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IRS Releases Guidance on Cryptocurrency Hard Forks

On April 9, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released Chief Counsel Advice memo 202114020 (Hard Fork CCA), which details the potential tax consequences for taxpayers who held Bitcoin prior to the August 1, 2017, Bitcoin hard fork. While the Hard Fork CCA concerns the taxation of a particular cryptocurrency transaction, it has additional significance because it adds to the limited guidance available regarding the proper taxation of cryptocurrency more generally.

IN DEPTH

A cryptocurrency hard fork occurs when the blockchain on which cryptocurrency transactions are recorded permanently splits. The holder of the cryptocurrency generally has no control or notice that the hard fork is about to occur. The result is two separate blockchains with two separate sets of rules for recording transactions.

Bitcoin underwent a hard fork on August 1, 2017, and resulted in two separate sets of protocols for Bitcoin, as well as a new cryptocurrency called Bitcoin Cash. The result of this hard fork was that individuals holding Bitcoin in a distributed ledger now held a unit of Bitcoin Cash for each unit of Bitcoin previously held.

The Hard Fork CCA reached two conclusions concerning the Bitcoin hard fork. First, it determined that a taxpayer who received Bitcoin Cash because of the hard fork has gross income pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 61. Second, it determined that the date of receipt and fair market value of the income depends on when the taxpayer obtains dominion and control over the Bitcoin Cash. The Hard Fork CCA relies on the statutory language of IRC Section 61(a)(3) and the well-established case law of Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Company (348 U.S. 426, 431 (1955) in reaching this result. Those sources define gross income as “all income from whatever source derived,” and provide that all gains or undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, over which a taxpayer has complete dominion are included in gross income. The Hard Fork CCA also concludes that an impacted taxpayer gains dominion over Bitcoin Cash when they have the ability to sell, transfer or exchange the Bitcoin Cash.

Despite the fact that the Hard Fork CCA deals specifically with the consequences of the Bitcoin hard fork, the dearth of IRS guidance on the taxation of cryptocurrencies means the Hard Fork CCA will likely have broad importance to taxpayers who invest in other cryptocurrencies and similar digital assets. Most taxpayers hold cryptocurrencies through a cryptocurrency exchange platform. Coinbase, for example, which recently underwent a highly publicized initial public offering (IPO) and IRS summons for information concerning its participants, is one of the most popular cryptocurrency exchanges. (Additional detail regarding the Coinbase summons is available on our Tax Controversy 360 blog.) After a hard fork, some exchanges immediately adopt the new cryptocurrency and permit its use on the exchange; however, others only do so after a period of evaluation, if ever. The Hard Fork CCA takes the position that a taxpayer who privately holds their Bitcoin using a private key to [...]

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