How Bitcoin Is Taxed

The IRS says Bitcoin is property and can be subject to capital gains tax

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The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled that Bitcoin and other "convertible virtual currencies" are treated as property, not as currency. There are therefore tax consequences whenever Bitcoin is bought, sold, or traded.

This might sound like a minor distinction, but it's not. It determines how bitcoins are taxed, the information you'll need to make sure your taxes are calculated correctly, and what tax planning techniques you can use to try to minimize your taxes on Bitcoin transactions.

The IRS and Virtual Currency

The IRS has indicated that virtual currency is that which doesn't have status as legal tender in any jurisdiction. It's referred to as "convertible" virtual currency if it has an equivalent value in real currency, or if it ever serves in place of real currency. It can be exchanged into another currency, either real or virtual, and it can be digitally traded.

When Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Bitcoin?

The IRS further indicates that Bitcoin is treated as property and is subject to general tax principles. You must include in your gross income the fair market value of the currency in U.S. dollars if you're paid in bitcoins for goods or services. Transactions using virtual currency should be reported in U.S. dollars.

The fair market value of bitcoins can be established by converting them into U.S. dollars at the current exchange rate at the time they're received.

You'll also have a capital gain or a capital loss if you dispose of Bitcoin because it's considered property for tax purposes. A gain represents income, and income is taxable even if you're paid in virtual currency. 

"Every Bitcoin transaction is taxable," writes Tyson Cross, a tax attorney who specializes in virtual currencies. "Bitcoin users will have to calculate their gain or loss every time they purchase goods or services with Bitcoin."

As with other types of property, you first acquire it, often by exchanging cash for the asset. You then own the property for a period of time and you might eventually sell, give away, trade, or otherwise dispose of it. Taxes come due at this point.

Four things happen when property is disposed of:

  • Income is realized from any gain.
  • Gain is measured by the change in the dollar value between the cost basis or purchase price and the gross proceeds received from the disposition or the selling price.
  • The tax rate that applies depends on whether the property was held for one year or less (a short-term gain) or for more than a year (a long-term gain). 
  • Disposition of property is reported on your tax return using Schedule D and Form 8949 or Form 4797. These forms require that you "show your math" when you're calculating a gain or loss. You'll do your calculations right on the form, per instructions.

An Example of Capital Gains Tax

Let's assume that you purchased Bitcoin for $30,000. You then sell it for $50,000, so you have a $20,000 capital gain. This would be a short-term gain if you held the Bitcoin for a year or less, so it's taxed as ordinary income according to your tax bracket. It's a long-term gain taxed at a rate of either 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your overall income, if you owned the Bitcoin for longer than a year. 

All your gains would be short-term and you would report them on Form 4797 if you elect market-to-market trading. Any Bitcoin-related expenses would be deductible on Schedule C.

The Net Investment Income Tax

You might also find that you're subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax. This tax has applied to investment income since 2013. It comes due if you're a single taxpayer and your overall modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) from all sources is more than $200,000 on the year.

The threshold increases to $250,000 for married taxpayers who file jointly and qualifying widow(ers), and it drops to just $125,000 for married taxpayers who file separate returns. This additional 3.8% tax rate applies only to investment income, not wages or most self-employment income.

How to Pay Taxes on Bitcoin

Establish a record-keeping system for all your transactions and keep track of when you acquire and when you dispose of Bitcoin. Identify your cost basis method and your exchange rate. Then record the dispositions of Bitcoin on Schedule D and Form 8949.

Keeping detailed records of transactions in virtual currency ensures that income is measured accurately.

Normal capital gains strategies apply: offset gains with losses, time your dispositions to qualify for long-term treatment, harvest your losses, and harvest your gains. A tax professional can help you with these concepts. The income is reportable on your personal tax return, normally due April 15 of each year unless you request a six-month extension from the IRS.

© The Balance 2018

What Happens If You Don't Pay Taxes?

Bitcoin is no different from other sources of taxable income if you shrug your shoulders at the IRS and don't pay, even if you didn't know you were supposed to pay taxes.

First, the IRS will most likely know about your activities, or at least it can check and confirm them. All Bitcoin transactions are permanently stored in the Bitcoin network, and the network is public.

You'll no doubt receive a notice from the IRS if you neglect to pay taxes on this income. You'll be charged interest at the rate of 0.5% on the amount of tax you owe, up to a cap of 25% of the unpaid balance. You'll also be penalized at the rate of 5% a month as of 2020.

The IRS additionally has numerous enforcement options for collection, from liens against your property to levies on your income and bank accounts.

Tax Tools for Bitcoin

Casual Bitcoin users might want to consider using a reputable Bitcoin wallet provider that has implemented risk mitigation tools to make buying, trading, and selling Bitcoin more secure and user-friendly. Apart from tax considerations, investors should take a look at wallet providers or registered investment vehicles with the kind of security features that one might expect from a banking institution.

These tools might also come in handy when you're handling transactions and planning for taxes. 

BitcoinTaxes, which is web-based software for importing data and calculating gains/losses, can be helpful as well. 

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Virtual Currencies." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Internal Revenue Bulletin: 2014-16." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  3. Cross Law Group PC. "Cryptocurrency Tax Help." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  4. IRS. "Frequently Asked Questions on Virtual Currency Transactions." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  5. IRS. "Topic No. 409 Capital Gains and Losses." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  6. IRS. "Find Out If Net Investment Income Tax Applies to You." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  7. Bitcoin.org. "Understanding Bitcoin Traceability." Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

  8. North Carolina Consumers Council. "What Will Really Happen if You Don't Pay or Forget About Your Federal Income Taxes in 2020?" Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.