Monday, July 24, 2017

Peter Reilly on Conservation Easement Donations as Bullshit Tax Shelters (7/24/17)

Peter Reilly has a great write up on the conservation easement tax scam -- aka bullshit tax shelter (my description, not his) -- that has featured prominently in many recent cases and is the subject of Notice 2017-10, here.  Peter's write up is New IRS Scandal - Syndication Of Conservation Easement Deductions (Forbes/Taxes 7/24/17), here.  And  I have previously written on Notice 2017-10 in IRS Designates Syndications Exploiting Improper Valuations for Conservation Easement Deductions (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 1/2/17), here.

Bullshit tax shelters are built on one or two foundations (sometimes both) -- fake law and fake facts.  The bullshit conservation easement shelters often get the law right, but fail on the facts -- particularly the valuations.  I encourage readers to review Peter's article and then read the extra materials I offer below.

I particularly like Peter's Accounting View -- balancing of the books analysis -- to show the problem with the bullshit conservation easement shelters.  

I extend Peter's analysis because many bullshit tax shelters suffer that basic problem.  The seminal balancing of the books case is Commissioner v. Tufts, 461 U.S. 300 (1983).  The taxpayer acquired basis in property via a nonrecourse loan, used the basis for depreciation tax benefit, then surrendered the property and walked away from the nonrecourse loan.  Had that been a recourse loan, the taxpayer would have had to recognize cancellation of indebtedness income, thereby balancing his books for the deductions funded by the recourse loan.  But, the taxpayer argued, because it was a nonrecourse loan, he received no benefit from the the "relief" from  the nonrecourse loan and thus had no offsetting income entry from COD or otherwise.  In effect, the taxpayer was arguing for free deductions with no balancing of his books.  The Supreme Court in Tufts rejected the argument, but took an intermediate position that the nonrecourse loan was includible as an amount realized on a deemed sale of the property securing the nonrecourse loan.  So, the taxpayer could get a combination of deferral from the nonrecourse loan (based on the interim depreciation deductions) and conversion to capital gains.  That is not a bad tax shelter.  But, at least the Supreme Court required a balancing of the books, albeit at capital gains rates.

I am not certain whether Tufts was an overvaluation case in its inception -- i.e., the property securing the nonrecourse loan was overvalued and thus the nonrecourse loan was underwater all along, serving only to generate deductions that the taxpayer in Tufts tried to shelter by not balancing his tax books at the end.  But, many taxpayers before and after Tufts tried that gambit of the overvaluation of the property secured by nonrecourse loans.  At least Tufts required a balancing of the books.

Having been deeply involved in the BLIPS shelters (not as promoter or adviser or taxpayer but as litigator), I always thought that, even if one accepted the aggressive legal position taken about contingent debt when contributed to the partnership, there was a balancing of the books problem akin to what the Supreme Court required in Tufts.  Thus, having achieved the basis benefit fueled by the loan, albeit recourse, that ultimately went "poof," the taxpayer should have to balance his books with the offsetting taxable income.  The shelter opinions that I saw either ignored that or dissembled on it.  Of course, there was a problem at the inception of the analysis on contingent debt, but assuming that problem was cleared, then the back-end issue balancing issue was a problem.

At any rate, thanks to Peter Reilly for his analysis.

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