Tuesday, September 3, 2019
During this time of financial stress in parts of the agricultural sector, a technique designed to assist a financially troubled farmer has come into focus. When farmland is sold under an installment contract, it’s often done to aid the farmer-buyer as an alternative to more traditional debt financing. But what if the buyer gets into financial trouble and can’t make the payments on the installment obligation and the seller forgives some of the principal on the contract? Alternately, what if the principal is forgiven as a means to pass wealth to the buyer as a family member and next generation farmer? What are the tax consequences of principal forgiveness in that situation?
The Tax consequences of forgiving principal on an installment obligation – it’s the topic of today’s post.
The Deal Case
In 1958, the U.S. Tax Court decided Deal v. Comr., 29 T.C. 730 (1958). In the case, a mother bought a tract of land at auction and transferred it in trust to her three sons-in-law for the benefit of her daughters. Simultaneously, the daughters (plus another daughter) executed non-interest-bearing demand notes payable to their mother. The notes were purportedly payment for remainder interests in the land. The mother canceled the notes in portions over the next four years. For the tax year in question, the mother filed a federal gift tax return, but didn’t report the value of the cancelled notes on the basis that the notes that the daughters gave made the transaction a purchase rather than a gift. The IRS disagreed, and the Tax Court agreed with the IRS. The notes that the daughters executed, the Tax Court determined, were not really intended to be enforced and were not consideration for their mother’s transfers. Instead, the transaction constituted a plan with donative intent to forgive payments. That meant that the transfers were gifts to the daughters. Even though the amount of the gifts was under the present interest annual exclusion amount each year, they were gifts of future interests such that the exclusion did not apply and the full value of the gifts was taxable.
Subsequent Tax Court Decisions
In 1964, the Tax Court decided Haygood v. Comr., 42 T.C. 936 (1964). Here, the Tax Court upheld an arrangement where the parents transferred property to their children and took back vendor’s lien (conceptually the same as a contractor’s lien) notes which they then forgave as the notes became due. Each note was secured by a deed of trust or mortgage on the properties transferred. The Tax Court believed that helped the transaction look like a sale with the periodic forgiveness of the payments under the obligation then constituting gifts.
What did the Tax Court believe was different in Haygood as compared to Deal? In Deal, the Tax Court noted, the property was transferred to a trust and on the same day the daughters (instead of the trust) gave notes to the mother. In addition, the notes didn’t bear interest, and were unsecured. In Haygood, by contrast, the notes were secured, and the amount of the gift at the time of the initial transfer was reduced by the face value of the notes.
A decade later the Tax Court ruled likewise in Estate of Kelley v. Comr., 63 T.C. 321 (1974). This case involved the transfer of a remainder interest in property and the notes received (non-interest- bearing vendor’s lien notes) were secured by valid vendor’s liens and constituted valuable consideration in return for the transfer of the property. The value of the transferred interests were reported as taxable gifts to the extent the value exceed the face amount of the notes. The notes were forgiven as they became due. The IRS claimed that the notes lacked “economic substance” and were just a “façade for the principal purposes of tax avoidance.”
The Tax Court disagreed with the IRS position. The Tax Court noted that the vendor’s liens continued in effect as long as the balance was due on the notes. In addition, before forgiveness, the transferors could have demanded payment and could have foreclosed if there was a default. Also, the notes were subject to sale or assignment of any unpaid balance and the assignee could have enforced the liens. As a result, the transaction was upheld as a sale.
The IRS Formally Weighs In
In Rev. Rul. 77-299, 1977-2 C.B. 343, real property was transferred to grandchildren in exchange for non-interest-bearing notes that were secured by a mortgage. Each note was worth $3,000. The IRS determined that the transaction amounted to a taxable gift as of the date the transaction was entered into. The IRS also determined that a prearranged plan existed to forgive the payments annually. As a result, the forgiveness was not a gift of a present interest.
The IRS reiterated its position taken in Rev. Rul. 77-299 in Field Service Advice 1999-837. In the FSA, two estates of decedents held farm real estate. The executors agreed to a partition and I.R.C. §1031 exchange of the land. After the exchange, the heirs made up the difference in value of the property they received by executing non-interest-bearing promissory notes payable to one of the estates. The executors sought a court order approving annual gifts of property to the heirs. They received that order which also provided that the notes represented valid, enforceable debt. The notes were not paid, and gift tax returns were not filed. Tax returns didn’t report the annual cancellation of the notes. The IRS determined that a completed gift occurred at the time of the exchange and that each heir could claim a single present interest annual exclusion ($10,000 at the time). The IRS determined that the entire transaction was a prearranged plan to make a loan and have it forgiven – a sham transaction. See also Priv. Ltr. Rul. 200603002 (Oct. 24, 2005).
The IRS position makes it clear from a planning standpoint where the donor intends to forgive note payments that the loan transaction be structured carefully. Written loan documents with secured notes where the borrower has the ability to repay the notes and actually does make some payment on the notes would be a way to minimize “sham” treatment.
The Congress enacted the Installment Sales Revision Act of 1980 (Act). As a result of the Act, several points can be made:
- Cancelation of forgiveness of an installment obligation is treated as a disposition of the obligation (other than a sale or exchange). R.C. §453B(f)(1).
- A disposition or satisfaction of an installment obligation at other than face value results in recognized gain to the taxpayer with the amount to be included in income being the difference between the amount realized and the income tax basis of the obligation. R.C. §453B(a)(1)
- If the disposition takes the form of a “distribution, transmission, or disposition otherwise than by sale or exchange,” the amount included in income is the difference between the obligation and its income tax basis. R.C. §453B(a)(2).
- If related parties (in accordance with I.R.C. §267(b)) are involved, the fair market value of the obligation is considered to be not less than its full face value. R.C. §453B(f)(2).
Impact of death. The cancellation of the remaining installments at death produces taxable gain. See, e.g., Estate of Frane v. Comr., 98 T.C. 341 (1992), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 998 F.2d 567 (8th Cir. 1993). In Frane, the Tax Court decided, based on IRC §453(B)(f), that the installment obligations of the decedent’s children were nullified where the decedent (transferor) died before two of the four could complete their payments. That meant that the deferred profit on the installment obligations had to be reflected on the decedent’s final tax return. But, if cancelation is a result of a provision in the decedent’s will, the canceled debt produces gain that is included in the estate’s gross income. See, e.g., Priv. Ltr. Rul. 9108027 (Nov. 26, 1990). In that instance, the obligor (the party under obligation to make payment) has no income to report.
If an installment obligation is transferred on account of death to someone other than the obligor, the transfer is not a disposition. Any unreported gain on the installment obligation is not treated as gross income to the decedent and no income is reported on the decedent's return due to the transfer. The party receiving the installment obligation as a result of the seller's death is taxed on the installment payments in the same manner as the seller would have been had the seller lived to receive the payments.
Upon the holder’s death, the installment obligation is income-in-respect-of-decedent. That means there is no basis adjustment at death. I.R.C. §691(a)(4) states as follows:
“In the case of an installment obligation reportable by the decedent on the installment method under section 453, if such obligation is acquired by the decedent’s estate from the decedent or by any person by reason of the death of the decedent or by bequest, devise, or inheritance from the decedent—
an amount equal to the excess of the face amount of such obligation over the basis of the obligation in the hands of the decedent (determined under section 453B) shall, for the purpose of paragraph (1), be considered as an item of gross income in respect of the decedent; and
such obligation shall, for purposes of paragraphs (2) and (3), be considered a right to receive an item of gross income in respect of the decedent, but the amount includible in gross income under paragraph (2) shall be reduced by an amount equal to the basis of the obligation in the hands of the decedent (determined under section 453 B).”
But, disposition (sale) at death to the obligor is a taxable disposition. I.R.C. §§691(a)(4)-(5). Similarly, if the cancelation is triggered by the holder’s death, the cancellation is treated as a transfer by the decedent’s estate (or trust if the installment obligation is held by a trust). I.R.C. §691(a)(5)(A).
No disposition. Some transactions are not deemed to be a “disposition” for tax purposes. Before the Act became law, the IRS had determined that if the holder of the obligation simply reduces the selling price but does not cancel the balance that the obligor owes, it’s not a disposition. Priv. Ltr. Rul. 8739045 (Jun. 30, 1987). Similarly, the modification of an installment obligation by changing the payment terms (such as reducing the purchase price and interest rate, deferring or increasing the payment dates) isn’t a disposition of the installment obligation. The gross profit percentage must be recomputed and applied to subsequent payments. Also, where the original installment note was replaced, the substitution of a new promissory note without any other changes isn’t a disposition of the original note. See, e.g., Priv. Ltr. Ruls. 201144005 (Aug. 2, 2011) and 201248006 (Aug. 30, 2012).
There is also no disposition if the buyer under the installment obligation sells the property to a third party and the holder allows the third party to assume the original obligor’s obligation. That’s the case even if the third party pays a higher rate of interest than did the original obligor.
Debt forgiveness brings with it tax consequences. Installment obligations are often used to help the obligor avoid traditional financing situations, particularly in family settings. It’s also used as a succession planning tool. But, it’s important to understand the tax consequences for the situations that can arise.