Ask the Crypto Tax Lawyer: Is Staking Income Taxable?

Yes, staking income – just like most other types of income – is taxable. However, the question is when? When you receive the staking reward? Or only when you sell or exchange the newly- obtained tokens? Under the first, more conservative approach, the token is actually taxed twice – once as ordinary income at the time of receipt and the second time at the capital gains tax rate when it is sold or exchanged. Under the second, more aggressive approach, the token is not taxed upon receipt and not subject to tax until it is sold or exchanged. The second approach also allows token holders to take advantage of more favorable long-term capital gains tax rates by holding the staking rewards longer than a year.

How is Staking Different From Interest?

What is staking? It is an arrangement to “lock up” or “stake” a portion of an owner’s crypto tokens in a staking pool in return for additional cryptocurrency over time. The return is often expressed as a percentage. This makes staking seem very similar to an interest rate paid on a certificate of deposit or savings account. Indeed, on Coinbase, staking rewards are expressed in terms of an APY (annual percentage yield) and the term “interest earned” is used synonymously with staking. Unlike proof-of-work mining, which validates new transactions through solving complex algorithms, staking is more energy efficient and environmentally-friendly. Staking allows network participants to nominate their coins to be used as validators and to guarantee the legitimacy of new transactions on the blockchain. In return for validating a new block, the owner receives new tokens; if the transactions validated are later found to be illegitimate, the validator may lose tokens through a process called “slashing.”

Although it may seem like interest income, staking income may not be taxed the same way. The IRS has not taken a definitive position on this question even as the deadline to file 2021 taxes approaches. One of the reasons may be because of pending litigation in Jarrett v. IRS. In 2019, Josh and Jessica Jarrett sued the IRS for a refund on taxes paid on staking income, arguing that cryptocurrency received for staking should not be. Recently, the IRS appeared to concede that staking income is not taxable at inception and agreed to issue the Jarretts a refund. However, the taxpayers rejected the IRS’s offer – instead, opting to push the Tax Court to make a definitive ruling on the issue and create binding precedent. In response, the IRS has asked the Tax Court to dismiss the case in light of the plaintiffs having obtained full relief and the absence of a “case or controversy” for the Tax Court to decide.

The Conservative Approach – Staking Rewards Are Taxed Twice

Intuitively, it may seem that income from staking should be treated the same as interest/dividend income from a savings account, which is incurred when the bank pays it out. In the crypto context, the IRS has taken a position since 2014 that with mining, the fair market value of the virtual currency as of the date of receipt is includible in gross income. Arguably, staking income is sufficiently similar to interest earned or mining to be treated the same. Depending on the terms of the staking arrangement or agreement, the cryptocurrency or token contributed is restricted much in the same way that cash in a certificate of deposit is locked in until maturity.

The Aggressive Approach – Staking Rewards Are Only Taxed When Sold or Exchanged

However, the counter-argument (and the taxpayer’s position in the Jarrett case) is that the tokens received as a staking reward have no value until they are sold or exchanged. In that sense, they are like manufactured product that may have value when created, but is not taxed until it is sold. The product has a market value when created, but the IRS does not impose a tax on it at the time of creation.

Further, fiat currency has tangible value when received – an interest payment of $25 has worth and buying power at the time of receipt. It does not need to be sold or exchanged to have value. Conversely, 100 Tezos tokens (at issue in the Jarrett case) have no buying power or value until and unless they are exchanged into fiat, traded for another currency, or used to pay for services. Yes, if you pay for services with cryptocurrency, you are taxed on any difference between the basis and the fair market value of services received. According to the IRS, if you buy 100 Tezos for $1 (a basis of $100) and then exchange those same 100 Tezos for $300 worth of legal services, you just realized a $200 taxable gain. Proponents of the more aggressive Jarrett approach argue that cryptocurrency or tokens received as staking rewards are more analogous to a manufactured product than fiat currency interest or dividends.

The Issue Remains Unsettled

To complicate the issue further, the IRS’s offer to refund the Jarretts’ tax and settle the litigation seems like a tacit endorsement of the second, more aggressive approach. Arguably, the IRS is conceding the issue and admitting staking income is only subject to income tax when sold or exchanged. However, this position is directly at odds with the IRS’s guidance on tokens received from mining. The IRS’s Notice 2014-21 on virtual currency taxation states that “when a taxpayer successfully “mines” virtual currency, the fair market value of the virtual currency as of the date of receipt is includible in gross income.”

While the issue remains unresolved, taxpayers should consult with their legal and financial advisors on the correct approach for them. The conservative approach risks including too much in your gross income. The aggressive approach risks underpayment penalties in the future if the IRS does issue guidance and takes the same position on staking as it has on mining. But in any case, keep an eye on the Jarrett case, as the Tax Court may rule on this very question in the near future.

Contact Dan Artaev by email or call or text to set up your initial consultation.

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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