Thursday, July 8, 2010

Grace? No, not that girl!

Faced with the immensity of the IRC --- the Internal Revenue Code---, it’s no wonder that tax consulting and preparation businesses thrive. Most productive people, especially those in business for themselves, rely on CPAs, enrolled agents, public accountants, attorneys, and other professional tax preparation businesses and firms (and some not-so-professional). Everybody knows what H&R Block and J.K. Harris firms do. Many have relied on firms like KPMG, perhaps to their everlasting chagrin.

The U.S. Legislature and the Administration, no matter what party runs the government, promise tax simplification. Without equivocating, they have “simplified” income taxes and related forms beyond understanding . . . especially for those unwilling or unable to spend time and attention—significant time and considerable attention. Where do you fit in relative to this scheme? Let me give some scope to Doug’s quandary—or yours. Our tax system is premised upon a simple notion: income. All income, from whatever source derived, is taxable (IRC §61 ). If you find money hidden in the workings of the old piano you plunked on as a girl when you visited Aunt Betty and that she bequeathed to you, such money is income to you. Not only is the money in the piano income, but so is the value of the piano. And if you trade your knowledge of graphic design to a friend, promising to help with a brochure in exchange for him moving your inherited piano, guess what? You’ve got it. The value of the exchange is income . . . to you and him. It’s the old cliché; they’ve got you coming and going.

“Whoa,” I hear you saying, “that doesn’t sound right. I don’t think my folks paid any tax when they inherited that money from Gramps.”

Well, that’s where “grace” comes into it—not your old girlfriend, Grace, but grace, the disposition to be generous or helpful; goodwill. No matter who’s running the government, they want to be seen as generous and helpful. To be seen that way, but not necessarily to be so, that is. So when there’s a hurricane and consequent flooding, elected officials wander out hoping to be seen as bighearted and taking control. (The judiciary is a little different; they want to be perceived as erudite, fair and just.) In any event, the legislature grants some generosities to be helpful with the tax system and the administration also puts its stamp on them, grudgingly or not. It’s often nothing more than a sophisticated exercise in social engineering. Grace is often granted to the rich and powerful, a special interest group, or to some “special” situation. It all must have some semblance of equity and fairness.

All income is taxable, but by grace allowances are made. One grace eliminates the value of that inherited piano from taxation. Freelancers like Doug or you or me have lots to consider. First, do we have any income? If not, it’s moot; it is, after all, an income tax. We don’t need graces with no income. But if we have income, it’s important to consider its source. Why? Well, the graces generally relate back to the source of the income. That piano’s value is not taxable because lawmakers decided inheritances wouldn’t be taxed.

How about the money hidden in that piano? What does its taxation depend upon? I hope you’re saying, “Whether or not the legislature granted a grace.” Well, in this case there is no grace. The windfall is taxable.

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