The Christmas Tree Tax

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and how jolly could we be without Christmas trees on display? For some of us it’s the classic Pinus Sylvestris, or scotch pine. For others it’s the soft-needled Abies fraserie, or Fraser fir. Still more make do with the store-bought plasticus annualensis, or “Target special.” (Artificial trees can be beautiful, too!) Christmas trees are a festive symbol of holiday spirit, and most of us can’t help but smile when we see one. (Unless we’re at a department store in August.)

We’re pretty sure that taxes are the last thing you think about when you see a gaily-decorated tree. But this is a tax column you’re reading, and part of the fun is taking something you think has nothing to do with taxes, and showing how they fit behind the scenes. With that in mind, let’s look at how the IRS treats your tree’s trip from the stump to the stand.

Code section 631(a) states that, “For purposes of this subsection and subsection (b), the term ‘timber’ includes evergreen trees which are more than 6 years old at the time severed from the roots and are sold for ornamental purposes.” That makes Christmas tree farming a business and not an investment. But timber lobbyists have been busy little elves, and they’ve found some presents to leave under the growers’ trees:

  • To maximize their deductions, growers need to keep careful records. This might involve separate accounts for merchantable timber (measured in thousand board feet), young growth timber, deferred forestation, and reforestation amortization assets.
  • Unfortunately, trees planted for ornamental purposes don’t qualify for the reforestation amortization deduction. (How’s that for a lump of coal in a stocking?) Instead, growers capitalize planting costs and add them to their plantation account, then recover them as they harvest the trees for sale.
  • On the bright side, Revenue Ruling 71-228 clarifies that pruning and shearing costs are currently deductible business expenses, not capital expenditures.
  • “Occasional producers” who sell on the stump might take advantage of lower capital gains rates by establishing on-site sales procedures to qualify under Section 631(b). But beware Revenue Ruling 77-229, which held that income from “choose and cut” operations are ordinary income unless the grower makes a special election to determine gain or loss under the rules of Regulations Section 1.631-1(e)(1).

It’s all enough to make you reach for the straight bourbon instead of the eggnog!

Try thinking about it this way. The tax code itself is really just one giant Christmas tree! It starts with the trunk, branches, and needles — the sections imposing the tax and setting the rates. Then Washington tarts it up with lights, ornaments, tinsel, and candy canes — the deductions, credits, loopholes, and strategies you hang on your return to lower your bill. (Cynical scrooges might even say we have too much hanging on that tree, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Here’s wishing you and your family the happiest holiday this season, however you celebrate. We’ll be back in 2017 to make sure you pay as little tax as possible, not just during the holidays, but all season long!

J. Barry Watts, Tax Strategist and Retirement Designer. 417-865-0936

Say “No” to the Tax on Chocolates

December is a busy month for holidays, what with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all crowding calendars. But there’s a lesser-known holiday that falls on December 16 that we don’t want you to miss. It’s not Ugly Christmas Sweater Day or Free Shipping Day (although those are both fun, too). We’re talking, of course, about the obvious celebrations surrounding Chocolate Covered Anything Day. (Look it up!)

Most of us look for foods that are delicious, filling, and healthy. Chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate-covered potato chips, chocolate-covered bacon, and chocolate-covered chili peppers are all yummy and filling, and — well, as the philosopher-poet Meat Loaf taught us, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Think of Chocolate Covered Anything Day as pre-season training for the real binging that comes later in the month. (ABC News reports the average American consumes nearly 7,000 calories on Christmas Day alone.)

Just like the rest of us, tax collectors love chocolate-covered treats, too. They’re not savages! But tax collectors have been plying their trade alongside candy makers and pastry chefs, for nearly as long as the rest of us have been enjoying their treats:

  • The Aztecs, who believed their feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl had received chocolate as a gift from the gods, used cocoa beans as actual currency. We’re not sure what sort of taxes the Aztecs might have levied on themselves . . . but it had to make it a little easier to pay them in beans!
  • In 1692, France’s King Louis XIV, whose wife loved drinking chocolate, levied one of the first actual cash taxes on the delicacy.
  • In 1847, a British chocolate company called J.S. Fry & Sons produced the first modern-day chocolate bar. Shortly thereafter, Britain lowered taxes on chocolate to encourage production of the new treats.

In Finland, taxes on chocolates and other sweets will melt away on January 1, 2017. A Finnish financial parliamentary committee decided last year that the taxes violated European Union rules on treating similar products fairly and equitably.

Today’s chocolate makers are just as tempted by sweet tax breaks as the rest of us. In 2010, Kraft Foods bought British chocolatier Cadbury in a bittersweet hostile takeover for £11.5 billion ($18.9 billion). Since then, they’ve left a bad taste in the taxpaying public’s mouth by using interest payments on the debt they used to buy the company to avoid paying tax on hundreds of millions of pounds of profits. Even worse, they changed the recipe for Cadbury creme eggs (!) and started selling them in packages of five instead of six (!!).

There’s nothing sweet about paying taxes you don’t have to pay. That goes for your chocolates, your income, your investments, and anything else. And we’re always looking for ways to help accomplish that goal. So think about us while you’re dipping a twinkie into chocolate sauce, and call us with your questions!

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