I intend someday to return to college and teach tax. It would be an adjunct position, as I have no intention of taking up another full-time job after this. One tax CPA career is enough.
I have previously taught accounting but not tax. There is some order to accounting: debits and credits, recording transactions and reconciling accounts. Tax and accounting may be siblings, but the tax Code does not purport to show anyone’s net income according to “generally accepted accounting principles.” It may, mind you, but that would be a coincidence.
Sometimes there are jagged edges to tax accounting. Have Johnson & Johnson issue financial statements pursuant to the tax Code and they would likely find themselves in front of the SEC.
Let's say you are taking your first tax course. The syllabus includes:
- What is income?
- What is deductible?
- Why doesn’t the answer make sense?
I am looking at Tobias v Commissioner. I give the taxpayers credit, as they were thinking outside the box. They knew they hadn’t made any money, irrespective of what the IRS said.
Edward Tobias was an attorney and kept an inactive CPA license. His wife was a school administrator. They had bought a variable annuity in 2003 for almost $230,000. In order to free up the cash, they sold stock at a loss of approximately $158,000. They put another $346,000 into the annuity over the years.
Fast forward to 2010. They withdrew $525,000 to buy and improve a residence. At that point in time, the deferred income (that is, the inside buildup) in the annuity policy was approximately $186,000. They insurance company sent them a Form 1099 for $186,000.
But they left the $186,000 off their 2010 tax return. They did attach an explanation, however:
The … account was funded with after-tax funds and all withdrawals have been made prior to annuitization. Accordingly, any potential gains should be applied to the prior capital loss carryforward, which is approximately $148,000. Additionally, this account has not recouped losses incurred in prior years and has incurred substantial withdrawal penalties; the calculation made by … is incorrect and is contested.”
You know the IRS was going to match this up.
The Tobias’ had a remaining capital loss of $148,000 from stock they sold to buy the annuity. In addition they had already put approximately $576,000 into the annuity, an amount less than the withdrawal. They were just getting their money back, even without taking that capital loss into consideration.
The IRS on the other hand said they had $186,000 in income. The IRS also wanted an early distribution penalty of almost $19,000.
Who is right?
When the Tobias’ withdrew $525,000, they took deferred income with it. This is the “income first” rule of Code Section 72(e), and the rule has been there a long time. It says that – upon taking money from an annuity – the inside income is the first thing to come out. Like the fable of the frog and scorpion, that is what annuities do.
What about the $148,000 capital loss? A capital loss has a separate set of rules. Capital losses offset capital gains dollar-for-dollar. Past that they offset non-capital-gain income up to $3,000 per year. Annuity income however is not capital gain income, so we are stuck at $3,000.
But the economics were interrelated, argued the Tobias’. They sold the stock to buy the annuity. The loss on that should offset the income from the annuity, right?
No, not right.
When these transactions hit the tax return, each took on its own tax attribute. One attribute went to house Gryffindor, another to house Hufflepuff. They are all in Hogwarts, but they have been separated by the tax Sorting Hat. You cannot just mix them together - unless the Code says you can mix them together. Unfortunately, the Code does not say that.
So you have the odd result that the Tobias’ owed tax and penalty on more money than they made from the deal.
The answer makes sense to a tax guy.
It may just be a bit hard to teach.
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.