Cryptocurrency Basics

Rapidly evolving digital asset: crypto.

In the approximately dozen years of cryptocurrency trading, the IRS has been working through how to classify it and obtain its pound of flesh. The IRS has had to juggle its duty to provide clarity with the need to stay light on its feet with this rapidly evolving digital asset.

In 2014, the IRS announced that all cryptocurrencies should be considered property and therefore follow tax reporting rules similar to real estate.

Only at the end of 2019, however, did the IRS start issuing more specific warnings for those who may be under-reporting their crypto transactions or not even reporting them at all. They went as far as to email letters to all taxpayers who had made cryptocurrency transactions with a note reminding them that they could still pay back taxes and amend their returns.

And it makes sense; while 2018 was a pretty poor year for cryptocurrency traders and investors, 2019 produced windfalls once again.

Bitcoin, the largest and clear leader of virtual currencies, saw its value spike from $3,823 to as high as $11,803 in just the first six months of the year – a 209% jump. Even though prices retreated in the second half of 2019, investors still cleared nearly a 100% gain during the year.

Considering the enthusiasm returning to cryptocurrencies in 2019, the IRS is taking a more active role in enforcing its share of those profits. Now that we’re in 2020, we need to keep these recent changes in mind and be ready both to adhere to best practices, as well as adapt to whatever changes might still be coming our way.

In this article, we’ll first review the recent actions the IRS has announced and taken on virtual currencies. Then, we’ll discuss what anyone who uses crypto needs to know – whether they be business owners, self-employed workers receiving crypto payments, or traders and investors capitalizing on this past year’s good fortune – regarding taxes. Finally, we offer some steps one might take to potentially minimize their IRS bill going forward.

Cryptocurrencies in the Eyes of the IRS

As noted already, the IRS began considering all cryptocurrencies to be property starting in 2014. That definition and what investors ought to do about their own individual transactions in virtual currencies left much open to interpretation.

In short, the only answer the IRS gave regarding that classification was that anyone holding crypto for less than a year would need to consider any profits from them to be taxed as ordinary income. Those who have held for longer should consider them to be capital gains or losses and reported as such.

Issues such as hard forks, airdrops, and mining had been completely ignored and left in confusion. Finally, after some pressure from Congress in 2018, the IRS began considering these situations in more detail.

In October last year, the agency put out Revenue Ruling 2019-24. In this brief new guidance, the IRS addresses two of the more technical problems it has had with reporting of cryptocurrencies. The two situations in question are:

Hard Forks – When changes to a blockchain force a split, where the old chain continues but a new chain is created.
Airdrops – When new coins or tokens are given to addresses of another chain.

The IRS ruled that hard forks without any airdropped coins or tokens aren’t taxable events because they don’t result in any gross income. This is a change from the previous stance that all events are taxable.

However, hard forks that include airdrops of the new chain or cryptocurrency do result in gross income—or “an accession to wealth”—as a tradable good with value was created. The fair market value at the time of the airdrop is used as the owner’s basis.

Hard forks and airdrops are somewhat rare. But this ruling does indicate that IRS is looking at cryptos more seriously as potential sources of income to tax, and as such examining all of the situations that might arise for taxpaying holders. They’re also looking closely at tax calculations methodology:

If that wasn’t enough, virtual currencies made their way onto an official form this tax season. At the top of the Schedule 1 for Form 1040, Additional Income and Adjustments to Income, this question appears this year for the first time: “At any time during 2019, did you receive, sell, send, exchange, or otherwise acquire any financial interest in any virtual currency?”

No doubt, checking the wrong box would look bad in the event of an audit. And that too is another recent subject worth noting.

Last year, the IRS sent letters to 10,000 taxpayers involved in one way or another with cryptocurrencies to amend or pay penalties on unreported and underreported crypto gains.

More recently, Forbes has reported that recent moves such as the appointment of the IRS’s Criminal Investigations Division chief Eric Hylton to head up the Small Business/Self-Employed Division (which oversees virtual currencies) is proof that the IRS is “[intensifying its] hunt for crypto tax cheats.”

Despite all of this, there is still plenty of confusion about certain aspects of how cryptocurrencies are supposed to be taxed. You can read all of what the IRS has officially noted on the subject here.

Filing and Paying Taxes on Cryptos

Even though the IRS seems to be active in both its classification and enforcement of cryptocurrencies, not much in terms of actual tax rules has changed over the last year. Cryptocurrency is, after all, still considered property.

In general, cryptocurrency is treated the same as any other investment you might own or sell throughout a year. If you bought a stock for $10 in January and sold it for $15 in December, you made $5 in ordinary income. If you bought that stock in the year prior, that income would instead be considered a long-term capital gain and taxed as such. Cryptocurrency is treated the same way for tax purposes.

This is most often viewed as the IRS attempting to persuade people into thinking of cryptocurrencies as long-term investments rather than quick trades. The rules do get a tiny bit trickier, though.

If you use cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin as actual currency (receiving or giving it as payment for something), that’s considered a taxable event. For business owners who accept crypto as a payment option, as well as those that choose to use it as an actual currency rather than an investment, this can cause a headache since each transaction, no matter how small, needs to be reported on annual taxes. That’s like trying to document every can of soda or bag of chips you bought with cash in your year-end tax forms.

The way this works is all dependent on how long you held the coins or tokens. If you receive them for goods or services rendered, that’s easy – it counts as straight-up ordinary income and falls into that category for taxes. If, on the other hand, you paid someone with Bitcoins or the like, you still have work to do. You need to figure out exactly when you obtained or purchased those coins originally. If it was less than a year ago, any change in value is considered ordinary income. If it was more than 12 month ago, that’s the same as cashing out a long-term profit or loss in the eyes of the IRS and therefore gets taxed as capital gains.

This can be a pain, to be sure. But there are ways to prepare for these tax hiccups ahead of time. Signing up for a specialized app, software platform, or website can help. These in additional to or as an alternative to setting up a simple spreadsheet of your own can go a long way.

In truth, you’ll only need to keep track of purchases or dates you received your cryptocurrency and dates when you sold or spent it, along with amounts of the transactions. The gains or losses accrued in periods of less than 12 months is “other income” come tax time. Those accrued over 12-plus months are “capital gains or losses” on your tax form.

Caveats To Keep In Mind When Planning For Taxes on Cryptocurrency

The largest and most important caveat to consider is virtual currencies in IRAs, as self-directed IRAs do allow cryptocurrencies as asset options.

Cryptocurrency in an IRA makes a lot of sense, even from a tax perspective. Since the taxes on the gains and losses won’t come until retirement or when the IRA is cashed out, it is said that transactions within the IRA are tax-deferred. Trading cryptocurrencies inside, therefore, doesn’t create immediate taxable events.

The most important aspect to understand here is fees. With this being such a new subsector of the IRA world, making sure you know which fees you’ll need to pay and when is important.