The use of virtual currencies, especially Bitcoin, has increased significantly in recent years. This increased use has raised questions regarding the proper tax treatment of these currencies. In an attempt to clarify many of the uncertainties, the IRS has recently released Notice 2014-21, which provides answers for 16 frequently asked questions surrounding virtual currencies.
The IRS defines virtual currencies as digital representations of value that function as a medium for exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value. In other words, the virtual currency acts like “real money” even though it is not legal tender in any country or jurisdiction. A virtual currency is considered to be “convertible” if it has an equivalent value with an established currency, or if it can be easily substituted or exchanged for a legal tender. Bitcoin is probably the most well-known and widely used example of a convertible virtual currency today. Bitcoin can be easily traded and exchanged amongst users and can also be bought or sold for various real currencies, such as U.S. dollars and Euros. The IRS notice deals only with convertible virtual currencies and does not address any virtual currency which is not convertible.
In Notice 2014-21, the IRS starts off by stating that virtual currencies like Bitcoin are considered property, not currency, for tax purposes. Since virtual currencies are considered property, accepting virtual currencies in exchange for goods and services requires the recipient to measure their gross income by using the fair market value of the virtual currency in U.S. dollars as of the date payment was received. Additionally, when virtual currency is used to purchase an item, the taxpayer is required to report gain or loss on the disposition of the virtual currency. In order to do this, the taxpayer must first determine the basis of the virtual currency in U.S. dollars at the time of the exchange. The character of the gain or loss will be determined based on whether the virtual currency is held by the taxpayer as a capital asset. Therefore, if the taxpayer holds the virtual currency as an investment asset then it will be taxed as a capital gain or loss on its disposition. However, if the taxpayer holds the virtual currency as inventory then it will be taxed as ordinary income upon its disposition.
Some virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, allow people to “mine” the currency. This involves users discovering new Bitcoins by solving complex math problems. When a taxpayer successfully mines virtual currency, the fair market value of the mined currency is includable in the taxpayer’s gross income for the taxable year. Furthermore, if the taxpayer is mining the virtual currency as part of a trade or business, the net earnings from the activity is considered self-employment income and is subject to the self-employment tax. Similarly, if a taxpayer is paid in virtual currency for services rendered as an independent contractor, the fair market value of the virtual currency received is subject to self-employment tax. In the case of an employer-employee relationship, the fair market value of the currency paid as wages to the employee is subject to federal income tax withholding, FICA tax and FUTA tax, and is required to be reported on Form W-2.
The IRS went on to state that when certain property payments which require information reporting to the IRS – such as rent, salaries, wages, premiums, annuities and compensation – are subject to the same information reporting standards when virtual currency is used to complete the payment. Furthermore, when a Form 1099-MISC is used to report payments of virtual currency, it should be reported using the fair market value of the virtual currency as of the date of the payment.
Finally, the IRS dictated that taxpayers who have not treated past virtual currency transactions in a manner that is consistent with Notice 2014-21 may be subject to penalties for failure to comply with tax laws. For example, underpayments attributable to virtual currency transactions and failure to report virtual currency transactions in a correct and timely manner may be subject to accuracy-related and information reporting penalties. However, the IRS does note that penalty relief may be available to taxpayers who can show that the underpayment or failure to properly file information on returns is due to reasonable cause.