A recent Tax Court decision was reported that may be of interest to individuals potentially dealing with tax litigation. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Practitioner, as a litigator, works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.
Wharton M.B.A. Expenses Deducible as Unreimbursed Employee Expenses
The Tax Court held that a taxpayer could deduct the cost of a Wharton M.B.A. degree as an unreimbursed employee expense because his studies improved on preexisting skills and did not, as the IRS argued, qualify him for a new trade or business. Thus, the taxpayer could deduct the education expenses as miscellaneous itemized deductions on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions, to the extent the expenses exceeded 2 percent of his adjusted gross income. Long v. Comm’r, T.C. Summary 2016-88.
From March 2005 to May 2011, Tao Long worked for Broadcom Corp., a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley that makes computer chips. He started as a design engineer and was promoted to the positions of product marketing manager, senior product marketing manager, and product line manager. While he was working at Broadcom, Long passed levels I, II, and III of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute exam. At Broadcom, Long’s responsibilities in the product marketing department included market, product, and trend analysis, creating proposals about products for upper management that included financial analysis, and managing teams that developed and introduced products to the market.
In May 2010, Long enrolled in the M.B.A. program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton M.B.A. program). He graduated with honors in April 2012. His coursework for the program was finance and management-related; he took courses such as financial accounting, new product management, and corporate valuation.
Broadcom had an educational assistance policy providing financial reimbursement, up to $5,250 per employee per calendar year, for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. To be eligible for reimbursement an employee had to be active (not on an unpaid leave of absence), working full time, and have preapproval of each course. Employees had to request the reimbursement within 60 days after the completion of the course. An employee who terminated his employment within one year of receiving reimbursement was required to repay the reimbursement in full at the time of termination.
In May 2011, Long resigned from Broadcom and, in June 2011, Long began a full-time summer internship in the investment division of Barclays Capital, an investment bank. He worked for Barclays Capital from June through August 2011. Long did not work again until January 2012 when he began working at Connective Capital Management, LLC (Connective Capital), as a senior research analyst in nearby Palo Alto, California. The job posting under which Long applied stated that the senior research analyst would “lead research activities in technology and industrial sectors, with responsibility for all aspects including idea generation, technology/product review, business model and competitive analysis, primary research utilizing Connective’s industry network, valuation modeling, and risk management.” Requirements listed for the senior investment analyst position included technology-related industry experience, a financial and/or engineering background, and “[t]echnical undergraduate and MBA from top university preferred.”
Deductions Taken for Wharton M.B.A. Costs on 2010 and 2011 Tax Returns
Long reported salary income of $527,860 and $117,888 for 2010 and 2011, respectively. He claimed deductions for tuition expenses for attending the Wharton M.B.A. program. Long sought to deduct $86,100 and $84,450 for amounts paid to Wharton for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and room and board for tax years 2010 and 2011, respectively. While Long initially tried to tie the Wharton M.B.A. expenses to a real estate activity in which he was engaged, he subsequently sought to deduct the costs as unreimbursed employee expenses.
Education Expenses as Unreimbursed Employee Expenses
Generally, Code Sec. 162(a) allows a deduction for ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred in carrying on any trade or business. Under Reg. Sec. 1.162-5(a), an individual’s expenditures for education are deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses if the education maintains or improves skills required in his employment or other trade or business. Generally, the performance of services as an employee constitutes a trade or business. A taxpayer may deduct unreimbursed employee expenses only as miscellaneous itemized
deductions on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions, and then only to the extent such expenses exceed 2 percent of the individual’s adjusted gross income. Itemized deductions may be limited under the overall limitations on itemized deductions under Code Sec. 68 and may have an alternative minimum tax implication under Code Sec. 56(b)(1)(A)(i).
Under Reg. Sec. 1.162-5(b)(2) and (3), no deduction for the following education expenses are allowed:
(1) those incurred to meet the minimum educational requirement for qualification in a taxpayer’s trade or business; and
(2) those which qualify a taxpayer for a new trade or business.
The IRS did not question whether Long’s M.B.A. degree was incurred to meet the minimum educational requirement of his trade or business. Instead, the IRS argued that the Wharton M.B.A. qualified Long for a new trade or business because it qualified him for the senior research analyst position with Connective Capital. The IRS highlighted the fact that the Connective Capital job description said that someone with an M.B.A. was preferred as evidence that the M.B.A. qualified Long for a new trade or business.
Tax Court’s Analysis
The Tax Court began its analysis by observing that an education that merely refines a taxpayer’s existing skills does not qualify him for a new trade or business. Citing its decisions in Allemeier v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2005-207, and Sherman v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 1977-301, the court noted that a taxpayer may deduct the cost of an M.B.A. degree as an unreimbursed employee expense if the taxpayer’s studies improve on preexisting skills, such as management skills. A taxpayer is in the same trade or business, the court said, if he is still in the same general field and still using the same skills; for example, moving from one position to another that also uses management, administrative, and planning skills.
The court was satisfied that Long was qualified in the same trade or business both before and after the M.B.A. program. He was qualified in financial analysis, the court said, through his studies and personal investment experience before enrolling in the M.B.A. program in May 2010. The court also noted that Long had passed all three levels of the CFA exam by June 2009, spending an estimated 900 hours learning about investment tools and portfolio management to prepare for the exam. Long also acquired managerial and financial analysis skills through his employment and continued to develop those skills during the years in issue, the court said. Long developed managerial skills in his role at Broadcom by managing teams that would bring a product to market. The court concluded that Long’s management and finance courses in the Wharton M.B.A. program did not qualify him for a new trade or business, but rather developed skills he was already using in his current trade or business.
With respect to Connective Capital’s job description saying that an M.B.A. was preferred, the court said this was a mere preference, and Long had other qualifications listed in the job description, including personal and professional investment experience and a technical undergraduate degree.
With respect to Long’s unemployment for four months in 2011, the court said that it was clear that he intended to find another position and continue his professional career. Those four months, the court noted, were a transition period during which Long was actively seeking employment while pursuing a defined graduate degree program. As a result, the court concluded that Long was still carrying on his trade or business during this time.
The court then considered whether Long could deduct his educational expenses as an unreimbursed employee expense. In order to deduct employee expenses, the court noted that a taxpayer must not have received reimbursement or been eligible to receive reimbursement. The court observed that Long met the requirements of Broadcom’s educational assistance policy and thus may have been eligible for reimbursement of up to $5,250 per year for his Wharton M.B.A. expenses. However, the court said, since Long terminated his employment in May 2011, less than a year from the periods in which he was eligible for reimbursement, he would have had to immediately repay any reimbursement the day he resigned. Thus, the Tax Court concluded that Long’s decision to not seek reimbursement from Broadcom for his education expenses incurred during January 2010 through June 2011 was reasonable.
The court held that Long was entitled to deduct the costs of his Wharton M.B.A. program for 2010 and 2011 as unreimbursed employee expenses on Schedule A, subject to the applicable limitations on such expenses.