It’s that time of year again. Taxpayers are earnestly searching for receipts and hunting down W2s; companies are pressing their financial departments for write-offs, and accountants are pulling all-nighters left and write. After all, there are only two things that everyone has to face: the first is death, and the second is taxes (unless you’re Jeff Bezos).
Cryptocurrency holders cannot escape death (we don’t think). But according to data published last year, a number of them have actually managed to avoid paying taxes. Indeed, fewer than 100 of the 250,000 users of Credit Karma’s tax preparation software last year reported any data on cryptocurrency gains or losses.
Other tax preparation services have reported similar figures, and Coinbase was even subpoenaed for customer data in 2017 after it seemed that an extremely low percentage of its user base was reporting crypto gains or losses to the IRS.
Why is this happening? And will things be any different this year?
“The Number is Likely Higher”
Sean Ryan, the co-founder of cryptocurrency tax firm Node40, thinks that they will be. “I do believe that we will see an increase in the number of people filing taxes pertinent to their crypto activity this year,” he said to Finance Magnates.
On top of that, Ryan postulated that more crypto holders might have actually filed more commonly than most people think. “There’s no form or tick box for specifying that taxes were being paid on crypto, so it’s mostly guesswork on the tax authority’s part,” he said. “…The figures the IRS might announce, are, in fact, what they think ‘might be crypto’. In reality, the number is likely higher.”
Part of the confusion may be that many of the tax tools that are commonly available to crypto holders are not as helpful as they should be. For example, “the 1099-K forms issued by Coinbase to certain users and touted as an effective way to report on payments received in cryptocurrencies is somewhat misguided. Taxpayers will only receive such a form if they cash out over $20,000 and executed over 200 transactions in a given tax year.”
Still, “in spite of the confusion surrounding the 1099-K, the many CPAs we’ve spoken with confirm that increased numbers of individuals are filing taxes on their crypto.”
According to Ryan, crypto holders seem to deserve a little more credit than most are willing to give them. “While we initially supposed that this would be due to traders trying to materialize losses (as a result of the bear market) and offset other gains, our research has indicated that the bulk of those filing are actually reporting gains,” he said.
Why Might Hodlers Be Paying More Taxes?
Even if the automated tax payment services that are available to most crypto holders are a little clunky, the fact that so many of them exist in the first place could be part of the reason why most hodlers will file this year.
Indeed, even Turbotax now has a built-in cryptocurrency tax-filing extension. The company has announced three cryptocurrency-related partnerships this year, including one with Coinbase.
— LoneWolf (@LWDayTrading) January 23, 2019
Another factor that may drive filing up is the influx of institutional capital and professional traders that has come into the cryptocurrency space over the course of the last year and a half. Corporate entities who come into the crypto space have far higher incentive to be honest in their tax filings than the average individual holder.
As their need for cryptocurrency tax-filing services grows, the cryptocurrency tax-filing industry grows. Thus, more services become available to cryptocurrency companies and cryptocurrency-hodling individuals, and more cryptocurrency hodlers will use the available services to file their taxes.
Ignorance or Willful Negligence?
While crypto holders may be a little more honest than we think, there are still many who choose not to report their cryptocurrency gains and losses. Each individual has their own reason for deciding to file or not file on their crypto, but non-reporting hodlers generally fall into two categories.
There are those that are intentionally using cryptocurrency as a way to avoid paying taxes. The anonymous nature of most cryptocurrencies makes it possible for users to keep their savings in cryptocurrency form so that no government can see exactly how much you may owe (although most cryptocurrencies are not as anonymous as most people seem to think.)
Far more common, however, are those who are simply unaware of the fact that they may owe taxes on their cryptocurrencies and those who may not know how to report on their cryptocurrency gains and losses correctly. And it’s not because they haven’t been willing to try and learn – the IRS has not done a great job of providing clear guidelines to cryptocurrency hodlers.
Indeed, “whether these are high-frequency traders or long-term holders, their activities are subject to nebulous and outdated tax laws,” said Ryan.
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Confusing Tax Laws
According to Ryan, one of the largest problems is that existing tax laws have been applied rather awkwardly to cryptocurrencies, when new laws that better accommodate cryptocurrencies may actually be necessary.
“The IRS considers virtual currency to be property, meaning general tax principles regarding property transactions also apply to virtual currency transactions,” including capital gains tax, Ryan explained.
Buying crypto isn’t a taxable event.
Selling crypto for fiat (e.g., USD) is a taxable event.
Trading one coin for another is a taxable event.
Using crypto to purchase goods or services is a taxable event.
— Crypto Tax Girl (@CryptoTaxGirl) July 11, 2018
However, “while cryptocurrency is property for the purposes of taxation, it isn’t real property.” This is where things get complicated.
“As such, as of 2018, the like-kind exchange rule under IRC code section 1031 doesn’t apply. If you buy one coin and sell it to buy another, or accept/dispose of Bitcoin for a payment, any gain is subject to tax. Also worth noting is that crypto assets held overseas are not exempt from reporting if the total held at any point throughout the tax year exceeds $10,000.”
Will the IRS Find Out if Hodlers Don’t Pay Taxes?
Despite the confusion when it comes to the IRS’ guidelines, the tax organization is increasingly seeking to penalize tax evaders, although it may be some time before any kind of serious action is taken.
“Is the IRS out to get non-reporters? Yes; as they should be,” wrote Mike Minihan, a partner at BX3 capital, in an email to Finance Magnates. According to him, it’s just as well. “Not reporting taxable income is tantamount to fraud, and as a community that often struggles with its reputation, it serves the best interests of crypto mass adoption if frauds are stopped and prosecuted.”
“As a practical matter though, it is likely too early to start seeing enforcement actions from the IRS for 2017, as those tax returns were filed during 2018, and there is generally a three-year statute of limitations for audit,” he said. “Coupled with the long government shutdown at the end of 2018, there will be a backlog on investigation and enforcement.”
Still, if you used a cryptocurrency exchange sometime within the last year or two, chances are that the IRS is aware of it. “Many exchanges are now sending 1099s on behalf of their customers to the IRS,” said Mike Atwood, Strategic Market Director from Sovos, in an email to Finance Magnates.
“That means, the IRS now has a record of the income from those transactions. If the filer (who is also mailed 1099s) fails to report it on his/her return, they can be audited and subject to penalty.”
What Happens If Non-Filers Get Caught?
And what, exactly, does this penalty entail? “There are stiff sanctions awaiting anyone found to be in violation of tax law,” said Sean Ryan. “Even in case of honest mistake, paying taxes based off of inaccurate calculations falls under Section 6662 and results in penalties ranging from 20% to 40%.”
The Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) has been sending out comprehensive 13-page, 54-question crypto tax audits to Canadian citizens (as seen here: https://t.co/DOHLpsIZwd)
I don’t think its unreasonable to assume that the IRS will be following suit soon ? https://t.co/yoMT9e8S75
— Crypto Tax Girl (@CryptoTaxGirl) March 12, 2019
This is because “in the US, the burden of proof falls on the individual, not the IRS, although it can be shifted in an instance where the individual can provide supporting documentation,” he said. Therefore, Ryan suggests that “software solutions for retroactively generating audit trails of every transaction made are perhaps the best way to remain transparent and ensure that taxpayers remain on the right side of the law.”
“There is, of course, an opportunity to request an extension on filing taxes, but it is important that the individual still makes their payments at the correct time, and in the correct way.”