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Crypto and Taxes

Cryptocurrency is digital money.

Cryptocurrency is similar to cash, such as US Dollars ($) or Euro (€), but exclusively digital so there are no physical bills or coins. The first mainstream cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created by a pseudonymous person (or persons) called Satohsi Nakamoto in 2008. Since then, thousands of cryptocurrencies have emerged like Ether, Monero, Zcash, and more.

In addition to being completely electronic, cryptocurrency has another unique property compared to all other forms of money: it is not controlled by any central authority. In the Bitcoin whitepaper, Satoshi describes how the decentralized protocol works without requiring any governments, central banks, or financial institutions.

Is Cryptocurrency Taxed?

Yes. In most jurisdictions around the world, including in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, the tax authorities tax cryptocurrency transactions.

Most countries, like the US, tax cryptocurrency as property. Therefore if the asset appreciates in value and you sell/trade/use it for profit, the gains are taxed like capital gains. If the asset depreciates in value and you sell/trade/use it at a loss, you may be able to deduct the losses against other capital gains to reduce your taxes.

The amount of tax depends on how much capital gain/loss there has been on the asset, how long you have held the asset, and the specific regulations in your country/jurisdiction. Because each taxable event may create a capital gain, you need to know the date, cost basis, sale value, and any fees associated with each transaction.

Generally speaking, these are considered taxable events:

Selling cryptocurrency for fiat currency (i.e. USD, CAD, EUR, JPY, etc.)
Trading cryptocurrency for other cryptocurrency (e.g. BTC for ETH, does not require cashing out to fiat to be taxable)
Using cryptocurrency to buy a good or service
Receiving cryptocurrency as a result of a fork or from mining

On the other hand, the following are generally not considered taxable events:

Buying cryptocurrency with fiat currency (except in cases where the purchase price is lower than the fair market value of the purchased coin)
Donating cryptocurrency to a tax-exempt organization
Gifting cryptocurrency to anyone (if the gift is sufficiently large it may trigger a gift tax)
Transferring cryptocurrency from one wallet that you own to another wallet that you own

How is Cryptocurrency Taxed?

IRS guidance clarifies that cryptocurrencies are taxed as property. Therefore when you dispose of cryptocurrency held as a capital asset (e.g. sell bitcoin, trade ether, use litecoin to pay for a mining rig, etc.) you are subject to capital gains or losses.

With cryptocurrency, the IRS has clarified that like-kind exchanges are not allowed so every cryptocurrency-to-cryptocurrency exchange is a taxable event. Let’s take a look at an example:

*Assumes FIFO (First-In First-Out based accounting)

Walking through the steps above:

Jon has 1 bitcoin (BTC), no taxable event
Jon receives 1 ETH as a gift, no taxable event
Prices increase, but no assets are disposed so no taxable event
A cryptocurrency-to-cryptocurrency trade is executed which is a taxable event: +$900 capital gain
Jon initiates a transfer between two of his cryptocurrency wallets, no taxable event
A fork generates a new coin and therefore income: +$90 income
Jon sells his assets as a capital gain: +8,100

So in total, Jon has accumulated $9,000 of capital gains and $90 of ordinary income. Break this into short/long term capital gains, ordinary income, and complete his tax forms to be cryptocurrency tax compliant.

Cost Basis Methods

You can apply different cost basis calculation methods to your cryptocurrency including FIFO (first-in first-out) and specific identification. You can also account for your coins in one queue across all your wallets/exchanges (universal) or separately by wallet/exchange.

If you receive cryptocurrency from mining, forks, airdrops (even unintentionally), or as a payment in exchange for goods/services, you must also report these earnings on your tax return. See below for a breakdown of how US cryptocurrency taxes work for mining, donations/gifts, forks, and airdrops (or see our international tax guide on cryptocurrency earnings).

Mining

Cryptocurrency tax rules vary for miners depending on whether they are hobbyists or business miners (see the cryptocurrency tax guide on mining to for details).

Hobbyists

Income will go on line 21 (other income) of your Form 1040 Schedule 1 (Additional Income and Adjustments to Income)
Expenses directly associated with mining will go on a Schedule A (Itemized Deductions), miscellaneous subject to 2% of AGI limitation (only applies to 2017 and prior years)

Business Miners

Income and expenses both go on a Schedule C (Profit or Loss from Business) or on applicable business returns (Form 1065, Form 1120, Form 1120S)
Income may be subject to the 15.3% self-employment tax
Business related expenses can be deducted to offset mining income

Donations/Gifts

Gift tax rules are complicated.

Forks

There are two kinds of forks: hard forks and soft forks. A hard fork is when a cryptocurrency splits into two or more branches because the existing code for the coin is changed. This results in the original version and a new version (or versions) of the initial coin. Examples include Bitcoin (BTC) and Bitcoin Cash (BCH), Ether (ETH) and Ether Classic (ETC), etc.

With a soft fork, the code for the coin is getting changed but it is backward compatible with older versions. So it is more like an update resulting in one updated blockchain (rather than two or more blockchains).

Soft forks do not result in any tax consequences because there is no new coin — simply a protocol upgrade to your existing coin.

If you receive new coins after a hard fork however, the IRS has specified that they are treated as ordinary income. Therefore, you owe income taxes on new coins you have in your wallet as a result of a fork (regardless of whether you intended to own these coins or not). The amount of income is the fair market value of the forked coin at the time it is received in the wallet.

Airdrops

Airdrops are free coins that are sent to your wallet. Coins are generally airdropped to your wallet by ICO issuers to increase awareness and improve marketing and publicity for the project. Sometimes you may get coins through airdrops, and you may not even know about it.

The IRS has remained silent on how taxes are applied to airdropped coins, so unfortunately this is a grey area. To be conservative, we recommend applying the hard fork guidance to airdrops as well and treating airdrops as ordinary income.

What is your biggest personal expense? Take a minute, think about it.

The most common answers we hear are rent/housing, transportation, food, and debt/bills. The truth, however, is that for most people the biggest expense is tax.

We consistently find people spend disproportionately less time on tax planning even though it is often the highest leverage activity to optimize personal finances. Small steps can make a huge difference, and there are a number of ways that taxpayers can improve tax planning with cryptocurrency and save money including with cryptocurrency tax loss harvesting (wash sales only apply to stocks and securities, not bitcoin), SDIRAs and more.

How Do Tax Authorities Know About My Cryptocurrency?

Tax authorities such as the IRS, ATO, CRA, HMRC, and others use a variety of techniques to track cryptocurrency transactions and enforce tax compliance. For starters, the IRS has subpoenaed domestic and international cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase and Bitstamp for user transaction information. This has lead to at least tens of thousands of cryptocurrency users’ transaction information being shared directly with the tax authorities.

In addition, tax authorities, like the IRS, use data analytics tools such as Chainanalysis and Palantir to pinpoint cryptocurrency users and tie their identity from a regulated cryptocurrency exchange to their off-exchange wallets and transactions (including multiple layers removed from the exchange).

The IRS and other tax authorities also partner and share data with other governmental bodies, academic institutions, and international governments to share information about cryptocurrency usage.

What Happens if I Don’t File My Cryptocurrency Taxes?

In the US, the IRS requires that you file your taxes (in some cases, even if you owe zero taxes or should be owed a refund, you are still required to file your taxes). Failure to file can result in fees, penalties, interest, confiscated refunds, audits, and even jail time.

What’s New with Cryptocurrency Taxes in 2020?

For the first time since the original cryptocurrency tax guidance in 2014, the IRS has released a number of significant updates to cryptocurrency tax rules.

IRS Warning Letters

In July 2019, the IRS started sending out over 10,000 warning letters to US taxpayers who hold cryptocurrency. These letters included IRS Letters 6173, 6174 & 6174-A. In addition, the IRS has been sending out CP-2000 notices whenever there is a mismatch between a 1099-K and what a user reports on their tax return.

Hard Forks Result in Taxable Income

The IRS released new guidance on cryptocurrency taxes on October 9, 2019, which applies retroactively. One key element clarified here is that new coins that you receive from a hard fork (when a coin splits into two), result in taxable income. This means, for example, that if you were holding Bitcoin at the time of the Bitcoin Cash hard fork (August 1, 2017) or Bitcoin Cash at the time of the BSV hard fork (November 15, 2018), you are liable for reporting and paying income tax on the receipt of those coins.

Note: you didn’t have to sell/dispose of the forked coins for the income tax to apply — simply holding the original coin at the time of the fork which would allow you to have received the forked coin is sufficient in the eyes of the IRS to trigger an income tax event.

Specific Identification Allowed, Even on Exchanges

The IRS laid out the specific criteria needed to apply specific identification accounting for your cryptocurrency, even that held on custodial exchanges (e.g. Coinbase, Binance, Gemini, Kraken, etc.).

New Tax Question on Schedule 1

For the first time, in 2020, the IRS has also added a new cryptocurrency question as the first line on the Schedule 1 tax form which will ask every American taxpayer: “At any time during 2019, did you receive, sell, send, exchange, or otherwise acquire any financial interest in any virtual currency?”

How Cryptocurrencies Taxes Work Internationally

Each country applies taxes differently. This post is primarily geared toward cryptocurrency taxes in the US by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Foreign Filing Requirements for Cryptocurrency

US residents holding foreign financial accounts are normally subject to additional special foreign filing disclosures in the form of FinCEN Form 114 (FBAR) and IRS FATCA forms. FBAR does not apply to cryptocurrency. FATCA is a grey area so as a more conservative stance, we recommend just filing if you aren’t sure whether it applies or not.

Coinbase 1099K

The IRS Form 1099-K is a tax report that broker-dealers (and some cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase, Gemini, Robinhood, etc.) generate. They keep one copy for themselves, send one copy to you (the user), and one copy to the IRS. This form essentially shows aggregate transaction volume per month.

Unfortunately, this form is completely useless for filing taxes. IRS guidance has clarified that cryptocurrency is taxed as property, meaning that the capital gains tax is calculated based on the difference between the fair market value at the time a crypto asset is disposed of and the cost basis at which the asset was acquired. The 1099-K includes none of this information. Instead it simply sums the total proceeds of cryptocurrency dispositions across all transactions. This cannot be used to correctly file cryptocurrency taxes.

Therefore the IRS clarifies that you need to use Form 8949 to file your cryptocurrency taxes (source: IRS, A40). The 1099-K helps the IRS understands who are high transaction users, however those numbers are not actually used in your tax filing.

What Are The Best Cryptocurrency Exchanges To Use?

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding which cryptocurrency exchanges to use such as reputation, security, geographic support, trading pairs, liquidity, regulatory licenses, and more.

One often overlooked but critical element in evaluating a new cryptocurrency exchange is how easy it makes for you as a user to gather your transaction information needed for filing your cryptocurrency taxes. Specifically the elements to look out for are read-access API keys that provide complete transactions history over all time including: trades, deposits, and withdrawals (you would be surprised at how many exchanges don’t make this basic information readily available causing big problems at tax filing time).

Decentralized Finances and Taxes

Decentralized Finance (DeFi) is a new developing area in the cryptocurrency space. DeFi products allow users to interact with their cryptocurrency without trusting a centralized authority/institution (e.g. custodian, exchange, etc.) and instead just on code. Examples of emerging DeFi services include cryptocurrency exchange, interest earning, margin trading, and more.

For example, one recent area that has especially been developing is interest earning via tools like Multi-Collateral DAI, Maker Vaults, and Compound. According to the IRS tax code, interest earned from these DeFi protocols is taxable interest income reported annual on the Schedule B, Part I (more about DeFi interest crypto taxes).