When A “Tax Free” Exchange May Not Be Free of Tax
February 27, 2017
“Tax free” – two words that often bring great delight when they are spoken by a tax adviser to the owner of a business, whether he is considering the disposition of a single asset, or of substantially all of the assets, of his business. (It’s the feeling I have when the local McDonald’s offers two-for-one breakfast sandwiches.)
Yes, “tax free” can be a great result for a transfer of property out of one business and into another. However, such a transfer is not really free of tax in the sense of never being taxed; rather, it defers the recognition, and taxation, of the gain inherent in the asset being transferred.
It is important that the business owner recognize the distinction. Allow me to illustrate this concept.
When a taxpayer disposes of property, the amount of gain that he realizes is measured by the difference between the amount realized – the amount of cash plus the fair market value (FMV) of the property received by the taxpayer – over his adjusted basis for the property transferred.
Where the property received by the taxpayer is not of a kind that the Code views as a “continuation” of the taxpayer’s investment in the property disposed, the taxpayer must recognize and pay tax on the entire amount realized. This is what occurs, for example, when a taxpayer exchanges a property for other property that is not of like-kind (such as cash).
Continuing the Investment
So, what kind of property must a taxpayer receive in exchange in order to make the disposition of his property “tax free”?
Most business owners are familiar with the “like-kind exchange” transaction, especially one that involves the exchange of one real property for another, where both are held by the taxpayer for use in a trade or business or for investment.
Many owners are also familiar with the contribution of property by a taxpayer to a corporation in exchange for shares of stock in the corporation. In general, if the taxpayer does not receive any cash in the exchange and is “in control” of the corporation immediately after the exchange, the taxpayer’s disposition of the property will not be treated as a taxable event.
A similar rule applies in the case of a contribution of property to a partnership in exchange for a partnership interest. Generally speaking, such a property transfer will not be treated as a taxable event, even if the taxpayer receives a less-than controlling interest in the partnership.
Preserving the Gain
In each of the above examples of “tax free” dispositions, the taxpayer’s adjusted basis for the property or equity interest that he receives will be the same basis that he had in the property transferred.
Similarly, the business entity to which a contribution of property is made, in exchange for an equity interest therein, will take the contributed property with a basis equal to the basis that the contributing taxpayer had in the property at the time of the contribution.
Thus, the gain inherent in the property disposed of by the taxpayer is preserved in the property received by the taxpayer in the exchange, such as the shares of stock issued by a corporation.
Receipt of Cash
The foregoing discussion contemplates a situation in which a taxpayer does not receive any cash in connection with the transfer of his property. Often, however, a taxpayer will want to monetize some of his equity in connection with the transfer of what may otherwise be illiquid property. (It may also be the case that the acquiring entity wants to increase its depreciable/amortizable basis in the property by paying some cash for it, or the existing owners of the entity may not appreciate the dilution of their holdings that an issuance of only equity would cause.)
In that case, because the taxpayer is partially “discontinuing” his investment in the transferred property (by receiving cash), he is required to recognize some taxable gain.
Contribution to Corp/ Like-Kind Exchange
In the case of a like-kind exchange, or in the case of a contribution to a corporation in exchange for stock therein, the taxpayer must recognize an amount equal to the lesser of the amount of cash received or the gain realized in the exchange.
Thus, if the amount of cash received is less than the gain realized on the transfer of the property, the taxpayer will recognize, and be taxed on, a portion of the gain realized, up to the amount of cash received.
Where the amount of cash received is equal to or greater than the gain realized on the transfer of the property, then the entire gain realized must be recognized by, and taxed to, the taxpayer.
The import of this result should not be underestimated, as will be shown below.
Contribution to a Partnership
The analysis is somewhat different in the case of a partnership. The Code’s partnership tax provisions do not have a rule equivalent to the “recognition of gain to the extent of cash received” rule applicable to corporations.
Instead, the contribution of property to a partnership in exchange for a partnership interest plus cash is treated as two transactions: a partial sale/contribution in which property with a FMV equal to the amount of cash paid by the partnership is treated as having been sold (under the so-called “disguised sale” rules), and a contribution of the remaining FMV of the property.
The gain to be recognized by the taxpayer is determined by allocating the taxpayer’s basis in the property between the sale and the contribution transactions, based upon the percentage of the total consideration that is represented by the cash.
Assume that Property has a FMV of $100, and an adjusted basis in the hands of Taxpayer of $40.
If Property were sold in exchange for $100 of cash, Taxpayer would realize and recognize $60 of gain ($100 minus $40).
Same facts, except Taxpayer contributes Property to a corporation in exchange for $100 worth of stock therein in a transaction that satisfies the criteria for “tax free” treatment. Taxpayer realizes $60 of gain ($100 of stock over $40 basis), but because Taxpayer receives only stock of the transferee corporation (no cash), none of the gain is recognized. Taxpayer takes the stock with a basis of $40 (preserving the $60 of unrecognized gain).
Same facts, except Taxpayer receives $70 of stock and $30 of cash. Taxpayer must recognize an amount equal to the lesser of the amount of cash received ($30) or the gain realized ($60). Thus, Taxpayer must recognize $30 of gain. He takes the stock with a basis equal to his basis in Property ($40), less the amount of cash received ($30) plus the amount of gain recognized ($30), or $40. Thus, $30 of the unrecognized gain inherent in Property ($30) is deferred ($70 FMV stock over $40 basis.)
Same facts, except Taxpayer receives $20 of stock and $80 of cash. Taxpayer must recognize an amount equal to the lesser of the amount of cash received ($80) or the gain realized ($60). Thus, Taxpayer must recognize the entire $60 of gain realized. He takes the stock with a basis equal to his basis in Property ($40), less the amount of cash received ($80) plus the amount of gain recognized ($60), or $20 (there is no gain to defer).
Same facts, except Taxpayer contributes Property to Partnership in exchange solely for a partnership interest therein. Taxpayer takes his partnership interest with a basis of $40 (his basis in Property), and Partnership takes Property with a basis of $40.
Same facts, except Taxpayer receives a $70 equity interest in Partnership, plus $30 of cash. Taxpayer is treated as having sold a $30 portion of Property, and as having contributed a $40 portion. The gain to be recognized on the sale and the gain to be deferred on the contribution are determined by allocating Taxpayer’s basis in Property between the sale and contribution transactions. Because the cash represents 30% of the total consideration received, 30% of Taxpayer’s basis is allocated to the sale, or $12 ($40 x 0.30). Thus, Taxpayer recognizes gain of $30 minus $12 = $18. The remaining 70% of the basis, or $28, is allocated to the contribution transaction; thus, Taxpayer takes his partnership interest with a basis of $28 (preserving the $42 of gain not recognized on the transfer of Property).
Is the “Deferral” Worthwhile?
The taxpayer who finds himself in one of the foregoing situations usually transfers a business asset over which he has full control. He may give up this control in order to attain other benefits, including, for example, diversification, the funding and assistance necessary to further grow the business (and to share in the growth as an equity owner, albeit one with a minority stake), and the deferral of tax on any gain that he may realize on the transfer.
The loss of control may present many difficulties for the taxpayer. Some are obvious; others are less so – for example, if he contributes appreciated property to a partnership in exchange for a partnership interest, the partnership is required to allocate its income, deductions, gains, and losses in such a way so as to cause the gain inherent in the property at the time of its contribution to be allocated entirely to the taxpayer. He will be taxed on such gain, but he may not receive a distribution of cash from the partnership to enable him to satisfy his tax liability.
Moreover, the like-kind property or the equity interest that the taxpayer receives in exchange for his property may be just as illiquid, at least initially, as the property he has exchanged for it. There may not be a market for the entity’s equity, and its shareholders’ agreement or operating agreement will likely restrict the transfer of the taxpayer’s interest.
But at least he deferred the tax on the transfer of his property.
But What If?
Query, then, what happens if a taxpayer gives up control of a property in exchange for an illiquid minority interest in the business entity to which he contributed such property, yet does not enjoy any tax deferral?
If the deferral was not a principal reason for the transfer, which otherwise made good business sense, then the taxpayer should be fine with the outcome: although he has suffered an immediate net loss of economic value (in the form of taxes paid), hopefully he has determined that the long-term prospects of exchanging his property for the acquirer’s equity are worth the short-term cost.
If, on the other hand, deferral was an important consideration, then the taxpayer should rethink his deal.
Perhaps he can ask to be grossed up for the tax hit, though this may be too expensive a proposition for the acquiring entity. Or, he may ask for more equity, and less cash, so as to reduce the tax hit, provided he recognizes that there will be more investment risk associated with holding more equity. Of course, the other investors may not want to be diluted further, and they may resist losing the benefit of any depreciation/amortization basis step-up for the property acquired.
The matter will ultimately be determined by the parties’ relative bargaining leverage: how badly does one want to dispose of the property, and how badly does the other want to acquire it?