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Tax Tips: Understanding the tax implications of investing in cryptocurrencies

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Bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency, was introduced a little over a decade ago and has become a household name. Today, taxpayers from all walks of life with a wide range of investment experience trade in virtual currencies. Because cryptoassets are still considered a fringe investment, some individuals invest before considering how it will affect their taxes.

This poses a problem. Not reporting cryptoasset transactions is a violation of U.S. tax law. Reporting cryptoasset transactions to the IRS can be difficult unless you understand how those transactions are taxed.

Cryptoassets are digital representations of value that are stored using data encryption technology known as cryptography. Cryptoassets include non-fungible tokens (NFTs), utility coins and security tokens, but the most common is cryptocurrencies.

Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that operate independently of a central bank. Transactions in cryptocurrencies (and most other cryptoassets) are recorded and managed through an open-source, peer-to-peer network that relies on blockchain technology. Because blockchain technology makes a permanent record of each transaction, cryptoasset ownership is verifiable even without a central authority.

The first few years cryptocurrencies were on the market, it felt like the Wild West — taxpayers had no formal tax guidance to follow. But in 2014, the IRS released Notice 2014-21, which detailed how to report the sale and exchange of virtual currency and other cryptoassets. Since then, the IRS has expanded its guidance with Revenue Ruling 2019-24 and in the agency website’s FAQ section.

In these releases, the IRS makes it clear cryptoassets are treated as capital property for federal tax purposes, even when they are used as currency.

Gains or losses recognized from a cryptoasset transaction will be taxable as a long-term capital gain if held greater than 12 months, or as short-term capital gain if held less than 12 months. Because cryptoasset earnings are investment income, many individuals will also be subject to a 3.8% net investment income tax.

To calculate the gain or loss from a cryptoasset transaction, you must first determine your investment’s tax basis. Tax basis is generally what you initially paid to acquire the asset. If you received a cryptoasset as payment for goods or services, your cost basis would be the fair market value of the crypto the day you acquired it.

A transaction’s gain or loss is then determined by subtracting the cost basis from the sales price. The treatment would be the same when using a cryptocurrency to pay for goods or services as part of one’s daily life.

Mining is the process of creating and validating cryptocurrency transactions on a blockchain by solving complex mathematics problems. The “miner” solving the equations is paid in cryptocurrency.

Mining cryptocurrency is considered ordinary income, earned at the fair market value of the cryptocurrency at the time it was mined. Net profits from mining may be subject to self-employment tax if the mining activity constitutes a trade or business.

An airdrop is a means of distributing units of a cryptocurrency. Staking is locking crypto out of circulation and not withdrawing it for a set period of time in which the investor earns rewards or interest. In both instances, a taxpayer would have ordinary income on the distributed units and interest received.

As cryptoasset transactions become more common, there are a few important things to remember.

The IRS can find you even if you trade anonymously: Blockchain technology encrypts cryptoasset transactions, keeping the identities of traders anonymous, but the IRS has ways of finding out who you are. A few years ago, the IRS filed a lawsuit to obtain the identities of Coinbase’s customers who sold or traded assets over a specific period. The IRS cross-checked Coinbase transactions with the traders’ tax returns, and those who failed to report their activity were required to pay back taxes, penalties and interest on those unreported gains.

Know which units you’re selling: If you own multiple units of the same cryptocurrency that were acquired at different times, you must identify which units you’re selling or trading. Most digital assets have unique identifiers for just this purpose. You can select the unit with the cost basis that produces the smallest gain, which can be helpful when tax planning. Various accounting methods can be used to determine cost basis such as FIFO, LIFO and HIFO (highest in, first out).

Payments to employees in cryptoassets are considered payroll: If you pay your employees in cryptocurrency, the fair market value of those assets is subject to payroll taxes and federal income tax withholding. If you pay a nonemployee in cryptoassets valued at $600 or more, you will not owe payroll taxes, but you will need to report those earnings on Form 1099-NEC, Nonemployee Compensation. The recipient will be responsible for paying self-employment taxes on those earnings.

As with any investment, there are tax implications to cryptoassets. However, if you keep accurate records, track your transactions and understand how to utilize cryptoassets during your daily life, tax reporting come April 15 will be much easier.

Ciccotelli is partner-in-charge of Meaden & Moore’s Tax Services Group.