Corporate Distribution: Return of Capital or Capital Gain?
October 17, 2018
Ode to a Dividend
It sounds relatively simple:
A distribution of property made by a regular “C” corporation to an individual shareholder with respect to the corporation’s stock[i] (a) will be treated as a dividend[ii] to the extent it does not exceed the corporation’s earnings and profits; (b) any remaining portion of the distribution will be applied against, and will reduce, the shareholder’s adjusted basis for the stock, to the extent thereof – i.e., a tax-free return of the shareholder’s investment in the stock; and (c) any remaining portion of the distribution will be treated as capital gain from the sale or exchange of the stock.[iii]
Unfortunately for many taxpayers, establishing the proper tax treatment for a “dividend” distribution may be anything but simple,[iv] which may lead to adverse economic consequences. In most cases, the difficulty stems from the shareholder’s inability to establish the following elements:
- the amount distributed by the corporation where the distribution is made in-kind rather than in cash – in other words, determining the “fair market value” of the property distributed;[v]
- the “earnings and profits” of the corporation – basically, a running account that the corporation must maintain from its inception through the present, which indicates the net earnings of the corporation that are available for distribution to its shareholders; and
- the shareholder’s holding period and adjusted basis for their shares of stock in the distributing corporation.[vi]
The final item identified above – the shareholder’s basis for their stock – is generally not an issue for the shareholders of a closely held C corporation. In most cases, an individual made a contribution of cash to the capital of the corporation in exchange for stock in the corporation; in some cases, the individual purchased shares of stock from another shareholder. Unless the shareholder subsequently makes an additional capital contribution to the corporation (for example, pursuant to a capital call under a shareholders’ agreement),[vii] or unless the shareholder receives a distribution from the corporation that exceeds the shareholder’s share of the corporation’s earnings and profits, or unless the corporation redeems a significant portion of the shareholder’s stock (such that the shareholder experiences a substantial reduction in their equity interest relative to the other shareholders),[viii] the shareholder’s stock basis will be equal to the amount paid by them to acquire the stock, and will remain constant during the period they own the stock.[ix]
However, what if the shareholder’s capital contribution was made in-kind; for example, a contribution of real property or equipment, or of a contract or other intangible right? The amount of such contribution would be equal to the fair market value of the property; however, unless the transfer of the property was a taxable event to the contributing shareholder,[x] the shareholder’s basis for their stock in the corporation would be equal to their adjusted basis – i.e., their unrecovered investment – in the contributed property immediately before such contribution.[xi]
Alternatively, what if the shareholder made a transfer of cash to the corporation that was recorded by the corporation as a loan? What if the corporation never issued a promissory note to the shareholder or otherwise memorialized the terms of the loan (maturity, interest rate, collateral)? What if it never paid or accrued interest on the loan? Can the shareholder argue against the form of their “loan,” treating it, instead, as a capital contribution that would increase their stock basis?[xii]
The Taxpayer’s Burden
The taxpayer has the responsibility to substantiate the entries, deductions, and statements made on their tax returns. Thus, in the case of a “dividend” distribution by a closely-held corporation to an individual shareholder, the latter has the burden of proving the elements of the distribution,[xiii] described above, including that portion of the distribution that represents a nontaxable return of capital; in other words, the shareholder must be able to establish their adjusted basis for the stock on which the distribution is made.
In order to carry this burden, it is imperative that the taxpayer maintain accurate records to track the amount of their equity investment in the corporation. Where the stock was issued by the corporation in exchange for a contribution of cash, it would be very helpful to have a canceled check plus an executed capital contribution agreement, or corporate minutes accepting the contribution and authorizing the issuance of the stock. If the stock was received in exchange for an in-kind contribution of property in a non-taxable transaction, evidence of the taxpayer’s adjusted basis in the property is required; for example, the original receipt evidencing the taxpayer’s acquisition of the property, plus records of any subsequent adjustments, which may depend upon the nature of the property.[xiv] If the stock was purchased from another shareholder, the executed purchase and sale agreement, along with canceled checks or proof of satisfaction of any promissory note issued to the seller would be helpful.
Where a shareholder is unable to establish their basis for the stock – i.e., where the shareholder has failed to carry their burden of proof – the IRS will treat the shareholder as having a zero basis in such stock; consequently, the entire amount of the dividend distribution to the shareholder will be taxable,[xv] as one Taxpayer – who was already having a pretty bad day[xvi] – found to his detriment.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that a federal district court did not abuse its discretion in precluding Taxpayer’s “return-of-capital” defense. https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/memoranda/2018/09/24/17-50091.pdf.
The Taxpayer was charged with tax evasion. As part of his defense, he tried to establish that there was no tax deficiency because the money removed from his corporation represented a return of capital, or stock basis.
The Court ruled that the district court “may preclude a defense theory where ‘the evidence, as described in the defendant’s offer of proof, is insufficient as a matter of law to support the proffered defense.’”
To establish a factual foundation for a “return-of-capital” theory, the Court stated, a taxpayer must show: “(1) a corporate distribution with respect to a corporation’s stock, (2) the absence of corporate earnings or profits, and (3) stock basis in excess of the value of the distribution.”
Taxpayer, the Court continued, failed to establish that his stock basis exceeded the value of the distributions. Taxpayer presented checks that purported to demonstrate the amount he paid to purchase the stock of Corp. He also provided a declaration stating that he transferred a deed of valuable property to Corp; despite being given the opportunity to do so, however, Taxpayer provided no evidence of the property’s value aside from his own estimate.
The government presented the declaration of a CPA involved in Corp’s bankruptcy proceedings who stated that “according to escrow documents,” the property Taxpayer transferred was assigned a value below that claimed by Taxpayer. It also presented a declaration that Taxpayer submitted in his divorce proceedings, in which Corp’s CPA stated the amount for which Corp had redeemed stock from Taxpayer, thereby reducing his basis. The government submitted the bank records for such payment.
The Court explained that Taxpayer had the burden to establish factual support for a finding that his stock basis exceeded the value of the distributions. Taxpayer’s testimony was insufficient to carry his burden. He did not provide evidentiary support for his valuation, nor evidence to rebut the documents establishing how much Corp paid Taxpayer for the redemption of stock.
Because the evidence did not establish that Taxpayer had a stock basis in Corp in excess of the value of the distributions, the Court decided that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Taxpayer failed to establish a factual basis for a return-of-capital defense.
It Pays to Be Prepared[xvii]
A corporation’s distribution of a large dividend, or a shareholder’s sale of their stock for a price they “couldn’t refuse,” should represent a moment of affirmation of the shareholder’s investment or business decision-making.
Of course, the imposition of income taxes, and perhaps surtaxes, with respect to the amount received by the shareholder will tend to dampen the shareholder’s celebratory mood, but every shareholder/taxpayer expects to share some of their economic gains with the government in the form of taxes. Those who are well-advised will have accounted for this tax liability in planning for the welcomed economic event.
That being said, no taxpayer would willingly remit to the government more than what was properly owed. It is the taxpayer’s burden, however, to establish this amount by, among other things, establishing their basis in the stock that was sold or on which a corporate distribution was made.
Imagine a shareholder’s having to pay tax on dollars that actually represent a return of their capital investment – which should have been returned to them free of tax – simply because the shareholder was not prepared and unable to substantiate their basis in the stock. Talk about low-hanging fruit.
[i] In others words, it is made to the individual in their capacity as a shareholder.
[ii] Taxable at a federal rate of 20%, though the 3.8% surtax on net investment income may also apply.
[iii] Taxable at a federal rate of 23.8% if long-term capital gain. See EN ii.
[iv] In the case of a closely held corporation, shareholders must also be attuned to the risk of constructive dividends distributions.
[v] This is also key for the corporation, which will be treated as having sold the property distributed if the fair market value of the property exceeds its adjusted basis in the hands of the corporation.
[vi] Which will be important if the amount of the distribution exceeds the earnings and profits and the stock’s adjusted basis; will the resulting gain be long-term or short-term capital gain?
[vii] In the case of a closely held corporation, most “capital contributions” made after the initial funding of the corporation take the form of loans from the shareholders, especially when made disproportionately among the shareholders.
[viii] An “exchange” under IRC Sec. 302.
[ix] Compare to the stock basis of a shareholder of an S corporation; their basis is adjusted every year to reflect their allocable share of the corporation’s income, gain, deduction, and loss, as well as the amount of any distribution made to them. IRC Sec. 1367.
[x] IRC Sec. 1001. In which case, they would take the stock with a cost (i.e., fair market value) basis. IRC Sec. 1012.
[xi] IRC Sec 351 and Sec. 358. In this way, the shareholder’s deferred gain is preserved.
[xii] The short answer: No; which is not to say that taxpayers have not tried that argument.
[xiii] The corporation will have to issue a Form 1099-DIV but, in the case of a close corporation, the controlling shareholder may be hard-pressed to rely upon such information return without more.
[xiv] For example, depreciation schedules. If the stock was inherited, the fair market of the stock on the date of the decedent’s death will be necessary. Start with a copy of the estate tax return filed by the decedent’s estate, on IRS Form 706. The appraisal obtained in connection with the estate tax return, or a copy of the shareholders’ agreement that fixed the price for the buyout of the stock upon the death of a shareholder, would be helpful.
[xv] Albeit, presumably, at the rate applicable to capital gain.
[xvi] Crime shouldn’t pay.
[xvii] No, I am not thinking about the song from the “Lion King” movie made famous by Jeremy Irons in the role of Scar. I am thinking of the Boy Scout motto. Taxpayers and their advisers would do well to adopt this motto.