Friday, August 31, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXIX 

The tax benefit rule is one of those tax doctrines that at one time or another affects almost, if not, all taxpayers. The core question is how to treat the receipt of money or property in one year that represents a return of amounts spent and deducted in an earlier year. For J.D. students in a basic tax course, the issue is best illustrated by its most common occurrence, the state income tax refund.

The basic rule is fairly simple. The amount received must be included in gross income to the extent it provided a tax benefit. In the case of a state income tax, the determination of whether a tax benefit occurs is accomplished by computing what the taxpayer’s taxable income would have been without the refunded tax having been deducted with what the taxpayer’s taxable income was with the refunded tax having been deductted.

There are two aspects of the topic that make a fitting next-to-last topic for the course. First, it requires the students to look again at the computation of taxable income and the big picture that illustrates the overall structure of the federal income tax. Second, it drives home the point made early in the semester and reiterated several times, namely, the tax law is dynamic. Students learn that in order to determine how much of a state income tax refund received in 2006 with respect to a tax paid and deducted in 2005, the preparation of the 2006 return requires a hypothetical reconstruction of the 2005 return, using 2005 law and inflation-adjusted amounts.

Next: So whose income is it?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXVIII 

Special rules apply when a taxpayer disposes of property and receives one or more payments for the property in a year or years after the year of sale. In the Graduate Tax Program property dispositions course, at least four 50-minute classes are required to explore the applicable provisions. Nothing of that sort can or should be attempted in a basic J.D. tax course. Instead, my goal is to get the students to understand the “spreading” of the gain across the years of payment and the option to elect out and report all gain in the year of sale, to focus on the computation of the gross profit ratio, and to appreciate the serious tax consequences of making transfers of installment obligations. Even though pressed for time, I usually manage to accomplish these goals in less than the scheduled 50 minutes. Yes, I speak a little more quickly, but having warned the students in the previous class to look again at how annuities are taxed, I know that the students who have assimilated that topic will recognize the similarities with installment sale treatment.

So the students don’t explore what happens when there is debt secured by the property being sold. They don’t learn about the treatment of wrap-around mortgages, in part because of the time shortage and in part because few of them know what they are. They don’t examine dispositions to related parties or the acceleration of the depreciation recapture portion of the gain. They don’t delve into conditional payments. The list of what they don’t study is far longer than the list of what is assigned.

Next: The tax benefit rule

Monday, August 27, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXVII 

Although throughout the semester students have touched on the question of when gross income or a deduction is taken into account, they don’t examine the application of the cash and accrual methods until the course is nearly finished. Again, to dig into these issues before both gross incoe and deduction topics have been completed would be premature.

Students are told there are yet other methods of tax accounting but because they are used in relatively narrow situations their definitions and application are ignored. Instead, students are asked to consider issues such as constructive receipt, the “all events” test, and economic performance. The opportunity arises to have them again visit the concept of time value of money, and to consider whether it always makes sense to try postponing income and accelerating deductions. Usually someone in the class picks up on the possibility that the taxpayer will be subject to a much higher or lower rate in the following year, either because of changes in other income and deductions or through legislation.

Of course, all of this is compressed. The scheduled 50 minutes don’t exist, so coverage is limited to what fits into 25 or 30 minutes, at best. This means many of the assigned problems go unexamined.

Next: Installment sales

Friday, August 24, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXVI 

Another component of gain characterization is depreciation recapture. Simply put, the portion of gain that reflects previous depreciation claimed with respect to the property does not qualify for capital gain treatment unless the property is real property and the depreciation was computed using the straight-line method or is no more than what would have been computed using that method.

It would make no sense to discuss this aspect of gain characterization when teaching the gross income from property dispositions topic because at that point in the course few, if any, students have a clue with respect to the depreciation deduction. In contrast, by this point in the semester the students have had several encounters with the recapture concept.

I teach students the “short cut” method rather than the technical statutory method for computing depreciation recapture. Why? Because, yes indeed, there isn’t sufficient time to focus on the statutory construct. At least the students will leave the course with at least some sense of yet another concern that will affect decisions that they and their clients will be making.

Next: It’s time to discuss timing

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXV 

After taking the students through the basic definitions relating to capital gains and losses, my next goal is to have them explore the provision that turns net gains from the sale of certain business property, to use an imprecise phrase, into capital gain but that turns net losses from those sales into ordinary losses. It’s a “best of both worlds” approach from which the students can learn much, not only in technical terms but also in policy respects.

There are all sorts of wrinkles in the provision. Before the gains and losses are compared, a subset of the gains and losses, those involving casualty events, are compared, and the net result is included in the basic comparison only if it is a gain. Special rules bring certain condemnation gains and losses into the picture. Some gains and losses with respect to property that is not business property enter the fray. A variety of gains and losses from certain types of business property are precluded from the computations. Special rules for certain animals exist. Overlaying this entire morass of definitions and exceptions is a recapture rule designed to prevent yet another game that taxpayers play in an attempt to steer gains into one year and losses into another in order to make the “best of both worlds” even better.

Again, pressed for time, the students end up with not much more than a conceptual explanation and one or two simple examples. The special inclusions, the exceptions, and the recapture rule fall by the wayside. Students are encouraged to do the assigned reading and to try solving the problems, but the time pressure problem is not a secret and students know, from the experiences of their predecessors, that they will not be taken as deeply into these topics as they are taken into the other topics. Students who take themselves into the Graduate Tax Program’s course on property dispositions, whether or not matriculated in the program, don’t suffer in the long run but the other students sadly are being shortchanged. What is truly disappointing is that many students are happy that the material is being abridged, when in fact it will disadvantage them when they reach the practice world.

Next: And then there’s that depreciation recapture thing

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXIV 

Early in the course, when studying gross income derived from property transactions, students with some previously acquired tax knowledge will use the term “capital gain” in crafting an answer, perhaps correctly or perhaps as a technically incorrect substitution for the term “gain realized” or “gross income.” To their chagrin, I tell them that I am postponing the discussion of capital gains.

Why is the discussion of capital gains delayed until near the end of the course? There are several reasons. First, the characterization issue affects both gains and losses and to delve into the issue when focusing on gross income would be premature. Second, understanding the impact of characterization as a double-edged sword that benefits those with net capital gains and disadvantages those with net capital losses is easier at this point in the semester. Third, some of the elements incorporated into the definitions reflect issues that weren’t covered until later in the course or that are more easily understood at this point.

My goal is to introduce students to the definitions and to illustrate the impact of the special treatment of capital gains and the disadvantageous treatment of capital losses. They need to understand why and how the “make ordinary income look like capital gain” and the “make capital losses look ordinary” games are played. They should understand the whipsaw situation that has given the tax law a variety of cases that treat the same transaction differently depending on whether it generated a gain or loss and which position the IRS took. What I do not try to do is to have the students compute tax liability when a portion of taxable income consists of capital gain. A quick peek at the form or the statute is enough to persuade anyone that putting J.D. law students enrolled in a basic course through that computational nonsense would be counter-productive.

As a practical matter, at this stage of the semester I’m so far behind that this topic receives 15 or 20 rather than the planned 50 minutes of class time. Some of the time savings comes from omitting some problems and taking students through others without asking them to contribute. In other words, with one or two classes remaining, I shift to lecture mode, not by desire but by dint of circumstances.

Next: Gains and losses from transactions involving business property

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXIII 

The next topic receives at best one minute of class time, and the message essentially is a repeat of what was noted during the overview presented near the beginning of the semester. After computing tax liability, a taxpayer compares that amount with the applicable credits. If tax liability exceeds total credits, the difference must be paid. If tax liability is less than total credits, the difference can be refunded or left with the Treasury as an advance on subsequent year tax liabilities. Students learn that there are two types of credits. There are genuine credits, those that reflect amounts already paid by the taxpayer, such as amounts withheld from compensation and amounts paid as estimated taxes. There are policy credits, those that reflect policy determinations by the Congress that a particular activity or expenditure by a taxpayer warrants reducing that taxpayer’s tax liability by some amount.

The list of policy credits continues to grow at a rapid rate. There now are dozens. Many involve very narrow and specific transactions, and a few affect a significant number of taxpayers. All are structured on an arrangement of definitions, exceptions, computations, and limitations. In theory, if a student needed to learn about a specific credit, he or she should be able to read the provision and parse the language.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any class time available to explore the details of any specific credit. Thus, students are instructed to read several pages in the course text that describe the more important credits in general terms but they are not responsible for learning the details. Although many of the credits would not deserve attention even if time were available, there are several that should get a closer look, such as the earned income tax credit. There are good arguments for covering these credits but there simply isn’t anything that can be removed from the course to “make room.”

Next: Characterization of income and loss

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXII 

The tax law is structured so that after taxable income is computed, a taxpayer must compute tax liability. Again students arrive with the same uninformed impression that often is voiced by other faculty and people who have never taken the course. They expect to put on green eyeshades, crank up the abacus, or perhaps power on a Texas Instruments calculator. Nothing could be further from the truth. Students quickly learn that with a printed chart or software program, a person can “plug in” the taxable income amount and filing status to get the tax liability. The course is not an arithmetic course, and I tell the students I will not test them on their ability to look up numbers in a chart or to do the actual tax liability computations. Yet, despite this, two 50-minute class sessions are allocated to the topic. Why?

The students do sit through illustrations because there are several important concepts that those examples provide. First, by showing how tax liability is computed I introduce students to the concept of progressivity in taxation. Second, by showing the impact of phase-outs I introduce students to the “bubble effect,” which generally causes the effective marginal rate of taxation on high income taxpayers to be less than the effective marginal rate of taxation on middle-income taxpayers, a phenomenon that begins to help those students who have not already done so to figure out where some of my undisguised disdain for the tax system originates. Third, by showing how tax liability differs depending on filing status, I introduce students to the joys and frustrations of the marriage penalty, and, yes, the marriage bonus. I provide the students with an illustration that involves a taxpayer who could easily be one of them in a few years. I show the tax consequences of this person marrying someone with similar income and, alternatively, someone with no or little income. It is one of the priceless moments in the course. Students who did not look at this illustration before class, and perhaps some who did but who didn’t quite figure out what was going on, become visibly shocked or even annoyed when they see how the tax law encourages and discourages different “types” of marriages. My warning early in the semester that tax law is everywhere and affects everything finally is hammered home.

If this wasn’t enough, the discussion then turns to the computation of tax liability for children who have not yet attained the age of 18. Once assured that they will not be required to do the calculations, students settle in for several illustrations of how this needlessly complicated provision operates. As a provision affecting all taxpayers under 18 and all taxpayers with children under 18, it is a provision with broad application. Although software exists that can handle the numbers, the concepts are much easier to comprehend when examples are presented. Those examples also illustrate the many practical problems arising when a theoretical solution was applied to a real concern.

Next: Tax credits

Monday, August 13, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXXI 

Many students share the same mistaken impression of the basic income tax course as do some law faculty and people not involved in the law. They perceive it as a tax return preparation training course. Nothing could be further from the truth. Students in my course are not required to prepare returns. Those who cannot wait for the opportunity are invited to invest time in the pro bono activities of the Tax Law Society, among which are the preparation of returns for low-income individuals under the IRS VITA program. Students do have copies of forms so that they can look at them to obtain a more complete perspective on an issue or to enjoy a more robust context for considering the inter-connections of tax law analysis.

This topic, computation of taxable income, is mostly a one-class examination of how the pieces already studied fit together. To the array of gross income, deductions allowable in computing adjusted gross income, itemized deductions, and the deduction for personal and dependency exemptions are added two phase-outs and a study of the standard deduction.

One phase-out that requires attention is the one applicable to itemized deductions, and the other involves the deduction for personal and dependency deductions. The computation reflects adjusted gross income, which is why they are discussed at this point. Each is computed differently, in ways that appear, and are, arbitrary. When students discover that one of the phase-outs depends in part on how many $2,500 amounts are included in the excess of adjusted gross income over an inflation-adjusted amount dependent on filing status, they roll their eyes. I don’t blame them. Those who have read several of my articles know that I consider the phase-outs not only nonsense but fraudulent deception of taxpayers by manipulative politicians, few of whom remain in office but whose legacy continues to afflict taxpayers and law students. Making things worse is the phase-out of the phase-outs, which itself is scheduled for phase-out in 2011. Finding ways to help students comprehend these complexities without taking them into the depths of a numerical world is a significant challenge, because expressing the concept without using numbers and illustrations is counter-productive. The saving grace is that the students know that I will not ask them to do a tax return or these sorts of computations on the exam or in a semester exercise.

The standard deduction, an alternative to itemized deductions for taxpayers with itemized deductions less than the applicable standard deduction, consists of two elements, both consisting of dollar amounts set forth in the statute and adjusted for inflation. Students have visited inflation adjustments when dealing with some earlier topics so that aspect of the analysis is review. The standard deduction also reflects the taxpayer’s filing status, and that topic is examined briefly because students are not required to learn the niceties of the rules applicable to more complex marital transformations.

It is fitting that when dealing with this topic the students return to a point emphasized very early in the course. They see first-hand that the tax law is dynamic and not static. Two phenomena confuse them, even after I explain it to them. First, the dollar amount for the standard deduction that appears in the regulations does not match what is in the statute or the revenue procedure containing the inflation-adjusted amounts. The explanation is simple. The IRS and Treasury attorneys responsible for updating regulations are so swamped that they leave to the back burner the changes that people should be able to figure out for themselves. Students share my doubts and their facial expressions confirm their disappointment at how tax law administration leaves much to be desired. Second, the regulations interpreting the terms used in the definition of one of the standard deduction components are not found where one would expect to find them. They continue to exist as an interpretation of the personal exemption deduction even though this particular tax break for age and blindness long ago moved from the latter deduction to the standard deduction. Some students bemoan how confusing it is, especially because the situation is preventable. Such are the realities of law practice that I try to share with my students.

Next: With taxable income in hand, let’s compute tax liability

Friday, August 10, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXX 

It takes very little time to work through the computation of adjusted gross income. It’s simply a matter of looking at a list of those deductions which qualify for subtraction from gross income in order to compute adjusted gross income. Oh, well, sure, the list in the applicable statutory provision isn’t complete, and students learn that a few of these “preferred” deductions are hidden elsewhere. Why they’re not listed with the others is a question I cannot answer other than to guess sloppiness.

Students do need to learn why adjusted gross income is important. I tell them that a good mental exercise is to review their notes and to identify every instance in which adjusted gross income is a component of the analysis. I mention that it would make a good exam question. Does that qualify as motivation? Students also are told to think back to the beginning of the course, when they first met the overall structure of the taxable income computation and to ask themselves if corporations need to compute adjusted gross income. It’s a review question, I tell them. If they know the answer, I see a smile. If they don’t, I see frowns and sometimes worse.

Next: It’s time to compute taxable income

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXIX 

Finally, it is time to turn the students’ attention to the deduction for personal and dependency exemptions. It is yet another topic that reaches close to home for them, because all of them can identify with the special rules applicable to dependents who are students.

There are two major aspects of the topic. One reflects the definitions and the other is computational. I leave the computation issue, namely, the phase-out of the deduction, to the topic during which the students are taken through problems requiring the computation of taxable income.

The definitions are not, on the surface, particularly challenging. The elements are, for the most part, concepts with which the students are familiar. There are a few surprises, of course. Some students know that the spouse of a spouse’s sibling is not a brother-in-law or sister-in-law. Others learn this for the first time sitting in the tax classroom. The same phenomenon takes place in the decedents’ estates and trusts course that I teach, when some students learn that the spouse of their aunt or uncle is not their aunt or uncle, except under rather uncommon circumstances.

Another element in the definitions, namely, abode, causes special problems for students who are away at school and who otherwise qualify as a dependent. Because this particular issue is significant for most of their families, I let the students work through the analysis. If they learn anything, it’s that mundane decisions about driver licenses, voting registration, and selection of a permanent address to give to school officials end up affecting someone else’s tax return.

And, yes, they read about the disappearance of millions of dependents when taxpayers were required to provide social security numbers for dependents. They look at me, dumbfounded. There was that much cheating? Yes, and it simply has moved to other provisions. They laugh when I tell them that some people have claimed dependency deductions for pets. By this point, they know the outcome. Of course they laugh. Else they’d cry.

Next: It’s time to compute adjusted gross income

Monday, August 06, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXVIII 

After working through the deductions that are covered in the course, it is time to turn to the overall restrictions that apply to deductions. Most students initially are confused, and it’s no wonder. Many deductions are subject to restrictions that apply solely to the deduction. For example, when the students are studying the deduction for home mortgage interest, they learn that only the interest allocable to the first $1,000,000 of acquisition indebtedness is deductible. When they are learning about the casualty loss deduction, they are introduced to the $100 floor and the ten-percent-of-adjusted-gross-income limitation. It’s no wonder that they are baffled by the addition of yet more restrictions.

What makes this part of the course, and this aspect of the tax law, confounding is the existence of multiple restrictions that apply to clusters of deductions. In some instances a particular deduction may be subject to more than one of these overall deductions. I don’t push J.D. students too far in dealing with how multiple restrictions interact because it simply is too complicated. Even tax practitioners get frustrated at the chaotic nature of the computations that reflect the inability of unwillingness of Congress and the inventors of these limitations to coordinate them in sensible ways.

There are five overall deduction restrictions that I put before the students. These are the at-risk limitations, the so-called hobby loss limits, the limitations on deductions with respect to rental residences and offices in home, the passive loss limits, and the general policy restrictions. Because I can allocate only three 50-minute class sessions to overall deduction restrictions, I limit coverage and I direct the students to teach themselves the policy restriction. I made that decision because the policy restriction does not involve computations, and requires analysis more similar to what they did during their first year of law school than is most of the analysis applicable to other topics in the course.

Coverage of the at-risk limitation includes a very basic introduction to the concept, a streamlined definition of amount at risk, an explanation of why the limitation was enacted and how it failed, the wrinkle that considers taxpayers at risk for their share of nonrecourse debt secured by real estate, and a quick peek at the recapture concept. I assure the students that they are not expected to do at-risk limitation computations.

The hobby loss restrictions are much easier to understand, and therefore I take the students through several examples. I do expect them to understand how the limits are computed, because they are not particularly difficult, though some students struggle with translating the statutory language into application. I cannot resist pointing out to the students the special rules for horse-related activities, just as I do not resist pointing out similar special provisions when I teach the depreciation material. On several occasions, comments to the effect that I hate horses or dislike horse lovers make their way onto evaluations and even into classroom discussion. I always invite students who wish to do so to defend the special treatment of horse-related activities. No student has ever taken up the challenge.

The residence limitations consume at least half of the allocated time because they are important. They affect many taxpayers. Though it is a guess, I tell the students that I’m confident at least half of them, and probably many more, will encounter these limitations in their own lives. Of course, that’s not to say they will be happy with the outcome. Most lawyers, for example, who have home offices are subject to the limitations. Because the IRS continues to adhere to its losing position in Bolton, despite losing every case it has litigated, the time required to teach the computation of deductions allowable in any event allocable to rental activities is twice what it would and should be. This situation provides an opportunity to describe to students the practical realities of taking a return position that is inconsistent with an IRS position but that will almost certainly be approved by a court if the matter is litigated. The intersection of theory and practice is a fascinating boundary to take students through.

Then it gets worse. The students meet the passive loss limitations. A topic that could be made the subject of an entire 2-credit LL.M. (Taxation) course gets squeezed into 30 minutes. To say that the students get just the basics is an understatement. There simply is no time to explore in depth the definition of passive, or the application of the rules to multiple activities. The carryforward rules and those applicable to disposition of a passive activity are left to some other time and place.

At least by this point, students understand why so many taxpayers who do their own returns are frustrated, why tax return preparers have become increasingly disenchanted, why tax software has more errors than there should be, and why my bias against the mess that passes for our income tax system is so difficult for me to hide. True, I don’t make much effort to disguise my evaluation of the tax law. Not surprisingly, few if any students disagree with me. The struggle is the realization that they need to learn so much nonsense because, as I tell them, no matter what I think and no matter what they think, it’s waiting for them when they enter practice.

Next: What do you mean there is no deduction for my dog?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXVII 

There are three deductions available only to individuals that I consider essential for J.D. students to understand, even if only in general terms. These are the moving expense deduction, the medical expense deduction, and the higher education expense deduction. These deductions are relevant to many taxpayers, and of all three, the last should be of particular interest to the students.

Once upon a time, in a basic tax course long ago, I used classroom time to explore the first two deductions, the third not having yet been invented. As Congress added more and more provisions to the tax law, as it layered more exceptions and exceptions to exceptions onto the existing provisions, and as it piled more limitations onto the law, something had to be removed. First, it was the moving expense deduction. Ought not second and third year law students, at this point in the semester, be able to read and learn about these deductions without my in-class assistance? Is this not graduate school? My response, to the chagrin of most students, was yes to both questions. A few years later, the same treatment was accorded to medical expense deductions. In this instance, I limited the reading and carved away many of the peripheral issues. When Congress added te higher education expense deduction, my two thoughts were that students must become familiar with it and that there was nothing that could be removed from the course to create classroom time space for the topic.

My concern is that as each year passes, more and more topics will be added to the “learn on your own” list. It’s not that I think law students ought not be required at times to learn something by reading and thinking rather than listening. It’s a sense that over time the number of issues demanding attention will be more than double the number that can be handled adequately and sensibly during 42 50-minute class sessions. Is it any wonder I have no admiration for the Congress when it comes to taxation?

Next: Deduction restrictions

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Structuring the Basic Tax Course: Part XXVI 

Wouldn’t it be nice if the applicable tax principle were so simple as the allowance of a deduction for the value of property or money transferred to a charity? That’s the general rule. It’s the exceptions that make this topic one that requires a significant number of class hours in an LL.M. (Taxation) program. For J.D. students, there’s not much of a choice. Keep it simple, keep it basic. Ignore most of the special rules. Do what can be done in 25 minutes.

For J.D. students, I break the topic into two pieces. One is the requirement that there be a gift to a qualified organization. The other is the concept of limitations.

For the first piece, I put to the students a series of questions that encourage them to focus on the concept of gift. Is the transfer of money to the local volunteer fire company a gift or should the payor’s desire for fire-extinguishing services in the event of a blaze negate the deduction? There is a long list of these sorts of questions, and usually student participation picks up. They understand the underlying transaction and they’ve heard about the deduction from family and news sources.

Because there’s no time to get into the qualification issue, I simply tell the students that most of the charities with which they are familiar, such as the American Red Cross and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, are qualified. I let them know that most schools, including Villanova, religious organizations, and places of worship are qualified. If there is time I give them a two-sentence description of what being a qualified charity requires. The most important point I make is that they must verify the status of the donee organization before claiming a deduction.

The limitations piece gets a few minutes of class time. The 50-percent limitation is described. The other two may or may not be mentioned. The limitations applicable to the donation of inventory, partial interests in property, interests in trusts, conservation easements, and a variety of other restrictions simply must be left for an advanced course. That’s unfortunate, because it appears to me that more and more of our J.D. graduates are getting involved with charitable organizations, either as advisors or participants.

Next: The special deductions for individuals

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