Colleges and Universities UBIT Compliance Project: IRS Final Report (Part 1)

In 2008, the IRS commenced a multi-year project to assess UBIT compliance by colleges and universities. The IRS sent out questionnaires to 400 randomly selected institutions and, based on the responses, selected 34 institutions for audit. Released in 2013, the Final Report analyzes the results of the questionnaires and examinations conducted as part of the Compliance Project. In general, the IRS found significant underreporting of UBIT. While the Compliance Project discussed in the Final Report deals exclusively with colleges and universities, the compliance issues uncovered by the audits may be instructive to other exempt organizations as well.

This article summarizes the highlights of the Final Report concerning the UBIT. Succeeding posts will examine in greater detail the most common compliance errors made by colleges and universities in determining UBTI.

Of the 34 institutions selected for audit, a whopping 90% had increases to UBTI, including more than 180 adjustments representing about $90 million in unpaid taxes. More than one half of the adjustments involved the following activities:

  • Fitness and recreation centers and sports camps
  • Advertising
  • Facility rentals
  • Arenas
  • Golf courses

The adjustments related not only to the underreporting of income from unrelated trades or businesses but also to excessive losses and net operating losses. Over $600 million losses and NOLs were disallowed on 75% of the examined returns.

 Note: The colleges and universities were selected for examination because responses to their questionnaires indicated potential noncompliance on UBIT issues. Thus, the institutions audited are not a representative sample of all colleges and universities. The Final Report cautions that the results apply only to the institutions examined and should not be generalized as representative of other colleges and universities.

 The most common adjustments made in the examinations involved the following issues:

  • Misclassification as a trade or business due to lack of profit motive
  • Misallocation of expenses between exempt and nonexempt activities
  • Errors in computation or substantiation of NOLs
  • Misclassification of unrelated activities as related activities
  • Failure to seek professional advice about the treatment of potentially unrelated activities

In Part 2 of this article, we will discuss how an exempt organization might underreport UBTI as a result of misclassifying an activity lacking a profit motive as a business activity subject to the UBIT.


A UBIT for New York City?

In its 2012 budget options report for New York City, the Independent Budget Office offers 72 options for balancing the city budget. One of the options discussed is an unrelated business income tax on exempt organizations in New York City. The city UBIT would be in addition to the federal and New York state taxes on unrelated business taxable income.

 Note: An exempt organization that carries on an unrelated trade or business in the state of New York is subject to a 10% tax on its UBTI. N.Y. TAX. LAW § 290

 The city UBIT would use the same definition of UBTI as the federal tax and would involve similar computations. Thus, the tax would only apply to income from a regularly conducted trade or business that is unrelated to an organization’s exempt purposes.

 According to the report, an 8.85% tax rate on UBTI of exempt organizations in New York City would generate $10 million annually. The 8.85% tax rate corresponds to New York City’s corporate tax rate. A city UBIT would require approval by the New York legislature.

 Potential advantages of a city UBIT include leveling the playing field for taxable corporations. Also, because the city UBIT would parallel the federal and state taxes, the additional administration burdens for exempt organizations would be nominal. The primary objection to a city UBIT is likely to be further erosion of the resources of exempt organizations when demand for their services is increasing due to unfavorable economic conditions.


The UBIT Impact of Acquiring an Investment Before or After Borrowing Funds to Conduct Charitable Programs: ABA Taxation Section Requests Guidance

In a letter, dated April 11, 2012, to IRS Commissioner Shulman, the ABA Section on Taxation requested additional guidance concerning the application of the debt-financed income rules when an exempt organization borrows funds to conduct charitable programs or pay administrative expenses either before or after purchasing investment property. The Section on Taxation proposed examples that illustrate how the debt-financed income rules apply in four contemporary fact settings.

 Acquisition Indebtedness Defined

 Under §514, acquisition indebtedness is:

  •  Debt incurred to acquire or improve property;
  • Debt incurred before the acquisition or improvement of property, if the debt would not have been incurred but for the acquisition or improvement; or
  • Debt incurred after the acquisition or improvement of property if the debt would not have been incurred but for the acquisition or improvement and incurring the debt was reasonably foreseeable at the time of the acquisition or improvement.

 Thus, the scope of acquisition indebtedness is not limited to debt acquired simultaneously with an asset purchase, such as with a purchase money mortgage. Indebtedness incurred before or after the acquisition of an asset may be treated as acquisition indebtedness with respect to the asset if certain conditions are present. The applicable rules depend on whether the debt is incurred before or after the asset is acquired.

 When debt is incurred before the acquisition of investment property, a “but for” test is applied. The indebtedness is acquisition indebtedness if the debt would not have been incurred but for the purchase of the property. When debt is incurred subsequent to a property acquisition, there is a two-fold test. The first part of the test is the same “but for” test applied when debt is incurred before the acquisition. The second part of the test asks whether having to incur the debt was reasonably foreseeable at the time of the purchase. These rules prevent exempt organizations from circumventing the debt-financed income rules by artificially timing incurrence of debt either before or after the acquisition of property.

 Debt Incurred Before Property Acquisition

 Reg. §1.514(c)-1(a)(2), Example (1) illustrates acquisition indebtedness incurred prior to the acquisition of investment property. An exempt organization pledges investment assets to secure a loan. Subsequently, the organization uses the borrowed funds to purchase property with a nonexempt use. The organization would not have borrowed the money but for the acquisition of the property. Thus, the loan is acquisition indebtedness and the purchased property is debt-financed property.

 Compare the foregoing example with an example proposed by the Section on Taxation:

 A an exempt school holds $ Z in money market funds in addition to the amount of working capital necessary to continue current operations. The organization needs approximately $ Z to construct a new classroom building. The current interest rates are quite low, and a lender is willing to provide a construction loan that will ultimately be converted into long-term loans secured by the new classroom building. Rather than using the $ Z in its money market funds, the organization decides to take out a construction loan, secured by a general pledge of its assets, to finance the construction of its new building. After taking out the loan and beginning the project, the organization is presented with an attractive investment opportunity that it did not foresee at the time of the borrowing, and it decides to use funds from the money market account to make that investment.

 The Section of Taxation correctly distinguishes its example from Example (1) of Reg. §1.514(c)-1(a)(2). In the example from the regulations, the exempt organization secures a loan but does nothing with the loan proceeds until it purchases the new nonexempt property. We are given no reason why the organization would borrow funds other than to make the subsequent purchase. The organization would not have borrowed the funds but for the purchase of the new property. In contrast, the ABA example gives the exempt organization an independent reason for financing the new classroom facility. Given the current interest rates, it makes business sense to finance the building rather than use the money market funds for the construction. The organization would have borrowed the funds even if the subsequent investment opportunity had not surfaced. Thus, there is no “but for” connection between the loan and the investment.

 Debt Incurred After Property Acquisition

 Example (2) of Reg. §1.514(c)-1(a)(2) illustrates acquisition indebtedness incurred after the acquisition of investment property. An exempt scientific organization used its working capital to remodel an office building which the organization leases for a nonexempt use. Subsequently, the organization mortgages its laboratory to replace the funds it used to remodel the building. Because the mortgage is on exempt use property, the organization may feel like the debt is not acquisition indebtedness. Under the two-fold rule discussed above, however, the organization would not have mortgaged its lab but for the remodel of the office building. Moreover, because the organization used its working capital to remodel the building, it was reasonably foreseeable that it would have to incur debt in order to fund its charitable programs. Thus, the mortgage is acquisition indebtedness with respect to the office building.

 In contrast, the Section of Taxation proposes the following scenario:

 A charitable organization traditionally makes grants of $ X each year and funds those grants from interest, dividends, and capital gains on its investments. Due to increased need among the charitable class the organization serves, it decides to increase its grantmaking. In a particular year, interest, dividends and capital gains are insufficient to enable the organization to increase its grants and pay its administrative expenses. The Trustees reasonably determine that it would not be advantageous to liquidate any of the organization’s various investments at this time. On that basis, the Trustees decide to fund the organization’s grants and administrative expenses by borrowing from a line of credit secured by the organization’s existing investments. When the investments were purchased, the organization did not anticipate that it would later need to increase its grants at a time when its income was insufficient to fund its programs and when it was also reasonable to hold its investments rather than to liquidate them. Accordingly, any income from the existing investments will not generate UBIT solely because of the funds borrowed under the line of credit.

 Once again, the example proposed by the Section of Taxation is distinguishable from the example in the regulations. In Example (2) of Regs. §1.514(c)-1(a)(2), the organization knew it would have to borrow funds for its charitable activities when it used working capital to renovate a nonexempt use building. In contrast, in the Section on Taxation example, the organization anticipated its charitable giving levels would remain consistent when it purchased the investments. Due to the recession, however, the needs of the beneficiaries it served increased, causing it to need more than anticipated in its exempt activities. It was the increased need, rather than the earlier purchase of the investments, that motivated the borrowing. Although the organization could have sold the investments rather than borrowing, it was advised not to sell the investments at a depressed value. Thus, neither part of the two-part test for later borrowing is satisfied. It was not the existing investments that motivated the organization to borrow funds for its charitable activities. Moreover, when the organization purchased the investments, it was not reasonably foreseeable that a need would later arise to step up its grantmaking.


 The letter from the Section of Taxation to the Commissioner Shulman raises some practical factual settings that exempt organizations may be facing currently. The examples proposed in the letter are well thought out and consistent with the language of §514 and the examples in Reg. §1.514(c)-1(a)(2). If adopted by the IRS, the examples would be helpful to exempt organizations in the conduct of their exempt activities and investments.

How UBIT Blockers Avoid Debt-Financed Income

Recent publicity about former Governor Mitt Romney’s $23 million IRA and its investments in foreign tax havens has raised the profile of so-called UBIT blocker corporations. What is a UBIT blocker and how does it work to the advantage of retirement accounts and other exempt organizations?

 Income from Debt-Financed Property is UBTI

 If an exempt organization borrows funds to acquire an asset, income from the asset is treated as debt-financed income to the extent of the debt financing. Debt-financed income is included in the organization’s UBTI, unless an exception applies. For example, rents from real property are generally excluded from UBTI. If, however, an exempt organization leases mortgaged property as an investment, part of the rental income is treated as debt-financed income. Similarly, if an exempt organization invests in a partnership that uses borrowed funds to acquire an asset, the debt-financed income rules apply to the organization’s distributive share of the partnership’s income from the asset. Because most alternative asset investments, such as hedge funds, use debt financing, exempt organizations cannot invest directly in hedge funds and other non-traditional investments without incurring UBTI.

Note: Under a special exception, debt incurred by educational organizations and qualified pension and retirement plans to purchase or improve real property is not treated as acquisition indebtedness. Thus, the real property is not debt-financed property and income from the property is excluded from UBTI. The exception is limited to real property and does not apply to hedge fund investments.

 Blocking Debt-Financed Income

 The debt-financed income rules reduce an exempt organization’s ability to take advantage of leveraged investments without suffering adverse UBIT consequences. Seeking to get around this restriction, some exempt organizations have interposed a corporation between themselves and the investment partnership. The result of such an arrangement is that dividends paid from the corporation to the exempt organization are treated as excludible dividends rather than debt-financed income. The taint of the debt financing does not flow through from the partnership to the corporation to the exempt organization.

Increasing the Advantage by Using Foreign Corporations

 Where do tax havens come in? If the UBIT blocker is a U.S. corporation, the corporation will owe income tax on its distributive share of the partnership income. To minimize the income taxation at the corporate level, exempt organizations use a foreign corporation to invest in the partnership owning the mortgaged property. Income of foreign corporations is not taxed until the income is repatriated to the U.S. Some foreign jurisdictions do not impose corporate taxes on corporations owned by non-citizens. Other countries impose very limited corporate taxes. Either way, by using a foreign corporation, an exempt organization can eliminate or minimize the tax payable at the corporate level, reducing the overall cost of the UBIT avoidance strategy.

UBIT Blockers Are Not Illegal

 The strategy of using UBIT blocker corporations is not illegal or contrary to any tax laws. Large retirement funds and exempt organizations are seeking to diversify their investment portfolios into non-traditional investments and to increase their returns using leveraged investments. Under the tax laws, income of foreign corporations owned by U.S. citizens or corporations is not subject to U.S. income tax until the income is brought into the country. Giant multinational corporations routinely use these tax principles to avoid billions in U.S. income tax on income of their foreign subsidiaries. The avoidance is permanent if the corporations use the income in their foreign operations rather than repatriate it. In contrast to business corporations, tax-exempt organizations may repatriate dividends from a foreign corporation without adverse UBIT consequences because of the dividend exclusion.

 Despite their legal status, the use of UBIT blockers by exempt organizations has resulted in millions of dollars in lost taxes that would have been paid as unrelated business income tax if exempt organizations made direct investments or invested in partnerships without using the intervening corporation. Federal legislators are well aware of the lost revenues resulting from UBIT blockers. In the current political climate emphasizing deficit reduction, Congress may act to reduce or eliminate the use of UBIT blockers by exempt organizations. More than likely, any changes will come as part of an overhaul of the whole system for taxing foreign income and will occur after the election year.

 For other articles discussing the use of UBIT blockers by exempt organizations, see Weisman, Romney’s Returns Revive Scrutiny of Lawful Offshore Tax Shelters (Feb. 2012); David Wheeler Newman, Recent Rulings Illustrate Creative Strategies to Deal with UBTI (2011); Council on Foundations, Statement Regarding Unrelated Debt-Financed Income and “Blocker Corporations” (2007)

 For a more detailed discussion of the UBTI and debt-financed income rules in the context of UBIT blockers, see Joint Committee on Taxation, Present Law and Analysis Relating to Tax Treatment of Partnership Carried Interests and Related Issues, Part II (2007).

IRS Releases Revised Publication 598

The IRS has released revised Publication 598, Tax on Unrelated Business Income of Exempt Organizations, effective as of March 2012. The publication covers four main topics:

  • Organizations subject to the tax
  • Tax and filing requirements
  • Unrelated trade or business
  • Unrelated business taxable income

 The section entitled “Unrelated Trade or Business” goes over the basic principles from the Code and Regulations concerning the basic requirements for taxatiion under the UBIT.  More importantly, it focuses on the sometimes tricky issue of whether a business is related or unrelated to an organization’s exempt purposes by using examples. The discussion contains numerous common examples of specific businesses and explains why these activities are related or unrelated for purposes of the UBIT. The “Unrelated Trade or Business” section also briefly discusses businesses that are expressly excluded from treatment as unrelated trades or businesses, such as businesses conducted by volunteers, sale of donated items, and the distribution of low cost articles incident to the solicitation of charitable contributions.

 The longest and most detailed section of Publication 598 is entitled “Unrelated Business Taxable Income.” It first discusses the categories of income that are excluded from UBTI. This part covers numerous modifications and special rules, including the treatment of advertising in periodicals, the deductions allowed in computing UBTI, rules for social clubs, VEBAs, and SUBs, income from partnerships and S corporations, and income from controlled organizations. The section concludes with a detailed discussion of the debt-financed property rules with several helpful examples.

 The IRS also maintains a web page on Publication 598. In a Recent Developments section, the IRS will post any changes that occur after the publication date of one revised edition and before the publication date of the following revision. For example, the Publication 598 prior to the current version was revised as of March 2010, applicable beginning with the 2009 tax year. In April of 2011, the IRS alerted taxpayers to the changes for the 2010 tax year. If the next revision of Publication 598 does not come out until March of 2014, an alert on this web page will likely be issued containing the changes for 2012.

 The IRS website has Publication 598 for the following revision dates: 2012, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2000, 1998, and 1995. If you need to know a UBIT provision applicable for a prior tax year, checking Publication 598 for the appropriate time period may be a good place to start.


Scope of Notational Principal Contract Exclusion from UBTI Clarified in Proposed Regs

This post is a heads up for exempt organizations that invest in nontraditional investments such as interest rate swaps and other notational principal contracts (NPCs). Income from NPCs is excluded from UBTI by Treas. Reg. §1.512(b)-1(a), which includes income from NPCs with other passive investment income such as dividends, interest, and annuities.

Note: Section 512(b)(1) lists five categories of passive income that are excluded from UBTI: dividends, interest, payments with respect to securities loans, amounts received or accrued as consideration for entering into agreements to make loans, and annuities. Although income from NPCs is not specifically mentioned in §512(b)(1), Treas. Reg. §1.512(b)-1(a)(1) does expressly identify income from NPCs as excludable passive investment income.

 What Are Notational Principal Contracts?

 An NPC is a financial agreement calling for the exchange of payments between two parties, at least one of which periodically pays amounts calculated by applying a rate determined by reference to a specified index to a notional principal amount in exchange for specified consideration or a promise to pay similar amounts.

 What Amendments Are Proposed?

 The proposed amendment to Treas. Reg. 1.512(b)-1(a)(1) is a conforming amendment to proposed amendments to Treas. Reg. §§1.1256(b)-1(a) and 1.446-3(c). Section 1256 provides special income tax treatment for section 1256 contracts, such as regulated futures contracts, that are marked to market and traded on a qualified board or exchange. Gain or loss on section 1256 contracts is generally treated as 60% long-term and 40% short-term capital gain or loss. Current §1256(b)(2)(B), added by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, provides that various types of swaps and similar contracts are not treated as section1256 contracts. The excluded contracts are almost identical to those listed as notational principal contracts under present Treas. Reg. §1.446-3(c), which discusses the recognition of income from NPCs that is necessary clearly to reflect income under §446.

 To resolve some uncertainties regarding the treatment of swaps that are traded on regulated exchanges, Proposed Treas. Reg. §1.1256(b)-1(a) provides that notational principal contracts described in Treas. Reg. §1.446-3(c) are excluded from treatment as section 1245 contracts. In turn, Proposed Treas. Reg. §1.446-3(c) clarifies some questions about NPCs and allows additional types of contracts to be classified as NPCs. For example, the proposed regulation provides that one party to a NPC must make a minimum of two payments to the other contracting party. The proposed regulation also includes as NPCs credit default swaps and swaps based on non-financial indices, such as weather-related swaps. Under the current regulation, a specified index includes only financial indices.

 What Is the Current Status of the Proposed Regulations?

 A public hearing about the proposed regulations was conducted on January 19, 2012, with 13 in attendance and one speaker.

Tax Court: An Exempt Organization Subject to the UBIT is Still an Exempt Organization

To those not accustomed to dealing with subchapter F of the Code (pertaining to exempt organizations) it may seem contradictory that so-called exempt organizations are subject to the unrelated business income tax. And the UBIT is not the only tax that may apply to exempt organizations. Charitable organizations which are private foundations are taxed on their net investment income and are subject to a series of excise taxes designed to curb particular behaviors susceptible to abuse. Thus, exempt organizations, which are not subject to the regular income tax imposed under §§1 and 11, are distinguished from for-profit companies that must pay income taxes. For convenience, we refer to them as exempt organizations, even though we know that they may be liable for the UBIT or other specialized taxes.

 Section 501 expressly recognizes that concept of tax-exempt organizations being subject to taxation. Exemption from taxation is provided under §501(a) for organizations described in §501(c), §501(d), and §401(a). These organizations are charities and 28 other categories of organizations described in §501(c), religious and apostolic organizations described in §501(d), and qualified retirement plans described in §401(a).

 Section 501(b) states that an organization exempt from taxation under §501(a) is subject to tax as provided in parts II (taxes on private foundations), III (the UBIT), and VI (taxes on political organizations) of subchapter F. Notwithstanding parts II, III, and VI of subchapter F, however, such an organization is “considered an organization exempt from income taxes for purposes of any law referring to organizations exempt from income taxes.”

 The Tax Court recently considered this seemingly straightforward Code provision in Research Corporation v. Commissioner, 138 T.C. No. 7 (2012).  Continue reading

Social Welfare Organization Derived UBTI from Members-Only Beach Club and Parking Lots

In Ocean Pines Association, Inc. v. Commissioner, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a tax-exempt social welfare organization conducted an unrelated business when it operated two parking lots and a beach club limited to members only. The case was not complex, and the outcome was predictable. The court’s opinion, however, illustrates a classic analysis of the distinction between related and unrelated businesses under the UBIT.  Continue reading

Partial Exclusion for Post-2005 Payments Received from a Controlled Subsidiary under a Pre-Aug. 18, 2006 Contract Expired in 2011

In Publication JCX-6-12, dated January 27, 2012, the Joint Committee on Taxation listed tax provisions that expired in 2011 and provisions slated to expire through 2022. Only one item mentioned in the publication applies to the UBIT. Section 512(b)(13)(E), regarding certain payments received from controlled subsidiaries, expired for payments made after December 31, 2011.  Continue reading