Friday, October 4, 2019
In a follow-up to a March blog entry regarding Congressional scrutiny of syndicated conservation easements, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Ron Wyden announced in mid-September that subpoenas were issued for documents relevant to their bipartisan investigation of syndicated conservation-easement transactions. Wyden stated in the announcement:
As we’ve both said all along, conservation easements have very legitimate purposes. We need to protect those purposes and protect the American taxpayer. If a handful of folks can game the system for profit, then we’re all left holding the bag. We expect fulsome cooperation with our investigation, and it’s unfortunate we’ve had to resort to compulsory process. Ultimately, when Congress makes an inquiry, it needs to be answered. It’s not optional.
Let’s say a man named John donates a conservation easement on his farm to a land trust. His appraiser valued the farm at $3 million before the easement and $2 million after the easement. Therefore, the easement is worth $1 million, which would be the amount of the tax deduction available for the donation. John doesn’t have sufficient income to use this deduction. He wants to sell the deduction to someone who can use it.
Federal tax law does not allow the donor of a conservation easement, or of any other property for that matter, to transfer the deduction generated by the donation to someone else. A federal tax deduction is personal to the donor. If the donor can use the deduction, fine; if not, it disappears. In other words, John can’t sell his deduction.
This is simple. However, some legitimate conservationists, and some not-so-legitimate tax shelter “facilitators,” are using limited liability companies and other so-called “pass-through” entities to try to “syndicate” tax deductions — in essence, to sell them — in ways that an individual, such as John, cannot accomplish. These deals are anything but “simple.”
Lindstrom acurrately points out that not all syndications are "shams," but advocates for syndications that allocate tax deductions to be scrutinized. Syndications that fail to comply with complex allocation rules for pass-through entities and/or utilize inflated easement appraisals, according to Lindstrom, threaten "the viability of the tax benefits for conservation easements and the credibility of the voluntary land conservation effort."