Welcome to CPA at Law, helping individuals and small businesses plan for the future and keep what they have.

This is the personal blog of Sterling Olander, a Certified Public Accountant and Utah-licensed attorney. For over seven years, I have assisted clients with estate planning and administration, tax mitigation, tax controversies, small business planning, asset protection, and nonprofit law.

I write about any legal, tax, or technological information that I find interesting or useful in serving my clients. All ideas expressed herein are my own and don't constitute legal or tax advice.

Don't Subject Legal Services to Utah Sales Tax

A proposed bill in Utah, House Bill 441, would "[impose] a state sales and use tax on amounts paid or charged for services," among many other things. In the bill's current form, this would include a tax on legal services. This is not good public policy.

My practice focus on estate planning. I try to ensure that my bill for an estate plan for someone with limited means is as low as possible. While my fees are not inexpensive, they are lower than what most estate planning attorneys in Utah charge, and I provide far greater value than a general practitioner without a focus on estate planning might charge.

Many individuals still try to save money through a "do it yourself" estate plan or by hiring someone who charges less but has limited estate planning experience. I have many clients involved in estate disputes that arise due to an ineffectual estate plan; these disputes cost thousands of dollars and often could have been avoided if a good estate plan had been implemented in the first place.

A sales tax on legal services would increase the cost of those services, thereby leading more individuals to look for cheaper and less effective options. This would result in more estate disputes that would require significantly more in legal fees to resolve (which dispute fees would be subject to sales tax). Of course, the problems described herein apply not just to estate planning services but other legal services sought by vulnerable individuals such as those dealing with divorce, domestic violence, debt collection, personal injury, criminal charges, landlord problems, and bankruptcy. Please tell your legislator that you oppose a state sales tax on amounts charged for legal services.

Introduction to Forming a 501(c)(4)

In a prior post, I introduced how to form a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. This post introduces how to form a 501(c)(4) organization. Such organizations must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare, or further the common good of the community. This encompasses a much broader range of permissible activities than those in which charities may engage, but the trade off is that contributions to a 501(c)(4) do not qualify for a charitable deduction as do contributions to charities. Another difference is that a social welfare organization, unlike a charity, can have lobbying, or attempting to influence legislation, as its primary activity; it may not, however, have influencing elections as its primary activity.

The first step in establishing a 501(c)(4) organization is to create a legal entity under state law. While a trust and a limited liability company can be used, it usually makes the most sense to form a nonprofit corporation. After the legal entity is formed, the organization's directors need to appoint officers, adopt bylaws, and apply for an employer identification number. While a 501(c)(4) organization is not required to file an exemption application (historically, such applications were submitted on Form 1024, but they are now submitted on Form 1024-A), it must notify the IRS within 30 days of formation of its intent to operate as a Section 501(c)(4) organization by electronically filing Form 8976.

A few final steps and ongoing requirements are worth noting. Prior to soliciting the public for donations, the organization will need to ensure that it has completed the charitable solicitation registration process that most states require. The organization will also need to file some version of IRS Form 990 each year; small social welfare organizations can file the 990-N postcard version online. Social welfare organizations that collect membership dues must notify anyone who pays a membership due of the amount that is attributable to lobbying and which cannot therefore be taken as a business deduction. Finally, the organization will need to ensure that it keeps its corporate entity in good standing, typically by filing an annual report with the state.

How Certain Organizations Can Self-Declare Tax-Exempt Status

There are dozens of tax-exempt organizations under the Internal Revenue Code; the IRS has a list of these on its website, along with the application form that each one files (usually Form 1023 or Form 1024). However, most of these organizations are not actually required to submit an exemption application to the IRS: "[Certain] organizations may self-declare their tax exempt status by operating within the requirements of the applicable code section and filing the required annual returns or notices." In other words, the tax-exempt status of a new organization can often be established simply by filing its first tax return.

Self-declaration is available to cooperative associations, social and recreation clubs, and business leagues, to name a few of the more popular ones. A 501(c)(9) and 501(c)(17) organization may not self-declare. While a 501(c)(4) organization is still not required to file an application (historically with Form 1024 but now with Form 1024-A), a 501(c)(4) can no longer simply self-declare by filing the first tax return. In a future post, I will describe how to form a 501(c)(4) organization. Finally, some 501(c)(3) organizations do not need to file an application or self-declare, whereas all others with gross receipts in excess of $5,000 generally may not self-declare and must apply for exemption.

Self-declaring tax-exempt status has its downsides, most notably that the organization will not receive a determination letter from the IRS. This means that, among other things, the organization will not be publicly recognized as tax-exempt and may not be able to qualify as exempt from certain state taxes. If a self-declared tax-exempt organization does not operate within the requirements of the applicable section of the Internal Revenue Code, it could be vulnerable to an audit by the IRS. Thus, another significant benefit of formally applying for tax-exempt status is giving the IRS notice of how the organization intends to operate and providing an opportunity for the IRS to notify the organization that it is not operating as required by the Code.

Establishing tax-exempt status by self-declaration is generally only advisable for small organizations, such as those eligible to file the Form 990-N (e-Postcard) version of the Form 990. After forming a nonprofit entity under state law and obtaining an EIN from the IRS, a representative of the organization must call the IRS at 877-829-5500 and ask that the organization be allowed to file Form 990-N and then file the form. This is all that is required for a small, eligible organization to be classified as tax-exempt.

50 States' Free Individual Income Tax Return E-Filing

Tax season is coming up, and most people in the U.S. will file a federal and state income tax return. Federal income tax returns can be e-filed for free through the IRS website. While most people do not use this option, all of the popular tax preparation services offer free federal and, in many cases, free state income tax e-filing for lower income families.

If you don't meet the income limitations, however, finding a way to e-file your return for free, particularly your state income tax return, is more difficult. One new option that includes free e-filing for federal and state tax returns is creditkarma.com; however, it is not as robust as other services, as this review has noted.

Fortunately, the department of revenue of many states allows free e-filing directly from the department's website. Since most state income tax returns rely heavily on the taxpayer's federal return, you will need to have already completed your federal return in order to use these services. Linked below are state government websites where state individual income tax returns can be e-filed. This post will be updated as better sources become available; please comment below if you come across broken links or better options than what I currently have:

 Alabama  Illinois  Montana^  Rhode Island^
 Alaska*  Indiana^  Nebraska  South Carolina^ 
 Arizona^  Iowa^  Nevada*  South Dakota*
 Arkansas^  Kansas  New Hampshire#  Tennessee#
 California  Kentucky^  New Jersey  Texas*
 Colorado  Louisiana  New Mexico  Utah
 Connecticut  Maine  New York^  Vermont
 Delaware  Maryland  North Carolina^  Virginia^
 District of Columbia^   Massachusetts^  North Dakota^  Washington*
 Florida*  Michigan^  Ohio  West Virginia^
 Georgia^  Minnesota^  Oklahoma^  Wisconsin
 Hawaii  Mississippi  Oregon  Wyoming*
 Idaho^  Missouri^  Pennsylvania   

* State does not have an income tax
^ State does not offer free online filing directly through the state revenue department's website
# State has an investment income tax in lieu of a traditional income tax

Utah Property Taxes and Amendment B

Like all states, Utah imposes a tax on real property but provides certain exemptions from taxation. Real property in Utah is exempt from taxation if it is owned, for example, by a nonprofit organization or by the state or a local government. Utah Code § 59-2-1101(3)(a).

In last Tuesday's election, Utahns rejected Constitutional Amendment B, which would have created a new tax exemption for real property not owned by a state or a local government but rather leased by the state or a local government from a private owner. While this amendment was presented as a way to simplify government in a revenue neutral manner, the reality is that property owners could have reasonably expected to experience a small property tax increase if the amendment had passed.

As I opined for KUTV 2News, "When a piece of real property is exempt from real property taxes, the neighboring real property owners necessarily subsidize the taxes that would otherwise have been collected in respect to the exempt real property. Because Amendment B creates a new category of real property that is exempt from property taxes, all else being equal, I would expect real property owners to experience a property tax increase to offset the decrease in property tax revenue."

Amendment B was also presented as not being a giveaway to property owners who lease to a government entity because the exemption was only to be available where the state or local government was responsible for paying the property taxes directly due to a triple net lease. However, it would seem that property owners would be able to charge higher rent knowing their tenant had an exemption from taxation.

Leases by a private owner to a charity or government entity have long raised these kinds of issues; as one court held over a century ago:
"[I]f the private owner of the land allows his land to be used for [exempt] purposes and charges no rent and derives no personal benefit from the land, the land is exempt from taxation, because the land is then devoted exclusively to such a use... For in such cases the owner contributes the use of his land to public or quasi-public use... and derives no gain or profit for himself...

But on the contrary, when the owner leases his land to the public for a public use... and applies the rents derived from the land to his own personal advantage, he contributes nothing to the public or to charity, he loses nothing by the use, he is not a benefactor to any one, but he stands before the law in exactly the same light as any one else who leases his land for any other purpose, and... his property is not exempt. State ex rel. Hammer v. MacGurn, 187 Mo. 238, 86 S.W. 138, (1905)
I believe that Utahns were right to reject Constitutional Amendment B.

Lobbying by a 501(c)(3) Organization

In my prior post, I provided an introduction to forming a 501(c)(3) organization. Such organizations must have charitable purposes and can not have a primary purpose of lobbying, or attempting to influence legislation. A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a private foundation is subject to excise taxes on all of its lobbying activities as well as political campaign activities under section 4945 of the Internal Revenue Code.

A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a public charity, however, may engage in some lobbying, but only to a limited extent. If a "substantial part" of a charity's activities includes attempting to influence legislation, it risks losing its 501(c)(3) status or not qualifying at the outset. The "substantial part" test is a facts-and-circumstances test; the IRS considers factors such as time and expenditures devoted to lobbying to determine whether the lobbying is substantial.

Because there is inherent uncertainty in any facts-and-circumstances test, a public charity that intends to engage in some lobbying has the option under 501(h) of the Internal Revenue Code to elect to be subject to a test that is based entirely on expenditures. Making this election is accomplished by filing IRS Form 5768. By so doing, a public charity can engage in lobbying by utilizing between 20% and 5.9% (depending on the organization's size, but in no case exceeding $1,000,000) of its exempt purpose expenditures on lobbying.

While the 501(h) election is not for every public charity (and some public charities such as churches are ineligible to make the election), this election can be a good option for charities that wish to devote a small part of their activities to influencing legislation.

Introduction to Forming a 501(c)(3)

While there are many different types of organizations that are exempt from federal income taxation, the best known is the 501(c)(3) organization. There are also many different types of 501(c)(3) organizations, which I summarized in a prior post. By default, a 501(c)(3) organization is a private nonoperating foundation unless it can qualify as a public charity by, for example, achieving certain levels of public support. Anyone can form a public charity, and many have chosen to do so in recent years.

The first step in establishing a 501(c)(3) organization is to create a legal entity under state law. While a trust and a limited liability company can be used, it usually makes the most sense to form a nonprofit corporation. Such an entity must have a charitable purpose that is recognized as such by the IRS; this link contains a description of the exempt purposes for which an organization can be organized and achieve 501(c)(3) status.
After the legal entity is formed, its directors need to appoint officers, adopt bylaws and a conflict of interest policy, and apply for an employer identification number. The next and most difficult step is completing IRS Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and the accompanying exhibits. This step in particular is the one where it makes the most sense to work with an adviser who is familiar with nonprofit organizations because the IRS will scrutinize the exemption application.

Once the application for exemption is approved, the IRS will send a determination letter notifying the organization that it is exempt from federal income taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and that donors can make donations to the organization and take a federal tax deduction for such donations. A copy of Wikimedia Foundation's determination letter appears on the right.

A few final steps and ongoing requirements are worth noting. Prior to soliciting the public for donations, the organization will need to ensure that it has completed the charitable solicitation registration process that most states require. The organization will also need to file some version of IRS Form 990 each year; small charities can file the 990-N postcard version online. Finally, the organization will need to ensure that it keeps its corporate entity in good standing, typically by filing an annual report with the state.