position. Forgiveness of a liability or exchange of property, for instance, can trigger taxable gain even though cash isn’t involved and no sale has occurred.

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Owning real estate often brings up tax issues. If you’re a current or future real estate owner and you’d like to learn about the tax perks of real estate ownership, check out our presentation on this topic by our CPA, Jessica Chisholm

Trump’s New Tax Proposal Could Have Substantial Impact on Seattle Homeowners

Trump Real Estate Deduction Seattle Tax Property Mortgage Interest

Trump’s Plan & the Seattle Market

President Donald Trump has developed a proposal to rewrite the tax code in such a way that it may render the mortgage interest deduction meaningless for all but a small minority of wealthy homeowners. Opponents argue that this provision would take away an important incentive of homeownership; supporters contend that the change benefits the majority of Americans and would expand homeownership opportunities for middle income earners.

Let’s examine Trump’s proposal in greater detail and highlight how the changes could impact the Seattle real estate market.

Proposed Revisions

The proposal contains a number of changes; perhaps the most important one is the raising of the standard deduction from its current level of $12,700 (for married couples filing jointly) to $24,000. On its face, Trump’s proposal does not eliminate the mortgage interest deduction, but its goal of substantially raising the standard deduction would mean that millions would cease to itemize their write-offs and consequently fail to deduct the interest from their home loan.

Trump’s plan also modifies existing deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes. Opponents contend that the property tax deduction is another important perk of homeownership which should not be removed.

The Trump administration states that the changes will actually stimulate home purchases for low to middle income Americans because the higher standard deduction will enable greater savings. The proposal is also likely to trigger a measurable decline in average home pricings across the country which will increase access to homeownership.

Possible Impact

Currently, the Seattle real estate market has a median home price of approximately $722,250. This figure undoubtedly places Seattle among the most expensive real estate market in the country. Assuming the Seattle buyer puts down twenty percent, this median price means that the typical Seattle homeowner will pay roughly $2,735 per month in mortgage costs over a 30-year loan. Given its status, there’s no question that the Seattle real estate market will be impacted by the Trump proposal very heavily. A large number of our homeowners will suddenly be in a situation in which itemizing will no longer make financial sense. Trulia – the well-known property data provider – determined that the number of households eligible for the mortgage interest deduction in Seattle would drop from 56 percent down to 26 percent.

Whether Trump’s changes increase or decrease homeownership across the country obviously remains to be seen; what is certain is that the real estate industry as a whole is lined up in opposition to Trump’s proposal. Supporters and opponents both appear to have facts and figures which bolster their respective positions. Perhaps only a fair trial will determine whether Mr. Trump’s plan will be beneficial to the nation.

Source

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To learn more about the mortgage interest deduction and other tax benefits of homeownership, see this presentation by our CPA Jessica Chisholm

Hylton v. United States & the Practical Difficulties of Apportionment

In early June of 1794, Congress passed a “carriage tax” aimed at carriages used for business purposes. The tax was to be collected annually for as long as the carriage owner maintained ownership of the carriage. The original Constitution of the U.S. recognized a distinction between direct taxes and indirect taxes, but it did not establish definitive guidelines for determining whether a new tax is direct or indirect. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, it was established that poll taxes (or “capitation” taxes) and land taxes were direct taxes, but there was no formal mechanism for sorting a given tax into either category. Hence, though the authority of Congress to pass the carriage tax was never brought into question, what category the tax should be assigned was unclear.

Carriage Tax Constitution Law Amendment

Carriage Tax

In Hylton v. United States (1796), a suit was brought to collect a debt which was derived from the carriage tax. Hylton (the defendant in the original case) claimed that the carriage tax statute was unconstitutional. Hylton reasoned that the carriage tax was a direct tax and because the statute did not follow the rule of apportionment the tax had to be struck down under the Constitution. At the time of the suit, Hylton was in possession of 125 carriages.

The justices of the Supreme Court – who all wrote their own opinion of the case – determined that the carriage tax was an indirect tax and that, consequently, Hylton was liable for the debt. The justices decided that there was no compelling reason to suppose that the carriage tax fell within the meaning of a direct tax as understood by the framers of the Constitution. The framers understood that poll taxes and taxes on land were “direct” taxes; this classification had a basis in the conditions present among the states at that time. Although the carriage tax may have been superficially dissimilar from other indirect taxes in some ways, the justices could not find that this level of dissimilarity warranted classification as a direct tax.

Hylton entered the case with one critical disadvantage: the practical difficulties of apportioning the carriage tax by population were such that classifying the tax as a direct tax would have led to absurd results. Carriage ownership varied greatly from state to state, and so the carriage tax would have imposed an unfair burden on certain states if it were apportioned as a direct tax. The federal government would have been compelled to adopt new and unusual measures in order to artificially correct the unfair burden created by such a tax. The justices all concurred that the unfair results and practical difficulties of apportionment provided sufficient grounds for classification as an indirect tax.

Because the carriage tax was a tax on personal property, the Hylton decision came to the fore nearly one hundred years after it was made during the case of Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895). The Pollock case ruled that a tax on income from personal property (and real property) was a direct tax and must follow the rule of apportionment; this ruling effectively overturned the decision made in Hylton. Those who objected to the Pollock decision predicated their objection on the fact that the decision made the imposition of a federal income tax a near impossibility. Implementing a federal income tax which followed the apportionment rule would have been excessively burdensome for the federal government for a number of reasons. The sixteenth amendment was drafted in order to bypass the sort of practical difficulties associated with apportionment which was discussed in Hylton.

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The Sixteenth Amendment & the Issue of State Sovereignty

Sixteenth Amendment Income Tax State Sovereignty

The Sixteenth Amendment

In the next several installments of Huddleston Tax Weekly, we will discuss in great detail some of the controversies which were stirred by the sixteenth amendment. As we’ve noted in previous installments of HTC, the sixteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was an act of awesome importance. Through this amendment, the Congress was freed of the various constraints on its taxing power which had existed since the founding of the country. The original U.S. Constitution expressly gave Congress the power to tax, but it also set certain restrictions on this taxing power; excise (indirect) taxes had to be uniformly imposed, and direct taxes had to be properly apportioned among the several states. Prior to the sixteenth amendment, judicial opinions on tax law often dealt with determining whether a given tax should be classified as either direct or indirect. The sixteenth amendment removed the necessity of making such determinations.

The full text of the sixteenth amendment is as follows: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Clearly, this amendment was directly responsive to a number of judicial decisions which, through their treatment of certain forms of taxation, had curtailed the taxing function of Congress. For instance, the Pollock case ruled that taxes on income derived from real property and personal property (such as stocks and bonds) were direct and therefore subject to the apportionment requirement. Pollock and other judicial opinions made the imposition of a federal income tax a practical – though not theoretical – impossibility. By removing the apportionment requirement, the sixteenth amendment made the implementation of such a tax an exceedingly simple matter.

The potential impact of the sixteenth amendment on state sovereignty was an issue immediately recognized by both the legal profession and the political establishment. Since it allowed Congress to collect taxes on incomes from any conceivable source, it apparently encompassed state securities; and by taxing state securities the Congress would be effectively lessening the power of the states in relation to the federal government. In his 1919 essay entitled “Power of Congress to Tax State Securities Under the Sixteenth Amendment,” Albert Ritchie argued that the amendment did not actually extend to state securities because the amendment was never intended to grant any new taxing powers to the Congress; the amendment was merely designed to consolidate Congress’ existing taxing powers, and since the power to tax state securities had historically been considered unconstitutional, and the authors of the amendment were themselves wary of the taxing of state securities, it follows that the amendment could not have granted a new power to tax state securities.

At the time of its publication, this essay by Mr. Ritchie must’ve had a great appeal. If taken solely on its words, the sixteenth amendment undoubtedly encompassed state securities, and it certainly raised the sovereignty of the federal government in relation to the states. But Mr. Ritchie’s reasoning involves looking behind the plain text of the amendment and considering the larger historical context in which this amendment was birthed. Given the conclusions to which it led, this reasoning certainly would’ve found plenty of open ears in 1919.

But Mr. Ritchie’s argument had at least one major weakness: it failed to recognize that the limited nature of state sovereignty has always been an established constitutional principle. As Mr. Harry Hubbard pointed out in his Harvard Law Review article entitled “The Sixteenth Amendment” in 1920, there is no constitutional basis for the notion that either the states or the federal government must have a certain degree of sovereignty. The Constitution provides that state sovereignty may be reduced if the people so desire with the power of amendment. The only principle which cannot be amended is the right of each state to have equal political representation. Thus, if the states choose to enlarge the role of the federal government through a constitutional amendment there is no higher authority which can be invoked to bar such a choice.

Mr. Hubbard argued that, given this reality, the sixteenth amendment was intended to cover state securities. The text did not need to specifically mention state securities in order to address any sort of historical trend against this type of taxation; if the amendment reduced state sovereignty simultaneously at the time that it consolidated Congress’ taxing power then this would have been a natural extension of the will of the people. We may like to suppose that, past a certain point, state sovereignty may not be encroached upon. But there is actually no constitutional foundation for this supposition. State sovereignty may be an ideal, but it is not unassailable and is very much subject to transformation depending on the whims of the public. In the end, the authors must have been aware of the amendment’s impact on state sovereignty, and it follows that any reduction in state sovereignty was fully permissible because these authors were merely acting as instruments of the people.

References

Hubbard, Harry. “The Sixteenth Amendment.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 6 (April, 1920), 794-812.

Ritchie, Albert C. “Power of Congress to Tax State Securities Under the Sixteenth Amendment.” American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4 (October, 1919), 602-613.

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895)

Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. 171 (1796)

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Mercantile Trust Co. v. Commissioner & the Limited Importance of Contingencies

Real Estate Property Transaction Exchange

Real Property Exchange

Nearly every legal concept presently in use in these United States has an established pedigree. Very few of our concepts are recent inventions. This observation holds true not just in one or two areas of law but for quite literally our entire legal edifice. Section 1031 is no exception to this rule. Section 1031 is derived from a number of earlier tax acts which addressed the non-recognition of gains (or losses) when real property held for business or investment purposes is exchanged for like-kind property. Today, courts utilize the judicial opinions made in previous eras which were informed by one of these earlier tax acts. The case of Mercantile Trust Co. v. Commissioner (1935) is among the most significant of these opinions.

As we will see, Mercantile Trust Co. set an important precedent for viewing complex real property exchange transactions. Like the parties in Alderson v. Commissioner, the parties of Mercantile Trust Co. engaged in a complex transaction which involved multiple independent contracts, the use of an intermediary and a cash payment as “boot” on top of the exchange. In its opinion, the court emphasized that non-recognition depends primarily on what actually occurred, rather than on the various methods and motives which ultimately led to the transaction. Simply because a contingency could have given rise to a sale – and therefore would have created a taxable gain – does not necessarily bar non-recognition; the most important fact is whether an exchange of like-kind property actually transpired.

Facts

The representatives for Mercantile Trust Co. (the petitioners) appealed a judgment for a tax deficiency arising from a transaction involving Mercantile Trust Co., an intermediary (known as Title Guarantee & Trust Co.) and Emerson Hotel Co. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue (the respondents) claimed that the transaction amounted to a sale and that the petitioners had a recognized gain of $179,621 (approximately $2,521,070.02 when adjusted for inflation in 2016). The petitioners argued that the transaction had been an exchange of real property of like-kind within the scope of existing statutory provisions.

Title Guarantee & Trust Co., the intermediary, developed separate contracts with Mercantile and Emerson. To conclude certain of these contracts Title Guarantee made cash payments to the other party, and to conclude other contracts Title Guarantee accepted cash payments. Mercantile Trust Co. ultimately received the deed to the property (known as Lexington Street) originally held by Emerson Hotel Co. as well as a total of $24,426.90 in cash. Emerson Hotel Co. received the deed to the property originally held by Mercantile Trust Co. (known as Baltimore Street). Title Guarantee received commissions and title fees which added up to $8,573.10.

The respondents assessed the tax deficiency on the premise that Mercantile Trust Co. acquired the Lexington Street property in a separate transaction which should be considered a sale. The question before the court was whether the evidence on record supported this premise.

Law

The statutory provisions which applied to the case arose from section 112 of the Revenue Act of 1928. Section 112 (of the act of 1928) is the predecessor of section 1031 and includes many of the same provisions as the current law.

Ruling

The court (the U.S. Tax Court, known as the Board of Tax Appeals in 1935) ruled in favor of the petitioners and declared that the deficiency assessed by the Commissioner was without basis. The Commissioner argued that what had occurred was a “fictitious” exchange and that the Lexington Street property was acquired by Mercantile Trust Co. in an independent sales transaction. The tax court rejected this argument. The contract made between Mercantile Trust Co. and Title Guarantee included a contingency whereby Title Guarantee would pay $300,000 in cash in the event that the deed to the Lexington Street property could not be transferred. The court determined that this contingency did not negate non-recognition treatment given that an exchange of like-kind property did occur.

The reasoning employed by the tax court in Mercantile Trust Co. influenced later decisions, including the decision made in Alderson. The determination of non-recognition treatment depends heavily on the end result and not as much on the methods used to reach that result.

Image credit: Mike Fleming

Readers who enjoyed this piece about the famous case of Mercantile Trust Co. should check out our video on the tax perks of real estate ownership given by CPA Jessica Chisholm

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