Citibank caused quite a stir a week ago when they started sending out 1099s to folks who had received large quantities of bonus miles for opening accounts. Needless to say, there was quite the uproar, with various opinions being shared, ranging from Congress to bloggers. Well, a week has passed and the IRS have finally clarified its position. Sortof. Things are still not incredibly clear, though it is readily apparent that the IRS sees some miles as taxable and not at a particularly favorable rate.
Michelle Elridge, an IRS spokeswoman is quoted in that LA Times column as offering up three very specific bits of information about points and their taxability:
When frequent-flier miles are provided as a premium for opening a financial account, it can be a taxable situation subject to reporting under current law.
This part is pretty clear, though not necessarily what most folks want to hear. It suggests that Citi was correct to be sending out the 1099s and reporting the tax liability. The particularly interesting bit is the use of the term "financial account." Not only would this apply to bank accounts, but it could also be reasonably interpreted to apply to credit card and investment accounts as well. After all, those are financial accounts and the points are provided as a premium for opening the account. Not particularly good news for folks who are accustomed to churning CCs and Fidelity/Ameritrade accounts for the huge sign-up bonuses.
As for taxing "regular" levels of mileage earning on CC spend or the actual flying, that’s still safe. The IRS continues to see that as a rebate and not income, so no tax liability there.
A common analogy is buying a $500 television at a retail store and receiving a $50 manufacturer’s rebate. It’s not income, just a deemed reduction of the cost of the television.
The most complicated (and oft-debated) part of the debate might be the valuation of the miles. Many insist that the liability should be the fraction of a cent that the banks pay to buy the points from the airlines. The banks disagree, reporting the value at the full retail price as reported by the airlines. And the IRS is somewhere in the middle.
Under the income tax law the amount of income to the taxpayer is the value of the property received, not the cost that the business paid to acquire the property.
The real gray area there is "value of the property received" which is, by the nature of the property in this case, variable. And it could even be argued that the recipient actually never receives property since the T&Cs of the programs say that the points are the property of the programs. There are others who have explained how to dispute the value reported on the 1099s.
Whatever the approach consumers take, it is clear that the IRS sees these sign-up bonuses as a very different beast from the regular spend earning. And the use of the term "financial account" is very open-ended. The CC churn boondoggle may be coming to an end sooner than we all hoped.