Crowdfunding — or funding a project through the online contributions of many different backers — is becoming increasingly popular. If you are considering raising crowdfunding revenue or contributing to a crowdfunding campaign, you will need to address the many tax issues that can arise.
While crowdfunding was initially used by artists and others to raise money for projects that were unlikely to turn a profit, others have begun to see crowdfunding as an alternative to venture capital. Depending on the project, those who contribute may receive nothing of value, a reward of nominal value (such as a T-shirt or tickets to an event), or perhaps even an ownership/equity interest in the enterprise.
Is It Income?
In an “information letter” released in 2016,1 the IRS stated that crowdfunding revenues will generally be treated as income unless they are:
- Loans that must be repaid
- Capital contributed to an entity in exchange for an equity interest in the entity
- Gifts made out of detached generosity without any “quid pro quo”
The IRS noted that the facts and circumstances of each case will determine how the revenue is to be characterized and added that “crowdfunding revenues must generally be included in income to the extent they are for services rendered or are gains from the sale of property.”
Frequently, the IRS learns of the activity because crowdfunding entrepreneurs have used a third-party payment network to process the contributions. Where transactions during the year exceed a specific threshold — gross payments in excess of $20,000 and more than 200 transactions — that third party is required to send Form 1099-K (Payment Card and Third-Party Network Transactions) to the recipient and the IRS. Payments that do not meet the threshold are still potentially taxable.
If It’s Income
“Ordinary and necessary” business expenses are generally tax deductible, but deductions for expenses are limited if the IRS deems the activity a hobby rather than a trade or business. Generally, the IRS applies a “facts and circumstances” test to determine if you have a profit-making motive, which is necessary for a trade or business.
Favorable deduction rules may be available for certain types of expenses incurred in starting a new business. If eligible, the business may elect to expense up to $5,000 of those costs (subject to phaseout) in the year the business becomes active, with the remainder of the start-up expenditures deducted ratably over a 180-month period.
Campaign contributors should not assume that their gifts qualify as tax-deductible charitable contributions. Tax-deductible contributions must meet certain requirements, including that they be made to a qualified charitable organization. If gifts are made to an individual or nonqualified organization, you will generally need to file a gift tax return for gifts to any one recipient that exceed the gift tax annual exclusion ($15,000 for 2020).
These are just some of the potential tax issues that may arise. Consult your tax advisor regarding your specific situation.