Introduction

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017[1] went into effect only two weeks ago. Many of its provisions represent significant changes to the Code, and it will take most of us several months to fully digest them,[2] to appreciate their practical consequences, and to understand how they may best be utilized for the benefit of our clients.

Among the businesses on which the Act will have a significant and immediate effect is real estate. What follows is a summary of the principal effects of the Act on a closely held real estate business and its owners.[3]

There are many facets to a closely held real estate business, including the choice of entity in which to operate the business, the acquisition and disposition of real property, the construction or other improvement of the property, the financing of the foregoing activities, the rental of the property, the management of the business, and the transfer of its ownership.

The Act touches upon each of these activities. It is the responsibility of the business’s tax advisers to analyze how the changes enacted may affect the business, and to prepare a coherent plan that addresses these changes.

Individual Income Tax Rates

The Act reduced the maximum individual income tax rate from 39.6% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $470,700) to 37% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $600,000).

This reduced rate will apply to an individual owner’s net rental income. It will also apply to any depreciation recapture recognized on the sale of a real property.[4]

Income Tax

The Act did not change the 20% maximum rate applicable to individuals on their net capital gains and qualified dividends, nor did it change the 25% rate applicable to unrecaptured depreciation.

The Act also left in place the 3.8% surtax on net investment income that is generally applicable to an individual’s rental income, unless the individual can establish that he is a real estate professional and that he materially participates in the rental business.

Deduction of Qualified Business Income

The Act provides that an individual who owns an equity interest in a pass-through entity (“PTE”)[5] that is engaged in a qualified trade or business (“QTB”)[6] may deduct up to 20% of the qualified business income (“QBI”) allocated to him from the PTE.

The amount of this deduction may be limited, based upon the W-2 wages paid by the QTB and by the unadjusted basis (immediately after acquisition) of depreciable tangible property used by the QTB in the production of QBI (provided its recovery period has not expired).[7]

The issue of whether an activity, especially one that involves the rental of real property, is a “trade or business” (as opposed to an “investment”) of a taxpayer is ultimately one of fact in which the scope of a taxpayer’s activities, either directly or through agents, in connection with the property, is so extensive as to rise to the stature of a trade or business.

A taxpayer’s QBI from a QTB for a taxable year means his share of the net amount of qualified items of income, gain, deduction, and loss that are taken into account in determining the taxable income of the QTB for that year.

Items of income, gain, deduction, and loss are “qualified items” only to the extent they are effectively connected with the PTE’s conduct of a QTB within the U.S. “Qualified items” do not include specified investment-related income, gain, deductions, or loss. [8]

Excess Business Losses

The Act imposes another limitation on an individual’s ability to utilize a pass-through loss against other income, whether it is realized through a sole proprietorship, S corporation or partnership; this limitation is applied after the at-risk and passive loss rules.

Specifically, the taxpayer’s excess business losses are not allowed for the taxable year. An individual’s “excess business loss” for a taxable year is the excess of:

(a) the taxpayer’s aggregate deductions attributable to his trades or businesses for the year, over

(b) the sum of:

(i) the taxpayer’s aggregate gross income or gain for the year attributable to such trades or businesses, plus

(ii) $250,000 (or $500,000 in the case of a joint return).

In the case of a partnership or S corporation, this provision is applied at the individual partner or shareholder level. Each partner’s and each S corporation shareholder’s share of the PTE’s items of income, gain, deduction, or loss is taken into account in applying the limitation for the taxable year of the partner or shareholder.

The individual’s excess business loss for a taxable year is carried forward and treated as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss carryforward in subsequent taxable years.[9]

Technical Termination of a Partnership

Prior to the Act, a partnership was considered “technically terminated” for tax purposes if, within a 12-month period, there was a sale or exchange of 50% or more of the total interest in the partnership’s capital or income. Upon a technical termination, the partnership’s taxable year closed, partnership-level elections generally ceased to apply, and the partnership’s depreciation recovery periods for its assets started anew.

The Act repealed the technical termination rule, which makes it easier for partners to transfer their partnership interests.

Profits Interest

A partnership may issue a profits interest (a “promote”) in the partnership to a service or management partner in exchange for the performance of services. The right of the profits interest partner to receive a share of the partnership’s future profits and appreciation does not include any right to receive money or other property upon the liquidation of the partnership immediately after the issuance of the profits interest.[10]

In general, the IRS has not treated the receipt of a partnership profits interest for services as a taxable event for the partnership or the partner.

By contrast, a partnership capital interest received for services has been includable in the partner’s income if the interest was transferable or was not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.[11]

In order to make it more difficult for certain profits interest partners to enjoy capital gain treatment for their share of partnership income, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides for a new three-year holding period.[12]

Specifically, the partnership assets sold must have been held by the partnership for at least three years in order for a profits interest partner’s share of such gain to enjoy the lower tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains.[13]

If the assets sold had not been held by the partnership for at least three years, the entire amount of any capital gain allocated to the profits interest would be treated as short-term capital gain and would be taxed up to a maximum rate of 37% as ordinary income.

An “applicable partnership interest” is one that is transferred to a partner in connection with his performance of “substantial” services in a trade or business that consists in whole or in part of (1) raising or returning capital, and (2) investing in, or disposing of, or developing real estate held for rental or investment.

This holding-period rule should not apply to a taxpayer who only provides services to a so-called “portfolio company.”

Real Property Taxes

Under the Act, State and local taxes are generally not allowed to an individual as a deduction[14] unless they are paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or an activity for the production of income. Thus, for instance, in the case of property taxes, an individual may deduct such items if these taxes were imposed on business assets, such as residential rental property.

Additional Depreciation

Prior to the Act, the Code allowed an additional first-year depreciation deduction equal to 50% of the adjusted basis of “qualified property”[15] – including certain improvements to real property – for the year it was placed in service.

The Act modified the additional first-year depreciation deduction, expanded it to include the acquisition of used property, and increased the allowance to 100% for property placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023.[16]

Election to Expense

Prior to the Act, a taxpayer could elect to deduct the cost of qualifying property, rather than to recover such costs through depreciation deductions, subject to certain limitations. The maximum amount a taxpayer could expense was $500,000 of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. This amount was reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeded $2 million. The $500,000 and $2 million amounts were indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2015.

Qualifying property was defined to include, among other things, “qualified leasehold improvement property.”

The Act increased the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense to $1 million, and increased the phase-out threshold amount to $2.5 million. Thus, the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense, for taxable years beginning after 2017, is $1 million of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. The $1 million amount is reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeds $2.5 million. The $1 million and $2.5 million amounts are indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2018.

The Act also expanded the definition of qualifying real property to include any of the following improvements to nonresidential real property placed in service after the date such property was first placed in service: roofs; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning property; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems.

Interest Deduction

The Act limits the deduction that a business may claim for “business interest” paid or accrued in computing its taxable income for any taxable year. In general, the deduction is limited to 30% of the adjusted taxable income of the business for such year. The amount of any business interest not allowed as a deduction for any taxable year may be carried forward indefinitely.

“Adjusted taxable income” means the taxable income of the business computed without regard to (1) any item of income, gain, deduction, or loss which is not properly allocable to the business; (2) any business interest or business interest income; (3) the amount of any NOL deduction; (4) the 20% of QBI deduction; and (5) certain other business deductions.[17]

The limitation does not apply to a business – including a real estate business – if its average annual gross receipts for the three-taxable-year period ending with the prior taxable year does not exceed $25 million.

In addition, a real estate business may elect that any real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction, acquisition, conversion, rental, operation, management, leasing, or brokerage trade or business in which it is engaged not be treated as a trade or business for purposes of the limitation, in which case the limitation would not apply to such trade or business.[18]

Like-Kind Exchange

For years, the Code has provided that no gain or loss is recognized if property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment is exchanged for property of a “like kind” which is to be held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.

Over the last few years, several proposals had been introduced into Congress to eliminate the favorable tax treatment for like-kind exchanges.

The Act amended the tax-deferred like-kind exchange rules such that they will apply only to real property.

Corporate Tax Changes

Real property should rarely be held in a corporation, yet the fact remains that there are many such corporations.

In the case of a C corporation, or in the case of an S corporation for which the built-in gain recognition period has not yet expired, the Act provides some relief by reducing the corporate income tax rate from a maximum rate of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Although this reduction is significant, it likely is not enough to cause investors to contribute their real property to a corporation, or to “check the box” to treat their partnership or single-member LLC as an association (i.e., a corporation) for tax purposes. The benefits of ownership through a partnership are too great.

Moreover, the Act also takes away a benefit from certain corporate real estate developers. Specifically, these corporations may no longer exclude from their gross income any contribution of cash or property from a governmental entity or civic group.[19]

Estate Planning

Although the Act did not repeal the federal estate tax, it greatly increased the exemption amount, from $5.6 million to $11.2 million per person for 2018. It also left intact the portability election between spouses, and the exemption amount remains subject to adjustment for inflation.[20]

Importantly, the beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate continue to enjoy a stepped-up basis in the assets that pass to them upon his death, thereby providing income tax savings to the beneficiaries in the form of reduced gain or increased depreciation.[21]

For a more detailed discussion, click here.

A foreign individual investing in U.S. real property will often do so through a foreign corporate parent and a U.S. corporate subsidiary. The stock of the foreign corporation will not subject the foreigner to U.S. estate tax upon his demise. The U.S. corporation will be subject to U.S. corporate income tax – now at a 21% federal rate (down from a maximum of 35%) – and its dividend distributions, if any, will be subject to U.S. withholding at 30% or at a lower treaty rate. The disposition of the real property will be subject to U.S. corporate tax, but the subsequent liquidation of the U.S. subsidiary will not be subject to U.S. tax.[22]

Will the reduction of the federal corporate tax rate cause more foreign corporations to invest directly in U.S. real property, or through a PTE, rather than through a U.S. subsidiary? In general, no, because such an investment may cause the foreign corporation to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business[23], and may subject the foreign corporation to the branch profits tax.

How about the limitation on interest deductions? The exception for a real estate trade or business should alleviate that concern.

Will the deduction based on qualified business income cause a foreign individual to invest in U.S. real property through a PTE?[24] Probably not, because this form of ownership may cause the foreigner to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business, and an interest in such a PTE should be includible in his U.S. gross estate for estate tax purposes.

Where Will This Lead?

It’s too soon to tell – the Act has only been in force for just over two weeks.

That being said, and based on the foregoing discussion, there’s a lot in the Act with which the real estate industry should be pleased.[25]

Notwithstanding that fact, there are certain questions that many taxpayers are rightfully starting to ask regarding the structure of their real estate business. To give you a sense of the environment in which we find ourselves, I have been asked:

  • Whether an S corporation should convert into a C corporation (to take advantage of the reduced corporate tax rate);
  • Whether a C corporation should elect S corporation status (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction);
  • Whether a partnership/LLC should incorporate or check the box (to take advantage of the reduced corporate rate);
  • Whether a corporation should convert into a partnership or disregarded entity (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction)?

In response to these questions, I ask: who or what are the business owners, what is its capital structure, does it make regular distributions to its owners, what is the appreciation inherent in its assets, does it plan to dispose of its property in the relative short-term, etc.? The point is that each taxpayer is different.

I then remind them that some of the recently-enacted provisions are scheduled to expire in the not-too-distant future; for example, the QBI-based deduction goes away after 2025.

Generally speaking, however, and subject to the unique circumstances of the business entity, its owners, and its property, a real estate business entity that is treated as a partnership for tax purposes should not change its form; an S corporation should not revoke its “S” election; a C corporation should elect “S” status (assuming it will not be subject to the excise tax on excess passive investment income), and a corporation should not convert into a partnership.


[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”).

[2] Do you recall the history of the TRA of 1986? Committee reports beginning mid-1985, the bill introduced late 1985, the law enacted October 1986, lots of transition rules. Oh well.

[3] Some of these provisions have been discussed in earlier posts on this blog. See, for example, this post and this post.

[4] For example, personal property identified as part of a cost segregation study that benefited from accelerated depreciation.

[5] A sole proprietorship, partnership/LLC, or S corporation.

[6] A QTB includes any trade or business conducted by a PTE other than specified businesses that primarily involve the performance of services.

[7] Query how much of a benefit will be enjoyed by an established real estate business which may not have many employees, and the property of which may have been fully depreciated.

[8] Investment-type income is excluded from QBI; significantly, investment income includes capital gain from the sale or other disposition of property used in the trade or business.

[9] NOL carryovers generally are allowed for a taxable year up to the lesser of (i) the carryover amount or (ii) 80 percent of taxable income determined without regard to the deduction for NOLs. In general, carrybacks are eliminated, and carryovers to other years may be carried forward indefinitely.

This may be a significant consideration for a C corporation that elects to be an S corporation, and vice versa, in that “C-corporation-NOLs” will not expire until they are actually used.

See the discussion of the recently enacted “excess business loss” rule applicable to individuals.

[10] The right may be subject to various vesting limitations.

[11] A capital interest for this purpose is an interest that would entitle the receiving partner to a share of the proceeds if the partnership’s assets were sold at fair market value (“FMV”) immediately after the issuance of the interest and the proceeds were distributed in liquidation.

[12] This rule applies even if the partner has made a sec. 83(b) election.

[13] It is unclear whether the interest must have been held for three years by the partner.

[14] There is an exception under which a joint return may claim an itemized deduction of up to $10,000 for the aggregate of (i) State and local property taxes not paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or in an activity carried on for the production of income, and (ii) State and local income taxes (or sales taxes in lieu of income taxes) paid or accrued in the taxable year.

[15] Among other things, “qualified improvement property” includes any improvement to an interior portion of a building that was nonresidential real property if such improvement was placed in service after the date such building was first placed in service.

Qualified improvement property does not include any improvement for which the expenditure is attributable to the enlargement of the building, any elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework of the building.

The Act also provides a 15-year MACRS recovery period for qualified improvement property.

[16] The allowance is phased out through 2025.

[17] Among these deductions is depreciation. Beginning in 2022, depreciation is accounted for.

[18] An electing business will not be entitled to bonus depreciation and will have to extend, slightly, the depreciation period for its real properties.

[19] Such contributions may be made in order to induce a business to move to, and establish itself in, a particular jurisdiction, the idea being that its presence would somehow benefit the public.

[20] Unfortunately, the exemption amount returns to its pre-Act levels after 2025.

[21] In the case of a partnership interest, the partnership must have a Sec. 754 election in effect in order to enjoy this benefit.

[22] Thanks to the so-called “cleansing rule.”

[23] Or it may elect to be so treated.

[24] Other than an S corporation, of course.

[25] Our focus has been on the tax benefits bestowed upon a closely held real estate business. Of course, there are other, non-business provisions that apply to individuals that may have some impact on the real estate market and real estate businesses generally.

Obviously, I am referring to the limitations on itemized deductions for real property taxes imposed on a personal residence and residential acquisition indebtedness, both of which may adversely affect higher-income individual taxpayers.

Against these changes, one must weigh the alternative minimum tax (which often reduces the benefit of deducting property taxes anyway), and the elimination of the so-called “Pease limitation” (which reduced the benefit of itemized deductions for higher-income individual taxpayers).

Yesterday’s post examined various changes to the taxation of S corporations, partnerships, and their owners.

Today, we will focus on a number of partnership-specific issues that were addressed by the Act.

Profits Interests2017 Tax Act

A partnership may issue a profits (or “carried”) interest in the partnership to a service or management partner in exchange for their performance of services.[1] The right of the profits interest partner to receive a share of the partnership’s future profits and appreciation does not include any right to receive money or other property upon the liquidation of the partnership immediately after the issuance of the profits interest. The right may be subject to various vesting limitations.[2]

In general, the IRS has not treated the receipt of a partnership profits interest for services as a taxable event for the partnership or the partner. However, this favorable tax treatment did not apply if: (1) the profits interest related to a substantially certain and predictable stream of income from partnership assets (i.e., one that could be readily valued); or (2) within two years of receipt, the partner disposed of the profits interest. More recent guidance clarified that this treatment would apply with respect to a substantially unvested profits interest, provided the service partner took into income his share of partnership income (i.e., the service provider is treated as the owner of the interest from the date of its grant), and the partnership did not deduct any amount of the FMV of the interest as compensation, either on grant or on vesting of the profits interest.[3]

By contrast, a partnership capital interest received for services has been includable in the partner’s income if the interest was transferable or was not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.[4] A capital interest for this purpose is an interest that would entitle the receiving partner to a share of the proceeds if the partnership’s assets were sold at fair market value (“FMV”) immediately after the issuance of the interest and the proceeds were distributed in liquidation.

Under general partnership tax principles, notwithstanding that a partner’s holding period for his profits interest may not exceed one year, the character of any long-term capital gain recognized by the partnership on the sale or exchange of its assets has been treated as long-term capital gain in the hands of the profits partner to whom such gain was allocated and, thus, eligible for the lower applicable tax rate.

The Act

In order to make it more difficult for some profits interest partners to enjoy capital gain treatment for their share of partnership income, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides for a new three-year holding period for certain net long-term capital gain allocated to an applicable partnership interest.

Specifically, the partnership assets sold must have been held by the partnership for at least three years[5] in order for a profits interest partner’s share of such gain to enjoy the lower tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains.

If the assets sold had not been held by the partnership for at least three years, the entire amount of any capital gain allocated to the profits interest would be treated as short-term capital gain, and would be taxed up to a maximum rate of 37% as ordinary income.[6]

An “applicable partnership interest” is any interest in a partnership that is transferred to a partner in connection with the performance of “substantial” services in any applicable trade or business.[7]

In general, an “applicable trade or business” means any activity conducted on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis that consists in whole or in part of: (1) raising or returning capital, and (2) investing in, or disposing of, or developing specified assets.

“Developing” specified assets takes place, for example, if it is represented to investors or lenders that the value, price, or yield of a portfolio business may be enhanced or increased in connection with choices or actions of a service provider or of others acting in concert with the service provider.

“Specified assets” means securities, commodities, real estate held for rental or investment, as well as other enumerated assets.

If a profits interest is not an applicable partnership interest, then its tax treatment should continue to be governed by the guidance previously issued by the IRS.[8]

Adjusting Inside Basis

In general, a partnership does not adjust the basis of partnership property following the transfer of a partnership interest unless the partnership has made an election under Code Sec. 754 to make such basis adjustments, or the partnership has a substantial built-in loss[9] immediately after the transfer.

If an election is in effect, or if the partnership has a substantial built-in loss immediately after the transfer, inside basis adjustments are made only with respect to the transferee partner. These adjustments account for the difference between the transferee partner’s proportionate share of the adjusted basis of the partnership property and the transferee’s basis in its partnership interest. The adjustments are intended to adjust the basis of partnership property to approximate the result of a direct purchase of the property by the transferee partner, and to thereby eliminate any unwarranted advantage (in the case of a downward adjustment) or disadvantage (in the case of an upward adjustment) for the transferee.

For example, without a mandatory reduction in a transferee partner’s share of a partnership’s inside basis for an asset, the transferee may be allocated a tax loss from the partnership without suffering a corresponding economic loss. Under such circumstances, if a Sec. 754 election were not in effect, it is unlikely that the partnership would make the election so as to wipe out the advantage enjoyed by the transferee partner.

The Act

In order to further reduce the potential for abuse, the Act expands the definition of a “substantial built-in loss” such that, in addition to the present-law definition, for transfers of partnership interests made after December 31, 2017, a substantial built-in loss also exists if the transferee would be allocated a loss in excess of $250,000 upon a hypothetical disposition by the partnership of all of its assets in a fully taxable transaction for cash equal to the assets’ FMV, immediately after the transfer of the partnership interest.

Limiting a Partner’s Share of Loss

A partner’s distributive share of partnership loss is allowed only to the extent of the adjusted basis (before reduction by current year’s losses) of the partner’s interest in the partnership at the end of the partnership taxable year in which the loss occurred.

Any disallowed loss is allowable as a deduction at the end of succeeding partnership taxable years, to the extent that the partner’s adjusted basis for its partnership interest at the end of any such year exceeds zero (before reduction by the loss for the year).

In general, a partner’s basis in its partnership interest is decreased (but not below zero) by distributions by the partnership and the partner’s distributive share of partnership losses and expenditures. In the case of a charitable contribution, a partner’s basis is reduced by the partner’s distributive share of the adjusted basis of the contributed property.

In computing its taxable income, no deductions for foreign taxes and charitable contributions are allowed to the partnership – instead, a partner takes into account his distributive share of the foreign taxes paid, and the charitable contributions made, by the partnership for the taxable year.

However, in applying the basis limitation on partner losses, the IRS has not taken into account the partner’s share of partnership charitable contributions and foreign taxes.

By contrast, under the S corporation basis limitation rules (see above), the shareholder’s pro rata share of charitable contributions and foreign taxes are taken into account.

The Act

In order to remedy this inconsistency in treatment between S corporations and partnerships, the Act modifies the basis limitation on partner losses to provide that the limitation takes into account a partner’s distributive share of partnership charitable contributions (to the extent of the partnership’s basis for the contributed property)[10] and foreign taxes. Thus, effective for partnership taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the amount of the basis limitation on partner losses is decreased to reflect these items.

What’s Next?

This marks the end of our three-post review of the more significant changes in the taxation of pass-through entities resulting from the Act.

In general, these changes appear to be favorable for the closely held business and its owners, though they do not deliver the promised-for simplification.

Indeed, the new statutory provisions raise a number of questions for which taxpayers and their advisers must await guidance from the IRS and, perhaps, from the Joint Committee (in the form of a “Blue Book”).

However, in light of the administration’s bias against the issuance of new regulations, and given its reduction of the resources available to the IRS, query when such guidance will be forthcoming, and in what form.

Until then, it will behoove practitioners to act cautiously, to keep options open, and to focus on the Act’s legislative history (including the examples contained therein) in ascertaining the intent of certain provisions and in determining an appropriate course of action for clients.

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

[Next week, we’ll take a look at the Act’s changes to the estate and gift tax, and how it may impact the owners of a closely held business, as well as the changes to the taxation of C corporations.]


[1]It may be issued in lieu of a management fee that would be taxed as ordinary income.

[2]See Sec. 83 of the Code.

[3]Rev. Proc. 93-27, Rev. Proc. 2001-43.

[4]In general, property is subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture if the recipient’s right to the property is conditioned on the future performance of substantial services, or if the right is subject to a condition other than the performance of services, provided that the condition relates to a purpose of the transfer and there is a substantial possibility that the property will be forfeited if the condition does not occur.

[5]Notwithstanding Code Sec. 83 or any election made by the profits interest holder under Sec. 83(b); for example, even if the interest was vested when issued, or the service provider elected under Sec. 83(b) of the Code to include the FMV of the interest in his gross income upon receipt, thus beginning a holding period for the interest.

[6]Query whether this will have any impact on profits interests that are issued in the context of a PE firm or a real estate venture, where the time frame for a sale of the underlying asset will likely exceed three years.The Act also provides a special rule for transfers by a taxpayer to related persons

[7]A partnership interest will not fail to be treated as transferred in connection with the performance of services merely because the taxpayer also made a capital contribution to the partnership. An applicable partnership interest does not include an interest in a partnership held by a corporation.

[8]Rev. Proc. 93-27, Rev. Proc. 2001-43, Prop. Reg. REG-105346-03.

[9]Prior to the Act, a “substantial built-in loss” existed only if the partnership’s adjusted basis in its property exceeded by more than $250,000 the FMV of the partnership property.

[10]The basis limitation does not apply to the excess of the contributed property’s FMV over its adjusted basis.

Some Days Are Stones[1]

It’s not always easy to find a topic about which to write a weekly blog post. I usually look for a ruling or decision that illustrates one of the recurring themes of the tax law, and then develop a lesson or message around it. Sometimes I’ll use a project on which I’m working.

Some weeks are more fruitful than others. This week was a relatively lean one.

That being said, I did come across a recent letter ruling issued by the IRS that was short on facts and legal analysis, and the outcome of which would be obvious to most, but which I thought might serve my purpose.

The taxpayer to which the ruling was issued asked the IRS to consider whether the conversion of a State law limited liability company (“LLC”) into a State law limited partnership would cause the LLC or its members to recognize taxable income or gain.

Now, some of you may say, “big whoop.” (I did say the result was obvious.)

Nevertheless, the ruling does offer an opportunity for some fruitful discussion based upon the significance of the factual representations on which the ruling was based.

Basic Facts

LLC-1 was classified as a partnership for federal tax purposes. It had two managing members:

  • Corp-1 was a state law limited liability company that was classified as a corporation for tax purposes;
  • LLC-2 was a limited liability company that was disregarded as an entity separate from its owner for tax purposes;
    • Corp-2 was classified as a corporation for tax purposes, and was the sole member of LLC-2; thus, Corp-2 was treated as the second member of LLC-1 for tax purposes.

The other membership interests in LLC-1 were non-managing member interests owned either indirectly by Corp-2 (including through subsidiaries of LLC-2), or by other investors.

LLC-1 planned to convert to a limited partnership in accordance with State law (the “Conversion”), after which it would continue to carry on the business operations it previously conducted as a limited liability company before the Conversion.

Creation of Disregarded Entities

Before the Conversion, Corp-1, LLC-2, and one of LLC-2’s wholly-owned subsidiaries (we are not told whether this subsidiary was itself a disregarded entity – i.e., a limited liability company – or a corporation) would each form a single-member limited liability company (three in all) that would be disregarded as an entity separate from its respective owner for federal tax purposes (the “Disregarded Entities”).

In connection with the Conversion, LLC-2 and LLC-2’s subsidiary would each contribute all of its interest in LLC-1 (including its managing-member interest) to its respective Disregarded Entity. Corp-1 would contribute a portion of its interest in LLC-1 to its Disregarded Entity.

As part of the Conversion, the three Disregarded Entities would become the State law general partners of LLC-1; for tax purposes, their “regarded” owners (Corp-1, LLC-2 and LLC-2’s subsidiary) would be treated as the general partners of post-Conversion LLC-1 (as compared to the two State law managing members of pre-Conversion LLC-1).

(The ruling did not give the business reason for the Disregarded Entities. There are several possibilities, including planning for creditors upon the conversion of the managing member interests into general partner interests.)

The Representations

According to LLC-1, the limited partnership agreement that would replace its operating agreement would be substantively identical to the operating agreement; in other words, the economic arrangement among the members/partners, including the allocation of income, gain, loss, deduction, and credit among them would not be changed by virtue of the Conversion.

Consistent therewith, it was represented in the ruling that:

  • the balances in each partner’s (formerly member’s) capital account immediately after the Conversion would be the same as they were immediately before the Conversion
  • each partner’s total percentage interest in X’s profits, losses, and capital after the Conversion will be the same as that partner’s percentage interest in X’s profits, losses and capital before the Conversion, and the allocation of tax items will also remain unchanged
    • there would be no change in how they shared these tax items after the Conversion;
  • each partner’s share of liabilities of LLC-1 immediately after the Conversion would be the same as it was immediately before the Conversion
    • there would be no deemed distribution or deemed contribution of cash to any partner, or any deemed sale of partnership interests between any partners; there would be no change in any partner’s share of value, gain, or loss associated with the partnership’s unrealized receivables or inventory items in connection with the Conversion
    • thus, no partner would be treated as having exchanged an interest in so-called “hot assets” for a greater interest in other assets of the partnership, or vice versa, which could result in income or gain to such partner; and
  • LLC-1 would retain the same method of accounting and accounting period.

Interestingly, LLC-1 represented to the IRS that it had not issued any profits interest in the two years preceding the date of the Conversion. You may recall that a person’s receipt of a profits interest in a partnership will generally not be treated as a taxable event; this result will not follow, however, if the partner disposes of the profits interest within two years of receipt.

LLC-1 also represented that the “Sec. 704(b) book basis” of its property (the fair market value of the property at the time of its contribution to LLC-1, adjusted for subsequent book depreciation) that secured nonrecourse debt exceeded the amount of such debt; in other words, there was no “partnership minimum gain” – the gain that the partnership would realize if it disposed of the property for no consideration other than full satisfaction of the liability.

The IRS’s “Analysis”

According to the Code, an existing partnership is considered as continuing if it is not terminated. A partnership is considered as terminated only if: (1) no part of any business, financial operation, or venture of the partnership continues to be carried on by any of its partners in a partnership; or (2) within a 12-month period, there is a sale or exchange of 50 percent or more of the total interest in partnership capital and profits (a “technical termination”).

The IRS has, on several occasions, published rulings in which it examined the federal income tax consequences of a conversion of one form of partnership interest into another form of partnership interest in the same partnership. In general, provided each partner’s total percentage interest in the partnership’s profits, losses, and capital would remain the same after the conversion, and the partnership’s business would continue, no gain or loss would be recognized by the partners as a result of their exchanging their interests in the partnership.

Similarly, the IRS has previously ruled that the conversion of a domestic partnership into a domestic limited liability company classified as a partnership for tax purposes is treated as a partnership-to-partnership conversion that is subject to the same principles as an exchange of interests within the same partnership. It has also stated that the same holdings would apply if the conversion had been of an interest in a domestic limited liability company that is classified as a partnership for tax purposes into an interest in a domestic partnership.

IRS regulations provide that a business entity that is not classified as a corporation per se (a so-called “eligible entity”) can elect its classification for federal tax purposes. An eligible entity with at least two members can elect to be classified as either an association or a partnership, and an eligible entity with a single owner can elect to be classified as an association or to be disregarded as an entity separate from its owner. The regulations also provide that unless the entity elects otherwise, a domestic eligible entity will be treated as a partnership if it has two or more members.

Without further discussion, the IRS concluded that the Conversion would not cause a “technical termination” of LLC-1’s status as a partnership for tax purposes, and that neither LLC-1 nor its members would recognize taxable income, gain, or loss upon the Conversion.

Although not stated in the ruling, the IRS could have added that: the taxable year of the pre-Conversion limited liability company did not close as a result of the Conversion, the post-Conversion partnership would continue to use the EIN of the converted limited liability company, the tax elections made by the converted limited liability company would remain in effect as would its depreciation methods, and the members’ bases in their membership interests would carry over to their partnership interests.

So What? Is That It?

Pretty much.

The point is that there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into securing a “duh” ruling. The ruling becomes a foregone conclusion only because of the analysis, structuring and drafting that preceded it.

In the case of the ruling described herein, the failure of any of the representations set forth above may have resulted in a taxable event to one or more of the partners.

For that reason, it would behoove anyone who advises taxpayers and their business entities to become familiar with the kinds of representations that are made in connection with a “successful” ruling on a specific kind of transaction.

These representations highlight many of the issues that others have encountered in similar transactions over the years, and on which the IRS may be focusing. As such, they may provide a good starting point for an adviser’s consideration of, and planning for, his or her own client’s transaction.

 

[1] From “Some Days Are Diamonds” by Dick Feller, sung by John Denver.