I had a call a couple of weeks ago from the owner of a business. His brother, who owned half of the business, owed some money to someone in connection with a venture that was unrelated to the business. The brother didn’t have the wherewithal to satisfy the debt and, to make matters worse, the person to whom the money was owed was a long-time customer of the business. The customer qua creditor had proposed and, under the circumstances, the brothers had agreed, that the business would satisfy the debt by significantly discounting its services to the customer over a period of time. The brothers wanted to know how they should paper this arrangement and that the resulting tax consequences would be.

We talked about bona fide loans, constructive distributions, disguised compensation, and indirect gifts. “What?” the one brother asked incredulously, “how can all that be implicated by this simple arrangement?” After I explained, he thanked me. “We’ll get back to you,” he said.

Last week, I came across this Tax Court decision.

A Bad Deal

Taxpayer and Spouse owned Corp 1, an S corporation. Taxpayer also owned Corp 2, a C corporation.

Things were going well for a while. Then Taxpayer bid and won a contract for a project overseas. Taxpayer formed LLC to engage in this project, and was its sole member. Unfortunately, the project required a bank guaranty. Taxpayer was unable to obtain such a guaranty, but he was able to obtain a line of credit, which required cash collateralization that he was only able to provide by causing each of his business entities to take out a series of small loans from other lenders.

The project did not go well, and was eventually shut down, leaving LLC with a lot of outstanding liabilities and not much money with which to pay them.

“Intercompany Transfers”

In order to avoid a default on the loans, Taxpayer tapped the assets of the other companies that he controlled. However, because Corp 1, Corp 2, and LLC were “related” to one another, he “didn’t see the merit” in creating any formal notes or other documentation when he began moving money among them.

Taxpayer caused Corp 2 to pay some of Corp 1’s and LLC’s debts. On its ledgers, Corp 2 listed these amounts as being owed to it, but on its tax returns, Corp 2 claimed them as costs of goods sold (COGS); because Corp 2 was profitable, there was enough income to make these claimed COGS valuable. That same year, Corp 2 issued Taxpayer a W-2 that was subsequently amended to reflect a much smaller amount.

In the following year, Corp 2 paid Taxpayer a large sum, which he used to pay a portion of LLC’s debts. Corp 2’s ledgers characterized these payments as “distributions”. Corp 2 also directly paid a significant portion of Corp 1’s and LLC’s expenses, which its ledger simply described as “[Affiliate] Payments.”

That same year, Corp 2 elected to be treated as an S corporation and filed its tax return accordingly, reporting substantial gross receipts and ordinary business income, which flowed through to Taxpayer. At the same time, Taxpayer and Spouse claimed a large flow-through loss from Corp 1 – a loss that was principally derived from Corp 1’s claimed deduction for “Loss on LLC Expenses Paid” and its claimed deduction for “Loss on LLC Bad Debt.” Taxpayer’s W-2 from Corp 2, however, reported a relatively small amount in wages.

The IRS Disagrees

The IRS issued notices of deficiency to: (i) Corp 2 for income taxes for the first year at issue (its last year as a C corporation), (ii) Taxpayer for income taxes for both years at issue, and (iii) Corp 2 for employment taxes for the second year at issue in respect of the amounts it “distributed” to Taxpayer and the amounts it used to pay Corp 1’s and LLC’s expenses. Taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court.

The Court considered whether:

  • Corp 2’s payment to creditors of Corp 1 and LLC were a loan between Corp 2 and those companies, or a capital contribution that was also a constructive dividend to Taxpayer;
  • Corp 1 was entitled to a bad-debt deduction for payments it made to LLC’s creditors prior to the years at issue, or for the payments Corp 2 made; and
  • Corp 2’s payments to Taxpayer and to creditors of Corp 1 and LLC should be taxed as wages to Taxpayer and, thus, also subject to employment taxes.

Loans or Constructive Dividends?

Corp 2 claimed a COGS adjustment for expenses of Corp 1 and LLC that it had paid. However, it changed its position before the Court, arguing that the payment was a loan.

The IRS countered that the payment was only “disguised” as a loan; it was not a bona fide debt. Rather, it was really a contribution of capital by Corp 2 to each of Corp 1 and LLC. According to the IRS, this made the payment a constructive dividend to Taxpayer, for which Corp 2 could not claim a deduction, thereby increasing its income.

A bona fide debt, the Court explained, “arises from a debtor-creditor relationship based upon a valid and enforceable obligation to pay a fixed or determinable sum of money.”

Whether a transfer creates a bona fide debt or, instead, makes an equity investment is a question of fact. To answer this question, the Court stated, one must ascertain whether there was “a genuine intention to create a debt, with a reasonable expectation of repayment, and did that intention comport with the economic reality of creating a debtor-creditor relationship?”

According to the Court, there are a number of factors to consider in the “debt vs equity” analysis, including the following:

  • names given to the certificates evidencing the indebtedness
  • presence or absence of a fixed maturity date
  • source of payments
  • right to enforce payments
  • participation in management as a result of the advances
  • status of the advances in relation to regular corporate creditors
  • intent of the parties
  • identity of interest between creditor and stockholder
  • “thinness” of capital structure in relation to debt
  • ability to obtain credit from outside sources
  • use to which the advances were put
  • failure of the debtor to repay
  • risk involved in making the advances.

Corp 2’s book entries showed a write-off for payments made to Corp 1 described as “Due from Related Parties” which made it seem as though Corp 2 intended the payments to be loans. But Corp 2 deducted the payments as “purchases,” thus belying the label used on its books. And when Corp 2 made the payments, it didn’t execute a note, set an interest rate, ask for security, or set a maturity date.

The lack of these basic indicia of debt and Corp 2’s inconsistent labeling weighed in favor of finding that Corp 2 intended the payments to be capital contributions, not loans.

The fact that Corp 1 and LLC were broke when Corp 2 made the payments also undermined Taxpayer’s position that the payments were loans. Taxpayer testified that LLC “had no funds” or “wasn’t capitalized,” and its only contract (for which it hadn’t been paid) had been canceled. Corp 1’s situation was similar; it had virtually no book of business, its liabilities exceeded its assets, and it was losing money.

So, Corp 2’s payments went to entities that were undercapitalized, had no earnings, and could not have obtained loans from outside lenders – all factors suggesting that the payments were capital contributions.

The Court observed that Taxpayer treated legally separate entities as one big wallet. “Taking money from one corporation and routing it to another will almost always trigger bad tax consequences unless done thoughtfully.” The Court stated that “Taxpayer did not approach LLC’s problems with any indication that he thought through these consequences or sought the advice of someone who could help him do so.”

The Court found that Corp 2’s payments were not loans to LLC and Corp 1, but were capital contributions; the entities didn’t intend to form a debtor-creditor relationship.

Constructive Dividend

The Court then considered whether Corp 2’s payments were constructive dividends to Taxpayer. A constructive dividend, the Court explained, occurs when “a corporation confers an economic benefit on a shareholder without the expectation of repayment.”

A transfer between related corporations, the Court continued, can be a constructive dividend to common shareholders even if those shareholders don’t personally receive the funds. That type of transfer is a constructive dividend if the common shareholder has direct or indirect control over the transferred property, and the transfer wasn’t made for a legitimate business purpose but, instead, primarily benefited the shareholder.

Taxpayer had complete control over the transferred funds – he was the sole shareholder of Corp 2, the sole member of LLC, and he owned 49% of Corp 1. Moreover, there was no discernible business reason for Corp 2 to make the transfers because there was no hope of repayment or contemplation of interest. The transfer was bad for Corp 2, but it was good for Taxpayer because it reduced his other entities’ liabilities.

Corp 2’s payment of LLC’s and Corp 1’s expenses, therefore, was a constructive dividend to Taxpayer.

Bad-Debt Deduction

On their tax return, Taxpayer and Spouse claimed a large flow-through loss derived from a bad-debt deduction that Corp 1 took for earlier payments it made on behalf of LLC, and a deduction that it took for “Loss on LLC Expenses Paid.” The IRS denied all of these deductions, increasing the Taxpayer’s flow-through income from Corp 1.

Before there can be a bad-debt deduction, there had to be a bona fide debt. Even when there was such a debt, the Court continued, a bad-debt deduction was available only for the year that the debt became worthless.

The Court recognized that “transactions between closely held corporations and their shareholders are often conducted in an informal manner.” However, given the significant amount of the purported debt, the Court noted that the absence of the standard indicia of debt – formal loan documentation, set maturity date, and interest payments – weighed against a finding of debt.

The only documents Taxpayer produced about the purported loans were its books.

The amount that Corp 2 paid and that Corp 1 deducted that same year as “Loss on LLC’s Expenses Paid” appeared as entries on those books. But, the Court stated, it is not enough to look at the label a corporation sticks on a transaction; one has to look for proof of its substance, which the Court found was lacking.

Based upon the “debt vs equity” factors described above, the absence of any formal signs that a debt existed, and the underlying economics of the situation, the Court found that Taxpayer was “once again just using one of his companies’ funds to pay another of the companies’ debts.” Therefore, Corp 1’s advances to LLC did not create bona fide debt for which a bad debt deduction could be claimed.

Compensation

Taxpayer argued that the payments he received from Corp 2, and that he immediately used to pay other corporate debts, was either a distribution or a loan. He also claimed that Corp 2’s payments to Corp 1’s and LLC creditors were loans.

The IRS contended that these payments were wages to Taxpayer, and argued that Corp 2 “just called them something else” to avoid employment taxes.

The Court pointed out that these payments lacked formal loan documentation, had no set interest rate or maturity date, were made to companies with no capital, and could be repaid only if the companies generated earnings. For those reasons, the payments couldn’t have been loans.

But were the payments wages, as the IRS insisted?

Wages are payments for services performed. Whether payments to an employee-shareholder are wages paid for services performed or something else – such as dividends – is a question of fact. Again, the Court emphasized that all the evidence had to be considered; one had to look to the substance of the situation, not the name the parties gave a payment.

According to the Court, a significant part of this analysis was determining what “reasonable compensation” for the employee’s services would be. Among the factors to consider in making this determination were the following:

  • employee’s qualifications
  • nature, extent and scope of the employee’s work
  • size and complexities of the business
  • comparison of salaries paid with the gross income and the net income
  • prevailing general economic conditions
  • comparison of salaries with distributions to stockholders
  • prevailing rates of compensation for comparable positions in comparable concerns
  • salary policy of the employer as to all employees
  • in the case of small corporations with a limited number of officers, the amount of compensation paid to the particular employee in previous years.

The IRS estimated the salary for the CEO of a company comparable to Corp 2, and pointed out that while Taxpayer’s W-2 fell short of this salary, the amount paid to Taxpayer came fairly close to the IRS’s estimate when combined with the contested payments. There was no reason, the Court stated, “for us to think that the IRS’s estimate was unreasonable given Taxpayer’s decades” of business experience and the fact that he singlehandedly ran three companies, one of which was very profitable.

Be Aware

The overlapping, but not necessarily identical, ownership of closely held business entities, especially those that are controlled by the members of a single family, can breed all sorts of tax issues for the entities and for their owners.

Intercompany transactions, whether in the ordinary course of business or otherwise, have to be examined to ensure that they are being undertaken for valid business reasons. That is not to say that there cannot be other motivating factors, but it is imperative that the parties treat with one another as closely as possible on an arm’s-length basis.

To paraphrase the Court, above, related companies and their owners may avoid the sometimes surprising and bad tax consequences of dealing with one another – including the IRS’s re-characterization of their transactions – if they act thoughtfully, think through the tax consequences, and seek the advice of someone who can help them.

Some lessons need to be repeated until learned. It’s a basic rule of life. Don’t tug on Superman’s cape; don’t spit into the wind; don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger; and if you are going to make a loan, give it the indicia of a loan and treat it as a loan.

The last of these lessons appears to be an especially difficult one for many owners of closely held businesses, at least based upon the steady flow of Tax Court cases in which the principal issue for decision is whether an owner’s transfer of funds to his business is a loan or a capital contribution.

The resolution of this question can have significant tax and economic consequences, as was illustrated by a recent decision.

Throwing Good after Bad

Corp had an unusual capital structure. It had about 70 common shareholders, including key employees and some of Taxpayer’s family members, but common stock formed a very small portion of its capital structure. Indeed, although Taxpayer was Corp’s driving force, he owned no common stock. Corp’s primary funding came in the form of cash advances from Taxpayer.

Over several years, Taxpayer made 39 separate cash advances to Corp totaling millions of dollars. For each advance, Corp executed a convertible promissory note, bearing market-rate interest that Corp paid when due.

Taxpayer subsequently advanced a few more millions, of which only a small portion was covered by promissory notes, Corp recorded all these advances as loans on its books, and it continued to accrue interest, though no interest was paid on any of this purported indebtedness.

After a few years, the entirety of this purported indebtedness was converted to preferred stock (the “Conversion”), representing 78% of Corp’s capital structure.

Taxpayer then made additional cash advances to Corp which were Corp’s sole source of funding during this period. Taxpayer generally made these advances monthly or semi-monthly in amounts sufficient to cover Corp’s budgeted operating expenses for the ensuing period.

Corp executed no promissory notes for these advances and furnished no collateral. As before, it recorded these advances on its books as loans and accrued interest, but it never paid interest on any of this purported indebtedness. These advances, coupled with Taxpayer’s preferred stock, constituted roughly 92% of Corp’s capital structure.

Corp incurred substantial losses during most years of its existence. This fact, coupled with Corp’s inability to attract other investors or joint venture suitors, caused Taxpayer to question the collectability of his advances. He obtained an independent evaluation of Corp’s financial condition, and was informed that Corp’s condition was precarious: Its revenue was 98% below target, and it had massive NOLs. Without Taxpayer’s continued cash infusions, he was told, the company would have to fold.

Taxpayer discussed with his accountant the possibility of claiming a bad debt loss deduction for some or all of his advances. Taxpayer took the position that all of his advances were debt and that the advances should be written off individually under a “first-in, first-out” approach.

Taxpayer’s attorney prepared a promissory note to consolidate the still-outstanding advances that Taxpayer did not plan to write off. While these documents were being prepared, Taxpayer made additional monthly advances to Corp. Taxpayer and Corp executed a debt restructuring agreement, a consolidated promissory note, and a certificate of debt forgiveness, all of which were backdated to a date after the Conversion.

Corp continued to operate with Taxpayer continuing to advance millions which, again, were not evidenced by promissory notes.

Taxpayer filed his Federal income tax return on which he reported a business bad debt loss reflecting the write-down of his advances to Corp. According to Taxpayer, this loss corresponded to advances he had made after the Conversion. Taxpayer claimed this loss as a deduction against ordinary income.

Business Bad Debt

The IRS disallowed the business bad debt deduction, and issued a notice of deficiency. Taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court.

The Code allows as an ordinary loss deduction for any “bona fide” business debt that became worthless within the taxable year. A business debt is “a debt created or acquired in connection with a trade or business of the taxpayer” or “a debt the loss from the worthlessness of which is incurred in the taxpayer’s trade or business.” To be eligible to deduct a business bad debt, an individual taxpayer must show that he was engaged in a trade or business, and that the debt was proximately related to that trade or business.

A bona fide debt is one that arises from “a debtor-creditor relationship based upon a valid and enforceable obligation to pay a fixed or determinable sum of money.” Whether a purported loan is a bona fide debt for tax purposes is determined from the facts and circumstances of each case, including the purported creditor’s reasonable expectation that the amount will be repaid.

Advances made by an investor to a closely held or controlled corporation may properly be characterized, not as a bona fide loan, but as a capital contribution. In general, advances made to an insolvent debtor are not debts for tax purposes, but are characterized as capital contributions.

The principal issue for decision was whether Taxpayer’s advances to Corp constituted debt or equity.

Bona Fide Debt

Taxpayer asserted that all of his advances to Corp constituted bona fide debt, whereas the IRS contended that Taxpayer made capital investments in his capacity as an investor. In determining whether an advance of funds constitutes bona fide debt, the Court stated, “economic reality provides the touchstone.”

The Court began by noting that, if an outside lender would not have lent funds to the corporation on the same terms as did the insider, an inference arises that the advance was a not a bona fide loan, even if “all the formal indicia of an obligation were meticulously made to appear.”

In general, the focus of the debt-vs.-equity inquiry is whether the taxpayer intended to create a debt with a reasonable expectation of repayment and, if so, whether that intent comports with creating a debtor-creditor relationship. The key to this determination is generally the taxpayer’s actual intent.

The Court identified the following nonexclusive factors to examine in determining whether an advance of funds gives rise to bona fide debt as opposed to an equity investment:

Labels on the Documents

If a corporation issues a debt instrument, such as a promissory note, that labeling supports the debt characterization.

Corp issued promissory notes for some of the cash advances Taxpayer made before the Conversion, those notes were converted to preferred stock and were not before the Court. The amount that was before the Court was advanced after the Conversion, and Corp did not issue a single promissory note to cover any of those advances. Rather, Taxpayer advanced cash on open account.

It was only in connection with the write-down that Corp issued a promissory note to Taxpayer to consolidate the portion of his advances that he chose not to write off, backdated to an earlier time. The Court found that this document was a self-serving document created in connection with Taxpayer’s year-end tax planning.

Fixed Maturity Date

A fixed maturity date is indicative of an obligation to repay, which supports characterizing an advance of funds as debt. Conversely, the absence of a fixed maturity date indicates that repayment depends on the borrower’s success, which in turn supports characterization as equity.

Because Corp issued no promissory notes for any of the advances at issue, there was of necessity no fixed maturity date.

Source of Payments

Where repayments depend on future corporate success, an equity investment may be indicated. And where prospects for repayment are questionable because of persistent corporate losses, an equity investment may be indicated.

Corp had substantial losses, its expenses vastly exceeded its revenue for all relevant years, and no payments of principal or interest had been made on Taxpayer’s still-outstanding advances. Corp was kept afloat only because Taxpayer continued to provide regular cash infusions keyed to Corp’s expected cash needs for the ensuing period. Thus, the most likely source of repayment of Taxpayer’s advances would be further cash infusions from Taxpayer himself.

Taxpayer testified that he hoped to secure ultimate repayment upon sale of Corp to a third party or a third-party investment in Corp. But this, the Court countered, is the hope entertained by the most speculative types of equity investors. Taxpayer was a “classic capital investor hoping to make a profit, not a creditor expecting to be repaid regardless of the company’s success or failure.”

Right to Enforce Payment of Principal and Interest

A definite obligation to repay, backed by the lender’s rights to enforce payment, supports a debt characterization. A lack of security for repayment may support equity characterization.

Although Taxpayer’s advances were shown as loans on Corp’s books, there was no written evidence of indebtedness fixing Corp’s obligation to repay at any particular time. None of Taxpayer’s advances was secured by any collateral. And even if Taxpayer were thought to have a “right to enforce repayment,” that right was nugatory because his continued cash infusions were the only thing keeping Corp afloat. Had he enforced repayment, he would simply have had to make a larger capital infusion the following month.

Participation in Management

Increased management rights, in the form of greater voting rights or a larger share of the company’s equity, support equity characterization.

Although Taxpayer had de facto control, he literally owned no common stock. But through his cash advances and preferred stock he held about 92% of Corp’s capital. Taxpayer contended that none of his advances gave him increased voting rights or a larger equity share. This was literally true, but it meant little because he already had complete control of the company by virtue of his status as its sole funder.

Status Relative to Regular Creditors

If Taxpayer had subordinated his right to repayment to that of other creditors, that would have supported an equity characterization.

However, Taxpayer was the only supplier of cash to Corp, which borrowed no money from banks and had no “regular creditors.” Taxpayer had, in absolute terms, none of the rights that a “regular creditor” would have; there was no promissory note, no maturity date, no collateral, no protective covenant, no personal guaranty, and no payment of interest. No “regular creditor” would have lent funds to a loss-ridden company like Corp on such terms.

Parties’ Intent

The Court examined whether Taxpayer and Corp intended the advance to be debt or equity. The aim is to determine whether the taxpayer intended to create a “definite obligation, repayable in any event.”

Taxpayer’s actions suggested that he intended the advances to be equity. He did not execute promissory notes for any of the advances at issue. He received no interest on his advances and made no effort to collect interest or enforce repayment of principal. Although Corp recorded the advances as loans and accrued interest on them, Taxpayer’s control over the company gave him ultimate discretion to decide whether and how repayment would be made. In fact, he expected to be repaid, as a venture capitalist typically expects to be repaid, upon sale of Corp to a third party or a third-party investment in Corp.

Inadequate Capitalization

A company’s capitalization is relevant to determining the level of risk associated with repayment. Advances to a business may be characterized as equity if the business is so thinly capitalized as to make repayment unlikely.

Taxpayer urged that, after the Conversion, the bulk of Corp’s capital structure consisted of preferred stock. He accordingly insisted that Corp was adequately capitalized at the time he made later advances.

The Court disagreed with Taxpayer’s assessment of the situation, observing that he made dozens of cash advances totaling many millions of dollars, and did not receive promissory notes until he decided to write off a portion of the purported debt.

Moreover, the Court continued, while Corp’s capitalization may have been adequate, that fact was not compelling. Normally, a large “equity cushion” is important to creditors because it affords them protection if the company encounters financial stress: The creditors will not be at risk unless the common and preferred shareholders are first wiped out. But because Taxpayer himself supplied almost 100% of Corp’s “equity cushion,” he would not derive much comfort from the latter prospect.

Identity of Interest between Creditor and Sole Shareholder

Taxpayer was not Corp’s sole shareholder, but he controlled the company and during the relevant period owned between most of Corp’s capital structure. There was thus a considerable identity of interest between Taxpayer in his capacities as owner and alleged lender. Under these circumstances, there was not a “disproportionate ratio between * * * [the] stockholder’s ownership percentage and the corporation’s debt to that stockholder.”

Payment of Interest

If no interest is paid, that fact supports equity characterization. Corp made no interest payments on any of the advances that Taxpayer made after the Conversion.

Ability to Obtain Loans From Outside Lending Institutions

Evidence that the business could not have obtained similar funding from outside sources supports characterization of an insider’s advances as equity. Although lenders in related-party contexts may offer more flexible terms than could be obtained from a bank, the primary inquiry is whether the terms of the purported debt were a “patent distortion of what would normally have been available” to the debtor in an arm’s-length transaction.

The evidence was clear that no third party operating at arm’s length would have lent millions to Corp without insisting (at a minimum) on promissory notes, regular interest payments, collateral to secure the advances, and a personal guaranty from Taxpayer. Especially is that so where the purported debtor was losing millions a year and could not fund its operations without Taxpayer’s monthly cash infusions.

Corp’s financial condition was extremely precarious in every year since its inception. The IRS determined that Corp had an extremely high risk of bankruptcy and that, without Taxpayer’s continued advances, it would surely have ceased operations. Under these circumstances, no third-party lender would have lent to Corp on the terms Taxpayer did.

In addition, Taxpayer continued to advance funds to Corp even after he concluded that its financial condition was dire enough to justify writing off some of his advances. An unrelated lender would not have acted in this manner.

After evaluating these factors as a whole, the Court found that Taxpayer’s advances were equity investments and not debt. Thus, it disallowed the Taxpayer’s business bad debt deduction.

Lesson

The proper characterization of a transfer of funds is more than a metaphysical exercise enjoyed by tax professionals. It has real economic consequences. In the Taxpayer’s case, it meant the loss of a deduction against ordinary income. Whether out of ignorance, laziness, or negligence, many business owners continue to act somewhat cavalierly toward the characterization and tax treatment of fund transfers to their business.

This behavior begs the question: “Why?” Why, indeed, when the owner can dictate the result by following a simple lesson: a promissory note, consistent bookkeeping, accrual and regular payment of interest at the AFR. C’mon guys.

What Was Intended?

Over the last thirty years, I have reviewed the income tax returns of many closely held corporations and partnerships. Quite often, on Schedule L (the balance sheet), I will see an entry for “other assets” or “other liabilities,” which are described on the attached explanatory statement as loans to or from affiliates, as the case may be. I then ask a series of questions: did the board of directors or managers of the entities approve the loan; how was the loan documented; is there a note with repayment terms; is the debt secured; does the loan provide for interest; has interest or principal been paid; has there ever been a default and, if so, has the lender taken action to collect on the loan?

Bona Fide DebtThe proper characterization of a transfer of funds to a business entity from a related entity may determine a number of tax consequences arising from the transfer, including, for example, the following: the imputation of interest income to the lender; the ability of the lender to claim a bad debt deduction; the payment of a constructive dividend to the lender’s owner where the “loan” is really a capital contribution.

If a transfer of funds to a closely held business is intended to be treated as a loan, there are a number of factors that are indicative of bona fide debt of which both the purported lender and the borrower should be aware: evidence of indebtedness (such as a promissory note); adequate security for the indebtedness; a repayment schedule, a fixed repayment date, or a provision for demanding repayment; business records (including tax returns) reflecting the transaction as a loan; actual payments in accordance with the terms of the loan; adequate interest charges; and enforcement of the loan terms.

The big question is whether there was “a genuine intention to create a debt, with a reasonable expectation of repayment, and did that intention comport with the economic reality of creating a debtor-creditor relationship?” A transaction will come under special scrutiny where the borrowing entity is related to the lender. In that case, especially, can it be shown that there was a realistic expectation of repayment? Would a third party lender have made the loan on similar terms?

A recent Tax Court opinion considered these questions at some length.

An “Investment Company”?

Taxpayer was the sole owner of Corp, an S corporation that advanced funds to start-up companies and to established companies that had an opportunity for a new product or line of business. Inexplicably, Taxpayer rarely reviewed formal written projections. obtained any third-party audits, or requested any financial statements for the companies that Corp invested in. As a matter of course, Corp did not finance any company if that company had other means to borrow, such as traditional banking. Taxpayer acknowledged that Corp provided “high-risk capital” and that it was engaged in “an investment business.”

In “return” for the money that Corp advanced, Taxpayer would acquire an equity interest in the borrower-company. Taxpayer would also acquire financial control over of the company by becoming a director, a bank account signatory, and the CFO.

According to Taxpayer, repayment of amounts advanced by Corp to a company to fund a start-up or other new “project” were not anticipated until the project had been “completed.”

Corp invested in three Companies that were relevant to the tax year at issue. Corp advanced significant amounts to each Company, some of which were advanced after the year at issue. In each case, Taxpayer acquired a significant equity interest in the Company; he was appointed a director, the CFO, the bookkeeper, and the paymaster of the Company; and he was made a signatory of its accounts. Taxpayer never received a salary from the Companies, and he stipulated that his goal for his investment in the Companies was to profit from his ownership interest.

Although Corp’s records included journal entries labeling some of its advances to the Companies as “loans,” neither Taxpayer nor Corp executed any notes, agreements, or other documents evidencing any loans to the Companies.

The IRS Steps In

On its tax return, on Form 1120S, for the tax year at issue, Corp deducted approximately $10 million as bad debt that was attributed to the advances made to the Companies. According to Taxpayer, he believed the possibility that the Companies would become profitable was remote. The bad debt deduction resulted in Corp’s reporting a net loss for the year; this loss flowed through to the Taxpayer’s personal income tax return.

The IRS examined Corp’s tax return for the tax year at issue and concluded that the bad debt deduction was erroneous. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency that disallowed Corp’s bad debt deduction, attributed the resulting income to the Taxpayer, and determined the resulting deficiency in tax.

The Tax Court asked Taxpayer to offer into evidence financial information regarding the Companies to show that they could not pay the debts to Corp. Taxpayer was unable to do so. Taxpayer did not provide any evidence that Corp ever held any of the Companies in default, and he admitted that Corp neither demanded repayment of these advances from the Companies, nor did it take legal action against them. There was no documentary evidence that Corp wrote off any portion of the alleged debts of the Companies on its books for the tax year at issue. Indeed, after the year at issue, the Companies were still operating and in good standing.

Taxpayer asserted that because he was an insider wearing several hats, no formal demands were necessary. He also claimed that Corp did not take legal action against the Companies because of his status as a shareholder of the Companies.

Bona Fide Debt

A taxpayer is entitled to a deduction in a tax year for any bona fide debt that becomes worthless within the tax year.

To be able to deduct the reported bad debt for the tax year at issue, Taxpayer had to show: (1) that the advances made to the Companies were debt (not equity); (2) that the debt became worthless in the year at issue; and (3) that the debt was incurred not as an investment, but in connection with a trade or business (i.e., the business of promoting, organizing, and financing or selling corporations). (If a taxpayer makes advances as an investor, and not in the course of a trade or business, then its loans may yield nonbusiness bad debt, which may be deducted as such only when they become worthless, and then only as short-term capital losses.)

According to the Court, a bona fide debt arises from “a debtor-creditor relationship based on a valid and enforceable obligation to pay a fixed or determinable sum of money.” By definition, a capital contribution is not a debt. The question before the Court was whether Taxpayer proved that Corp’s advances to the Companies were loans or, instead, were equity investments.

The Code authorizes the IRS to prescribe regulations setting forth factors to be taken into account in resolving the issue of whether an interest in a corporation is debt or equity, and it provides five factors that “the regulations may include”, the first of which is “a written unconditional promise to pay on demand or on a specified date a sum certain in money in return for an adequate consideration in money or money’s worth, and to pay a fixed rate of interest.” The other factors are: whether there is subordination to or preference over any indebtedness of the corporation; the ratio of debt to equity of the corporation; whether there is convertibility into the stock of the corporation; and the relationship between holdings of stock in the corporation and holdings of the interest in question.

Many courts have expanded upon these factors, and have relied upon the following criteria by which to judge the true nature of an investment which is in form a debt:
(1) the intent of the parties; (2) the identity between creditors and shareholders; (3) the extent of participation in management by the holder of the instrument; (4) the ability of the corporation to obtain funds from outside sources; (5) the “thinness” of the capital structure in relation to debt; (6) the risk involved; (7) the formal indicia of the arrangement; (8) the relative position of the obligees as to other creditors regarding the payment of interest and principal; (9) the voting power of the holder of the instrument; (10) the provision of a fixed rate of interest; (11) a contingency on the obligation to repay; (12) the source of the interest payments; (13) the presence or absence of a fixed maturity date; (14) a provision for redemption by the corporation; (15) a provision for redemption at the option of the holder; and (16) the timing of the advance with reference to the organization of the corporation.

However, the courts have also cautioned that, in such an analysis, no single criterion or group of criteria is conclusive. Moreover, the enumerated factors should be used only as aids in analyzing the economic reality of the transaction; that is, whether there is actually a contribution to capital or a true loan for income tax purposes.

The Court’s Analysis

The Court grouped the above factors into three categories: (1) the intent of the parties; (2) the form of the instrument; and (3) the objective economic reality of the transaction as it relates to the risks taken by investors.

Form
The Court noted that, unlike most “debt vs. equity” controversies, which involve investments in the form of a debt, Corp’s investment in the Companies had little or no form. There was no loan agreement providing for repayment of Corp’s advances; there was no written agreement of any sort.

According to the Court, the absence of an unconditional right to demand payment was practically conclusive that an advance was an equity investment rather than a loan for which an advancing taxpayer might be entitled to claim a deduction for a bad debt loss.

The salient fact of this case, the Court continued, was the lack of written evidence demonstrating that there was a valid and enforceable obligation to repay on the part of any of the Companies at issue that received advances from Corp. There was no written evidence of an enforceable obligation between Corp and any of the Companies, much less a provision for a fixed maturity date or a fixed rate of interest.

The Court observed that Taxpayer was not a financially unsophisticated person unaccustomed to having written agreements, yet the loans allegedly made by Corp were undocumented. Taxpayer’s uncorroborated oral testimony was insufficient to satisfy his burden in an equity-versus-debt determination. The absence of any type of formality typically associated with loans supported the conclusion that the advances were contributions to capital.

Intent
Taxpayer testified that the intent of both sides was that this was a loan and that there would be no profit-sharing, that interest would be paid and only interest would be paid, and that principal and only principal would be repaid. There was, Taxpayer said, an understanding between the parties that the borrower would post the advances as borrowed money and the lender would post them as money loaned out; and consistent with that, Taxpayer offered Corp’s journal entries that labeled some advances as loans.

In the absence of direct evidence of intent, the Court stated, the nature of the transaction may be inferred from its objective characteristics. In this case, the Court continued, no loans were documented. Such objective characteristics may include the presence of “debt instruments, collateral, interest provisions, repayment schedules or deadlines, book entries recording loan balances or interest payments, actual repayments, and any other attributes indicative of an enforceable obligation to repay the sums advanced.”

Economic Reality
The Court then turned to the economic reality of the advances. “A court may ascertain the true nature of an asserted loan transaction by measuring the transaction against the ‘economic reality of the marketplace’ to determine whether a third-party lender would extend credit under similar circumstances.”

If an outside lender would not have loaned funds to a corporation on the same terms as did an insider, an inference arises that the advance is not a bona fide loan; in other words, would an unrelated outside party have advanced funds under like circumstances?

Taxpayer stated that the Companies he chose to finance were start-up ventures that could not obtain financing from unrelated banks. As a matter of Corp policy, if a start-up company had other sources or means to borrow, Corp would not advance money to it. The Court concluded that the Companies were objectively risky debtors, and an unrelated prospective lender would probably have concluded that they would likely be unable to repay any proposed loan.

When Taxpayer decided to write off the advance to the Companies, it was because he believed the possibility they would be profitable was remote. And yet Corp continued to provide financing to the Companies after the tax year for which the bad debt deduction was claimed. No prudent lender would have continued to advance money to any of the Companies under such circumstances. The amounts advanced to the Companies were, as a matter of economic reality, placed at the risk of the businesses and more closely resembled venture capital than loans.

Also at odds with a conclusion that this was a genuine loan transaction was Taxpayer’s failure to obtain third-party audits, financial statements, or credit reports for the Companies that Corp had chosen to invest in.

The Court believed that no reasonable third-party lender would have extended money to these Companies when none of the objective attributes which denote a bona fide loan were present, including a written promise of repayment, a repayment schedule, and security for the loan.

The transfers simply did not give rise to a reasonable expectation or enforceable obligation of repayment. For these reasons, the Court found that the relationship between Taxpayer and Corp on the one hand and the three Companies on the other was not that of creditor and debtor, and the Court concluded that Corp’s advances of funds were in substance equity, and that the IRS properly disallowed the deduction.

The Lesson

The factors discussed by the Court, above, provide helpful guidance for structuring a loan between related companies. If these factors are considered, and the parties to the loan transaction document it on a contemporaneous basis, they will have objectively determinable proof of their intent, as reflected in the form and economic reality of the transaction. Of course, they will also have to act consistently with what the transaction purports to be – they will have to act as any unrelated party would under the circumstances.
There are many other situations in which the proper characterization of a transfer of funds between related entities can have significant income tax consequences. The bottom line in each case can be stated simply: decide early on what is intended, then act accordingly