Home » Commentary » Guide to Cryptocurrency Taxes: A Guide to Common Tax Situations

)This article on cryptocurrency taxes discusses the potential tax impacts of your Cryptocurrency investments, attempting to address several tax issues. The objective of this piece is to provide information about your tax obligations as defined by United States law. The publication was first featured on Reddit.

Introduction

Based on the rapid increase in popularity and price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (particularly over the past year), I expect that lots of people have questions about how cryptocurrency will impact their taxes. Please note that this article attempts to provide information about your tax obligations as defined by United States law (and interpreted by the IRS under the direction of the Treasury Department). It is understood that a certain portion of the crypto community tends to view crypto as “tax-free” due to the (actual and perceived) difficulty for the IRS to “know” about the transactions involved. This article will not discuss unlawfully concealing crypto gains here nor will I suggest illegal tax avoidance activities.

The Basics

This introductory section is great for those that aren’t familiar with taxes. It covers some very basic tax principles and assumes that all you did during the year was buy/sell a single cryptocurrency.

Fundamentally, the IRS treats crypto not as money, but as an asset (investment). While there are a few specific “twists” when it comes to crypto, when in doubt replace the word “crypto” with the word “stock” and you will get a pretty good idea how you should report and pay tax on crypto. The first thing you should know is that the majority of this discussion applies to the taxes you are currently working on (2017 taxes). The tax bill that just passed applies to 2018 taxes (with a few very tiny exceptions), which most people will file in early 2019. In general, you don’t have to report or pay taxes on cryptocurrency holdings until you “cash out” all or part of your holdings. For now, I’m going to assume that you cash out by selling them for USD; however, other forms of cashing out will be covered later. (Read also: Cryptocurrency Trading: Understanding Cryptocurrency Trading Pairs & How it Works)

When you sell crypto, you report the difference between your basis (purchase price) and proceeds (sale price) on Schedule D. Your purchase price is commonly referred to as your basis; while the two terms don’t mean exactly the same thing, they are pretty close to one another

In particular, there are three two ways to calculate your basis – your average cost, a first-in, first-out method, and a “specific identification” method. See more about these here and here. You may not use average cost method with crypto – see here.

If you sell at a gain, this gain increases your tax liability. Alternatively, if you sell at a loss, this loss decreases your tax liability (in most cases). If you sell multiple times during the year, you report each transaction separately (bad news if you trade often!) but get to lump all your gains/losses together when determining how the trades impact your income.

Types of Investment Gains/Losses

One important thing to remember is that there are two different types of gains/losses from investments – short-term gains (if you held an asset for one year or less) and long-term gains (over one year; i.e. one year and one day). Short-term gains are taxed at your marginal income rate (basically, just like if you had earned that money at a job) while long-term gains are taxed at lower rates. Here’s a Cryptocurrency Accounting Guide: How Do I Calculate My Crypto Gains?

Here is the breakdown, contingent on your tax bracket:

  • For most people, long-term capital gains are taxed at 15%. However, if you are in the 10% or 15% tax bracket, congrats – your gains (up to the maximum amount of “unused space” in your bracket) are tax-free!
  • If you are in the 25%, 28%, 33%, or 35% bracket, long-term gains are taxed at 15%
  • If you are in the 39.6% bracket, long-term gains are taxed at 20%
  • Additionally, there is an “extra” 3.8% tax that applies to gains for those above $200,000/$250,000 (single/married). The exact computation of this tax is a little complicated, but if you are close to the $200,000 level, just know that it exists

Finally, you should know that I’m assuming that you should treat your crypto gains/losses as investment gains/losses. I’m sure some people will try and argue that they are really “day traders” of crypto and trade as a full-time job. While this is possible, the vast majority of people don’t qualify for this status and you should really think several times before deciding you want to try that approach on the IRS.

“Cashing Out” – Trading Crypto for Goods/Services

Not everyone that “cashes out” of crypto does so by selling it for USD. In fact, I understand that some in the crypto community view the necessity of cashing out itself as a type of myth.

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This section discusses what happens if you trade your crypto for basically anything that isn’t cash (minor sidenote – see next section for a special discussion on trading crypto for crypto; i.e. buying altcoins with crypto). The IRS views trading crypto for something of value as a type of bartering that must be included in income. From the IRS’s perspective, it doesn’t matter if you sold crypto for cash and bought a car with that cash or if you just traded crypto directly for the car – in both cases, the IRS views you as having sold your crypto. This approach isn’t unique to crypto – it works the same way if you trade stock for something.

This means that if you do trade your crypto for “stuff”, you have to report every exchange as a sale of your crypto and calculate the gain/loss on that sale, just as if you had sold the crypto for cash.

Finally, there is one important exception to this rule. If you give your crypto away to charity (one recognized by the IRS; like a 501(c)(3) organization), the IRS doesn’t make you report/pay any capital gains on the transaction. Additionally, you still get to deduct the value of your donation on the date it was made. Now, from a “selfish” point of view, you will always end up with more money if you sell the crypto, pay the tax, and keep the rest. But, if you are going to make a donation anyway, especially a large one, giving crypto where you have a big unrealized/untaxed gain is a very efficient way of doing so. (See also: Crypto ICO vs. Stock IPO: What’s the Difference?)

“Alt Coins” – Buying Crypto with Crypto

The previous section discusses what happens when you trade crypto for stuff. However, one thing that surprises many people is that trading crypto for crypto is also a taxable event, just like trading crypto for a car. Whether you agree with this position or not, it makes a lot of sense once you realize that the IRS doesn’t view crypto as money, but instead as an asset. So to the IRS, trading bitcoin for ripple isn’t like trading dollars for euros, but it is instead like trading shares of Apple stock for shares of Tesla stock. (See more: Bitcoin vs Alt Coins Returns: Comparison of Gains Between Bitcoin & Altcoins Investing)

Practically, what this means is that if you trade one crypto for another crypto (say BTC for XRP just to illustrate the point), the IRS views you as doing the following:

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Phase 1: Selling for cash the amount of BTC you actually traded for XRP

Phase 2: Owing capital gains/losses on the BTC based on its selling price (the fair market value at the moment of the exchange) and your purchase price (basis)

Phase 3: Buying a new investment (XRP) with a cost basis equal to the amount the BTC was worth when you exchanged them

This means that if you “time” your trade wrong and the value of XRP goes down after you make the exchange, you still owe tax on your BTC gain even though you subsequently lost money. The one good piece of news in this is that when/if you sell your XRP (or change it back to BTC), you will get a capital loss for the value that XRP dropped. (Read also: Coins, Tokens & Altcoins: What’s the Difference?)

Legal Ruling: “Like-Kind” Exchange

There is one final point worth discussing in this section – the so-called “like-kind exchange” rules (aka section 1031 exchange). At a high level, these rules say that you can “swap” property with someone else without having to pay taxes on the exchange as long as you get property in return that is “like kind”. Typically, these rules are used in real estate transactions. However, they can also apply to other types of transactions as well.

While the idea is simple (and makes it sound like crypto for crypto should qualify), the exact rules/details of this exception are very fact specific. Most experts (including myself, but certainly not calling myself an expert) believe that a crypto for crypto swap is not a like-kind exchange. The recently passed tax bill also explicitly clarifies this issue – starting in 2018, only real estate qualifies for like-kind exchange treatment. So, basically, the vast majority of evidence suggests that you can’t use this “loophole” for 2017; however, there is a small minority view/some small amount of belief that this treatment would work for 2017 taxes and it is worth noting that I’m unaware of any court cases directly testing this approach.

Dealing with “Forks”

Perhaps another unpleasant surprise for crypto holders is that “forks” to create a new crypto also very likely generate a taxable event. The IRS has long (since at least the 1960s) held that “found” money is a taxable event. This approach has been litigated in court and courts have consistently upheld this position; it even has its own cool nerdy tax name – the “treasure trove” doctrine.

Practically, what this means is that if you owned BTC and it “forked” to create BCH, then the fair market value of the BCH you received is considered a “treasure trove” that must be reported as income (ordinary income – no capital gain rates). This is true whether or not you sold your BCH; if you got BCH from a fork, that is a taxable event (note – I’ll continue using BTC forking to BCH in this section as an example, but the logic applies to all forks). (Read also: Bitcoin’s Civil War: How and Why?)

While everything I’ve discussed up to this point is pretty clearly established tax law, forks are really where things get messy with taxes. Thus, the remainder of this section contains more speculation than elsewhere in this post – the truth is that while the idea is simple (fork = free money = taxable), the details are messy and other kinds of tax treatment might apply to forks.

One basic practical problem with forks is that the new currency doesn’t necessarily start trading immediately. Thus, you may have received BCH before there was a clear price or market for it. Basically, you owe tax on the value of BCH when you received it, but it isn’t completely clear what that value was. There are several ways you can handle this; I’ll list them in order from most accurate to least accurate (but note that this is just my personal view and there is ongoing disagreement on this issue with little/no authoritative guidance).

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(If you’re still unclear about forks, here’s a Guide to Forks: Everything You Need to Know About Forks, Hard Fork and Soft Fork)

  1. Using futures market to determine the value of the BCH: If reliable sources published realistic estimates of what BCH will trade for in the future once trading begins, use this estimate as the value of your BCH. Pros/cons – futures markets are, in theory, pretty accurate. However, if they are volatile/subject to manipulation, they may provide an incorrect estimate of the true value of BCH. It would suck to use the first futures value published only to have that value plummet shortly thereafter, leaving you to pay ordinary income tax but only have an unrealized capital loss.
  2. Wait until an exchange starts trading BCH: This uses the actual (“spot” price) as the value. Pros/Cons – spot prices certainly reflect what you could have sold BCH for; however, it is possible that the true value of the coin was higher/lower when you received it as compared to when it started trading on the exchange. Thus this method seems less accurate to me than a futures-based approach, but it is still certainly fairly reasonable.
  3. Assume that the value is $0: This is my least preferred option, but there is still a case to be made for it. If you receive something that you didn’t want, can’t access, can’t sell, and might fail, does it have any value? I believe the answer is yes (maybe not value it perfectly, but value it somewhat accurately), but if you honestly think the answer is no, then the correct tax answer would be to report $0 in income from the fork. The IRS would be most likely to disagree with this approach, especially since it results in the least amount of income reported for the current year (and the most favourable rates going forward). Accordingly, if you go this route, make extra sure you understand what it entails.

Note: Once you’ve decided what to report as taxable income, this amount also becomes your cost basis in the new crypto (BCH). Thus, when you ultimately sell your BCH (or trade it for something else as described above), you calculate your gain/loss based on what you included in taxable income from the fork.


Legal Ruling: “Treasure Trove”

Finally, there is one more approach to dealing with forks worth mentioning. A fork “feels” a lot like a dividend – because you held BTC, you get BCH. In a stock world, if I get a cash dividend because I own the stock, that money is not treated as a “treasure trove” and subject to ordinary income rates – in most cases, it is a qualified dividend and subject to capital gain rates; in some cases, some types of stock dividends are completely non-taxable. This article discusses this idea in slightly more detail and generally concludes that forks should not be treated as a dividend. Still, I would note that I’m unaware of any court cases directly testing this theory.

Ultimately, this post is supposed to be practical, so let me make sure to leave you with two key thoughts about the taxation of forks. First, I believe that the majority of evidence suggests that forks should be treated as a “treasure trove” and reported as ordinary income based on their value at creation and that this is certainly the “safest” option. Second, out of everything discussed in this post, I also believe that the correct taxation of forks is the murkiest and most “up for debate” area. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of forks, see this thread for a previous version of this post discussing it at even more length and the comments for a discussion of this with the r/tax community. (Read more: Evolution of Cryptocurrency: The Problem With Money Today)

Mining Cryptocurrency

Successfully mining crypto coins is a taxable event. Depending on the amount of effort you put into mining, it is either considered a hobby or a self-employment (business) activity. The IRS provides the following list of questions to help decide the correct classification:

  • The manner in which the taxpayer carries on the activity
  • The expertise of the taxpayer or his advisors
  • The time and effort expended by the taxpayer in carrying on the activity
  • The expectation that assets used in the activity may appreciate in value
  • The success of the taxpayer in carrying on other similar or dissimilar activities
  • The taxpayer’s history of income or losses with respect to the activity
  • The amount of occasional profits, if any, which are earned
  • If this still sounds complicated, that’s because the distinction is subject to some amount of interpretation. As a rule of thumb, randomly mining crypto on an old computer is probably a hobby; mining full time on a custom rig is probably a business.

In either event, you must include in income the fair market value of any coins you successfully mine. These are ordinary income and your basis in these coins is their fair market value on the date they were mined. If your mining is a hobby, they go on line 21 (other income) and any expenses directly associated with mining go on schedule A (miscellaneous subject to 2% of AGI limitation). If your mining is a business, income and expenses go on schedule C.

Both approaches have pros and cons – hobby income isn’t subject to the 15.3% self-employment tax, only normal income tax, but you get fewer deductions against your income and the deductions you get are less valuable. Business income has more deductions available, but you have to pay payroll (self-employment) tax of about 15.3% in addition to normal income tax.

What if I Didn’t Keep Good Records? Do I Really Have to Report Every Transaction?

One nice thing about the IRS treating crypto as an asset is that we can look at how the IRS treats people that “day trade” stock and often don’t keep great records/have lots of transactions. While you need to be as accurate as possible, it is ok to estimate a little bit if you don’t have exact records (especially concerning your cost basis). You need to put in some effort (research historical prices, etc.) and be reasonable, but the IRS would much rather you do a little bit of reasonable estimation as opposed to just not reporting anything. Sure, they might decide to audit you/disagree with some specifics, but you earn yourself a lot of credit if you can show that you honestly did the best you reasonably could and are making efforts to improve going forward.

However, concerning reporting every transaction – yes, sorry, it is clear that you have to do this, even if you made hundreds or thousands of them. Stock traders have had to go through this for many decades, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the IRS would accept anything less from the crypto community. If you have the records or have any reasonable way of obtaining records/estimating them, you must report every transaction. (Read also: Evolution of Cryptocurrency: Replacing Modern Cash)

What if I Don’t Trust You?

Well, first let me say that I can’t believe you made it all the way down here to this section. Thanks for giving me an honest hearing. I would strongly encourage you to go read other well-written, honest guides. I’ll link to some I like (both more technical IRS type guides and more crypto community driven guides). While a certain portion of the crypto community seems to view one of the benefits of crypto as avoiding all government regulation (including taxes), I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that many crypto forums contain well reasoned, accurate tax guides. While I may not agree with 100% of their conclusions, that likely reflects true uncertainty around tax law that is fundamentally complex rather than an attempt on either end to help individuals unlawfully avoid taxes.

IRS Guides

Non-IRS Guides

Beneficial Resources

If you’re starting your journey into the complex world of cryptocurrencies, here’s a list of useful resources and guides that will get you on your way:

Trading & Exchange

Wallets

Stay Safe!

You might also be interested in A Guide To Fundamental Analysis For Cryptocurrencies Beginner’s Guide to ICO Investing: How to Participate in ICO.


This op-ed is NOT an endorsement of cryptocurrency as an investing strategy. The writer does not discuss unlawfully concealing crypto gains here nor will I suggest illegal tax avoidance activities. Readers must be aware that cryptocurrency investments are extremely high-risk and caution must be undertaken.

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