I DON’T WANT TO PAY TAX ON THIS INCOME
Assignment of Income Doctrine
By: J Ronald “Ron” Jackson, MBA, CPA
Under federal income tax law gross income is taxed to the person who earns it or to the owner of property that generates the income. It is not uncommon for a high tax bracket taxpayer to want to shift income to a lower tax bracket family member in order to save on taxes and the income stay within the family unit. Alternatively, one who has appreciated stock or other type of property that he knows will be sold in the near future may wish to save on income taxes by gifting a portion of the property to a lower tax bracket family member who will report the sale at his or her lower income tax bracket. Alternatively, the individual may want a double benefit by gifting the appreciated property to a qualified charity thereby gaining a charitable income tax deduction for the value of the contributed property and being relieved of paying income taxes on the gain from the sale of the gifted property. This shifting of income, if permitted for income tax purposes, may provide considerable income tax savings.
The assignment of income doctrine was developed from court decisions which decided the issues, including the various methods employed in attempting to determine who earned the income. There was a time during the World War II years and thereafter, until around 1963, that the top income tax brackets could be as high as 91% – 93%. In addition to family members, the issues often arose when a high bracket taxpayer would make a gift of property (often the issues were gifts of appreciated stock that were to be sold shortly) to a qualified charity. The taxpayer would then take a charitable income tax deduction and not report the gain as he no longer owned the stock when sold. This shifting of income to a lower bracket taxpayer could have large savings in taxes for the high bracket taxpayer.
A simple example of income earned and taxed to the one who earns the income is when one works for weekly wages. The work week ends on Friday but the actual paycheck is not delivered until the following Wednesday. The wages are earned, for income tax purposes, at the end of the week (Friday). If the individual tells his employer to pay the earned wages to the individual’s mother, and the employer did that, the wages would still be taxed for federal income tax purposes to the individual since he earned the wages. The fact he may have made a gift of his earned wages does not change the income tax treatment as his employer has to include the earned wages on the individual’s W-2 form.
The above is a simple illustration of the doctrine that one who earns the income has to pay income tax on the wages. Let’s look at another situation. Suppose Perry, an individual taxpayer, owns all of the stock ownership in a very successful corporation (Company A) that he has run for many years. Perry is approached by the owners of another corporation (Company B) with an interest in purchasing Perry’s stock ownership in Company A. Negotiations have progressed and a total value has been tentatively negotiated of $5,000,000.00. The actual contract is still to be finalized and there are some remaining details to settle. Perry believes it will be finalized and signed within a reasonably short time. Perry, who is in a very high federal income tax bracket and who is a very civic-minded individual, has been told of the benefit of donating appreciated property to charity. Perry contacts the local Community Foundation and arranges to create the Perry Charitable Fund through the Community Foundation. The charitable fund will provide donations to his church and to other qualified charities that Perry usually supports. Perry then donates fifteen percent of his stock ownership, valued at $750,000.00 to the Community Foundation. Later after negotiations are completed, all of Company A’s stock is sold to Company B for the negotiated price of $5,000,000.00. Perry is happy. He has made a substantial profit from his years of work, made a donation to his favorite charity for which he plans to take a charitable income tax deduction, and will only have to report and pay income tax at capital gain rates on 85% of his stock as he has given 15% away.
Perry files his income tax return for the year and reports his taxable gain on the sale of his 85% ownership interest in Company A. About one year later Perry is audited by the IRS. The IRS agent questions why he did not report gain on the 15% of stock given to the Foundation. Perry replies that he did not own the stock as it was gifted to the charity before the date of the sale. The IRS auditor states that Perry should pay income tax on the gain on the stock given to the Community Foundation since it appears to have been a “done deal” before Perry gave the stock away and for that reason Perry owes income tax on all of the stock. Perry argues that no contracts were signed until weeks after the gift and that the deal could have fallen through at any time before signed by all parties. Perry disagreed with the audit. His tax dispute is now pending before the United States Tax Court. How will the court decide?
Section 61 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that gross income means all income earned from whatever source derived, and then lists several examples such as wages, services rendered, gains from the sales of property, and several other examples. In 1930, the U. S. Supreme Court summarized when addressing who earned income that “The fruits cannot be attributed to a different tree from that on which they grew.” Lucas v. Earl, 281 U.S. 111 (1930). This in effect clarified that gross income is to be taxed to the one that earns it and led to the fact that one cannot avoid paying income tax on earned income by gifting the property that created the income when it has been earned on or before the gift. An example would be when a corporation declares a dividend payable say on November 1st to stockholders of record on October 10th. A stockholder who owned the stock on October 10th is the one who has earned the income even if he or she sells or assigns their stock between October 10th and November 1st. The dividend is taxed to the owner on October 10, the date the dividend was declared.
In Perry’s case he argues that the negotiations were not complete when he made his gift, and that Company B could have backed out of the deal. When the court decides it will consider the stage of the negotiations, whether Company B had the financial backing to complete the deal, whether any contracts or preliminary statements of intent were prepared for review, and how long was the interval between the tentative agreement and the actual sale will all be considered. Situations like these happen from time to time. When the issue arises, it should be discussed in advance of the transaction, if possible, with your legal tax advisors who should be well versed in this area of tax law. One should be aware of the assignment of income doctrine in situations where it could apply in connection with his/her estate planning. What if this had been a publicly traded company?
If you have questions regarding Assignment of Income Doctrine and would like to discuss these issues, please contact Cody Walls, MBA, CPA at Denton Law Firm at 270-450-8253.