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A new chapter was added to the ongoing dispute as to whether student athletes should be compensated for (i) the part they play in helping their respective schools generate millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales and the use of their individual player likenesses, and (ii) the predominant amount of time that is spent as an athlete as opposed to a student.  It is a deeper issue than simply framing it as “pay for play”, but that discussion is one for another day …

What is important for our purposes is that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) recently ruled Northwestern University’s scholarship football players (differentiated from walk-on players) are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”), and as such, have the right to unionize for collective bargaining purposes.

The Board’s ruling will be appealed, so the practical application of this unionization right and the resulting sub-issues from the decision will be delayed as of this writing.  However, there are theoretical tax matters that will play a part in the debate, and that could emerge if student-athletes are in-fact deemed “employees”.  Furthermore, the reasoning that the NLRB used to reach its conclusion that student-athletes are “employees” may also be the basis for which student-athletes would be taxed.

Without going into extensive detail, the NLRB determined that the Northwestern football players receive the substantial economic benefit of a scholarship in exchange for performing football-related services, under what amounts to be a contract-for-hire.  Additionally, the Board made note of the extensive amount of control that the football coaching staff and University have over the players, and that if team rules are broken, scholarships can be revoked:

  • NCAA rules prohibit players from receiving additional compensation or otherwise profit from their athletic ability and/or reputation, so scholarship players are dependent on their scholarships to pay for basic necessitates, including food and shelter;
  • Players devote 40-60 hours per week for football, depending on whether it is in-season versus the off-season, despite the NCAA’s prescribed limitation of 20 hours per week once the academic  year begins;
  • Coaches control living arrangements, outside employment, the ability to drive personal vehicles, travel arrangements off-campus, social media, use of alcohol or drugs, and gambling;
  • Players also are sometimes unable to take courses in certain academic quarters because they conflict with scheduled team practices.

At this point it is not entirely clear what student-athletes would be taxed on because if the decision is ultimately affirmed, there could be conflicting definitions and concepts in the tax code with respect to “gross income”, “compensation for services” and “qualified scholarships.”

For income tax purposes, “gross income” means all income from whatever source it is derived, and this includes compensation for services.  Until now student-athletes have not been considered employees, which is essentially why their scholarship (or parts of) have not previously been taxed.  But the NLRB went to great lengths to detail how the Northwestern football players currently receive compensation for playing football (the reason it saw fit to classify them as employees).  On that same basis, the IRS would likely take the position that the granted scholarships are compensation for services, and are thus taxable income to the student-athletes.  Whether the current statutory language would have to be amended or exclusions would have to be created to properly allow for this taxation is a secondary issue.

Yet there are other benefits the Northwestern football players have cited which they feel would outweigh the negative impact of taxes they might incur.  If the decision is upheld, players might be able to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits as a result of injuries suffered on the field.  Moreover, instead of coaches having unilateral control over the schedules and rules players must abide by at the risk of losing scholarships, the union the players could form would bargain with the university over “working conditions”.  This would be similar to the way in which the NFL and MLB players’ unions bargain for benefits of their respective players.

However, rights that are bargained for by this theoretical union could lead to further questions for the university.  For example, if players successfully bargained for health benefits, Title IX (which demands equal treatment of male and female athletes) might require equivalent benefits to all of the other athletic programs on campus.  Conversely, bargained-for benefits such as safer football helmets or equipment would not necessitate comparable action on the part of the school.

The NLRB ruling in the Northwestern case is restricted to private universities, meaning efforts by student-athletes of state schools would be governed by each state’s laws on unions of public employees.  However, this decision is an initial step in what will be a lengthy process that ultimately could re-shape the National Collegiate Athletics Association (“NCAA”) … and tax issues will most certainly have a substantial impact along the way.

CJ Stroh, Esq.

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When the calendar turns to mid-March and tax season makes the leap from annoying to soul-crushing, I spend more time than I should daydreaming about goin’ all Walter White and breaking bad, only instead of cooking meth, I’d use my well-honed number-crunching skills to become an underground bookie.

Oh, what a life it would be. Instead of spending March Madness in a tiny office cranking out tax returns, I’d spend it in a giant war room complete with wall-to-wall flat screens, building my riches on the failed dreams of student athletes. I’d work the phone better than Gordon Gecko, avoiding detection by using subversive colloquialisms like “unit” and “juice.” I’d threaten to break thumbs with impunity. And I’d make money. Lots and lots of money. Because the house never loses.

The house doesn’t lose because it is (generally) indifferent to who the bettors favor. Not to get into Gambling 101, but if you bet $100 on the Seahawks + 2 ½ in the Super Bowl, you won $100, But if you bet $100 on the Broncos to cover the 2 ½ points (sucker), you lost $110. The $10 the loser pays over and above the wagered amount is the “vig.”

Thanks to the vig, bookies generally don’t care who people are betting on, as long as the bets are fairly even on both sides. And of course, bookies have the advantage of being able to move the line to make sure this happens.

When it comes to horse racing — which in my bookie fantasy world, I will  occasionally dabble in but not invest heavily – the house has an added level of protection in the form of “parimutuel wagering.” It works like so:

The entire amount wagered on a particular race is referred to as the betting pool or “handle.” The pool can then be managed to ensure that the track receives a share of the betting pool regardless of the winning horse. This share of the betting pool that the track keeps for itself is often referred to as the “takeout,” and the percentage is driven by state law, but generally ranges from 15% to 25%.

The takeout is then used to defray the track’s expenses, including purse money for the winning horses, taxes, licenses, and fees. The takeout can also be used, if needed, to cover any shortfall in the amount necessary to pay off winning bettors. To the extent any excess takeout remains after covering these two classes of obligations, the track has profit.

Once the betting pool has been reduced by the takeout, the balance is generally used to pay off any winning wagers, with the excess, once again, representing profits. Great business model, isn’t it?

Yesterday, an enterprising CPA with a raging gambling habit threatened to strike a blow for bettors everywhere when he took on the IRS in the Tax Court and argued that the portion of his wagers attributable to the “takeout” were deductible without limitation. But before we can understand the significance of the case, we need to understand some basics about the taxation of gambling.

Treatment of Gambling Expenses, In General

Section 165(d) provides that “losses from wagering transactions shall be allowed only to the extent of the gains from such transactions.” Generally, any winnings are reported on page 1 of the Form 1040, while the losses (but only to the extent of winnings) must be claimed as itemized deductions. Thus, if a bettor is one of the 66% of Americans who don’t itemize their deductions, they would effectively be whipsawed – they would be forced to recognize the gambling income, but would receive no benefit from the losses.

Section 162, however, generally allows a deduction for “all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the tax year in carrying on any trade or business.”

Putting these two provisions together, many bettors have taken the position that if their gambling activities are so frequent, continuous and substantial as to rise to the level of an unhealthy addiction a Section 162 trade or business, then gambling losses are deductible as Section 162 business expenses, and are not subject to the loss limitations imposed by Section 165(d). In their view, if the gambling activity constitutes a business, because the losses (along with the gains) should be reported on Schedule C, rather than itemized deductions, the losses should be permitted in full.

The courts have repeatedly shot this theory down, holding that even a professional gambler who properly reports his activity on Schedule C may only deduct losses to the extent of gains.

In a very important 2011 decision out of the Tax Court, however, the court held that while gambling losses are limited to the extent of gambling winnings, any non-loss expenses of a professional gambler engaged in a trade or business – items like automobile expenses, travel, subscriptions and handicapping data – are not subject to the Section 165(d) limitation. Thus, a professional gambler could reduce his winnings to zero by his losses, and then further deduct any non-loss business expenses, generating a net loss from the activity. (See Mayo v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 81 (2011).)

And that brings us back to our gambling CPA.  In Lakhani v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. 8 (2014), settled yesterday, an accountant/prolific track bettor made the compelling argument that his portion of the track’s “takeout expenses” represented non-loss business expenses rather than gambling losses, and were thus deductible without limitation. The taxpayer posited that by extracting takeout from the taxpayer’s wagers and using those funds to pay the track’s operating expenses, the track was acting in the capacity of a fiduciary. The taxpayer further likened the process to that of an employer who collects payroll taxes from his employees and remits them to the IRS and state agencies. Stated in another manner, the taxpayer argued that he was paying the operating expenses of the track, with the track acting as a conduit by collecting the takeout and using the funds.

Based on this position, the taxpayer argued that he was entitled to non-loss gambling business deductions in excess of $250,000 between 2005 and 2009.

The IRS disagreed with the taxpayer’s argument, countering that because the takeout is paid from the pool remaining from losing bets, “it is inseparable from the wagering transactions,” and thus constitutes wagering losses that are subject to the limits of Section 165(d). Furthermore, the Service argued that the taxpayer could not deduct business expenses for amounts paid from the takeout by the track for taxes, fees, and licenses, etc… because these were expenses owed by the track, not the individual bettor.

The Tax Court sided with the IRS, holding that the taxpayer’s share of the takeout expenses represented wagering losses that could only be deducted to the extent of winnings under Section 165(d). In reaching this conclusion, the court differentiated between an employer remitting payroll taxes on the behalf of an employee and a track using takeout funds to pay its operating expenses.

The employee, the court stated, is ultimately responsible for his share of the payroll taxes on his wages, and it is the remittance of these taxes by the employer that discharges the employee of this obligation. To the contrary, at no point are the expenses of the track imposed on the individual bettor; they are always obligations of the track. The tracks use of the takeout to pay its expenses, the court stated, does not discharge any obligation of the bettor.

As a result, the court concluded that because the track’s expenses were never an obligation or expense of the bettor, the takeout could not qualify as the bettor’s business expense. Instead, the takeout represented an additional gambling loss by the taxpayer, and could only be deducted – when added to his other losses – to the extent of his winnings.

follow along on twitter @nittigrittytax

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Earlier today, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp released his long-awaited and highly anticipated proposal for tax reform. The proposal promised to present the most thorough, sweeping changes to the law since the 1986 Act, and it didn’t disappoint.

Before we begin our analysis of the plan let me start by saying that while I clearly admire Chairman Camp for his tireless push to simplify the industry in which I ply my trade, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the irony that in the tax world, even a proposal for “simplification” stretches to nearly 1,000 pages.

Because there’s so much to take in, we’ll be separating our analysis into two parts

Part 1: Proposal for individual tax reform

Part II: Proposal for business tax reform

Let’s get to it with Part 1, Chairman Camp’s proposal for individual tax reform.

Streamlining of Individual Income Tax Rates

Current Law

Effective January 1, 2013, we now have seven income tax rates that are applied against so-called “ordinary income,” (i.e. income from wages, business income, interest, etc…): 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and a top rate of 39.6%. If you’ve ever wondered how efficient this type of structure is, consider that in 2013, the 35% rate was only applied on single taxpayers with incomes in excess of $398,351 but less than $400,000. Yes, we had a tax bracket that was $1,649 wide.

Because our tax system is a progressive one, taxpayers don’t pay a flat rate of tax on all earned income; rather, as income increases, so does the tax rate applied to the income. Thus, when someone proclaims that they are in the “39.6% bracket,” that does not mean they paid 39.6% on all of their income; rather, it means they paid 39.6% on their last dollar of income. It also means that they are likely insufferable.

No matter how you slice it, a system with seven brackets – and a high of nearly 40% — is far from ideal.

Camp Solution

Camp’s proposal would consolidate the current seven brackets into three, consisting of 10%, 25%, and 35% rates. Generally, the new 10% rate would replace the old 10% and 15% brackets, meaning it would cover all income earned up to approximately $73,800 if married, $36,900 if single (for simplicy’s sake, from this point on I will refer to married versus single thresholds or limitations like so: $73,800/$36,900).

The new 25% bracket would replace the former 25%, 28%, 33% and 35% brackets, meaning single taxpayers with taxable income between $36,900 and $400,000 would pay a 25% rate on that income, while married taxpayers with taxable income between $73,800 and $450,000 would pay a 25% rate on that income.

If you happen to earn taxable income in excess of $450,000/$400,000, then you will pay a rate of 35% on the excess, as opposed to 39.6% under current law.

Excluded from this top rate of 35% — meaning it would be taxed at a top rate of 25% — would be any income earned from “domestic manufacturing activities,” which is defined as “any lease, rental, license, sale, exchange, or other disposition of tangible personal property that is manufactured, produced, grown, or extracted by the taxpayer in whole or in significant part within the United States, or (2) construction of real property in the United States as part of the active conduct of a construction trade or business.”

Click here to read the rest on Forbes

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While the debate format that has ruined sports entertainment [ESPN: All Yelling, All the Time!]  obsesses over the inane and inherently unanswerable question of, “Has Kevin Durant surpassed LeBron?” the Oklahoma City Thunder forward and aspiring first-time MVP has managed to keep his attention right where it belongs: on his tax returns.

News came out this week that Durant – who has been lighting up the NBA at a 31.5 points-per-game clip this season – is suing his accountant for perpetrating some untoward shenanigans on Durant’s tax returns.

The suit alleges that California-based accountant Joel Lynn Elliot deducted expenses for Durant’s personal travel and personal chef on the five-time All-Star’s tax returns. This, of course, is a big no-no, because Section 262 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that “no deduction shall be allowed for any personal, living or family expenses.” Unless, of course, the personal expenses are specifically allowable for policy reasons, such as the deduction for mortgage interest and real estate taxes.

The IRS soon came calling, and Durant will now have to amend his returns, pay the back taxes, and, very likely, interest and penalties. As a result, he is looking to recover $600,000 from Elliot. Interestingly enough, should Durant recover that amount from his CPA, the settlement payment would itself be taxable, because the tax law was written by a crazy person.

Durant’s first mistake, of course, was hiring a tax preparer  who goes by three names, as people who do so are generally only fit to serve as famous assassins, serial killers, or country music singers. That’s just science.

Follow along on twitter @Nittigrittytax

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In my continued quest for some semblence of journalistic credibility, I had a column published in the Aspen Daily News today that seeks to bridge the disconnect between President Obama’s and Vice President Biden’s insistence that Mitt Romney’s tax plan represents a $5 trillion tax cut, with Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s insistence that no such cut exists. I hope you find it informative.

http://www.aspendailynews.com/section/home/155142

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Seminal moment in the Nitti household this weekend. I found a $5 bill shoved between the couch cushions. Oh, and my 3-year old boy learned to ride a bike. But how ’bout that fiver, huh?

The VP debate gets the SNL treatment.

S corporation sells substantially all of its assets on the installment method with contingent earn-out payments; IRS grants seller right to use special method to allocate basis to payments received when it is clear a portion of the earn-out payments will not be received.

The WSJ reminds us that the employee’s share of payroll taxes will return to 6.2% from 4.2% on January 1, 2013, and is kind enough to provide a calculator you can use to determine how much cash will be missing from your paychecks next year.

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Guillermo Arguello worked for Guggenheim Investments, a conglomerate of entities of uncertain purpose. Mr. Guggenheim struck up a business relationship with another corporation, Netrostar, that was intended to be symbiotic: Guggenheim Investments would share customer lists and provide financing, while Netrostar would provide web development work to the Guggenheim entities.

Times got tough at Netrostar, and Arguello, who performed some small bookkeeping services for the company, was asked to help bail it out.

First, Arguello spent $24,000 on a used Alfa Romeo that was needed — for some odd reason — to keep Netrostar alive, and sold it to the company in exchange for a note.

In addition, Arguello cosigned Netrostar credit card debt in excess of $35,000.

At the end of 2007, Arguello was still owed $21,000 on the Alfa Romeo note, and he was justifiably getting antsy with his precarious position as creditor of a dying corporation. As a result, Mr. Guggenheim worked up an agreement by which Netrostar would pay Arguello an additional $2,000 towards the note, and then Arguello would “forgive” the remaining $19,000 balance in exchange for his release as cosigner of the credit card debt.

On his 2007 tax return, Arguello claimed a worthless debt deduction of $19,000. The IRS promptly denied the debt, arguing that it had not become worthless during 2007.

Relevant Law

Under Section 166, a taxpayer is entitled to a deduction for a debt, business or nonbusiness, that becomes wholly or partially worthless during the taxable year. There is no standard test for determining worthlessness; whether and when a ebt becomes worthless depends on all the facts and circumstances.[i] In general, the year of worthlessness must be established by identifiable events constituting reasonable grounds for abandoning any hope of recovery.[ii]

The Tax Court concluded that Arguello’s receivable from Netrostar did not become worthless during 2007, primarily because the debt was not forgiven due to Netrostar’s inability to pay, but rather in exchange for getting Arguello off the hook for this co-signed credit card debt:

We cannot assume, and do not find, that as of the close of 2007, Netrostar’s financial condition, although shaky, prompted petitioner to relinquish his rights to collect the balance on the note. The evidence shows, and we find, that the debt was extinguished not so much on account of Netrostar’s ability or inability to pay, but rather pursuant to an arrangement that allowed petitioner to avoid potential liabilities in connection with the credit card accounts.

The court summarized its decision thusly:  “A debt is not worthless where the creditor for considerations satisfactory to himself voluntarily releases a solvent debtor from liability.”

The takeaway lesson, of course, is that in today’s economy, where debts are being forgiven left and right, when you are on the creditor side there is a distinction between a debt becoming uncollectible and simply forgiving the debt in exchange for some form of noncash consideration. Under the tax law, the debtor must establish that the debt has become wholly or partially worthless in order to secure a bad debt deduction.


[i] Dallmeyer v. Commissioner, 14 T.C. 1282, 1291 (1950).

[ii] See Crown v. Commissioner, 77 T.C. 582, 598 (1981).

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Like me, Richard Cohen is a CPA who hails from the Garden State. Unlike me, Richard Cohen just lost millions of dollars at the hands of an apathetic IRS.

Cohen’s wife served as an executrix for an estate which held uncashed dividend checks from a public corporation. Due to some shenanigans, Cohen started to suspect that the corporation was retaining the proceeds from these uncashed dividend checks without including the amounts in taxable income.

In pursuit of hard evidence, Cohen requested information from the State comptroller under the Freedom of Information Law, and also reviewed allegations in pleadings from a civil case against the corporation. Cohen’s findings only buoyed his belief that the corporation was up to no good; with the amount of improperly retained unclaimed assets possibly reaching into the hundreds of millions.

At that point, Cohen filed a whistleblower claim with the IRS on Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information. As you may or may not know, Section 7623 provides that an individual who provides information that leads the IRS to pursue an administrative or judicial action against a taxpayer is entitled to receive an award equal to a percentage of the tax dollars collected by the IRS. [Ed note: pick the right taxpayer, and you can get paid $100 million, even if you're a convicted criminal].

Despite the fact that Cohen felt the IRS had a strong case against the corporation, a mere two weeks after he filed his application he was notified by the IRS that no action was commenced and no tax dollars recovered from the corporation; thus, Cohen was not entitled to an award.

Understandably frustrated, Cohen sued the IRS, presenting the Tax Court with an issue of first impression: Could the court force the IRS to pursue a case against the corporation, so that Cohen would be eligible for a future whistleblower award?

Interpreting the statute literally, the Tax Court held against Cohen and declined to compel the IRS to reopen the whistleblower case. In reaching its decision, the court noted that Section 7623 requires a condition precedent to the issuance of a whistleblower award: the IRS must first commence an administrative or judicial action against the accused taxpayer, and tax dollars must ultimately be collected.

In this case, because the IRS did not see fit to pursue the corporation for its alleged unclaimed assets, no award could be given. Equally as important, the Tax Court established a precedent for future whistleblower decision by concluding that it lacked the authority to direct the IRS to pursue a case; rather, it’s jurisdiction was limited to determining whether an award should be given after a case has been pursued and tax revenue collected.

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The Obama administration addresses the math behind Mitt Romney’s $1 trillion $5 trillion tax cut. Wait…what?

Nation’s pastors agree to take a Sunday off from decrying same-sex marriage; taunt IRS instead.

From the WSJ: Be advised, the last chance to undo a Roth IRC conversion is October 15, 2012.

Xzibit — of “Pimp My Ride” fame — owes the IRS $130,000 for 2011. Weird, I would have thought that a guy who installs custom fish tanks into Honda Civics would understand the need for conservative spending and sound investment.

Could the U.S. really do away with corporate interest deductions?

Often ignored in the presidential campaigning is the growing problem of violence in the suburbs:

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The following question came into Double Taxation HQ last night:

If I have a client with a 1,200,000 mortgage that was taken out to acquire a home and no home equity loan, am I limited to deducting interest on only $1,000,000 of mortgage, since it is all acquisition debt, or can I treat an additional $100,000 of the mortgage as home equity debt even though it’s “really” acquisition debt?

It’s an interesting question, because Section 163 provides a deduction for interest on $1,100,000 of mortgage interestfor “qualified residence interest,” which is further defined as “interest paid on acquisition indebtedness or home equity indebtedness…”

Section 163(h)(3)(B)(i) further provides that acquisition indebtedness is any indebtedness that is incurred in acquiring, constructing, or substantially improving a qualified residence and is secured by the residence. However, Section163(h)(3)(B)(ii) limits the amount of indebtedness treated as acquisition indebtedness to $1,000,000 ($500,000 for a married individual filing separately). Accordingly, any indebtedness described in Section 163(h)(3)(B)(i) in excess of $1,000,000 is, by definition, not acquisition indebtedness.

Under Section 163(h)(3)(C)(i) home equity indebtedness is any indebtedness secured by a qualified residence other than acquisition indebtedness, to the extent the fair market value of the qualified residence exceeds the amount of acquisition indebtedness on the residence. However, § 163(h)(3)(C)(ii) limits the amount of indebtedness treated as home equity indebtedness to $100,000 ($50,000 for a married individual filing separately).

In the question above, it would be reasonable to conclude that interest on only $1,000,000 of the $1,200,000 mortgage would be deductible, because there is only acquisition indebtedness; there is no home equity debt. In two court cases — Pau v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1997-43 and Catalano v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2000-82 — the Tax Court embraced this exact theory, denying a taxpayer an interest deduction on their mortgage balance in excess of $1,000,000 when there was ONLY acquisition debt.

In Revenue Ruling 2010-25, however, the IRS announced that it would not follow the Tax Court’s decisions in Pau and Catalano. Instead, in the fact pattern above, the IRS will allow the taxpayer to treat the first $1,000,000 of mortgage debt as acquisition debt, and a second $100,000 piece of the same debt as home equity debt, even though it is simply an additional part of the original debt. The theory being that by definition, acquisition debt cannot exceed $1,000,000 for purposes of Section 163(h)(3)(B)(ii).

This means that the first $100,000 debt in excess of that amount satisfies all the requirements of home mortgage debt: it is secured by the residence, it is not acquisition debt, and it does not exceed the FMV of the home.

Thus, even though the taxpayer has only one mortgage with a balance of $1,200,000 that was used to acquire the property, only $1,000,000 is treated as mortgage debt, and the next $100,000 is treated as home equity debt. This gives the taxpayer an interest deduction on an additional $100,000 of debt than was given to the taxpayers in Pau and Catalano.

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