The trilobites roamed the oceans for about 270 million years, but a charitable donation of fossils of these ancient arthropods failed to survive a single IRS exam. While scientists still ponder what may have caused these rulers of the seas to vanish, there is no doubt about what doomed the charitable deduction.
The fossils were donated by a California veterinarian, a Dr. Isaacs. He donated four fossilized trilobites to the California Academy of Sciences in 2006 and another 8 in 2007, claiming charitable deductions of $136,500 and $109,800.
When you donate appreciated long-term capital gain property to charity, you are allowed to deduct the fair market value of the property without ever including the appreciation in income — an excellent tax result. Because there is obvious abuse potential in this tax break, Congress has imposed strict valuation documentation rules on contributions of assets other than marketable securities if the claimed deduction exceeds $5,000. The Tax Court explains (citations omitted):
First, for all contributions of $250 or more, a taxpayer generally must obtain a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the donee…
Second, for noncash contributions in excess of $500, a taxpayer must maintain reliable written records with respect to each donated item.
Third, for noncash contributions of property with a claimed value of $5,000 or more, a taxpayer must — in addition to satisfying both sets of requirements described above — obtain a “qualified appraisal” of the donated item(s) and attach to his tax return a fully completed appraisal summary on Form 8283. Generally, an appraisal is “qualified” if it (1) is prepared no more than 60 days before the contribution date by a “qualified appraiser”, and (2) incorporates specified information, including a statement that the appraisal was prepared for income tax purposes, a description of the valuation method used to determine the contributed property’s fair market value, and a description of the specific basis for the valuation.
It’s not three strikes and you’re out; failing any of these requirement kills your deduction. Yet our veterinarian whiffed on all three requirements, according to the Tax Court. Regarding the appraisal, the court says:
Both of Dr. Isaacs’ Forms 8283 bear the signature “Jeffrey R. Marshall” in Part III, “Declaration of Appraiser”. Dr. Isaacs called Jeffrey Robert Marshall as a witness at trial. The Court accepted Mr. Marshall as an expert in the valuation of fossils over respondent’s objection.4
Mr. Marshall identified the signature on Dr. Isaacs’ 2006 Form 8283 as his own. He did not, however, recall signing it. He likewise identified his signature on Dr. Isaacs’ 2007 Form 8283 but could not recall signing the form.
Mr. Marshall similarly identified his signature on two letters, dated December 31, 2006 and 2007, that purported to be appraisals of the fossils Dr. Isaacs donated to CAS in 2006 and 2007. But Mr. Marshall did not write or even recognize the letters, and as Dr. Isaacs offered no testimony from any other expert as to the letters’ author, we did not admit them into evidence.
It’s a bad sign when your appraiser denies doing an appraisal. I hope the appraisal fee wasn’t high.
Although he sought to introduce purported appraisals signed by Jeffrey Marshall, whom the Court accepted as an expert in fossil valuation, Mr. Marshall denied that he had written these purported appraisals, and we did not admit them into evidence. We need not decide whether Mr. Marshall was a “qualified appraiser” within the meaning of the regulations because, even if he was, Dr. Isaacs introduced no evidence that Mr. Marshall rendered any appraisals of the donated fossils for him. Dr. Isaacs offered no evidence of any other appraisals of the donated fossils that could satisfy the statutory requirement.
Even if the appraisals had been accepted, the Tax Court said the deduction failed for lack of a contemporaneous acknowledgement meeting tax law requirements (my emphasis):
Jean F. DeMouthe, on behalf of CAS, acknowledged Dr. Isaacs’ contributions in writing, and these letters, each dated for the date on which Dr. Isaacs made the contribution acknowledged therein, were contemporaneous as required by section 170(f)(8)(A) and (C). Under section 170(f)(8)(B)(ii), however, the letters could suffice as contemporaneous written acknowledgments only if they stated whether CAS had provided any goods or services in exchange. Neither letter includes such a statement.
The Moral? When deducting charitable donations, details matter a lot. If you give cash or property for which you will claim a deduction over $250, make sure the charity acknowledges the gift with the magic words saying no goods or services were received in exchange for the gift. And if you are donating property for a donation over $5,000, get your tax advisor involved early to make sure the paperwork and appraisals are done properly and your deductions don’t go the way of the trilobite.
Cite: Isaacs, T.C. Memo 2015-121.
Ben Bristor, Scott Drenkard, Indiana Tackles Throwback Rule and Personal Property Tax (Tax Policy Blog):
While Indiana has one of the lowest corporate tax burdens in the country, the throwback rule very frequently complicates corporate income taxation. In the process of trying to capture nowhere income, multiple states can claim the right to tax the same income, creating more complexity for tax authorities and businesses. By eliminating the rule, Indiana lawmakers have made a major improvement in the state’s tax treatment of corporations.
Good news for taxpayers with Indiana manufacturing operations.
David Brunori, Lessons on How Not to Run Your Government (Tax Analysts Blog):
A very knowledgeable person told me that Brownback set efforts to reduce taxes back 10 years. No one wants to be like Kansas. Liberals might celebrate that outcome — but folks who genuinely believe in more limited government and lower tax burdens will rue the Kansas experiment.
Why would you want to give more power to government when it can even screw up a tax cut?
Paul Neiffer, It Pays to Follow the Rules. “The bottom line is that sophisticated estate plans require taxpayers to follow the rules and as indicated by the Webber case, most of them fail at this and sometimes it can cost a lot of money (in Mr. Webber’s case the cost was close to $1 million).”
Russ Fox, Mr. Hyatt Goes to Washington…Again. “As you may remember, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled last September that the FTB committed fraud against Mr. Hyatt (false representation and intentional infliction of emotional distress), but threw out most of the Mr. Hyatt’s other claims.”
Joseph Thorndike, Jeb Bush Takes a Page From Richard Nixon by Disclosing Personal Tax Returns (Tax Analysts Blog). “As Richard Nixon discovered 63 years ago, financial disclosure can be embarrassing but it’s also good politics.”
Richard Phillips, Chris Christie’s Long History of Opposition to Progressive Tax Policy. (Tax Justice Blog). Considering how high and awful taxes are in New Jersey, I would expect the Tax Justice people to like him more.
Len Burman, The Uneasy Case for a Financial Transaction Tax (TaxVox). When finance markets are global, these taxes are a great way to run financial businesses out while collecting very little tax. Still, Mr. Burman musters faint praise: “An FTT is far from an ideal tax. But compared with other plausible ways of raising new revenue, it doesn’t look so bad.”
TaxProf, The IRS Scandal, Day 783
News from the Profession. Accounting Professor Who Specialized in Ethics Cheated on Lots of His Papers (Caleb Newquist, Going Concern). I wonder if this is the inventor of the take-home ethics exam.