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.

In a case of first impression, the Tax Court held that the U.S.–Canada Tax Treaty (Treaty) did not exempt a Canadian citizen from U.S. income tax on the unemployment compensation she received from the State of Ohio. Pei Fang Guo v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 14. The taxpayer came to the U.S. in 2010 as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati. She worked at UC from 2010 through 2011 on a nonimmigrant professional visa. When her employment contract ended in November 2011, she returned to Canada after she was unable to find other work in the U.S., where she stayed through 2012. When her UC employment contract ended, the taxpayer applied to the State of Ohio for unemployment compensation, which she received in 2012. When the taxpayer filed her 2012 U.S. tax return, she took the position that her unemployment compensation was exemption from income tax under Article XV of the Treaty. Instead, she reported the unemployment compensation on her Canadian tax return. The IRS disagreed, and the taxpayer filed a petition in Tax Court.

Tax Court SealThe Tax Court said that the taxpayer was a nonresident alien in 2012, which means she was neither a U.S. citizen nor resident. Generally, nonresident aliens must pay U.S. tax on their U.S.–source income. Everyone agreed that the taxpayer’s unemployment compensation was U.S.–source income. As a result, the only question left for the Tax Court to decide was whether the taxpayer’s unemployment compensation was exempt from U.S. income tax under the Treaty. But the Treaty does not mention unemployment compensation, except to say it does not count as social security.

The taxpayer focused her argument on the term “remunerations” in Article XV of the Treaty. Article XV governs the treatment of “salaries, wages, and other similar remunerations derived . . . in respect of an employment.” But the Treaty does not define “remunerations” either, so the Tax Court turned to the Code. “Remuneration” appears twice in the Code. Section 3401(a) says that “the term ‘wages’ means all remunerations . . . for services performed by an employee for his employer,” and section 3121(b) says that the “term ‘wages’ means all remuneration for employment.”

The Tax Court held that, just as unemployment compensation is not the same thing as “wages,” unemployment compensation does not constitute “similar remuneration derived. . . in respect to employment” under Article XV. The taxpayer wasn’t employed by UC when she received her unemployment compensation. And she did not receive it from her former employer.  She received it from the State of Ohio. As a result, the Tax Court concluded she was required to pay U.S. taxes on her unemployment compensation.

The Tax Court’s recent decision in Linde v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-180, brought good news to taxpayers working outside the United States. In Linde, the Tax Court held that Linde, who worked for a government contractor in Iraq, could exclude the income he earned in Iraq under the foreign earned income exclusion of section 911. Linde served in the military for almost 25 years as helicopter pilot and instructor. After he retired from the military, he began working for a government contractor called DynCorp in Iraq flying government officials around the country. Linde’s work schedule in Iraq was strenuous. He worked 60 to 90 days straight before getting 30 days off. During his 30 day breaks, DynCorp required Linde to leave Iraq. Linde lived in Iraq for 248 days in 2010, 240 days in 2011, and 249 days in 2012. He spent his breaks with his wife and children at their home in Alabama. He kept his vehicles, voter registration, and driver’s license in Alabama too. On his return, Linde claimed he could exclude the income he earned in Iraq between 2010 and 2012 under the foreign earned income exclusion of section 911. The IRS disagreed.

Tax CourtSection 61 says that gross income includes “all income from whatever source derived.” United States citizens must pay tax on their income – even income earned outside the United States – unless there is a specific exclusion. Section 911(a) provides just such an exclusion. It allows a “qualified individual” to exclude from gross income his foreign earned income (subject to annual limitations). To be eligible, a taxpayer must meet two requirements. First, his “tax home” must be in a foreign country. Second, he must be either (1) a “bona fide resident” of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period which includes an entire taxable year or (2) be physically present in one or more foreign countries for at least 330 days during a 12-month period. Linde agreed that he did not meet this physical presence test, so to win, he had to show that his tax home was in Iraq and he was a bona fide resident there during the years at issue.

A taxpayer’s “tax home” is generally his principal place of employment. For Linde, that was Iraq.  The concept of a “tax home” can become murky though. A taxpayer cannot have a tax home in a foreign country if his “abode” is in the United States. To determine Linde’s “abode”, the Tax Court compared his ties to the United States to his ties to Iraq, and found that his ties to Iraq were stronger. He spent two-thirds of each year there; he opened a bank account and accepted a promotion there. He used his free time to make improvements to his living quarters and visit local markets and restaurants. The IRS focused on the fact that Linde owned a home in Alabama and visited his family there. But the Tax Court pointed out that Linde did not have the same opportunities to be a pilot in the United States as he did in Iraq because of his age. It also noted that Linde would have wanted his family to meet him in Europe, but his son-in-law – an Army veteran who was seriously injured fighting in Iraq – made traveling overseas difficult for Linde’s family. That was enough, and the Tax Court held that Linde’s abode was not in the United States, and that his tax home was in Iraq.

As for the second requirement – whether Linde was a bona fide resident of Iraq – the Tax Court focused on the fact that Linde planned to stay in Iraq indefinitely (in fact, he was still working in Iraq when the trial rolled around). He spent two-thirds of each year there; he left during his breaks because DynCorp required him to leave. The court did not buy the IRS’ argument that Linde’s employment was not indefinite because he only signed one-year contracts. Linde’s contracts were routinely renewed and the expectation was that he would stay indefinitely. The IRS also thought it was important that Linde did not plan to retire in Iraq. But the Tax Court was satisfied because Linde did not plan to retire soon. That means Linde was a bona fide resident of Iraq, and he could exclude the income he earned there.

The Tax Court has issued its long-awaited decision addressing captive insurance arrangements. In Avrahami v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 7 (2017), the Tax Court held that payments made from a number of businesses owned by the Avrahamis to a microcaptive insurance company that was wholly-owned by Mrs. Avrahami were not for “insurance,” and thus were not deductible as insurance premiums paid. Here is what you need to know.

Captive Insurance Generally

Amounts paid for insurance are deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses. Insurance companies are generally taxed on the insurance premiums they receive. However, small insurance companies that satisfy certain requirements are eligible to make a section 831(b) election, in which case they are only taxed on their taxable investment income (which does not include premiums received). For 2009 and 2010, an insurance company other than a life insurance company that had written premiums that did not exceed $1.2 million could elect to be taxed under section 831(b) as long as they met all other requirements.

A pure captive insurance company is one that only insures the risks of companies related to it by ownership. A captive insurance company that is eligible to make a section 831(b) election (referred to as a “microcaptive”) does not pay tax on the premiums it receives. Thus, if a business owner creates a microcaptive that insures only the risks of the business owner’s business, the business is able to deduct up to $1.2 million for insurance premiums paid to the related microcaptive while the microcaptive does not pay tax on the premiums received. However, the premiums are only deductible if the payments are for “insurance,” which begs the question: what is “insurance”? This is the question Avrahami addressed in the context of payments made to microcaptives.

Case Background

The Avrahamis owned jewelry stores and commercial real estate companies (the “Avrahami Entities”). In November 2007, they created an insurance company (the “Captive”) to insure the risks of the Avrahami entities. The Captive was wholly-owned by Mrs. Avrahami. In 2009 and 2010 – the years at issue in this case – the Avrahami entities paid the Captive premiums for direct insurance policies of approximately $730,000 and $810,000, respectively, for policies covering seven types of risk including: administrative actions, business risk indemnity, business income protection, employee fidelity, litigation expense, loss of key employee, and tax indemnity. In addition to its direct policies, the Captive participated in a risk distribution program with other small captive insurance companies through Pan American. Through Pan American’s risk distribution program, the Avrahami Entities paid approximately $360,000 to Pan American for terrorism coverage only. Pan American then reinsured all of the risk it had assumed and would make sure that the Captive received reinsurance premiums equal to the amount paid by the Avrahami Entities to Pan American ($360,000), and in exchange the Captive would reinsure a small percentage of Pan American’s total losses. In total, the Avrahamis deducted approximately $1.1 million and $1.3 million in 2009 and 2010, respectively, for insurance premiums paid from the Avrahami Entities to the Captive or Pan American for both direct policies and for the terrorism coverage obtained through the risk distribution program. Only the Avrahami Entities were covered by the direct policies while over 100 insureds were included in the risk distribution program.

The IRS argued that neither the Captive nor Pan American sold “insurance”, meaning the premiums paid by the Avrahami Entities were not deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses. The Tax Court agreed.

The Court’s Analysis

To be considered insurance, the arrangement must: (1) involve risk-shifting; (2) involve risk-distribution; (3) involve insurance risk; and (4) meet commonly accepted notions of insurance. The Tax Court analyzed only two of these elements: risk distribution and commonly accepted notions of insurance.

Risk distribution occurs when the insurer pools a large enough collection of unrelated risks. The Tax Court looked to the number of companies the Captive insured and the “number of independent risk exposures” (i.e., how many policies does the Captive issue and what do those policies cover). Ultimately, the Court determined that insuring 3 companies in 2009 and 4 in 2010, issuing 7 direct policies that covered 3 jewelry stores, 3 commercial real estate companies, 2 key employees, and 35 other employees did not cover a sufficient number of risk exposures to achieve risk distribution through the affiliated entities. The Court distinguished the facts present in this case from other cases where they have determined that insurers adequately distributed risk.

The Avrahamis argued that they adequately distributed risk because, in addition to the Captive insuring the Avrahami Entities, the Captive participated in the Pan American risk distribution program and reinsured third-party risk. The Court determined that Pan American was not a bona fide insurance company in the first place, meaning the policies it issued were not “insurance” and the Captive could not have distributed risk by reinsuring policies that were not insurance to begin with. The Court looked to a number of factors to determine whether Pan American was a bona fide insurance company, ultimately concluding that it was not for the following reasons:

  • There was a circular flow of funds. Avrahami Entities paid Pan American, Pan American turned around and reinsured all of the risk it had assumed, making sure that the Captive received reinsurance premiums equal to those paid by the Avrahami Entities. Thus, money was effectively transferred from an entity owned by the Avrahamis (one of the Avrahami Entities) to an entity wholly-owned by Mrs. Avrahami (the Captive).
  • The premiums charged for terrorism coverage were “grossly excessive”. The only policy Pan American issued was for terrorism coverage, and the policy was worded in a way that it was highly unlikely that the triggering event would ever occur.
  • Pan American charged high premiums for an event that was unlikely to ever occur (and had never occurred in the past), and if the event did occur Pan American may have not been able to pay the claims.
  • Because the risk distribution program was not recognized by the Court, when the Court reviewed the direct policies it determined that on a stand-alone basis they also did not adequately distribute risk because the direct policies only covered the Avrahami Entities and the combination of risks and entities covered by the direct policies did not distribute risk among an adequate number of independent insurance risks.

For these reasons, the Court concluded that the Captive did not adequately distribute risk.

The Tax Court then analyzed whether the Captive met commonly accepted notions of insurance, which required the Court to work through a number of factors. The Court determined that the Captive was not selling insurance in the commonly accepted sense. The Court explained:

  • The Captive did not operate like an insurance company. No claims were filed until the IRS began its audit. The Captive only invested in illiquid, long-term loans to related parties and failed to get regulatory approval before transferring funds to them.
  • The Captive returned substantial portions of its surpluses to the insureds and owners of the insured through various loans and distributions.
  • The Captive policies were questionable because they were unclear and contradictory.
  • The Captive charged unreasonable premiums even though an actuary priced the policies. The Court did not find the actuary’s pricing methodology at all persuasive, noting that the actuary consistently chose inputs that would generate higher premiums. The Court noted that before creating the Captive, the Avrahami Entities paid $150,000 for commercial insurance policies. After creating the Captive, the Avrahami Entities paid $1.1 million and $1.3 million in 2009 and 2010, and paid $90,000 for a commercial insurance policy.

As a result, the Court concluded that payments made from the Avrahami Entities to the Captive and Pan American were not for insurance, and thus were not deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.

It is worth noting that the Captive was incorporated under the laws of the Caribbean nation of Saint Christopher and Nevis (St. Kitts). The Captive made a section 953(d) election to be treated as a domestic corporation for federal income tax purposes, and also made an election to be taxed as a small insurance company under section 831(b). However, since the Captive’s policies were not for “insurance”, both elections were invalid, and it was thus treated as a foreign corporation for federal income tax purposes. The parties stipulated that the taxable premiums earned by the Captive were not subject to U.S. Federal income tax.

Impact on Continuing IRS Scrutiny of Captive Insurance Arrangements

For several years, the IRS has devoted significant resources to examinations of captive insurance arrangements and numerous cases are the subject of Tax Court petitions.  There are several cases pending in the Tax Court post-trial.  The IRS increased its scrutiny of microcaptives when it issued Notice 2016-66, requiring self-reporting by taxpayers engaging in captive insurance arrangements where there has been a low incidence of claims or where significant loans have been made to related parties. In light of the Avrahami decision, the IRS is likely to continue devoting resources to scrutinizing and challenging captive insurance arrangements it believes are abusive.