Buyer and Seller enter into a purchase and sale contract pursuant to which buyer places a deposit. Buyer breaches contract. Seller retains deposit. It happens more than you would think. And an interesting tax question is presented when it does: does the retained deposit constitute taxable income to the seller? And if so, is that income taxed as ordinary income rates? Or can the seller take advantage of the preferential capital gains rates?
As an initial matter, it should be noted that a "sale or other disposition of property" is a necessary precondition to a capital gain. See I.R.C. 1001(a). Obviously, there is no sale where a seller retains a deposit as a consequence of a contractual breach on the buyer's part. But is there a "disposition" within the meaning of I.R.C. 1001?
At the outset, the answer would appear to be an obvious no insofar as the seller continues to hold title to the property. After all, isn't disposal of the asset an essential component of an asset disposition?
One would think so. However, the U.S. Tax Court has analogized earnest money deposits to option payments. See e.g., Ahadpour v. Commissioner, TC Memo 1999-9. This is significant because there is language in the Internal Revenue Code which treats gain realized on the lapse of an option as capital gain.
Specifically, I.R.C. 1234(b)(1) provides:
In the case of the grantor of the option . . . gain on lapse of an option in property shall be treated as a gain . . . from the sale or exchange of a capital asset held not more than one year."To be sure, "property" is narrowly defined for purposes of Section 1234 to include only stock, securities, commodities, and commodity futures. IRC § 1234(b)(2)(B). However, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 extended sale or exchange treatment to "any property . . . [that] is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer." I.R.C. 1234A (emphasis added). In this regard, the legislative history of I.R.C. 1234A explicitly lists forfeiture of a down payment under a contract as an example of the type of property to which Section 1234A applies. See Staff of the Joint Comm. on Tax'n, General Explanation of Tax Legislation Enacted in 1997, 105th Cong., 1st Sess. 189.
But Section 1234(b)(1) treats a gain on lapse of an option as a short-term capital gain, and the preferential capital gains tax rates are only available for long-term capital gains. See I.R.C. 1234(b)(1) ("[G]ain on lapse of an option in property shall be treated as a gain . . . from the sale or exchange of a capital asset held not more than one year") (emphasis added); see generally I.R.C. 1(h).
Significantly, however, Section 1234A provides for treatment as "gain or loss from the sale of a capital asset." This is in contrast to Section 1234(b), which provides for treatment as "gain . . . from the sale or exchange of a capital asset held not more than one year." (emphasis added). Presumably, if Congress had intended to provide for short-term capital loss treatment in Section 1234A, it could have easily done so by including language similar to that which is found in 1234(b).
With that being said, the plain language of I.R.C. 1234A arguably supports long-term capital gain treatment of the retained deposit. (Of course, the counter-argument would be that I.R.C. 1234A was intended to extend I.R.C. 1234(b)'s sale or exchange treatment to a broader class of property, and as such, it should be construed consistently with that provision).
In any event, it should be emphasized that in Ahadpour (cited above for treatment of earnest money deposit as option to purchase), the Tax Court treated the forfeited deposit as ordinary income. Although this decision was issued in 1999, after the 1976 addition of 1234(b) and the 1997 addition of 1234A, the Court relied on pre-1234A case law in reaching that result. Thus, it is questionable whether this case was correctly reasoned.