Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 defers taxation involving exchanges of like-kind property held for investment or business. If a taxpayer traded one parcel of real estate for another, the transaction is, in general, tax-free. Congress changed Section 1031, commencing January 1, 2018, applying it solely to real estate. But what about exchanges of cryptocurrency prior to January 1, 2017; did they qualify for tax-free treatment? Tax experts reasoned that a swap of one cryptocurrency for another probably fell within Section 1031 and was not taxable.
On June 8, 2021, IRS published a Memorandum (Number 2021124008, appended to this article) stating that exchanges involving swaps of Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Ether were not covered by Section 1031 because of differences in overall design, intended use and actual use. This Memo should apply to practically all pre-2018 cybercurrency swaps. Note: although the Memo is not law and the courts are not bound by it, it is followed by IRS so expect audits of pre-2018 cryptocurrency exchanges.
While the like-kind exchange rules are broadly interpreted for real estate, the same is not true for other assets. IRS has ruled that gold is not like-kind to silver and a bull is not like-kind to a cow. Cybercurrencies are intangible assets and the exchange rules for intangibles are much more restrictive than real estate; thus, successfully challenging the Memo could be problematic, if not futile.
Amending Your Return
So, should you amend your pre-2018 tax return to report cybercurrency exchanges? The answer may depend on whether the applicable statute of limitations for tax assessments has expired. The usual rule is three (3) years from the date the return was filed, so assessments for the 2017 tax year (assuming the return was filed on the due date, April 15, 2018), would have expired on April 1, 2021 (or will expire on October 15, 2021 if an extension was filed). There is a special six (6)-year statute of limitations when, in general, taxpayers fail to report more than 25% of their gross income1. Unless the exchanges were properly reported on Form 8824 or IRS was otherwise adequately notified of the transactions, expect the six (6)-year statute to apply.
As a practical matter, taxpayers claiming exchange treatment would have filed Form 8824 so the 3-year statute should apply for pre-2018 exchanges2. Note; If there was tax fraud with the return, there is no statute of limitations for assessment.
Taxpayers who timely and accurately reported their cryptocurrency exchanges for tax years prior to 2018, the statute of limitations for assessment will have expired (or will expire on October 15, 2021 if the return was on extension). If they failed to report their exchanges and the omitted gross income amount exceeding 25% of the income reported, the special six (6)-year assessment period applies, which means IRS could assess back taxes, penalties and interest for tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017.
1 Example: If a taxpayer files a return reporting $100,000 of gross income the omitted income must be at least $25,000 for the six(6)-year statute of limitations to apply.
2 The 6-year statute does not apply when IRS has been adequately apprised of the potential omitted gross income and filing Form 8824 puts IRS on notice of the exchange transactions.