For Want of a Nail? How Long-Term Capital Gain Eligibility Can Turn on a Single Piece of Paper

An old proverb teaches that the absence of a horseshoe nail can cause the downfall of a kingdom. A recent Tax Court cases suggest a real estate owner’s eligibility for long-term capital gain can turn on something just as trivial:  a single piece of paper.

The Sugar Land case involved real estate businesspersons who, though various entities, held some land for investment purposes and other land for development purposes. During 2008, they decided to abandon development plans for raw land they originally intended to develop. In 2008, they executed an owner resolution expressing their change of intent. Their land holding company subsequently sold most of the property to an unrelated homebuilder in three transactions in 2011 and 2012. The company then sold substantially all the remaining property to related entities in four transactions spanning 2012 through 2016. The related entities developed that land for resale.

The IRS asserted that the 2012 sales should have generated ordinary income instead of long-term capital gain. Despite several factors militating against capital gain eligibility—including nearby development activity by related entities–the Tax Court found that the sales qualified as long-term capital gain. The court identified the 2008 owner resolution as the critical factor showing their intent.

The Sugar Land opinion is a bookend to the Fargo case we discussed in 2015. In Fargo, the Tax Court held that a taxpayer who held land without developing it for over a decade recognized ordinary income on its sale. The court reasoned that the long holding period did not overcome the absence of an owner resolution or other documentation evidencing the abandonment of the owner’s original development plan. The taxpayer could not recognize long-term capital gain.

Lesson learned? Silly or not, documenting the non-development intent for holding raw land can make a big difference in the income tax bill when the property is sold. If you want long-term capital gain, take a few minutes to make sure the owners execute a contemporaneous resolution or governing documents expressing the intent to hold the property for investment, not development. Otherwise you might tell a tale of losing your own financial kingdom, for want of just one piece of paper.

Helpful Resources:

E. John Wagner, II