The wages of sin have gone up for west-coast couples who choose to live together without benefit of clergy, and who happen to own expensive west-coast houses. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that unmarried couples can deduct interest on $2.2 million in home mortgage debt on a shared residence — twice the allowance for a married couple.
The appeals court overruled a Tax Court decision involving an unmarried couple, a Mr. Voss and a Mr. Sophy. The court lays out the basic facts:
Voss and Sophy purchased the Beverly Hills home in 2002. They financed the purchase of the Beverly Hills home with a $2,240,000 mortgage, secured by the Beverly Hills property. About a year later, they refinanced the mortgage by obtaining a new loan in the amount of $2,000,000. Voss and Sophy are jointly and severally liable for the refinanced Beverly Hills mortgage, which, like the original mortgage, is secured by the Beverly Hills property. At the same time as they refinanced the Beverly Hills mortgage, Voss and Sophy also obtained a home equity line of credit of $300,000 for the Beverly Hills home. Voss and Sophy are jointly and severally liable for the home equity line of credit as well.
The total average balance of the two mortgages and the line of credit in 2006 and 2007 (the two taxable years at issue) was about $2.7 million — $2,703,568.05 in 2006 and $2,669,135.57 in 2007.
Between the two owners, the federal tax benefit at stake for the extra deduction over two years was around $56,000, if I read the Tax Court case correctly. The Tax Court ruled against the couple, saying the tax law
…appears to set out a specific allocation of the limitation amounts that must be used by married couples filing separate tax returns, thus implying that co-owners who are not married to one another may choose to allocate the limitation amounts among themselves in some other manner, such as according to percentage of ownership.
The Ninth Circuit found otherwise:
We hold that 26 U.S.C. § 163(h)(3)’s debt limit provisions apply on a per-taxpayer basis to unmarried co-owners of a qualified residence. We infer this conclusion from the text of the statute: By expressly providing that married individuals filing separate returns are entitled to deduct interest on up to $550,000 of home debt each, Congress implied that unmarried co-owners filing separate returns are entitled to deduct interest on up to $1.1 million of home debt each.
The statute is surprisingly unclear on this. It is hard to believe that Congress wanted to give wealthy unmarried couples a special deal, but legislative incompetence is not surprising at all. I expect that the IRS will continue to enforce the $1.1 million limit outside the Ninth Circuit. Still, any cohabiting taxpayers who have lost deductions because of the limit should file protective refund claims for open years; it may eventually take a Supreme Court decision, or additional legislation, to settle the issue.
The moral? For some power couples, matrimony may have a tax cost.
This case also shows that the real beneficiaries of the home mortgage deduction tend to be the very wealthy. As the Tax Foundation explains:
Despite the claims of various industry groups that the home mortgage interest deduction is an important factor promoting broad-based home ownership, IRS data show the bulk of mortgage interest deductions are claimed by a relatively small fraction of Americans with incomes well above average. As a result, it is likely that the deduction primarily encourages larger and more expensive homes among a relatively small share of taxpayers, rather than promoting broad-based home ownership among ordinary Americans.
Better to eliminate the tax break and lower rates for everyone. I won’t hold my breath, because I think the politics are impossible despite the unwisdom of the policy. If there is a national policy argument for subsidizing the purchase of $2 million Hollywood homes for unmarried couples, it must be fabulous.
Update: Additional coverage from TaxProf (Ninth Circuit Gives Unmarried Couples Double The Mortgage Interest Deduction Available To Married Couples.) and Instaupundit (PUNISH THE BOURGEOISIE!)
Robert D. Flach, THE TAX PRACTITIONERS BILL OF RIGHTS. “The National Society of Accountants (the ‘other’ NSA) has developed a ‘Tax Practitioners Bill of Rights’ in response to continued IRS budget cuts and the recent serious decline in IRS ‘customer service’.”
Mitch Maahs, Deadline Days Shuffle for Many Business Tax Returns (Davis Brown Tax Law Blog)
Russ Fox, Criminal Charges Dropped Against Roni Deutch. Ms. Deutch was one of the biggest players in the “pennies on the dollar” industry, as seen on TV! which collapsed in a pile of lawsuits, lost up-front payments, and disappointed tax debtors. “California has dropped the criminal indictments, and instead of paying $34 million she’ll be paying $2.5 million in the civil suit (per her lawyer).”
Kay Bell, Bush brothers’ barbecue and tax banter. “The only thing we Texans take more seriously than our football (high school, college and pro) and politics (equally crazy at local, state and federal levels) is our barbecue.”
Peter Reilly, Bristol Palin At Heart Of IRS Scandal – Who Knew?
Andrew Lundeen, Six Changes Every Tax Reform Plan Should Include (Tax Policy Blog):
- Make the Tax Rates competitive for Businesses
- Move to a Territorial Tax System
- Correctly Define Business Income with Full Expensing
- Integrate the Corporate and Individual Tax Systems
- Create Universal Savings Accounts
- Repeal the Estate Tax
For my clients, 1, 3 and 4 are the big deals.
Renu Zaretsky, Simple Is as Simple Does. Today’s TaxVox headline roundup talks about taxes in debates. Also: shockingly, New Jersey’s film industry is surviving the loss of the 20% production tax credit.
Cara Griffith, A Look at Information Sharing Agreements Between the IRS and States (Tax Analysts Blog)
Wanting a charitable deduction in the worst way. The Des Moines Register relates a state auditor report that a University of Northern Iowa clerk took cash deposits and wrote checks to the University to claim as charitable deductions or business expenses:
She allegedly told the adviser that she intended for the check to appear as if it were a donation for tax purposes, saying that she “had always done it that way,” according to the report.
In one instance, Shannon admitted to auditors that a check she had written in lieu of cash for $1,002 was from a construction business account, and a note was made on the check to indicate a business expense. Cash was split evenly between her husband and his brother as a distribution from the company.
However, the report says she did not explain why the check’s memo line indicated it was a donation.
Needless to say, that doesn’t work. The obvious problem here is that for a check over $250, you don’t get a deduction unless you get a letter from the donee saying you got nothing in exchange for the check. Here, it seems that the “donor” got $1,002 in exchange for the $1,002 “donation.” That isn’t worth much as a deduction, if my math is correct.