Charitable Contributions

The IRS has been cracking down on conservation easement transactions for over ten years. Nevertheless, taxpayers have continued to claim charitable contribution deductions attributable to the donation of conservation easements and promoters have continued to assemble investments utilizing conservation easement charitable deductions. The IRS began focusing on syndicated conservation easement transactions when it issued Notice 2017-10, designating syndicated conservation easement transactions as listed transactions. These syndicated investments involve the use of partnerships to raise funds from investors, who are allocated a share of a charitable contribution deduction attributable to conservation easements donated on land owned by the partnership. In fall of 2018, the IRS doubled down on its attacks of these investments when syndicated conservation easements were added to the list of LB&I compliance campaigns. While the IRS continues to crack down on these arrangements, taxpayers have continued litigating the finer points of these transactions. On the flipside, DOJ has begun cracking down on promoters who market these transactions. Below are details on the most recent developments.

Pine Mountain Preserve v. Comm’r

This case involves three conservation easements covering various portions of an assemblage of over 2,000 acres of land. The land was located in what sounds like a beautiful location in Alabama for development of recreational and horse properties. Over three years, three different easements were granted on various portions of 1,300 of the 2,000 acres. The first two easements reserved the right to allow for small parcels of development, in a location to be agreed upon between the property owner and the charity holding the easement.

Relying on its prior rulings in Belk v. Comm’r, 140 T.C. 1 (2013), supplemented by T.C. Memo. 2013-154, aff’d 774 F.3d 221 (4th Cir. 2014) and Bosque Canyon Ranch v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2015-130, vacated and remanded sub nom. 867 F.3d 547 (5th Cir. 2017), the court determined that the first two easements did not a qualified real property interest due to the uncertainty created by the reservation to create pockets of development on the property subject to the conservation easement. [We note that the Tax Court was not persuaded by the Fifth Circuit opinion in Bosque Canyon and declined to follow it since this case is not appealable to the Fifth Circuit.] However, while the third easement contained a reservation for installing a water tower, it did not allow for the parties to choose after the easement areas for development within the easement area. Thus, the third easement was determined to be a qualified real property interest.

Valuation of the third easement was discussed in a Memorandum opinion issued simultaneously with the full Tax Court opinion addressing the validity of the easement. The court found the taxpayer’s expert overvalued the potential development of the property in determining the value of the easement but that the IRS expert undervalued the easement by ignoring the development potential of the property. The court went to great lengths to discuss in detail the misgivings of both valuation expert’s opinions but the result for the taxpayer was not horrible. In the end, the court valued the easement based on 50% of the value determined by both experts. Considering this meant a $4.8 million charitable contribution deduction was allowed, this was not a total loss for the taxpayer.

Wendell Falls v. Comm’r

Sometimes developers want open space or a park included in a master plan for a residential community as a way to make the community more desirable. In that instance, because the developer expects to benefit as a result of the easement, the law does not allow a charitable contribution deduction, essentially because the contribution lacks donative intent or because the donation lacks value when weighed against the value of the expected benefit. This is exactly what happened in Wendell Falls. Here, a developer chose to place an easement on a parcel of land after it had already designed the parcel as a park in the master plan. In April of 2018, the court determined that because the highest and best use of the eased parcel was as a park, as outlined in the developer’s master plan, the easement requiring it to be preserved as a park did not diminish its value, therefore the easement had no value. However, the court did determine that the taxpayer was not subject to penalties.

The taxpayer asked the court to reconsider several of its findings, arguing that the court should have considered the value of the easement and separately considered the value of the enhancement to the donor’s property separately. The taxpayer also asserted that the receipt of a substantial benefits did not alone result in denial of a deduction and that the highest and best use of the parcel was for development rather than a park, attempting to get the court to reconsider values. On November 20, 2018, the court issued its opinion that the value of the substantial benefit expected was in excess of the value of the easement, and that parkland was the highest and best use of the property based on the proposed development. Unfortunately, the taxpayer lost all of its $1.8 million charitable contribution deduction.

Lawsuits against Promoters

The government had has enlisted another tactic for shutting down conservation easements by bringing actions against the organizers of conservation easement syndication schemes. On December 28, 2018, the Department of Justice filed a compliant in the Northern District of Georgia asserting that a group of defendants assembled partnership which were “nothing more than a thinly veiled sale of grossly overvalued federal tax deductions under the guise of investing in a partnership.” The complaint asserts that the defendants’ conservation easement syndicates have generated $2 billion in conservation easement charitable contribution deductions. The complaint seeks to enjoin the defendants from continuing to promote such schemes, and asks the court to order the defendants to disgorge all profits received as a result of the conservation easement syndicates.

The defendants include a conservation manager/broker dealer, an appraiser, and various professionals associated with EcoVest Capital, Inc., an entity that sponsors real estate investments focused on conservation. The promotional materials mentioned in the compliant set forth an example where in exchange for a $750,000 investment, an investor would receive $2 million of deductions, generating tax savings of $1 million. The syndicates were sold as securities exempt from registration through broker-dealers. The easement syndicates involved properties located in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Caroline, Tennessee, and Texas.

Any taxpayer who may have invested in a syndicated conservation easement through Ecovest or any other investment advisor should carefully review Notice 2017-10 and related the disclosure requirements for listed transactions. Those taxpayers should also consult with a tax attorney to consider strategies for mitigating any damages.

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The Internal Revenue Service today warned taxpayers against scam groups masquerading as charitable organizations, luring people to make donations to groups or causes that don’t actually qualify for a tax deduction. These phony charities, which attempt to attract donations from unsuspecting contributors using a charitable reason and a tax deduction as bait for taxpayers are ranked fifth on the annual IRS “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams. Perpetrators of illegal scams can face significant penalties and interest and possible criminal prosecution. To help protect taxpayers, the IRS-Criminal Investigation Division works closely with the Department of Justice to shut down scams and prosecute the criminals behind them.

Compiled annually by the IRS, the “Dirty Dozen” lists a variety of common scams that taxpayers may encounter any time of the year, but many of these schemes peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns or seek help from tax professionals. To help protect taxpayers, the IRS is highlighting each of these scams on twelve consecutive days to help raise awareness.

The text of today’s announcement from the IRS follows:

The IRS offers these basic tips to taxpayers making charitable donations:

• Be wary of charities with names that are similar to familiar or nationally known organizations. Some phony charities use names or websites that sound or look like those of respected, legitimate organizations. IRS.gov has a search feature, Exempt Organizations Select Check, that allows people to find legitimate, qualified charities to which donations may be tax-deductible. Legitimate charities will provide their Employer Identification Number (EIN), if requested, which can be used to verify their legitimacy through the IRS Select Check.

• Don’t give out personal financial information, such as Social Security numbers or passwords, to anyone who solicits a contribution. Scam artists may use this information to steal identities and money from victims. Donors often use credit cards to make donations. Be cautious when disclosing credit card numbers to those seeking a donation. Confirm that those soliciting a donation are calling from a legitimate charity.

• Don’t give or send cash. For security and tax record purposes, contribute by check or credit card or another way that provides documentation of the donation.

• Consult IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, available on IRS.gov. This free booklet describes the tax rules that apply to making tax-deductible donations. Among other things, it provides complete details on what records to keep to help taxpayers at tax time.

Impersonation of charitable organizations

Another long-standing type of abuse or fraud involves scams that occur in the wake of significant natural disasters.

The IRS encourages taxpayers to donate to recognized charities established to help disaster victims. Following major disasters, it’s common for scam artists to impersonate charities to get money or private information from well-intentioned taxpayers.

Scam artists can use a variety of tactics following a disaster. Some scammers operating bogus charities may contact people by telephone or email to solicit money or financial information. They may even directly contact disaster victims and claim to be working for or on behalf of the IRS to help the victims file casualty loss claims and get tax refunds.

Remember, fraudsters may attempt to get personal financial information or Social Security numbers that can be used to steal the victims’ identities or financial resources. Bogus websites may solicit funds for disaster victims.

Taxpayers can find legitimate and qualified charities with the Select Check search tool on IRS.gov.

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In Palmolive Building Investors, LLC v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 18, the Tax Court denied a charitable contribution deduction of a donated façade easement because the easement deed failed to satisfy the perpetuity requirement of section 170.

Background – Perpetuity Requirement

A contribution of a qualified real property interest is deductible as a qualified conservation contribution if, among other requirements, the contribution is exclusively for conservation purposes. The “exclusivity” requirement is only satisfied if the conservation purposes are protected in perpetuity. To be protected in perpetuity, the interest in the property retained by the donor must be subject to legally enforceable restrictions that will prevent uses of the retained interest inconsistent with the conservation purposes of the donation. The Regulations provide rules for many of these legally enforceable restrictions.

When donated property is subject to a mortgage, the mortgagee must subordinate its rights in the property to the right of the easement holder to enforce the conservation purposes of the gift in perpetuity. If the mortgagee fails to actually subordinate its rights in the property, the perpetuity requirement is not satisfied. Further, if an unexpected change in conditions makes the property’s continued use for conservation purposes impossible or impractical, then the restrictions required to protect the conservation purpose may be extinguished by judicial proceedings. In the event an easement is extinguished and the donor subsequently conveys the property and receives proceeds for it, the donee organization must be guaranteed to receive a certain portion of the proceeds.

Why Deed Failed to Satisfy Perpetuity Requirement in Palmolive Building Investors

In Palmolive Building Investors, Partnership PB (“Partnership”) transferred a façade easement by executing an easement deed (“Deed”) in favor of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (“LPCI”), a qualified organization. The purpose of the deed was to preserve the exterior perimeter walls of a building’s façade. At the time of the execution of the Deed, two mortgages encumbered the building. Before executing the Deed, Partnership secured an ostensible agreement from both mortgagees to subordinate their mortgages in the property to LCPI’s rights to enforce the purposes of the easement. However, the mortgagees’ subordination was limited by a provision in the Deed that gave the mortgagees a prior claim to any insurance and condemnation proceeds until the mortgage was paid off. This limitation proved to be fatal, as certain interests of the mortgagees were not actually subordinated to the interests of LPCI.

The IRS filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing that the easement deed did not satisfy the perpetuity requirement because it gave the mortgagees prior claims to extinguishment proceeds in preference to LPCI. The Tax Court agreed, holding that the easement deed failed to satisfy the perpetuity requirement for two reasons: (1) the mortgages on the building were not fully subordinated to the easement, and (2) LPCI was not guaranteed to receive its requisite share of proceeds in the event that the easement was extinguished and the donor subsequently conveyed the property and received proceeds for it.

It is worth noting that the Tax Court continued to strictly construe the requirement that the donee must be guaranteed to receive a certain portion of proceeds upon extinguishment, as it did in Kaufman v. Commissioner, 134 T.C. 182 (2010) – if a donee is not absolutely entitled to its requisite share of extinguishment proceeds, then the contribution’s conservation purpose is not protected in perpetuity. The First Circuit Court of Appeals has previously expressed its disagreement with this restrictive interpretation. In Kaufman v. Shulman, 687 F.3d 21 (1st Cir. 2012), the First Circuit explained that if any owner donates a facade easement and thereafter fails to pay taxes, a lien on the property arises in favor of the Government, and such lien would not be subordinated to the easement donee’s interest. Because this is always a possibility, a donee will never have an absolute entitlement to proceeds, so the perpetuity requirement will never be satisfied. The Tax Court refused to follow the First Circuit’s interpretation, explaining that it analyzes “conservation restrictions on the basis of property rights and interests that exist when the easement is granted, rather than conducting an analysis based on speculations of property interests that might arise in the future…”

This case illustrates the importance of ensuring that all requirements of section 170 are satisfied when a conservation easement is granted, as the Tax Court also held that the defects in the easement deed were not cured by a provision that sought to retroactively amend the deed to comply with section 170, because the requirements set forth in section 170 must be satisfied at the time of the gift.

You can read the full opinion here, and you can find more discussion on charitable contribution deductions for conservation easements here and here.

August brought three wins for taxpayers who donated conservation easements that were challenged by the IRS.  In all of the cases, terms of the conservation easement deed document carried the day. 

  • In BC Ranch II, L.P. v. Comm’r, No. 16-60068, 2017 BL 282040 (5th Cir. Aug. 11, 2017), the Fifth Circuit overturned a Tax Court decision finding that an easement deed allowing for small boundary adjustments violated the perpetuity requirement of Section 170(h)(2)(C).  The perpetuity requirement provides that, in order to qualify for a charitable contribution deduction for a conservation easement donation, a taxpayer must restrict, in perpetuity, the use which may be made of the real property.  The Fifth Circuit held that the Tax Court’s reliance in Belk  v. Comm’r, 140 T.C 1 (2013), aff’d 774 F.3d 2210 (4th Cir. 2014), to hold that the conservation easement restrictions violated the perpetuity requirement was misplaced because Belk involved a provision where the easement land could be substituted in its entirety for a new parcel of land.  The Fifth Circuit looked at similar cases where small adjustments to the easement were permitted to promote the underlying conservation purpose.  Because that was the case here, the court found that the perpetuity requirement was met.  Addressing the IRS alternative theory that the partners entered into disguised sales for partnership property, the court also determined that the portions of capital contributions made by partners, other than those attributable to the parcels that were distributed to them, were not disguised sales of partnership assets.  
  • Next, in 310 Retail, LLC, v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2017-164, and Big River Development, L.P. v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2017-166, the Tax Court held that the conservation easement deeds at issue met the contemporary written acknowledgement requirement set forth in Section 170(f)(8)(B).  The contemporary written acknowledgement provision requires that, in order to claim a charitable contribution deduction, the donor is required to obtain from the charity a written statement that describes the donation, states whether the charity provides goods and services in exchange for the donation, and, if goods and services were provided, the fair market value of those goods and service.  This documentation must be obtained before the earlier of the due date of the return or the date the return in filed.  In both cases, the donor did not obtain from the charity separate documentation that is traditionally sent to donees with this specific language.  However, because the conservation easement deeds contained language discussing the consideration given and stating that the deed was the complete agreement of the parties (known as a merger clause), the deed itself acknowledged that the charity did not provide goods and services to the donor and therefore satisfied the contemporaneous written acknowledgement requirements. 
  • In all three cases, while the taxpayers now presumably have established the right to claim the charitable contribution deduction, the next step of determining the value of the conservation easement will be a separate battle.