Record Your Easement: Tax Court Adjusts Timing & Valuation of New York Facade Easement

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Zarlengo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-161, the Tax Court held that a New York facade easement is not protected in perpetuity under IRC § 170(h)(5)(A) until the easement is recorded.  The Court followed its decision in Rothman v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2012-163 and New York state law, specifically NY. Env. Law § 49-0305(4), requiring that a “conservation easement shall be duly recorded and indexed as such in the office of the recording officer for the county or counties where the land is situate in the manner prescribed by article nine of the real property law.”  The Court disallowed the charitable deduction taken in the year before the easement was properly recorded and all carryover deductions from that year.

The taxpayer found some success with their appraisal and valuation experts, as they were able to keep a portion of the charitable deduction claimed after the easement was properly recorded.  They were also able to avoid accuracy-related penalties for years prior to the Pension Protection Act of 2006 by presenting a successful reasonable cause defense.

Read the full opinion here: Zarlengo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-161

Second Circuit Affirms Importance of Proper Valuations for Facade Easements

Second Circuit Court of AppealsOn Wednesday, June 18, 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. Tax Court’s ruling in Scheidelman v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2013-18.

This is Scheidelman’s second, and likely final, visit to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. See our previous discussion of the Second Circuit’s decision to vacate and remand the case back to the U.S. Tax Court.

Read the full opinion here:  Scheidelman v. Commissioner, No. 13-2650 (2d. Cir., June 18, 2014).

Conservation Easement Yields New Rule on Reasonable Cause Penalty Defense

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonThe Tax Court disallowed another charitable deduction for the donation of a façade easement in Boston’s South End Historic District. This time the decision was based on valuation principles, not technical foot faults, and the taxpayers were able to avoid certain penalties.

In Chandler v. Commissioner, 142 TC No. 16 (2014), the taxpayers owned two homes in Boston’s South End Historic District, the Claremont Property and the West Newton Property. The homes were purchased in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The taxpayers entered into an agreement in 2004 to grant the National Architectural Trust (“NAT”) a façade easement on the Claremont Property. They then executed a similar arrangement when they purchased the West Newton Property in 2005.

The taxpayers used an NAT recommended expert to value the easements. He valued the Claremont easement at $191,400 and the West Newton easement at $371,250. The taxpayers took charitable deductions related to the easements of more than $450,000 between 2004 and 2006.

The IRS did not challenge the easements’ compliance with §170(h). However, the IRS did allege that the easements had no value because they did not meaningfully restrict the taxpayers’ properties beyond the provisions under local law. The taxpayers’ countered that the easement restrictions were broader than local law because they limited construction on the entire exterior of the home and required the owners to make repairs. Local law only restricted construction on portions of the property visible from a public way and did not require owners to make repairs. The taxpayers’ also noted that the easement subjected the property to stricter monitoring and enforcement of the restrictions. The Tax Court, citing its recent opinion in Kaufman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-52, (discussed below), rejected the taxpayers’ arguments because “buyers do not perceive any difference between the competing sets of restrictions.”

The only remaining issue was valuation. The taxpayers abandoned their original appraisals and presented new expert testimony at trial. The taxpayers’ new expert used the comparable sales approach to calculate a before value of $1,385,000 for the Claremont Property and $2,950,000 for the West Newton Property. The taxpayers’ expert chose seven properties for comparison: four properties in Boston and three properties in New York City. On the basis of data from these properties, he estimated that the taxpayers’ easements diminished the value of both properties by 16%.

The Tax Court found the taxpayers’ expert unpersuasive. The Court dismissed the three New York City comparables because they “tell us little about easement values in Boston’s unique market.” The court also found that three of the four Boston properties were “obviously flawed.” The Court took particular exception to the expert’s use of a comparable unencumbered property that was not actually unencumbered. The Court stated that the “error undermines [the expert’s] credibility concerning not only this comparison, but the entire report.”

The Tax Court also found the respondent’s expert report unpersuasive. The respondent’s expert examined nine encumbered Boston properties that sold between 2005 and 2011. He compared the sales prices immediately before and after the imposition of the easements. Each property sold for more after it had been encumbered by the easement. However, the expert failed to account for significant renovations that took place on many of the properties after they were encumbered. Thus, the Court found the expert’s analysis unpersuasive because “it does not isolate the effect of easements on the properties in his sample.” However, in the final analysis, the Court sided with the IRS and disallowed the taxpayer’s deductions.

However, the Court did accept the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense for gross valuation misstatement penalties in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, the reasonable cause exception for gross valuation misstatements of charitable contribution property was eliminated with the Pension Protection Act of 2006, so the Court denied the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense for the 2006 tax period.

Read the full opinion here: Chandler v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 16

Reliance on Tax Attorney & Licensed Appraiser Helps Taxpayer Preserve Deductions & Avoid Penalties

us_tax_courtIn Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, a TEFRA partnership avoided accuracy-related penalties even though the Tax Court reduced the fair market value of its conservation easement by $3.98 million.

The taxpayer claimed a $23.94 million charitable contribution deduction on its 2006 partnership return. The IRS disallowed $16.97 million of the value under exam. At trial, the parties presented valuation experts who relied upon the comparable sales method to set the before and after value of the property. The taxpayer’s expert valued the land at $307,000 per acre, while the IRS expert came in at at $94,000 per acre. The Tax Court reviewed the four properties used by both experts and compared the property’s then-current use with its highest and best use. The taxpayers’ contended that 360 multifamily dwelling units could be developed on the 82-acre parcel. The IRS disagreed, emphasizing: a failed rezoning history; environmental concerns; limited access to outside roads; and neighborhood opposition. The Court rejected each of these arguments and found that “there is a reasonable probability that [the parcel] could have been successfully rezoned to allow for the development of multifamily dwellings.”

The IRS also argued that the real estate market was softening in 2006. Judge Goeke accepted the idea of a declining real estate market and reduced the taxpayer’s pre-encumbrance appraisal of the land from $25.2 million to $21 million. Using the same “after” value percentage (5% of the unencumbered property) the Court found that the fair market value of the conservation easement was $19.96 million.

Following the framework set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Woods, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction to consider the IRC § 6662 penalties. The Court then accepted the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense and disallowed the 20% penalty because the taxpayer: retained a tax attorney to advise them on the tax aspects of the easement donation; hired a credible, licensed appraiser, and made a good-faith attempt to determine the easement value.

Read the Tax Court opinion here: Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-79

Tax Court Rejects Expert Value, Imposes Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn what may be the last word on Kaufman v. Commissioner, the Tax Court sustained the IRS’s complete disallowance of charitable deductions claimed for the donation of a façade easement. The case returned to the Tax Court on remand from the First Circuit Court of Appeals to determine the value of the easement and the application of accuracy-related penalties.

The taxpayers’ owned a 150 year-old row house in a designated historic district in Boston, Massachusetts subject to the South End Landmark District Residential Standards (“South End Standards”). In 2003, taxpayers’ entered into an agreement with the NAT to donate a façade easement over the property. The taxpayers contacted an appraiser, recommended by NAT, who appraised the value of the easement. The appraisal concluded that the total loss of value, including the easement and the value of the unused development rights, was $220,800. The taxpayers deducted that amount on their 2004 and 2005 tax returns as a charitable donation of a qualified conservation easement. The Commissioner challenged the deductions with a statutory notice of deficiency.

In Kaufman v. Commissioner, 134 T.C. 182 (2010) (Kaufman I), the Tax Court ruled for the IRS in a motion for partial summary judgment. The Court held that the conservation easement failed to satisfy the “in perpetuity” requirements of the Treasury Regulations. The Court then issued a second opinion making additional findings, disallowing other items and imposing penalties on the remaining issues (Kaufman II). The taxpayers’ appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the Tax Court’s ruling that the taxpayers’ mortgage lender agreement undercut the regulation’s “in perpetuity” requirement as a matter of law (Kaufmann III) and remanded for further consideration of the taxpayers’ charitable contribution deductions under the facts.

The primary issue on remand was the proper valuation of the façade easement. The taxpayers’ valuation expert used a sales comparison analysis with data from three comparable properties. Using the before-and-after method, he determined that the value of the property was $1,840,000 before the grant of the easement. The expert used a “method unique to him and not a generally accepted appraisal or valuation method” to determine that the total value of the property was reduced by 12% or $220,800 when encumbered by the façade easement.

The IRS’s expert discredited the taxpayer’s valuation stating that it was “the fruit of an inappropriate valuation methodology employing a wholly unsupported adjustment factor.” Notably, both the IRS expert and the taxpayer’s expert agreed, “neither the preservation agreement nor the preexisting restrictions hamper the potential for developing the property to its highest and best use…as a single family home.”

The Tax Court gave no weight to the taxpayers’ expert because of his close relationship with NAT, his limited experience appraising façade easements, and his use of a “unique” valuation methodology. The Court also conducted its own comparison of the façade easement restrictions and the South End Standards. The Tax Court found that the agreements were “basically duplicative” and there were no significant additional restrictions placed on the property by the façade easement.

The Court held in favor of the IRS finding that the façade easement had no fair market value when conveyed to NAT. The Tax Court also upheld the IRS’s imposition of accuracy-related penalties.

Read the full opinion here: Kaufman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-52

North Dakota Conservation Easements Prohibited by State Law

us_tax_courtIn a case that highlights the potential conflict between state law and the requirements for the deductible donation of a conservation easement, the Tax Court in Wachter v. Commissioner held that a North Dakota conservation easement failed the “in perpetuity” requirement under IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) because North Dakota state law limits the duration of an easement to 99 years.

The taxpayers, comprised of two sets of couples filing joint returns for the tax years in question, owned varying interests in two partnerships, WW Ranch and Wind River, LLC. The partnerships entered into a cooperative agreement with the Commodity Credit Corporation and the American Foundation for Wildlife to sell conservation easements on multiple parcels from 2004 through 2006.

The taxpayers made three cash gifts to the North Dakota Natural Resource Trust (NRT) totaling $485,650 from 2004-2006. On its partnership returns, WW Ranch reported bargain sales of conservation easements as charitable contributions of $349,000 for 2004, $247,550 for 2005, and $162,500 for 2006. The parties obtained two appraisals to each contributed parcel. Each appraisal valued the property according to a different land use, and the taxpayers used the difference in appraised values to determine the value of the conservation easements.

The IRS issued notices of deficiency disallowing the charitable contribution deductions for both the cash payments to NRT and the property contributions. The IRS filed a motion for partial summary judgment.

Under IRC § 170(h)(1) a contribution of real property is a qualified conservation contribution if:

  1. The property is a “qualified property interest”,
  2. The contributee is a “qualified organization”, and
  3. The contribution is “exclusively for conservation purposes.”

The IRS argued that because the North Dakota state law restricts easements to 99 years the conservation easements cannot satisfy the first and third requirements of IRC § 170(h)(1). The parties agreed that the state law here is unique; it is the only state with a statute that provides for a maximum duration that may not be overcome by agreement.

Under IRC 170(h)(2)(c) a “qualified property interest” means “a restriction (granted in perpetuity) on the use which may be made of the real property. The taxpayers argued that the possibility that the land would revert back to them, WW Ranch, or their successors in interest is the same as a remote future event under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(3) that will not prevent the easements from being perpetual.

A remote future event under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(3) if “on the date of the gift it appears that the possibility that such act or event will occur is so remote as to be negligible.” The Tax Court cited its opinion in 885 Inv. Co. v. Commissioner, defining “so remote as to be negligible” as “a chance which persons generally would disregard as so highly improbable that it might be ignored with reasonable safety in undertaking a serious business transaction.”

The Court granted partial summary judgment on the conservation easement issue in favor of the IRS finding that “on the dates of the donations it was not only possible, it was inevitable that AFW would be divested of its interests in the easements by operation of North Dakota law.” The case will continue to trial on the deductibility of cash contributions to NRT.

Read the full opinion here: Wachter v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 7

Tax Court Denies Taxpayers’ Second Attempt to Avoid Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-38, the Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s request to consider alternative grounds for disallowing deductions conservation easement conveyance. The taxpayer sought to avoid 40% accuracy-related penalties assessed on the disallowance of the deductions in Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-138 (Mountanos I) (see our Summer 2013 newsletter).

In Mountanos I, the taxpayer claimed a $4.9 million deduction return for conveying a conservation easement to the Golden State Land Conservancy. The IRS challenged the easement on multiple grounds, including valuation. The Tax Court found that the conservation easement had no value because the conveyance had no effect on the “highest and best use” of the property. The Court did not consider the respondent’s alternative arguments and imposed a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty.

The taxpayer filed a motion seeking reconsideration of the Court’s decision on the 40% penalty. Relying on prior opinions of the court, the taxpayer argued that the Court should consider alternative grounds that the taxpayer fails to concede as the basis for calculating the penalty.

The Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s motion for reconsideration of the penalties because it would allow the taxpayer to “take two bites at the same apple.” Judge Kroupa also questioned the viability of the cases relied upon by the taxpayers in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Woods. Woods rejected the taxpayer’s reliance on the “Blue Book” formula in an attempt to avoid the gross valuation misstatement penalty.

Read the full opinion here: Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-38

Shea Homes v. Commissioner: Tax Court Allows Homebuilder to Defer Recognition of Income from Home Sales

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Shea Homes, Inc. v. Commissioner, the Tax Court allowed a homebuilder to defer the recognition of income, using the completed contract method under IRC § 460(e)(1)(A), from home sales in a newly constructed development until the entire development was nearly complete.

The specific facts and contracts in Shea were crucial to the court’s determination.

Read the entire opinion here:
Shea Homes, Inc. v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 3 (2014).

Rent-A-Center v. Commissioner: Significant Win for Captive Insurance Companies

Rent-A-Center Logo

In Rent-A-Center, Inc. v. Commissioner, the majority court affirmed deductions for premiums paid to the taxpayer’s Bermuda captive insurance subsidiary, finding that the captive was adequately capitalized with qualified assets that meaningfully shifted risk.  The dissenting judges disagreed with the majority’s conclusions on the facts and the law finding that Rent-A-Center’s captive arrangement did not constitute insurance for tax purposes.  Split decisions in the Tax Court are infrequent and an appeal may be in store.

Read the full opinion here:
Rent-A-Center, Inc. v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 1 (2014)

Famous Fridays: Wesley Snipes, A Lesson in Listening to Bad Advice

1336381705Wesley Snipes was at the center of one of the most publicized tax trials of the last twenty years. Snipes got his start on the small screen with appearances on Miami Vice and in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” music video. His star rose quickly after he appeared as Willie Mays Hayes in the baseball spoof, Major League. He was probably best known for playing the comic book action hero Blade.

Snipes was indicted in 2006 for tax fraud and failure to file returns. His tax problems traced back to the advice of his accountants/tax advisors, Eddie Ray Kahn and Douglas Rosile, who came up with an argument that most of Snipes’ income was exempt from tax. Kahn and Rosile claimed that U.S. citizens could only be taxed on income earned from certain foreign-based activities and not on money made in the U.S. They relied upon a facetious argument which cited IRC § 861 to exclude income earned in the United States by U.S. citizens. This well worn tax protester argument wasn’t new to the courts having been struck down by the Tax Court as early as 1993. See, Solomon v. Commissioner, TC Memo. 1993-509.

Ignoring IRC § 61, and most of the rest of the Internal Revenue Code, Snipes’ advisors argued that only income derived from “taxable activities” is taxable income. They looked to Treas. Reg. § 1.861-8T(d)(2)(iii) to define taxable activities and maintained that, as a United States citizen, Snipes and other clients were not subject to tax on wages derived from sources within the United States. Snipes and his advisors faced a difficult battle given the large volume of Court cases rejecting the IRC § 861 argument and the identification of the argument as a legally frivolous tax return position under IRC § 6702(a).

Snipes pursued his argument in a big way. Snipes filed tax returns though 1999, when presumably he was approached by Kahn and Rosile. He filed amended tax returns seeking $12 million in refunds on taxes he paid in 1996 and 1997. Claiming he had no wages, Snipes stopped filing altogether from 1999 through 2004 – tallying over $15 million in back taxes.

The Department of Justice already had a line on Snipes advisors, having issued a restraining order against Rosile in 2002 for promoting this scheme. After gathering evidence on Snipes, Rosile, and Kahn, the Department of Justice indicted Snipes in 2006. He pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The case went to trial in 2008 with Snipes facing over 16 years in prison. Confident in their case, the defense team did not call any witnesses and rested after less than an hour. Snipes was found not guilty of felony tax fraud, but was convicted of three misdemeanor counts of failing to file tax returns.

In a gesture of good will, Snipes wrote three checks amounting to $5 million to the U.S. Treasury prior to his sentencing. The payments were accepted, but Snipes was still sentenced to three years in prison – the maximum sentence requested by federal prosecutors. He began serving his sentence in 2010 after his appeal requesting a new trial was denied. Kahn and Rosile were not as fortunate. They were sentenced to 10 and 4.5 years, respectively.

Snipes was released from prison in April 2013 to serve the remainder of his three year sentence under house arrest. It looks like he landed on his feet, as he’ll have a role in the movie Expendables 3 slated for release in 2014. Hopefully, he’ll look to § 61 to report his income moving forward.