By: Steven D. Hamilton, Principal, Steven D. Hamilton, CPA

October 09, 2014 1:48 pm EDT
Recycle plastic

Can you own and work at a company but have the IRS consider it to be a “passive activity” for tax purposes?

The question seems odd to me, as I have never worked somewhere where I wasn’t unquestionably “materially participating.” There isn’t much choice, given what I do. I would like to someday, though. It’s on my bucket list.

What do these terms mean?

The terms entered the tax Code in 1986, and they were a (mostly successful) effort to battle tax shelters. To trigger the issue one had to have invested in a business activity, and one’s share (whether large or small) wound up on one’s personal tax return. This means – generally – that one is invested in a partnership, LLC or S corporation. One receives a Schedule K-1 for his/her ownership interest, and those numbers are included with one’s other income (a W-2, for example) on the personal return.

Make those numbers negative and you understand the mechanics of a tax shelter.

Congress said that one had to separate those activities into two buckets. The first was a “material participation” bucket, for activities where you actually worked. Those numbers went on your tax return whether they were positive or negative. Congress saw little risk of a tax shelter if one actually worked at the place.

The second was the “passive activity” bucket. Congress put stringent limits on the ability to use negative numbers from this bucket to offset other income. Congress wasn’t going to allow negative numbers from the passive activity bucket to offset positive numbers from one’s actual job.

You can anticipate that the definition of “material participation” was critical.

There are seven tests to qualify as material participation. They are found in Reg. 1.469-5T and are as follows:

  • The taxpayer works 500 hours or more during the year in the activity.
  • The taxpayer does substantially all the work in the activity.
  • The taxpayer works more than 100 hours in the activity during the year and no one else works more than the taxpayer.
  • The activity is a significant participation activity (SPA), and the sum of SPAs in which the taxpayer works 100-500 hours exceeds 500 hours for the year.
  • The taxpayer materially participated in the activity in any 5 of the prior 10 years.
  • The activity is a personal service activity and the taxpayer materially participated in that activity in any 3 prior years.
  • Based on all of the facts and circumstances, the taxpayer participates in the activity on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis during such year.  However, this test only applies if the taxpayer works at least 100 hours in the activity, no one else works more hours than the taxpayer in the activity, and no one else receives compensation for managing the activity.

The key one is the first – the 500 hour test. That is the workhorse, and the one practitioners prefer to use. The 5-out-of-10 years test allows one to retire, as does the any-3-prior- years test. The SPA test is goofy, and should it be a one-person business, then the substantially-all-the-work test bypasses any reference to hours worked.

Then there is the last one – “facts and circumstances.” This is a fallback, in case one cannot shoehorn into one of the other tests. Tax practice being unpredictable, one would have expected a substantial body of precedence on what comprises “facts and circumstances.” We have had more than 25 years, after all. One would have been wrong, as the IRS prefers to proceed as though this test did not exist.

Now we have the Wade case.

Charles Wade owned stock in two corporations: Thermoplastic Services, Inc. (TSI) and Paragon Plastic Sheeting, Inc. (Paragon). He started these companies in 1980 to address the environmental impact of plastic waste materials. TSI acquired waste from chemical companies and converted it into useable products. Paragon bought raw materials from TSI and used them to make building and construction materials. Sounds green.

In 1994 his son (Ashley) came on board, and eventually wound up managing the companies.

This freed up his dad. Wade could be more involved with the customer relationships and less with the day-to-day stuff. This gave dad (and mom) a chance to move to Florida. He could still call and schmooze customers from Florida. I too would like the opportunity to work from Florida, especially as we get closer to winter.

Fast forward another fourteen years, and in 2008 the companies were struggling for their financial lives. Dad decided to step it up. He did the following:

  • Made 273 phone calls to the plant in 2008
  • Travelled to the plant three times to motivate and reassure employees that the companies would continue
  • Intensified his R&D efforts, resulting in

o   A new technique for fireproofing polyethylene partitions
o   A new method for treating plastics to destroy common viruses and bacteria on contact

  • Guaranteed a new line of credit

Wow! This man did everything short of stepping into a phone booth and coming out as Superman.

But 2008 was a tough year. His losses from the companies (including one other, which need not concern us here) was $3.8 million.

This created a net operating loss (NOL) on his personal return. Truthfully, a negative $3.8 million would create an NOL for pretty much all of us. He did what we would do: he carried back the NOL as allowed, which is to the prior two years. Any amount not used there can be carried forward 20 years. Why would he do that?

To obtain a refund of the taxes he paid in 2006 and 2007, that’s why.

Of course, the IRS did not like this at all. They argued that TSI and Paragon were passive activities to Wade, and there is no NOL from passive losses. In fact, there is no “loss” from passive losses, as the best passive activities can do (generally) is get to zero.

And both parties are bound for Tax Court.

The Court looks and notes that Wade has a couple of arguments. The first is that he spent more than 500 hours working at TSI and Paragon.

Now, this can be messy to prove, unless one is actually in the building every day. Time sheets or records would be great. This is an area where keeping good records is key.

The Court continued. Wade also argued that he worked on a “regular, continuous and substantial basis” in 2008. This is the last test from Reg. 1.469-5T, and is the one the IRS likes to ignore.

The Court decided it liked that one. Maybe it did not want to go through time records, which is understandable.

It looked at the facts and said “duh!” to the IRS. Wade easily spent more than 100 hours just calling the plant (100 hours is the minimum under the facts-and-circumstances test). He developed new technology, called every day, visited the facilities several times, secured financing. Good grief IRS, what more did you want the guy to do?

The Court decided for Wade, noting:

TSI and Paragon are complex businesses that Mr. Wade built from the ground up and in which he continued to play a vital role. He was not merely a detached investor, as has often been the case when we have found that a taxpayer did not materially participate.”

So Wade won. The IRS would have to issue him refunds from his NOL carryback.

But the IRS made their point: they remained skeptical of anyone who wants to prove material participation by means of facts and circumstances.

Of course, a $3.8 million dollar NOL carryback undoubtedly did a lot to spotlight that facts-and-circumstances claim.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

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.

passive activitymaterial participationtax sheltersfacts and circumstances
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