Governor Brown signed S.B. 901 into law on September 7. The controversial and lengthy bill is simply entitled “Wildfires,” but has garnered a lot of media attention for what many are calling a utility bailout for the Northern California fires. What hasn’t received much attention is a small paragraph slipped into the bill to amend California’s conservation easement enabling statute, California Civil Code Sections 815–816. Continue Reading California Legislature Amends Venerable Conservation Easement Statute: New Civil Code 815.11
Last month, the IRS issued final regulations entitled “Substantiation and Reporting Requirements for Cash and Noncash Charitable Contribution Deductions,” codified as Treasury Regulation Sections 1.170A-15 (cash), -16 (noncash), -17 (qualified appraisals and appraisers), and -18 (clothing and household items).
If my article on syndicated easement shelters and HR 4459 piqued your interest, please check out “The Billion Dollar Loophole,” an excellent piece of journalism written by Peter Elkind and published by both ProPublica and Fortune yesterday.
In his article, Peter digs into the genesis and current status of the thriving tax shelter industry that is tarnishing legitimate conservation practice and threatening the entire 170(h) conservation deduction. “The Billion Dollar Loophole” highlights the importance of passing remedial legislation like HR 4459.
Last week, Representative Mike Kelly (R) of Pennsylvania and Representative Mike Thompson (D) of California introduced the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act of 2017 as H.R. 4459. The Act is simple; comprising only two pages, it addresses a certain type of abusive conservation easement transaction that has been proliferating over the past decade: the syndicated easement.
This month, the Tax Court revived a method to defeat conservation deductions with its October 10 opinion published as Palmolive Building Investors LLC et al. v. Commissioner, No. 23444-14; 149 T.C. No. 18 (Oct. 10, 2017), holding that if a taxpayer donates a conservation easement, the Treasury Regulations’ requirement that any mortgage must be subordinated to the conservation easement includes subordination of the mortgagee’s rights to insurance and condemnation proceeds.
The Fifth Circuit encourages flexibility for conservation easement deductions in Bosque Mountain Ranch, while the Tax Court makes it difficult for farmers in Rutkoske.
Two important conservation easement opinions were handed down last week.
Bosque Canyon Ranch  is noteworthy for the Fifth Circuit’s conservation-friendly language encouraging a flexible interpretation of the myriad statutory and regulatory requirements for easement deductions. This is a stark departure from a recent series of cases denying conservation easement deductions based on what some would call “foot faults.” More specifically, the appellate opinion in Bosque Canyon Ranch: (1) provides some certainty regarding what should be provided in a baseline documentation report, noting that the IRS should not pick apart each component of a report, and (2) holds that the right to relocate homesites that are carved out of an easement does not violate the perpetuity requirement for conservation easements, when the easement holder has approval rights over the final location and the maximum size of the homesites cannot change.
In a much less taxpayer-friendly opinion, the Tax Court in Rutkoske provides the first judicial interpretation of the statutory rule that permits qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct the value of a conservation easement donation against up to 100% of their adjusted gross income. The Tax Court finds that income from the sale of farming property does not count toward qualifying the farmer and rancher for this benefit.
The cases are discussed in detail below.
Those familiar with conservation easements know that to qualify for a federal tax deduction, a conservation easement must meet several rigorous requirements found in Internal Revenue Code Section 170 and Section 1.170A-14 of the Treasury Regulations, not the least of which is the requirement that the easement be granted “in perpetuity.” In addition, the easement must be subject to “legally enforceable restrictions” (such as by recordation) that will prevent uses inconsistent with the conservation purposes of the donation.
On November 4, 2016, the IRS updated its Conservation Easement Audit Techniques Guide (CE Audit Guide) for the first time since March 15, 2012.
According to the IRS’s introduction on its Audit Techniques Guide website, Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) are developed to help IRS examiners during audits by explaining issues and accounting methods within specific industries. ATGs are also meant to provide guidance to small business owners and tax professionals for tax planning purposes within those industries. However, each ATG contains a disclaimer that it is not “an official pronouncement of the law or position of the Service and cannot be used, cited, or relied upon as such.” This article will not explain the CE Audit Guide in depth, but rather discuss the specific updates made in November.
The Tax Court, in a case of first impression, has recently ventured into the perpetuity minefield. One Dr. Douglas Carroll and spouse Deirdre Smith, of Baltimore, Maryland, conveyed a conservation easement in 2005 over approximately 26 acres of open land in Maryland, mostly pastureland zoned for agricultural uses, to the Maryland Environmental Trust (MET) and the Land Preservation Trust (LPT). The former organization is a quasi-governmental agency, the latter a private, nongovernmental exempt organization. The protected property consisted of two parcels of unequal size; upon the smaller parcel sat the taxpayers’ two-story primary residence, and, on the larger, a small (1,000-square-foot) house where a farmhand tenant resided.
We have all been told at one point or another that we simply “can’t have it all.” But for owners of recreational or agricultural land who desire to preserve the land, pass it down to their descendants as a legacy property, and achieve substantial tax savings, “(almost) having it all” is a possibility. Enter, the conservation easement – a valuable tool that can bridge the divide between these often competing interests. Continue Reading Conserve Your Land, Preserve Your Estate: The Conservation Easement as a Land Use, Tax & Estate Planning Tool