All You Need is Love

all-youNo matter who we voted for, we can all agree that this has been the nastiest presidential election since Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a hermaphroditic bastard. This week it’s finally (finally!) come to an end. Whether you’re elated or nauseated by the results, there’s probably one emotion you share with most Americans right now: relief that the campaign is over. You’ve taken a long hot shower, and you got to enjoy your Sunday afternoon football with no political ads.

Now it’s time for everyone to make nice. Donald Trump began his victory speech by graciously praising his rival Hillary Clinton: “Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.” Hillary returned the favor the next day, telling her supporters we owe Trump an open mind and a chance to lead. Outgoing President Barack Obama stated we are all on the same team and we are all rooting for his success.

As the Beatles once sang, it seems that “all you need is love.” Unfortunately, not everyone seems to agree. We’re talking, of course, about the romantics at the Internal Revenue Service.

Our story this week starts with Joseph L. Jackson and his wife Sylvia. Joseph is the pastor at Triumph Church of God, a tiny Florida congregation with just 25 to 30 regular members. His wife sat on the board of directors. Together, the Jacksons managed the church’s checking account and appeared to sign all checks jointly. As you can imagine, this won’t be one of those stories involving rich people with billions of dollars or rich corporations with trillions of dollars.

Joseph told the church’s board of directors that he didn’t want an actual, taxable salary for his work. However, he said, he would be perfectly delighted to receive “love offerings,” gifts, or loans from the church. In 2012, the couple signed $4,815 worth of checks payable to Mr. Jackson, with “love offering” or “love gift” marked on the memo line.

At the end of the year, the church issued Jackson a 1099-MISC for the income. Next year, when the Jacksons filed their return, they reported $6,478 in deductible contributions to the church. But they omitted the $4,815 the church had paid to them. Naturally, with 1099 in hand, the IRS objected, and everyone wound up in court.

Last month, Special Judge Daniel Guy issued his opinion in Jackson v. Commissioner. No one objected to the deduction for the Jacksons’ gift to the church. But the love gifts were a different matter, and Judge Guy took just four sentences to conclude that Jackson’s “subjective characterization of the payments as nontaxable ‘love offerings’ and ‘love gifts’ is misguided.” (By “misguided,” of course, what he really meant was “ridiculous” — you just don’t get to say that when you’re a Tax Court judge.)

When your kids were little and they got flustered, you might have looked down at them and said “use your words!” The same advice is true here. It’s a common misperception that taxes and tax planning are all about numbers. But really, they’re about the words we use. Can we legitimately interpret words to characterize money we receive as “nontaxable”? Can we interpret them to characterize money we spend as “deductible”? Merely calling something “nontaxable” or “deductible” isn’t enough. Call us if you want to use your words to pay less. We’re pretty sure you’ll love the results!

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