Posts Tagged ‘Bitcoins’

Can You Use a §1031 Exchange to Defer Gain with Cryptocurrency?

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

I recently wrote an article noting that if you exchange one cryptocurrency for another you have a capital gain (or loss). I was recently asked if you could defer such a gain by using a §1031 Exchange.

What Is a §1031 Exchange? A §1031 exchange is a way of deferring the capital gain on a property by exchanging it for another property. And didn’t the IRS rule that cyrptocurrency is property? So let’s look at the statutory language of §1031:

26 U.S. Code §1031 – Exchange of Property Held for Productive Use or Investment
(a) Nonrecognition of Gain or Loss from Exchanges Solely In Kind
(1) In General No gain or loss shall be recognized on the exchange of property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment if such property is exchanged solely for property of like kind which is to be held either for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.

Well, there’s the first two hurdles: Is cyrptocurrency held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment? Well, cryptocurrency likely isn’t held for productive use in a trade or business but it certainly is held by some for investment.

But that wasn’t all of 26 U.S. Code §1031. There is property that is not eligible for like-kind treatment. Let’s no look at §26 USC 1031(a)(2):

(2) Exception This subsection shall not apply to any exchange of—
(A) stock in trade or other proprety held primarily for sale,
(B) stocks, bonds, or notes,
(C) other securities or evidences of indebtedness or interest,
(D) interest in a partnership,
(E) certificates of trust or beneficial interests, or
(F) choses in action.

There’s a problem here: The closest analog to how cyrptocurrency should be treated are stocks and bonds. And §26 USC (a)(2)(B) states that you can’t do a §1031 exchange for stocks and bonds.

“But Russ,” you say, “cyrptocurrency isn’t stocks or bonds. It’s a virtual currency. So if I exchange Bitcoin for Ethereum, that should be ok, right?” Let’s assume that §26 USC (a)(2)(B) doesn’t apply. Are Bitcoin and Ethereum like-kind property?

Unfortunately, the answer is a maybe, with “no” more likely than “yes.” The IRS has been asked to look at exchanging gold bullion for gold coins, gold coins for other gold coins, and gold bullion for silver bullion as §1031 exchanges. You can use a §1031 exchange to exchange Mexican 50 peso gold coins for Austrian 100 corona gold coins and gold bullion for Canadian Maple Leaf gold coins. However, you cannot use a §1031 exchange to exchange gold bullion held for investment for silver bullion held for investment (different metals used in different ways), $20 gold numismatic-type coins for South African Krugerrand bullion-type gold coins (different underlying investments and different valuation bases), and Swiss Francs for US Double Eagle Gold Coins (numismatic versus circulating currency).

I believe the IRS would likely rule that Bitcoin and Ethereum are two different underlying investments and do not qualify for like-kind treatment.

But let’s further assume I’m wrong, and they do qualify. You go on a Bitcoin exchange and swap n Bitcoins for x Ethereum. Is that a §1031 Exchange?

Well, there are numerous technical rules regarding a §1031 exchange. First, they must be reported on IRS Form 8824 so the idea of simply ignoring them on your tax return is a certain way to make sure your transaction is not a §1031 exchange. There are 67 pages of regulations on §1031 exchanges (search for “1031” in the link for them). Most §1031 exchanges use a Qualified Intermediary. Certainly the dealer I use is that Qualified Intermediary, right?

Well, almost certainly not. When you use an Exchange to buy a cryptocurrency, the dealer almost certainly doesn’t meet the technical requirements listed in the regulations. There is no paperwork; the trades occur close to instantly (not over the months it takes to complete a §1031 exchange); and several other issues with a dealer.

“But Russ,” you say, “my friend Scott has x Ethereum and is willing to swap it for my n Bitcoins. We agree to directly swap our positions. That would be a §1031 exchange, right?”

This is the most likely to meet IRS scrutiny, but only if the IRS considers Bitcoin and Ethereum to be like-kind. The tax professional community has asked the IRS to give guidance on this, but the IRS (to date) has ignored this issue. You could request a Private Letter Ruling from the IRS. A Private Letter Ruling is a means to get an answer from the IRS given a specific set of facts. The Private Letter Ruling binds the requestor and the IRS. However, you must pay for a Private Letter Ruling; the cost will be at least $2,400. It also takes time to receive the Private Letter Ruling (think months, not weeks).


The conclusion I’ve drawn is that most exchanges of one cryptocurrency for another do not qualify as §1031 exchanges and it’s more likely than not that the IRS will rule that two different cryptocurrencies are not eligible for like-kind treatment.

The IRS Is Coming! The IRS is Coming!

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

As first reported by Bob McKenzie this morning, the IRS has purchased software to help them identify Bitcoin transactions. The IRS is reportedly using a product from Chainalysis, Inc., a New York-based supplier of products used to analyze Bitcoin activity.

The Daily Beast notes that “The purpose of this acquisition [by the IRS] is…to help us trace the movement of money through the bitcoin economy.” Chainalysis’s products appear to include features that can locate specific Bitcoin users and anyone connected to that user.

Government may be slow in acting, but it’s clear the IRS and other federal law enforcement agencies are very interested in Bitcoins. As noted in a previous post, IRS records show that only 802 individuals included Bitcoins on their 2015 returns. The IRS has issued a summons to Coinbase (this is currently in litigation); I expect further IRS enforcement activity against both domestic and international wallets. And I doubt the IRS’s interest will stop at Bitcoins; other cryptocurrencies will be examined, too. I’m also aware of other federal law enforcement agencies investigating Bitcoin users.

If you’ve been including your Bitcoin sales on your tax return, you can (generally) ignore this kerfuffle. Your taxes are correct, you’re following the law, so there’s not much for you to directly worry about from a tax standpoint. However, if you’ve been thinking, “No 1099, no reporting,” think again. And if you’re acting as an active seller, now is an excellent time to make sure you’re in compliance with money transmittal business laws (on both the state and federal level) and tax law. It’s very clear that the IRS is coming on the Bitcoin front.

Taxes When a Cryptocurrency Splits Into Two

Monday, August 21st, 2017

The IRS ruled that cryptocurrencies are treated as property (like stocks and bonds). What happens when a cryptocurrency splits into two separate cryptocurrencies?

Let’s start with the analogous situation with a stock. Suppose Acme Industries, Inc. spins off its subsidiary, SubCo Inc.; on October 1st stockholders of record will receive one share of SubCo for every share of Acme they own. This is almost certainly a tax-free event. (For those who care, Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 355 governs corporate spinoffs. Tax-free spinoffs can be accomplished either by distributing shares based on current ownership or by giving shareholders the option to exchange shares for the new spun off entity.)

Now, let’s examine a cryptocurrency split. Let’s take HYPO, a hypothetical cryptocurrency. On October 1st everyone who has 1 HYPO will still have their HYPO but will also now own 1 THET. The published goal is so that more transactions can be run through the blockchain. Will this be a tax-free event?

Probably. IRC Section 355 doesn’t apply here; this is not a corporate spin-off. That said, the analogy should hold: Presumably nothing of value has been created. If HYPO was selling for $1,000 prior to the split, the sum of 1 HYPO and 1 THET should be worth the same $1,000 after the split. If that’s the case all that’s happened is that your basis in HYPO must be split into HYPO and THET. For example, if you purchased your 1 HYPO for $500, your basis post-split in HYPO and THET must add to the same $500. There wouldn’t be a capital gain based on the split. (The allocation should be based on the fair market value of HYPO and THET immediately after the split.)

One other question that must be answered: Do you obtain the same holding period for the spin-off as you had for the original cyrptocurrency? If it’s a true split into two cryptocurrencies, definitely.

Given there has been one cryptocurrency split already (and others will certainly follow) this will give you an idea of the basics in this situation. Something that absolutely holds is keep good records! Taxes when you have good records is fairly easy. When you don’t have good records, it’s definitely not.

On Tulips and Bitcoins

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

When I was in junior high school, I remember being taught about the 17th century tulip mania. Tulips in 1637 cost more than a house! That was a bubble (though some economists think there may have been rational explanations, let’s just call it with what it was considered to be), and my gut feeling is that cryptocurrencies are also bubbling.

I’m not the only person who has made this comparison. There’s an article on CNBC that quotes Elliott Prechter stating that cryptocurrencies are in a bubble comparable to tulips. The head of the Dutch Central Bank has also made the same comparison.

But there’s something else with cryptocurrencies: government. While the US government hasn’t formally stated that it wants cryptocurrencies to go away, the policies of the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice show that’s the case.

Let’s look at what two agencies within the Department of the Treasury have done in regards to cyrptocurrencies. First, the Internal Revenue Service had a choice: Should cryptocurrencies be considered currencies or should they be considered property? If currencies, most taxpayers would just enter one number on their returns for the gain (or loss). (Currency trading falls under Section 988 of the Internal Revenue Code. Gains and losses are simply entered as Section 988 transactions as part of line 21 (“Other Income”) on Form 1040.) This would be simple and straightforward. Instead, the IRS ruled that cryptocurrencies should be treated as property. That means each time you use or sell a cryptocurrency you have a reportable capital gain or loss. That’s a much tougher recordkeeping requirement.

Meanwhile, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) ruled exactly the opposite. For FINCEN purposes, cryptocurrencies are currencies, not property. That means cryptocurrencies fall under the purview of FINCEN. If you are an active seller of cryptocurrencies to others, you may have to register and are subject to the money transmittal rules. (FINCEN has said “miners” and investors of cryptocurrency are not money transmitters.) FINCEN has gone after foreign (non-US) based wallets, too.

The US Department of Justice has prosecuted US individuals who have been selling Bitcoins.

Perhaps I’m cynical (well, I know I am), but it appears to me that the US government’s actions are designed to make cyrptocurrencies appear more unattractive. That to me is more likely than not to put downward pressure on cryptocurrencies.

I should point out that friends of mine who are far smarter than I am think that Bitcoins will be worth $10,000 in the near future (as I write this, the price of a Bitcoin is about $4,100). I don’t see that. I was in the dot-com industry when that was booming and the NASDAQ would “obviously” reach 100,000. Then the bottom fell out. The cryptocurrency craze of today reminds me of that and of tulips.

Did I Prepare 5% of the Tax Returns with Bitcoin in 2015?

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

The IRS is attempting to force Coinbase to disgorge a list of its customers who have traded Bitcoins. Back in March, an IRS agent, as part of attempting to enforce its summons against Coinbase, stated that there were only 802 individuals who reported Bitcoin transactions on Form 8949. The IRS searched and that’s what they supposedly found after looking at over 120 million returns filed for 2015.

My records show that I filed 40 returns in 2015 with Bitcoin transactions. According to the IRS that means I prepared 5% of all returns with Bitcoin transactions on them for tax year 2015!

Let’s be honest: There were more than 802 individuals who had Bitcoin transactions in 2015. This is why I expect (in the long run) the IRS’s summons against Coinbase will be successful.

This also may say something about tax professionals (and not a good thing). Now, it is true that my clientele happens to be more likely to skew towards individuals owning cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Still, am I one of the few tax professionals to ask clients about cryptocurrency transactions?

It’s actually far more likely that most tax professionals have a Sergeant Schultz moment with Bitcoins: Since there’s no paperwork, there’s nothing to report. That’s not how it works: Income is taxable (or not) regardless of whether or not you receive paperwork. For example, if you do consulting work for someone and get paid $800 but you don’t receive a Form 1099-MISC noting the income, you must report that $800. Individuals who self-prepare returns likely have the same issue: No paperwork, no reporting.

Cryptocurrency is fertile ground for the IRS, and sooner or later the IRS is going to get this information and conduct audits on it. If you are trading Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies, you need to report them on your tax return. And if you’re a tax professional, you need to ask clients about this.

Exchanging One Cryptocurrency for Another Is a Taxable Event

Saturday, May 27th, 2017

Let’s assume I own some Bitcoins and you own some Ethereum; these are two cryptocurrencies. We think they’re each worth $5,000 and we agree to swap them. Do we have a taxable event?

The IRS consideres cryptocurrencies to be akin to stocks and bonds. That means any time I sell or otherwise dispose of cryptocurrency I have a realized capital gain or loss. A client was told by a cryptocurrency trader that exchanging one cryptocurrency for another is not a taxable event. That individual is mistaken.

Let’s look at an analogous situation: You and I each own $5,000 worth of a stock (say General Motors and Ford). We swap stocks. I no longer own Ford, so I have a gain (or loss) on my Ford stock; you have a gain or loss on your General Motors stock. No one can successfully argue that this swap doesn’t result in a taxable event for each of us.

As I said swapping one cryptocurrency for another is analogous. Is a Bitcoin identical to an Ethereum? No; they’re each different cryptocurrencies. If you sell or dispose of a cryptocurrency, you have a taxable event. It’s very clear that such swaps absolutely must be reported on Schedule D.

Do You Need a License to Sell Bitcoins?

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Let’s say I own some Bitcoins. I want to sell them to a friend. Do I need a license to do that? This question came up after I was informed that a Missouri man pleaded guilty to operating an illegal money transmitting business.

First, a disclaimer: I am not an attorney. For legal advice, go speak to an attorney specializing in money transmittal law. I am not that person.

If you are in the business of exchanging currency for currency, you need a money transmittal license. Let’s say you open a check cashing store; you may need that license. These licenses are generally on the state level and possibly also from FINCEN (the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network). So clearly Bitcoins, which are property for tax purposes, aren’t a currency, right?

Not so fast. Bitcoins are property in the world of the IRS, but in the view of FINCEN they’re a currency. Bitcoin advocates consider Bitcoins to be a digital currency (or a cyrptocurrency). So two different units of the same government agency (the IRS and FINCEN both fall under the Department of the Treasury) treat the same thing quite differently.

So let’s say I have lots of Bitcoins, and I trade them with a US Bitcoin exchange such as Coinbase. Do I need a money transmittal license? My thinking is no: Coinbase is a licensed money transmittal business, so my selling to them is part of their business.

Let’s say my Aunt Rose gave me five Bitcoins and I sell them to my friend Scott. It’s the only transaction I have in Bitcoins. It’s hard to see how I’m in the business of selling Bitcoins.

On the other hand, suppose I’m a poker player who does quite well on a poker site such as Ignition, and every month I receive some Bitcoins. Rather than selling them to an Exchange I decide to start selling them to others and make more money. That sounds like a business to me, and it might to the US government, too. In that case you should consider speaking with an attorney immediately to determine if what you’re thinking of doing complies with federal, state, and local laws.

Back in the days when Neteller was serving US poker players one of my clients considered going into business facilitating other poker players being able to move money from poker site to poker site. He had a lot of money on Neteller so he was able to deposit money onto (say) Absolute Poker and, in exchange, take money from PokerStars. When he spoke with me I mentioned to him that this might run afoul of the money transmittal laws and strongly suggested he speak with an attorney. The attorney he consulted advised him that my instincts were accurate. I suspect if someone were facilitating such Bitcoin transfers today this, too, would also run afoul of the money transmittal laws.

Getting back to my original question: Do I need a license to sell Bitcoins to a friend? The answer is likely no. But if I go into the business of selling Bitcoins the answer appears to be yes.

IRS: Bitcoins Are Property

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The IRS finally released guidance on Bitcoins and other virtual currency today. The IRS’s notice states that Bitcoins should be treated as property. What does this mean?

1. Bitcoins held as investments are generally treated under capital gain rules. If you buy a bitcoin today and sell it in less than a year and a day, it will be a short-term capital gain or loss. Hold it longer, and it’s a long-term gain or loss. (There are exceptions to the capital gain treatment for other situations of Bitcoin use, though.)

2. Every time you spend a Bitcoin (or any part thereof) you have a gain or loss of income based on the change in fair market value of the Bitcoin. If you use Bitcoins regularly, you have lots of paperwork (or spreadsheet work) in your future.

3. If you mine a Bitcoin (for those not familiar with this term, it’s basically the creation of a Bitcoin), you have increased your income. It’s reportable; Congress hasn’t exempted Bitcoin mining from income.

4. Similarly, if you pay people in Bitcoins, it’s reportable as salary (or nonemployee compensation or whatever else). You need to use a “reasonable consistent method” for determining the valuation as you will need to file a W-2 or 1099 based on US dollars. There isn’t any exception for Bitcoins in information reporting rules.

For those who are active in Bitcoins, I strongly suggest you read the IRS notice. It’s fairly straightforward (and there’s plenty more I haven’t covered). Do note this is not the last word on Bitcoin regulations, though. The IRS is looking for comments on the notice.

The Treasury Department and the IRS recognize that there may be other questions regarding the tax consequences of virtual currency not addressed in this notice that warrant consideration. Therefore, the Treasury Department and the IRS request comments from the public regarding other types or aspects of virtual currency transactions that should be addressed in future guidance. Comments should be addressed to:

Internal Revenue Service
Attn: CC:PA:LPD:PR (Notice 2014-21)
Room 5203
P.O. Box 7604
Ben Franklin Station
Washington, D.C. 20044

Alternatively, taxpayers may submit comment electronically via e-mail to the following address: Notice.Comments@irscounsel.treas.gov. Taxpayers should include “Notice 2014-21” in the subject line. All comments submitted by the public will be available for public inspection and copying in their entirety.

The Trouble With Bitcoins: Taxation

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson noted in her recent report that the IRS needs to issue specific guidance around digital currency:

The use of digital currencies, such as bitcoin, is growing. Between July and December, 2013, bitcoin usage increased by over 75% – from about 1,700 transactions per hour to over 3,000. In the same period, the market value of bitcoins in circulation rose from about $1.1 billion to $12.6 billion. However, the IRS has yet to issue specific guidance addressing the tax treatment or reporting requirements applicable to digital currency transactions. Unanswered questions may include:

1. When will receiving or using digital currency trigger gains and losses?
2. When will these gains and losses be taxed as ordinary income or capital gains?
3. What information reporting, withholding, backup withholding, and recordkeeping requirements apply to digital currency transactions?
4. When should digital currency holdings be reported on a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), or Form 8938, Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets?

Taxpayers are speculating on the Internet about the answers to these questions. Some of this speculation is incorrect, incomplete, or misleading. It is the government’s responsibility to inform taxpayers about the rules they are required to follow. The IRS should issue guidance that addresses the tax treatment and information reporting required in connection with digital currency transactions, including answers to the basic questions listed above.

So let’s look at the two basic questions regarding Bitcoins: How are they taxed, and what reporting is required when using them.

Let’s cover the very first issue: If you make money with Bitcoins, it is absolutely taxable. The US Tax Code is quite simple in that respect: Everything is taxable unless Congress exempts it, and nothing is deductible unless Congress allows it. If you make money with Bitcoins, it is absolutely taxable.

The next question is how are gains taxed, and here is the major issue that the IRS and the courts have yet to decide. Are Bitcoins going to be regulated as a foreign currency or will they be treated like a capital asset? The problem for the IRS is that Bitcoins share features of both but also lack features of both.

Foreign currencies (such as the Euro and the British Pound Sterling) are defined in the US Tax Code; generally, income from foreign currencies is ordinary income under Section 988 of the Tax Code. The problem is that there’s nothing foreign about Bitcoins; they haven’t been issued by any government.

So maybe they should be taxed as a capital asset? But most capital assets can be held, and there’s nothing tangible about Bitcoins. A Bitcoin is ethereal but it has real value. If a Bitcoin is a capital asset, every time you sell a Bitcoin you have a capital gain or loss, and Bitcoins would follow capital gain rules and gains would be preferentially taxed.

Unfortunately, how Bitcoins are taxed is a major question that needs to be answered. Until the IRS comes out with guidance, tax professionals must make guesses.


The best tax summary I’ve found on Bitcoin and taxes is from Tyson Cross, a tax attorney in San Diego. A few of the points he makes that I agree with:

1. Gains are taxable when realized. This is absolutely clear under the US Tax Code. If you accumulate Bitcoins and sell them, use them to buy stuff, or trade them for things, you have gains.

2. The basis for a Bitcoin when it is “mined” is unclear.

3. If you keep Bitcoins on a foreign exchange, you may have to report your Bitcoins on an FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank Account, Form 114 (formerly Form TD F 90-22.1)).

Mr. Cross gets into quite a bit of detail on these issues, and his reasoning. If you are active in Bitcoins, I strongly advise reading the article.

One thing that he notes repeatedly (and I agree with) is that every time you use a Bitcoin, you have a taxable transaction and a gain or loss on that Bitcoin. It’s one thing to buy and hold Bitcoins; it’s quite another to be accumulating and using them actively. If you do so, your recordkeeping for your tax returns will need to be quite extensive.

Something that Mr. Cross does not cover (except for the FBAR) but is mentioned by Nina Olson are information reporting requirements with Bitcoin. I expect the IRS to mandate reporting of Bitcoin transactions similar to how dollar transactions are reported. It would not surprise me to see a heightened requirement for Bitcoin reporting (the IRS might consider Bitcoins as a means around the US financial system).


So how and when will the IRS rule on Bitcoins? It’s the government, so the ruling will come…eventually. I could only guess as to how they’ll rule. My instinct is that they’ll rule that it’s a foreign currency because that would tend to increase tax collection (Bitcoins would be taxed as ordinary income rather than as capital gains). Unfortunately, that’s only a guess.