Has the IRS’s treatment of virtual currency changed?

No. The IRS continues to treat virtual currency as property for U.S. federal tax purposes. However, last year a government watchdog and this year a group of lawmakers urged the IRS to clarify its virtual currency guidance.

The IRS has described virtual currency as a “digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value.” Virtual currency is sometimes referred to as “cryptocurrency” or “digital currency.” Virtual currency does not have legal tender status in the U.S., even though many people use virtual currency. “Real” currency, such as the U.S. dollar, is defined by the Treasury Department as "the coin and paper money of the United States or of any other country designated as legal tender and circulates and is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issuance."

Virtual currency may have an equivalent value in real currency. This type of virtual currency is referred to as “convertible” virtual currency. “Bitcoin” is an example of a convertible virtual currency. Bitcoin can be digitally traded between users and can be purchased for, or exchanged into, U.S. dollars and other real or virtual currencies.

The growth in virtual currency has brought tax questions. In 2014, the IRS announced that virtual currency is treated as property for U.S. federal tax purposes.  General tax principles that apply to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency.  The IRS explained that:

  • Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by an employer on a Form W-2, and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.
  • Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable and self-employment tax rules generally apply.  Normally, payers must issue Form 1099.
  • The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.
  • A payment made using virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property. 
Since the IRS issued guidance in 2014, the agency has been largely quiet on the subject of virtual currency. The IRS did state, in court documents filed in a lawsuit this year, that less than 1,000 individual income tax returns in 2015 reported using a transaction using virtual currency.

Last year, a government watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), recommended that the IRS revisit virtual currency.  TITGA noted the growing use of virtual currency. “However, some virtual currencies are also popular because the identity of the parties involved is generally anonymous, leading to a greater possibility of their use in illegal transactions,” TIGTA cautioned.

In June, several lawmakers asked the IRS to describe the agency’s virtual currency strategy. The lawmakers also asked the agency what outreach and education it has done for stakeholders. In their letter, the lawmakers directed the IRS to reply to their questions. As of the date this article was prepared, the lawmakers have not released the agency’s response.

If you have any questions about the federal tax treatment of virtual currency, please contact our office.