Bitcoin: What are the U.S. Tax Implications?

May 26th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Jones in Guest Blogs - (Comments Off)

Although many critics are already considering Bitcoin irrelevant or even dead, technology behind Bitcoin is here to stay. This week on NVTC’s blog, John Calanog of member company CohnReznick LLP discusses the basic U.S. tax implications of using the Bitcoin currency.


In my first blog on the subject, I described Bitcoin and its increasing popularity as an alternative currency.  As the digital currency is becoming more and more prevalent in the marketplace, and for those already exchanging Bitcoins, the following article discusses the basic U.S. tax implications of using the currency. Although there may also be Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (“FBAR”) and Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”) compliance requirements, that is not covered in this blog.

What is the U.S. Taxation?

On March 25, 2014, the IRS released guidance in Notice 2014-21 explaining that Bitcoin would be treated as “property” and not as “currency” for federal income tax purposes.  From a practical standpoint, this means that gains and losses on the disposition of Bitcoin will not be treated as “exchange gain or loss” and will not be ordinary in character.  This is bad news for investors who hold depreciated Bitcoin and were hoping to take exchange losses as ordinary losses. However, it is good news for investors who hold appreciated Bitcoin and prefer capital gains treatment.

For those holding Bitcoin for sale in a trade or business (i.e., for “miners”  [1] and “dealers”), income resulting from the sale of such Bitcoin may be taxed as ordinary income.  However, for most investors who merely “trade” in Bitcoin, gains or losses will likely be capital and not ordinary.

From a tax compliance standpoint, the taxpayer has the burden of keeping a record of their tax basis in the Bitcoin and determining the fair market value of the Bitcoin at the time they seek to sell or otherwise dispose of it.  Fortunately, most exchanges and e-wallets have been implementing tools that enable customers to receive the needed documentation.  Still, users without any obtainable records should seek professional tax advice as they are likely going to need to estimate their tax liability from the records they do have on file.

Virtual Currency as Net Earnings from Self-Employment

A taxpayer who receives virtual currency, such as Bitcoin, as payment for services has gross income equal to the fair market value (“FMV”) of the currency, in U.S. dollars, as of the date of receipt.

Moreover, an independent contractor who receives virtual currency for performing services has self-employment income.  The amount of the income is the FMV of the currency, in U.S. dollars, as of the date of receipt.

If a taxpayer’s “mining” of virtual currency is a trade or business and is not undertaken as an employee, the net earnings from self-employment from that activity is treated as self-employment income.

Additional Tax Considerations

There may also be filing FinCEN Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, (FBAR) or Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) reporting requirements.  However, that is beyond the scope of this blog.

Conclusion

Bitcoin has only been around for six years (since 2009) and many critics are already considering it irrelevant or even dead.  However, such pessimism is missing the point.  The technology behind Bitcoin is here to stay.  And that technology is likely to become more significant as developers create new and improved versions.

With the IRS issuing a Notice to give guidance for the tax treatment of this means of exchange suggests that Bitcoin is a real and lasting phenomenon. Technology companies and others using the Internet will need to deal with it in the future.  Our monetary system was not originally designed for the internet or for globalized trading.  This is where Bitcoin comes in – as a truly globalized currency.

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The content of this article is intended to provide a general commentary on the subject.  Please seek the advice of a tax professional regarding your specific circumstances.

John Calanog, CPA, is a Tax Manager with CohnReznick LLP and is a member of the Firm’s Technology Industry Practice.  John’s experiences over the last fifteen years include U.S. tax compliance and consulting for C Corporations, S Corporations, Partnerships, and high net worth individuals who operate businesses in a wide variety of industries and taxing jurisdictions.  Contact John at john.calanog@cohnreznick.com. Follow CohnReznick’s Technology Practice on Twitter via @CR_TechInd


[1]Mining is the verification process of running mathematical operations on digital data in order to validate transactions and provide the requisite security for the public ledger of the Bitcoin network. The speed at which you mine is measured in hashes per second.

The Bitcoin network compensates “miners” for their effort by releasing Bitcoin to those who contribute the needed computational power. This comes in the form of both newly issued coin and from the transaction fees included in the transactions they validate when mining. The more computing power that is contributed, the greater their share of the reward.

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This week on NVTC’s blog, John Calanog of member company CohnReznick LLP  offers an overview of Bitcoin in the first of two blog posts on the subject.


Despite the fact that there are nearly 14 million Bitcoins in circulation, most people are not using this newest form of currency. In fact, the vast majority of the population has never even heard of Bitcoin. But that is changing – and changing quickly.

This article – the first of two on this subject – offers an overview of Bitcoin. The second article will analyze a number of U.S. tax implications related to the usage of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin: A Virtual Currency

Bitcoin is, quite simply, a virtual currency. It is a digital representation of money that can be used to purchase goods and services like cash. But Bitcoin differs from cash in that it is not backed by any bank or nation, is unregulated, and has no formal organizational structure behind it. Instead, Bitcoin is supported entirely by a peer-to-peer (“P2P”) network of individuals who manage balances and transactions on their own. Bitcoin functions as an online payment platform with reduced fees when compared to other online payment forms.

In the past few years, Bitcoin values have fluctuated $247 per Bitcoin to over $1,000. As of publication of this article, the 14 million Bitcoins in circulation are worth nearly $3.5 billion.

How Does Bitcoin Work?

To create a digital currency with no centralized organization backing the transactions, Bitcoin was designed so that its users verify and complete transactions. This is done through Bitcoin’s “blockchain,” which is essentially a chronological log of every confirmed transaction that occurs between Bitcoin addresses. Using cryptography, Bitcoin creates mathematical proofs and records to secure the blockchain and safeguard a user’s transaction. These proofs are verified by users who have software that processes (“mines”) the blocks that are part of the blockchain.

The Bitcoin system transmits transactions to the network almost immediately and verifies them within the hour. The mining process helps to create the ledger of payments with Bitcoins. This also helps to ensure that double spending, or a user’s attempt to send the same Bitcoins to two people simultaneously, is prevented.  In this way, users contribute directly to Bitcoin, supporting the currency’s well-being.

Bitcoin in the Marketplace

Because Bitcoin technology is extremely complex, use of Bitcoin was originally limited to those with software expertise and a unique interest in alternative currencies. As the currency has become more widely accepted, an ecosystem of service providers has developed to facilitate transactions. Now, just about anyone can participate, even those without a technical understanding of the currency.  The ecosystem is still evolving and now includes retailers, payment processors, banks, e-wallet companies, trading solutions, and currency exchanges.

Some very well-known companies are among those that support Bitcoins. They include Microsoft, Dell, Overstock.com, Virgin Galactic, Sacramento Kings of the NBA, Amazon.com, Reddit, Expedia.com, PayPal, eBay, Tesla, Etsy Vendors, and Time, Inc. Even some professional services firms, including law firms and accounting firms, now accept Bitcoin.

How Does a Business Do Business Using Bitcoins?

To accept Bitcoins as payment, a business sets up a merchant account with a Bitcoin exchange.  From there, the business can issue invoices and receive payments in Bitcoins, convert them to dollars (or local currency), and then transfer them to its bank account.

If the business is not interested in converting Bitcoins to local currency, it can hold on to its Bitcoins and trade them. The business can register for a free online e-wallet, such as Blockchain.info. It can then give anyone its Bitcoin e-wallet address, and customers can remit Bitcoins as payment. The business has the ability to send its Bitcoins to any other e-wallets across the globe.

Bitcoin Exchanges

There are numerous Bitcoin exchanges on the web. They enable customers to convert physical currency into Bitcoins and vice versa. Increasingly, exchanges are offering a greater number of services including a range of both fiat (i.e., face value currency) and crypto-currencies, as well as various trading tools.

Bitcoin exchanges have fallen under scrutiny as one of the world’s first Bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox, mysteriously lost 850,000 Bitcoins. This left the exchange insolvent and many customers out-of-pocket. Many Bitcoin traders have since become wary of these exchanges, yet the exchanges continue to thrive. Four of today’s major Bitcoin exchanges include Coinbase, Bitstamp, BTC-e and Cryptsy. In January of this year, Coinbase launched the first regulated Bitcoin Exchange in the U.S in an effort to add stability to the Bitcoin ecosystem.

Looking Ahead

It appears that Bitcoin is a real and lasting game-changer. It has globalized currency with capabilities beyond our current monetary system. CohnReznick looks forward to monitoring the future impact of Bitcoin, and other virtual currencies, on businesses and the financial markets.

_________________________________________________________________________________

The content of this article is intended to provide a general commentary on the subject.  Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

John Calanog, CPA, is a Tax Manager with CohnReznick LLP and is a member of the Firm’s Technology Industry Practice.  John’s experiences over the last fifteen years include U.S. tax compliance and consulting for C Corporations, S Corporations, Partnerships, and high net worth individuals who operate businesses in a wide variety of industries and taxing jurisdictions.  Contact John at john.calanog@cohnreznick.com. Follow CohnReznick’s Technology Practice on Twitter via @CR_TechInd

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