8th Circuit Ruling Affects Characterization of Payments from Conservation Reserve Program:
The US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit recently handed down a decision in Morehouse v. C.I.R, (8th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014), which decided whether or not payments received under the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) should be included as income from self-employment on a taxpayer’s return.
In this case, the taxpayer inherited 1223 acres of land in 1994, located on three different properties in South Dakota (503 acres in Grant County, 320 acres in Roberts County, and 400 acres in Day County). All of the land was tillable cropland with exception of a gravel pit on the Grant County property and 129 acres on the Roberts County property that the taxpayer’s father placed under the CRP program. The taxpayer never farmed any of the land.
In 1997, the taxpayer enrolled the remaining acreage of the Roberts County property and the tillable land in Grant County in the CRP program. The primary purpose of the CRP program is to reduce soil erosion and improve soil conditions on highly erodible cropland by limiting the taxpayer’s use of the property. Therefore, by enrolling in the program, the taxpayer entered into a contractual obligation with the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) requiring him to implement conservation plans for the properties in the program. These plans required the taxpayer to establish and maintain certain types of grass or vegetative cover on the land and engage in periodic weed and pest control. As compensation for implementing the conservation plans, the taxpayer was reimbursed for a portion of his costs and was paid an “annual rental payment.”
In both 2006 and 2007, the taxpayer received CRP payments of $37,872. The taxpayer included the CRP payments on his return in both years as a rental payment received from real estate. As a result, on October 14, 2010 the IRS sent the taxpayer a notice of deficiency stating that the CRP payments should have been reported as self-employment income on a Schedule F, Profit or Loss from Farming. The taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court for review of this determination, claiming that the CRP payments were rentals from real estate under 26 U.S.C. §1402(a)(1), and therefore should be excluded from his net earnings from self-employment. However, the Tax Court sustained the service’s conclusion that the CRP payments constituted self-employment income reasoning that because the payments were proceeds from the taxpayer’s own use of the land they did not constitute rental payments.
On appeal, the primary issue centered on whether or not CRP payments should be categorized as “net earnings from self-employment.” In deciding this question, the Appeals Court first looked at types of payments that would generally be classified as self-employment income. The Court explained that self-employment income consists of the gross income derived from the taxpayer’s trade or business. Or in other words, the trade or business must give rise to the income before it can be included as self-employment income.
Contrary to the Tax Court’s opinion, the Appeals Court found that the CRP payments did not derive from the taxpayer’s activities on the land because the only reason the taxpayer engaged in any activities such as tilling and seeding on the land was because it was required by the CRP contracts. The Appeals Court further determined that because the contracts reserved a right of entry for the government onto the CRP property for purposes of inspection, that the government was “using” the land as much as if not more than the taxpayer. Therefore, the CRP payments were given to the taxpayer in consideration for this right to use and occupy the taxpayer’s property.
Next the Court looked at how similar payments to taxpayers have been categorized in the past. In doing so, the Court looked to Rev. Ruling 60-32, 1960-1 C.B. 23 (1960) concerning the CRP’s predecessor, the Soil Bank Act. In this ruling the IRS concluded that soil bank payments to people who did not operate or materially participate in a farming operation were to be viewed as rental income, not self-employment income. However, the ruling further stated that soil bank payments made to farmers were self-employment income. Although this precedent was not controlling, the Court decided that given the significant overlap in the CRP and Soil Bank programs, and because it reflects a longstanding and reasonable interpretation of the Agency’s regulations, the revenue ruling was persuasive. Therefore, the Court decided to follow the Soil Bank Program distinction between payments to farmers and non-farmers in concluding that CRP payments to the taxpayer in this case were rental income because he was not engaged in farming operations. Looking forward it appears that at least in the 8th Circuit, taxpayers who receive payments from the CRP program will be able to include the income as rental income rather than self-employment income on their tax return, if they are not operating farming activities on the land.
If you have any questions about how this ruling might affect the characterization of your CRP payments, please feel free to contact our office.