Note: The information in this article applies to individual investors and LLCs that are taxed as pass-through entities. The rules are different for corporations and LLCs electing to be taxed as a corporation and are not addressed here. This article is for informational and promotional purposes only and, as always, you should consult with a professional about your specific tax situation before taking any action.
2021 is the year of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin and its kin have attracted many institutional investors, smaller individual portfolios, and even some sophisticated self-directed retirement accounts. The accessibility, decentralization, and unlimited upside certainly make cryptocurrency (or crypto) an attractive investment. Or simply a fun way to try to make some extra fun money. Or lose it – the crypto market is extremely volatile and quickly reacts to government action (i.e. China’s ban) and Elon Musk’s tweets or SNL appearances.
Government regulators are watching the crypto markets. The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has already applied securities laws to police initial coin offerings and to prosecute Ponzi schemes posing as crypto investments. As early as 2014, the IRS issued guidance (supplemented by a more recent FAQ) classifying cryptocurrency as property for tax purposes. More recently, the Department of Treasury and the IRS have zeroed in on cryptocurrency as a tax revenue source ripe for enforcement. As part of its tax reform plan, the Biden administration announced mandatory reporting of any crypto transaction of $10,000 or more starting in 2023. On May 20, 2021, the Treasury also released a report detailing the plan to close the so-called tax gap, which is the difference between taxed owed and taxes actually paid. In 2019, the gap was $600 billion or 15% of all taxes, and is projected to grow to $7 billion in 10 years if left unaddressed. The biggest contributor is unreported income and Treasury and the IRS will be looking very closely at anyone who is trading cryptocurrency in the next few years for any signs of unreported or underreported taxable income.
Why are there taxes on trading crypto and how is crypto even taxed? Despite its name, cryptocurrency is not really currency for tax purposes. It is taxed like property and is subject to capital gains tax. When you purchase crypto with fiat currency (i.e. U.S. Dollars) you do not pay tax on the transaction. Note: States do not consider crypto purchases subject to sales tax – yet. But when you sell crypto, you are taxed on the gain (if any) just like you would be if you sold a stock or investment real estate. The tax rate depends on the length of time you held the asset and other factors related to your income status. Importantly, when you exchange one cryptocurrency for another (for example, you trade Bitcoin for Ethereum) the exchange is taxable. The IRS considers an exchange to be a sale of one asset for cash – income – regardless of what you do with the proceeds. Accordingly, it is critical to keep accurate and clear records of every transaction involving cryptocurrency, regardless of gain or loss. Interestingly, while the IRS considers cryptocurrency “property,” it does not consider it “securities” and therefore investors can take advantage of certain tax benefits. For example, a recent CNBC article discussed the so-called “wash rule” and possible tax advantages to investors who sell at a loss and then buy back the crypto while it is still low. This is an evolving area that the IRS and the SEC are likely to address soon and you must still ensure that any transaction has “economic substance” or you risk the IRS treating as a sham transaction and disallowing any tax benefit.
How does the IRS verify income from crypto trading? In 2020, the IRS asked taxpayers about their participation in any cryptocurrency transactions as part of their 1040 filing. In large part, the tax system is based on self-reporting, but with third party verification checks. Bigger exchanges like Coinbase report your transaction history to the IRS and you should have received a copy of the 1099-MISC for tax year 2020. The IRS will then flag any returns that do not match the information received from the exchange and what the taxpayer puts on their return. Off-brand or off-shore exchanges may not report to the IRS, but you still have to report those transactions yourself and pay tax on any gains. As mentioned above, the Biden administration is cracking down on underreporting of taxable crypto income. This means expect to see significant and highly-publicized enforcement actions, including penalties, interest, and even jail time for tax evaders. If you do use an off-shore crypto exchange, you should also be aware of your tax obligations in the host country. The United States has tax treaties with many (but not all) countries – for example, while there is a treaty with mainland China, the treaty does not apply to Hong Kong and there is no separate treaty with Hong Kong. International tax law will also come into play if buy and sell crypto abroad or exchange it for goods or services in other countries.
What about NFTs? Non-fungible tokens or NFTs are unique digital-only objects or unique digital versions of real-world objects. This is basically computer code. Mostly associated with collectibles and art, NFTs use blockchain technology like cryptocurrency but can represent almost anything, including virtual real estate and personalized avatars. The IRS has not issued definitive guidance on how NFTs will be taxed, but most commentators agree that they will probably be considered property like cryptocurrency and be subject to capital gains tax. If you buy an NFT for U.S. Dollars, you do not pay tax on that transaction. If you sell an NFT for a profit, you just incurred capital gains tax liability, even if you are exchanging an NFT for another NFT or trading it for cryptocurrency. If you are buying an NFT with cryptocurrency, the purchase will also be subject to capital gains tax, as the IRS treats the transaction as a sale of an asset (cryptocurrency), income, and then use of that income to purchase the NFT. Currently, there are no tax exemptions or safe-harbor periods that allow traders avoid capital gains tax on exchange type transactions.
An additional question with NFTs is whether the tax rate will change based on what the NFTs represents. Is it a collectible piece of art? Then there is a special collectibles tax rate. Is it real estate? Something else? There are a lot of unanswered questions about NFT taxes at this time. But like with cryptocurrency trading, make sure to keep meticulous records of all transactions, including any gains or losses on sales.
A final item of note – estimated quarterly tax payments. The IRS (and state tax authorities) require the payment of estimated quarterly taxes from self-employed individuals or independent contractors. If you buy and sell crypto (and NFTs) make sure you are reporting and paying expected capital gains tax before the due date for payments that apply to the quarter of the sale. If you wait until the end of the year to pay taxes, you may be subject to penalties and interest for failing to pay quarterly. Additionally, you may have to liquidate other investments to pay taxes, instead of simply setting aside the capital gains estimate at the time of the original sale.
In short, if you are investing and trading crypto or NFTs, keep good records. Pay attention to any new guidance issued by the IRS. Beware false or misleading information on the internet. And above all, retain a trusted advisor to answer your questions and guide you through your tax obligations in this evolving field.
Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, investment, or tax advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
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