The US Tax Court recently held that a foreign corporation is not subject to US income tax on the sale of a partnership interest where the partnership conducts a US business.  In so holding, the Tax Court rejected a 26 year old Revenue Ruling (Rev Rul 91-32) that reached the opposite conclusion.  For foreign investors in US businesses (that do not own real estate), this is an important decision.

A foreign investor who owns an interest in a partnership that holds US real estate may be subject to US federal income tax on a sale of that partnership interest under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (“FIRPTA”).  For real estate, the IRS has indicated that gain derived by a foreign investor from the disposition of an interest in a partnership is subject to US tax only to the extent it is attributable to US real property interests owned by the partnership.  Regs §1.897-7T(a); Notice 88-72.

In Rev Rul 91-32, the IRS set forth its view that taxation on the sale of a partner’s interest in a partnership can go beyond mere real estate investment and apply to a sale of an interest in a partnership if the partnership is engaged in any US trade or business and has effectively connected income (“ECI”).  In this ruling, the IRS applied the “aggregate” theory of partnership taxation to justify looking through the partnership to its underlying assets in determining the source and character of the partner’s gain.

In July, 2017, the Tax Court issued its decision in Grecian Magnesite, Mining, Industrial & Shipping Co, SA v Comm’r, 149 TC 3The court declined to follow the IRS’s long standing position under Rev Rul 91-32, and held that a non-US person’s gain from the sale of its interest in a partnership engaged in a US trade or business is generally not subject to US federal income tax.

Grecian Magnesite Mining was a privately owned corporation organized under the laws of Greece that sells magnesia and magnesite to customers around the world.  From 2001 through 2008, it was a member of a US LLC that was engaged in the business of extracting, producing, and distributing magnesite in the US.  In 2008, Grecian Mining’s interest in the LLC was completely redeemed, resulting in treating the transaction as a sale or exchange of the membership interest.

The IRS asserted that the capital gain was properly treated as ECI since Grecian Mining was engaged in a trade or business as a result of its investment in the LLC.  Grecian Mining’s position was that the assets of the LLC do not control the character of the gain from a disposition of an interest in the LLC.  The gain should not have been treated as US-source gain and generally cannot be taxed in the US as ECI under the proposition that foreign-source income cannot be ECI except in limited instances that arise from the presence of US real estate under FIRPTA, which only applied to a small part of their gain.

Foreign investors should carefully review their US tax exposure on a sale of a partnership interest before they simply pay tax on their realized gain.  Grecian Magnesite calls into question the validity of Rev Rul 91-32 (though an appeal or non-acquiescence is possible).  A foreign investor should be able to rely on this case to avoid paying tax.  Moreover, foreign investors that have already paid income tax based upon Rev Rul 91-32 may wish to file a refund claim based on this decision.

On November 2, 2015, new partnership audit rules, repealing existing TEFRA rules, were enacted in Section 1101 of the Bipartisan Budget Act (“BBA”).  On August 15, 2016, Treasury published temporary regulations (TD 9780, 81 FR 51795).  The BBA will become effective on January 1, 2018, although partnerships can elect into the new rules retroactively to November 2, 2015.

The new rules have created quite the excitement among certain tax professionals because they shift both the audit and the collection of partnership taxes to the partnership.  Since 1982, partnership audits have been governed by the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (“TEFRA”).  Partnerships with 10 or fewer partners (with some exceptions, such as tiered partnerships) were exempt from TEFRA rules, and were governed by the default partner-level audit regime that existed prior to TEFRA.  What that means is, such small partnership audits were of the K-1’s of the partners who owned interest in the partnership in the years under audit, and correspondingly any adjustments were paid by those “review-year” partners.  For all other partnerships, TEFRA now required that the audit be conducted at the partnership level, which means adjustments were to be made to partnership income and deductions, with amended K-1’s then issued to the review-year partners.  The regime was now partnership-level audits with partner-level assessments.  In other words, those partners whose actions caused the additional tax were the ones responsible for paying it.

In addition, under TEFRA, over-100 partner partnerships could elect to have partnership-level assessments, that is, additional tax paid not by review-year partners but by current, “audit-year” partners (under the Electing Large Partnership Audit rules that were also repealed by the BBA).  This would result in a partnership-level audit and partnership-level assessment.

Unfortunately, over the years the IRS found partner-level collection difficult, and Congress has now responded by consolidating not only the audit but also the collection of tax at the partnership level.  In other words, the collection of tax is now made from audit-year partners, or partners having interest in the partnership in the year it is being audited.  This may be fine for small static family partnerships whose partners do not change, but it is not fine for large dynamic partnerships with ever-changing ownership interests.

A partnership representative (PR), rather than TEFRA’s Tax Matters Partner (TMP), now controls the conduct of the audit at the partnership level.  Neither the IRS nor the PR is statutorily obligated to give notice or audit rights to the other partners, a response to the IRS’ desire to streamline the audit without too many administrative hurdles.

An additional change in IRS’ favor is that there is no longer an automatic exemption from the consolidated audit for under-10 partnerships.  Now the burden is on the partnership to make an annual election out of the BBA rules under Section 6221 of the Internal Revenue Code.  The election can only be made by partnerships having fewer than 100 partners and those partners have to be individuals, C corporations, S corporations, tax-exempt entities or estates of partners.  When such an election out of the BBA is made and an audit arises that year, the partnership will essentially have a pre-TEFRA audit at the partner-level (as had been the case for under-10 partnerships under TEFRA).  The catch?  If the partnership has other partnerships or trusts as partners, it cannot elect out of the BBA consolidated rules no matter its size or preference.

If a partnership cannot elect out of the BBA rules because of its size or composition of its partners, it can still elect under Section 6226 to “push-out” payments of the additional tax assessed from the audit-year to the review-year partners.  The push-out election essentially replicates the TEFRA regime of partnership-level audit and partner-level payment.

Note that the rules are not clear on whether multi-tier partnerships can push-out payment to the ultimate partners.  The IRS has indicated the push-out will not automatically reach the ultimate partners unless the partnership can provide sufficient information about the tiers of income and loss allocations.

The new rules upend the status quo, affect countless existing partnership agreements, and create additional liability for purchasers of partnership interests.  At the same time, the new rules potentially create additional leverage for controlling partners.  All these considerations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to amend existing agreements and draft robust new ones for the future under the new regime.

Today is Giving Tuesday, so today’s blog post focuses on ensuring that you are doing everything necessary to receive your charitable deduction, especially in light of a recent court decision. In a case that was decided just two weeks ago, the Tax Court found that a taxpayer could not take a deduction for contributions of more than $250 made to a charity either because the taxpayer did not receive a written acknowledgement from the charity or because the taxpayer did not have a contemporaneous acknowledgement.

We frequently advise charities on preparing written acknowledgements to be sent to donors. There are many charities that ensure that their donors are receiving these acknowledgements as soon as the donations are received. However, there are many smaller charities that may not be aware of this requirement or may fail to send the acknowledgement unless a donor requests it. Therefore, the donor must be informed and be sure to ask for an acknowledgement at the time of his or her donation.

When making a donation of more than $250, the donor should request a written acknowledgement from the organization that is on the organization’s letterhead and contains (1) the name of the organization, (2) the amount of the cash contribution, (3) a description of any non-cash contribution, (4) a statement that no goods or services were provided by the organization (if that was the case), and (5) a description and good-faith estimate of any services or goods received in return for a contribution.

The acknowledgment will be considered “contemporaneous” if received by the earlier of the date on which the donor actually files his or her federal income tax return for the year of the contribution or the due date of the return.

The Supreme Court has recently struck down state bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 US ___ (2015), after previously striking down the federal exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage-related laws in US v. Windsor, 570 US ___ (2013).  The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has now followed suit to recognize same-sex marriage for all federal tax purposes, including income, estate, gift, generation-skipping, and employment tax.

On October 23, proposed regulations were published in the Federal Register, which redefine the terms “husband” and “wife” under Section 7701(17).  Both terms will now mean an individual lawfully married to another individual, and the term “husband and wife” will mean two individuals lawfully married to each other. These definitions would apply regardless of sex.  Prop Reg § 301.7701-18(a).  The IRS is accepting comments for a limited time.

However, the proposed regulations redefining marriage will not apply to domestic partnerships, civil unions or other relationships. Prop Reg § 301.7701-18(c).  The couples’ choice to remain unmarried is respected by the IRS as deliberate, for example, for purposes of preserving eligibility for government benefits or avoiding the tax marriage penalty.  Preamble to Prop Reg 10/21/2015.  In addition, a marriage conducted in a foreign jurisdiction will be recognized for federal tax purposes only if the marriage would be recognized in at least one state, possession, or territory of the United States.  Preamble to Prop Reg 10/21/2015.

The Presiding Judge of the New Jersey Tax Court held in favor of Melvin and Kimberly-Lawton Milligan last week, ruling that they can proceed with their claims against the State of New Jersey, Division of Lottery challenging the retroactive taxation of their lottery winnings.

On June 9, 2000, Melvin Milligan won the top prize in the Big Game Drawing totaling approximately $46 million. When Mr. Milligan won and claimed his New Jersey Lottery prize, winnings from the New Jersey Lottery were specifically excluded by statute from taxable income under the New Jersey Gross Income Tax Act, N.J.S.A. § 54A:l-l, et seq. After consulting with counsel, and in reliance on the State tax laws in existence at that time, Mr. Milligan opted to receive his prize in 26 annual installments of approximately $1,769,000 each.

Mr. Milligan received the agreed-upon installments without issue until 2009, when the State of New Jersey amended the law to subject New Jersey Lottery winnings over $10,000 to the New Jersey Gross Income Tax. This amendment was enacted on June 29, 2009, but made effective retroactively as of January 1, 2009. As a result, beginning tax period 2009, and every year thereafter, Mr. Milligan and his wife, Kimberly-Lawton Milligan, began reporting the New Jersey Lottery winnings as income and paying the applicable tax in excess of $133,000 each year. The Milligans dispute New Jersey’s right to collect income tax on their prize money – a prize won over nine years before the change in the law – and have filed a lawsuit against the State of New Jersey, Division of Taxation and State of New Jersey, Division of Lottery. The Milligans allege breach of contract, violations of both the United States Constitution and New Jersey State Constitution, as well violations of the common-law “manifest injustice” doctrine based on the retroactive application of the tax.

On February 24, 2015, the Honorable Patrick DeAlmeida, Presiding Judge of the Tax Court in Trenton, New Jersey, ruled that the Milligans can proceed with their lawsuit against the Division of Lottery who sought to dismiss the Millgans’ action for failure to state a claim. In his opinion, Judge DeAlmeida held that “[a]n inference can be drawn” that the Milligans were induced to play the lottery and that “the Division of State Lottery breach[ed] the resulting contract when in 2009 it paid [the Milligans] less than the contractually agreed upon sum certain.” Rejecting the Division of Lottery’s arguments, the Court further held that “[t]he Complaint without question suggests a contract claim against the Division of State Lottery … based on legal precedents recognizing a contractual relationship between the bearer of a winning lottery ticket for the June 9, 2000 drawing and the Division of State Lottery.” A copy of the full opinion can be found 

Cole Schotz represents the Milligans as well as over two dozen other plaintiffs who are similarly challenging the State’s retroactive taxation on their lottery winnings. The Court’s ruling in Milligan applies across the board. For more information, please contact Steven Klein, Lauren Manduke, Jeffrey Schechter, or Geoffrey Weinstein at (201) 489-3000.