The IRS has issued their long-awaited guidance on the tax treatment for cryptocurrencies. You can read their FAQ On Virtual Currency Transactions on the IRS website.
This is the first official guidance since the original 2014-21 notice in April 2014.
- Crypto is still subject to capital gains.
- Airdrops and forks are income on controllable receipt at Fair Market Value (FMV). If you didn't have control, you don't have income.
- FMV should be taken from the traded exchange, source or value of received services and not external sources, such as price aggregators. FMV for an off-chain transaction is the value it would have had if it was traded on the exchange.
- Peer-to-peer or other transactions use FMV from a source that analyzes worldwide indices to calculate a value at that date and time. Or, you can use an accurate representation of the FMV.
- Specific Identification is allowed (not just FIFO) when it can be documented. [new]
- Gifts are not income and giftee can use the documented gifted basis for gains (but not losses).
- Transfers are not tax events.
Generally, this is the same as the advice and common practice used by taxpayers and accountants. Although, the exception here is the clarification of the specific identification rule. We'll talk about that below.
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IRS Cryptocurrency Tax FAQ
We have gone into more detail for some of the main points in their FAQ.
Hard forks and airdrops
Despite peculiar wording by the IRS, they have confirmed that receipt of crypto from an airdrop or fork is to be treated as income, and so subject to income tax.
ordinary income equal to the fair market value of the new cryptocurrency when it is received, which is when the transaction is recorded on the distributed ledger, provided you have dominion and control over the cryptocurrency so that you can transfer, sell, exchange, or otherwise dispose of the cryptocurrency
However, these drops typically have no market (perhaps a futures market) until they have existed for a period of time, so establishing a value could be difficult. It is possible that the value could be zero right at that exact moment it is recorded on the distributed ledger.
In order to receive income, you must have dominion and control over these new crypto. This effectively means you must be able to manage it; typically you would have the private keys or it is immediately available in a custodial wallet or online account, e.g. Coinbase.
If the crypto doesn't appear in your wallet, or you don't get control of it until a later date, then that later date is used to calculated the USD income value.
This had been a common question among crypto traders: if BTC was forked off into a new "BTC" coin, which you might not even have been aware of, do you still have income? The answer is no. Unless, you subsequently get access to those new coins, in which case you do have income on the date you receive control.
When you have income for an airdrop or fork, this also sets the cost basis (value and date) for any subsequent capital gains calculations.
Bitcoin.Tax already looks up any current value, if known, for forks or airdrop symbols when they are added to the Income tab, otherwise a zero basis is used.
Fair Market Value (FMV)
FMV is used to give something a value, i.e. what it's worth. If you list a bike for sale, you might research the prices for which other people are selling. Those prices give a FMV. But it you sell your bike and someone buys it for $100, then the bike's FMV was $100.
With crypto, sometimes we need to know FMV because we are not trading directly for dollars.
For example, if you sell 1 BTC for 150 LTC, you are disposing of the 1 BTC at FMV. You need to know the USD value in order to know the proceeds and to calculate any capital gains or losses.
So, first, if this was traded on an exchange, we use the spot price on the exchange at that time. This is true even if the transaction was off-chain.
However, where no FMV exists, such as a peer-to-peer transaction, then you have to get the value from elsewhere.
So, secondly, use the FMV of the service or product you are exchanging. With the above bike example, say buying it with crypto, the FMV would be that of the bike itself (the price it would have sold for USD).
Lastly, when no value can be obtained, then use a service that provides a consistent worldwide indices value (the IRS are calling this an "explorer" but that is a confusing term as blockchain explorers may not provide a USD value). If you do not use an "explorer" value, you can use an "accurate representation of the cryptocurrency's market value". Much like with fiat, this means using an established and consistent source.
Bitcoin.Tax already uses the exchange price data wherever possible, but otherwise combines crypto pricing for multiple worldwide sources to calculate a FMV.
FIFO and Specific Identification
Advice from most tax preparers and accountants has been to err on the side of caution and go with First-In First-Out (FIFO). Basically, if you bought 1 BTC for $9,000 and later another for $10,000, when you come to sell 1 BTC (or partial) you would use the cost of the first 1 BTC that you had acquired.
This is the default IRS cost basis method and would not be challenged.
This is the biggest change in the new IRS guidance and confirms that specific identification can be used. However, you must be able to document this, which the IRS describes as:
You may identify a specific unit of virtual currency either by documenting the specific unit’s unique digital identifier such as a private key, public key, and address, or by records showing the transaction information for all units of a specific virtual currency, such as Bitcoin, held in a single account, wallet, or address.
This information must show (1) the date and time each unit was acquired, (2) your basis and the fair market value of each unit at the time it was acquired, (3) the date and time each unit was sold, exchanged, or otherwise disposed of, and (4) the fair market value of each unit when sold, exchanged, or disposed of, and the amount of money or the value of property received for each unit.
There is no guidance if any extra information should be reported, but it is generally the same information that is added to the 8949 form where capital gains are reported.
Some taxpayers had filed using specific identification, where FIFO was not used and instead the "lot" that was sold was chosen from their wallets. Strategies could be employed, where the basis of specific lots are used, as long as they can be identified and documented. These specific identification strategies often try to minimize the gains per transaction and defer them until later.
Gifts and Donations
Similar to gifts of stocks or property, the rules regarding cost basis have remained unchanged. Received gifts are not immediate income but you do still recognize an capital gains income when you later come to sell, exchange or dispose of the cryptocurrency.
You can use the original basis (with documentation) from the giver in order to make use of long-term gains. However, your received basis becomes the lesser of the giver's cost basis and the FMV of the gift on the date you received it. This is to prevent from gifting losses. Also, if you do not have documentation showing the gift cost basis, then your basis is zero, i.e. you must declare 100% as capital gains.
Donations to registered charities do not recognize income, gains or losses. The value of your charitable donation is the FMV on the date of the gift if you have held the crypto for more than a year. For a year or less, it is lesser of the crypto's cost basis or its FMV on the day of the gift.
Bitcoin.Tax reports already splits out the basis for any gifts or donations that you make, which can be given to the recipient to provide them with the information they will require.
What was not mentioned
There are still some key questions and ambiguities that tax professionals have been looking for clarification. For instance, with hard forks and airdrops, if you have the private keys but no software, does that count as control?
Airdrop and forks generally have no markets when they are created, so is there a zero FMV? And should you take the value only when you exercise control?
Can specific identification be used at will or must it be done consistently?
Were 1031 "like-kind" exchanges ever a valid approach before 2018?
Guidance is retroactive
Finally, be aware that IRS guidance is always retroactive, unless otherwise stated, and so should be applied to past and future crypto transactions. If you have not followed these rules then you should consult with your tax professional and may need to file an amendment.
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