The holy grail of tax planning is to get to a zero tax rate. That is a rare species. I have seen only one repeatable fact pattern in the last few years leading to a zero tax rate, and that pattern involved not making much money. You can guess that there isn’t much demand for a tax strategy that begins with “you cannot make a lot of money….”
The next best plan is capital gains. There is a difference in tax rates between ordinary income (up to 39.6%) and capital gains (up to 20%). A tax geek could muddy the water by including phase-outs (such as itemized deductions or personal exemptions), the 15% capital gains rate (for incomes below $457,600 if you are married) or the net investment income tax (3.8%), but let’s limit our discussion just to the 20% versus 39.6% tax rates. You can bet that a lot of tax alchemy goes into creating capital gains at the expense of ordinary income.
The tax literature is littered with cases involving the sale of land and capital gains. If you or I sell a piece of raw land, it is almost incontrovertibly a capital gain. Let’s say that you are a developer, however, and make your living selling land. The answer changes, as land is inventory for you, the same as that flat screen TV is inventory for Best Buy.
Let’s say that I see you doing well, and you motivate me to devote less energy to tax practice and more to real estate. At what point do I become a developer like you: after my second sale, after my first million dollars, or is it something else?
The tax Code comes in with Section 1221(a), which defines a capital asset by exclusion: every asset is a capital asset unless the Code says otherwise.
For purposes of this subtitle, the term “capital asset” means property held by the taxpayer (whether or not connected with his trade or business), but does not include—
(1) stock in trade of the taxpayer or other property of a kind which would properly be included in the inventory of the taxpayer if on hand at the close of the taxable year, or property held by the taxpayer primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of his trade or business;
Let’s take Section 1221(a)(1) out for a spin, shall we? Let’s talk about Long, and you tell me whether we have a capital asset or not.
Philip Long lives in Florida, which immediately strikes me as a good idea as we go into winter here. From 1994 to 2006 he operated a sole proprietorship by the name of Las Olas Tower Company (LOTC). Long had a drive and desire to build a high-rise condominium, which he was going to call Las Olas Tower.
He is going to build a condo, make millions and sit on a beach.
Problem: he doesn’t own the land on which to put the condo.
Solution: He has to buy the land.
He finds someone with land, and that someone is Las Olas Riverside Hotel (LORH). LORC and LORH are not the same people, by the way, although “Las Olas” seems a popular name down there. Long enters into an agreement to buy land owned by LORH.
Long steps up his involvement: he is reviewing designs with an architect, obtaining government permits and approval, distributing promotional materials, meeting with potential customers. The ground hasn’t even been cleared or graded and he has twenty percent of the condo units under contract. Long is working it.
LORH gets cold feet and decides not to sell the land.
Yipes! Considering that Long needs to land on which to erect the condo, this presents an issue. He does the only thing he can do: he sues for specific performance. He needs that land.
He is also running out of cash. A friend of his lends money to another company owned by Long to keep this thing afloat. Long is juggling. Who knows how much longer Long can keep the balls in the air?
In November, 2005 Long wins his case. The Court gives LORH 326 days to comply with the sales agreement.
But this has taken its toll on Long. He wants out. Let someone finish the lawsuit, buy the land, erect the condo, make the sales. Long has had enough. He meets someone who takes this thing off his hands for $5,750,000. He sells what he has, mess and all.
QUESTION: Is this ordinary or capital gain income?
The difference means approximately $1.4 million in tax, so give it some thought.
The closer Long gets to being a developer the closer he gets to a maximum tax rate. The Courts have looked at the Winthrop case, which provides factors for divining someone’s primary purpose for holding real property. The factors include:
- The purpose for acquisition of property
- The extent of developing the property
- The extent of the taxpayer’s efforts to sell
The Tax Court looked and saw that Long had a history of developing land, had hired an architect, obtained permits and government approvals and had even gotten sales contracts on approximately 20% of the to-be-built condo units. A developer has ordinary income. Long was a developer. Long had ordinary income.
Is this the answer you expected?
It wasn’t the answer Long expected. He appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
What were the grounds for appeal?
Think about Long’s story. There is no denying that a developer subdivides, improves and sells real estate. Long was missing a crucial ingredient however: he did not have any real estate to sell. All he had was a contract to buy, which is not the same thing. In fact, when he cashed out he still did not have real estate. He had won a case ordering someone to sell real estate, but the sale had not yet occurred.
The IRS did not see it that way. As far as they were concerned, Long had found a pot of gold, and that gold was ordinary income under the assignment of income doctrine. That doctrine says that you cannot sell a right to money (think a lottery winning, for example) and convert ordinary income to capital gains. You cannot sell your winning lottery ticket and get capital gains, because if you had just collected the lottery winnings you would have had ordinary income. All you did was “assign” that ordinary income to someone else.
The problem with the IRS point of view is that someone still had to buy the land, finish the permit process, clear and grade, erect a building, form a condo association, market the condos, sell individual units and so on. Long wasn’t going to do it. There was the potential there to make money, but the money truck had not yet backed into Long’s loading dock. Long was not selling profit had had already earned, because nothing had yet been “earned.”
Long won his day in Appeals Court.
He had ordinary income in Tax Court and then he had capital gains in Appeals Court.
Even the pros can have a hard time telling the difference sometimes.
About the author
Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.