One of my best friends emailed me yesterday. He’s up for partner at one of the largest law firms in the world. He has dedicated many hours to the practice of law since our days together as law clerks at the Tax Court.
However, the key to partnership in the modern practice of law requires more than substantial legal skill – it takes a business plan. He has been asked to write one and I have no doubt that it will be thorough, detailed and realistic. That is, it will be the product of the same skills that have made him a great lawyer already. When he is invited into the partnership of his firm, which I am confident that he will be, I know that he will be expected to execute on that business plan, and I know that he will. After all, the objective of a law firm is to provide excellent legal services and make a profit while doing it.
Yesterday, the Tax Court issued a fairly lengthy Summary Opinion reminding us that the same standard applies to every business. A Summary Opinion is not a legal precedent and cannot be cited for authority, but Craig v. Commissioner amply shows that lengthy hours and dedicated labor alone are not enough to turn an activity into a business. The opinion is instructive for those who might be unsure about the right standard. There must be a plan to make money – and some profits along the way won’t hurt either.
Ms. Craig worked 25-40 hours per week as a real estate agent. She worked 25-30 more hours per week attending to her several horses – an activity for which she claimed losses for the tax years in question. She also worked part time preparing tax returns for H&R Block. The IRS denied Ms. Craig’s losses from the horse breeding activity and she challenged the Commissioner’s determinations by filing a pro se petition in Tax Court.
The Tax Court accepted the fact that Ms. Craig dedicated many hours a week to cleaning stalls, feeding, grooming, training, and otherwise caring for her horses. It did not, however, accept the fact that Ms. Craig engaged in any of those efforts with “an actual and honest objective of making a profit.”
Notable was Ms. Craig’s business plan for the horse-breeding activity. It was prepared in early 2011, months after the IRS began its examination of Ms. Craig’s tax returns, and listed a total of 10 items (all of which are reproduced in the Court’s opinion). From the time the business plan was written until the date of trial in November 2012, Ms. Craig had accomplished only one item on the business plan (she finished training one horse for handling).
Neither the concise and late-breaking business plan nor the lackadaisical approach to execution helped Ms. Craig’s case. It also didn’t help that she also didn’t maintain a separate bank account for the alleged horse breeding business, instead preferring to run expenses through her personal checking account, and reported gross receipts from the business in only one of seven years ($950 of revenue, not even profit). All of these factors contributed to the Court’s conclusion that Ms. Craig’s horse activities were a hobby and not a business. The Court also sustained a 20% accuracy-related penalty against Ms. Craig. A timely-written and well-executed business plan might not have changed the outcome of Ms. Craig’s case, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
Read the entire opinion here:
Craig v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Opinion 2013-58