Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is My Expression Activity a Trade or Business?

Guess what? Federal income tax law and related regulations don’t define what “trade or business” means. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. I told you there was plenty of mystery in taxation. Ambiguity, it seems, is intentional. Some wit compared an income tax return to a girdle. You put the wrong figure in it and you can get pinched.


Tests to check if a trade or business exists stem mostly from court opinions (primarily from the United States Tax Court or from appeals made from those decisions ). Courts have developed two key definitional elements, one for “profit motive” and the other relating to the “scope” of the activities.

Finding out the motive is a key element in figuring out a mystery, right? A trade or business doesn’t exist unless a taxpayer “enters into and carries on” an activity with a good faith intention to make a profit or in the belief that a profit can be made from the activity. Money is the motive—bottom-line profit. That means you have cash left after all expenses are paid. Faith that an activity will generate a profit doesn’t need to be reasonable. However, simply hoping and wishing it will be profitable absent specific plans suggests that you lack good faith.

Remember the cold-fusion fiasco? The notion that oodles of cheap atomic energy could be produced cheaply and “coldly”? Too good to be true, right? Well, one Burnet Outten, Jr.—I’ll call him Bernie—representing himself without an attorney, took his tax controversy concerning cold fusion and graces relative to it to the U.S. Tax Court in 1984.

Bernie seemed a bit “unusual.”

He didn’t file federal tax returns from 1972 to 1979, for one thing. He had an interest in Western Metal Products Company (Western), a manufacturing concern. Besides manufacturing, according to Bernie, Western conducted atomic energy research. Yet Bernie was the only company participant in such research. Ostensibly, an experiment in 1951 resulted in nuclear fusion. Bernie, however, didn’t “realize” that nuclear fusion had occurred in 1951 until 1961, while doing further research. Bernie purported that Western repeated the 1951 experiment in 1971. Neither Bernie nor Western ever patented any such process.

Bernie believed that the world was created by cold fusion. He seized upon the alleged religious significance of the creation of the world by such process. His legal briefs contained extensive arguments about scientific experimentation and religious freedom. They explored history from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan and from the Bible to reports of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Over the years Bernie often attempted to inform scientists and government officials of his miraculous “discovery,” asserting that it was never duplicated. Some commentators expressed polite interest; others found it . . . well, a joke.

Neither Bernie nor Western received any filthy lucre, let alone profit, from said nuclear fusion “process.” No income relative to it was reported. Western’s income, if any, came only from manufacturing. Nonetheless, by 1978 Western established a $50,000,000 book value for this fusion “process.” On 1977 through 1979 tax returns, Western listed net operating losses of $100,000, $10,000,000, and $5,000,000, respectively. The preparer of the return described these losses as a “write-off of capitalized research work.” Bernie concluded that a grace was justified because government officials ignored him and his “discovery.” It was strange. Sort of like the President of the United States releasing his tax returns which listed the economy as a liability and write-off.

During the audit Bernie listed various actual expenditures—small amounts—that he made during the years involved. He gave the list to IRS. These included mostly expenses for his home office and for his move. IRS attorneys acknowledged that the expenditures were made by Bernie, but scoffed at them falling within any acceptable grace. The Tax Court concurred, saying that Western faced “a multitude of obstacles.” The court focused on just one: profit motive. It said that no income was generated nor was any likely to ever be generated from the fusion activity.

Well, let’s face it. Bernie’s circumstances were “singular.” His mistakes cost him more taxes. He was like a conservative president deducting right-to-lifers as dependency exemptions, accepting his election as a gift, and trying to write off the losses in Iraq. Nonetheless, something can be learned from Bernie’s case. As a man of religion once said, “If you make a mistake, all is not lost. You can always be used as a bad example.” So let’s use Bernie’s case as a bad example. It can teach us what not to do. I’ll summarize some points below and expand upon them in chapters to follow.

First and foremost, figure out how to make money from your expression activity. Have a profit. Bernie didn’t make any money from cold fusion. Make a written plan setting forth how you plan to make a profit from your expression activity. Follow it. If it doesn’t make money, change your plan so you think it will after the change. Keep following the plan and revamping until you make money or decide you can’t make money. If it comes to that, your expression activity becomes increasingly difficult to sell as a trade or business. Eventually, it becomes almost impossible to convince the cynics at IRS.

Second, keep complete and accurate records, both of a financial nature (you know, dollars and cents, checkbooks, receipts, debits and credits, etc.) and non-financial records (like submission databases, contracts, business plans, correspondence with agents, diaries or journals, etc.). From the opinion of the Tax Court in Outten v. Commissioner, it doesn’t appear that Bernie kept very good records of his activities, does it?

Make certain that your expression activity has substance. Don’t be naïve like Bernie was by boasting it hadn’t been duplicated when duplication was the very thing that may have given it some scientific credence. Know the ins and outs of your activity and know how to communicate them.

Another thing; don’t try to hide your expression activity results for tax purposes within some other, perhaps more viable enterprise on your tax return. For instance, it looks as if Bernie tried to make his cold fusion activity transparent by burying it in the Western partnership operations. If you write fiction part time and work as a lawyer most of the time, don’t bury the profit-and-loss statement of your fiction-writing activity within the profit-and-loss of your law practice. Doing so makes you look like a cheat and a ditz. Don’t do it. It’s not savvy. They are separate activities, for pity’s sake.

To be or not to be; that’s the question. To be a trade or business there has to be enough business activity and profit objective. Get them and you’re home free. Such are measured objectively . . . well, that’s what the laws and courts say, anyway. Tax shelters, for example, often have neither sufficient business activity nor profit objective. Many therefore receive no graces. To be certain, a trade or business can exist with no profits in the early years (and sometimes none are earned for many years and yet a court approves), provided there’s a prospective profit sufficient to cover the losses. You don’t have to expect that profits from your expression activity will come immediately or within a short time, but your aim to profit must be genuine. If challenged, you have to be able to persuade the IRS or a court. If you’ve stacked up $100,000 or more of losses over multiple years, you have to be able to convince the IRS (and if not the IRS, then a judge) that your expression activity will earn enough not only to make an annual profit but to recoup your prior losses.

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