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June 14, 2018 The Tax Lawyer

Proposing a Single, Simpler Test for Cash Equivalency

Vol. 71, No. 3 - Spring 2018

Fred B. Brown

    The cash method of accounting is a popular tax accounting method that is used by most individuals and many small business entities. Under the cash method, generally taxpayers include income items that are received in the form of cash, checks, and property, in the year in which they are received. Under the cash equivalency doctrine, a promise to pay an amount in the future, even though it is a property right, generally will be included upon receipt only if the promise to pay constitutes a cash equivalent. An example of the application of the cash equivalency doctrine is where a lessee gives her own promissory note to a cash method lessor for rent that is owed. Unless the promissory note is a cash equivalent, the lessor would not include income on the receipt of the note but instead when the note is paid.

    Whether an obligation is a cash equivalent is generally determined based on common law standards developed by the courts with some assistance from the Service. As a consequence, the current approach to cash equivalency suffers from the lack of a uniform standard. There is also uncertainty in applying the particular tests, given the fact-intensive, imprecise inquiry that is required. In addition, the current standards for cash equivalency may also present liquidity difficulties for taxpayers.

    To address these problems, this Article proposes a single test for determining whether an obligation calling for future payments is a cash equivalent. The proposed test would generally define a cash equivalent as an obligation that is readily tradable in an established securities market. By avoiding the aforementioned problems, the proposed test would promote the simplicity and liquidity policies that underlie the cash method of accounting. The proposed test would also create consistency with the results under the installment method of reporting when a taxpayer receives a deferred-payment obligation on the sale of property. To prevent possible abuses, the article also considers the adoption of certain measures that apply in connection with the installment method.

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