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Sure As Death, There’s Taxes: digital assets and the IRS, a field guide

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

TL;DR: Unravel the mysteries of crypto taxation with us as we journey into the world of digital assets. Just like any other property, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have tax implications that kick in when you sell or trade them, regardless of whether the transaction is in cash, other crypto, or even magic beans. Understanding the IRS' perspective on these unique assets, how to navigate their tax forms, and how to smartly manage crypto transactions—particularly around cost basis—can help you turn potential tax headaches into savvy financial strategies. Join us to demystify the government's approach and uncover potential tax-saving opportunities in the seemingly daunting crypto landscape.

Crypto - a new, old problem

Ever since the unknown creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, stepped onto the scene, three big questions have been bouncing around in the heads of world leaders. These questions are not just about Bitcoin, but about the whole world of cryptocurrencies:

1. What is Crypto?

2. How can we keep tabs on it?

And the biggest question of them all,

3. How do we tax it?

Cryptocurrencies can be a bit mysterious, causing a lot of head-scratching over how they—and the profits we make from them—should be taxed. When does the taxman come calling? In what currency should the tax be paid? Who gets to tax it when it's a worldwide, decentralized, and often anonymous money system? Isn’t all tax really just theft?! (We see you, Libertarians).

Governments worldwide are wrestling with how to fit their old, rigid tax rules to this new and changeable crypto world. It's like they've been dealing with square blocks and square holes for years, and suddenly they have to handle a block made of moving gas—this is Web3.

So, let's get to the point. We're going to look at the best ways to handle crypto taxes in the U.S. and try to make sense of how Uncle Sam deals with cryptocurrencies. For our readers outside of the U.S., we hope you find this interesting, but it probably won’t be of much help to you—sorry about that!

Crypto tax in the US-of-A

Recently, the IRS has shifted its focus to crypto assets, attempting to recoup years of lost oversight that reportedly cost the U.S. treasury a whopping $50 billion per year in missed revenue (so says a study by Barclays Bank). Over the last few years, the IRS has been busy releasing advice on everything from categorizing assets to refreshing existing tax forms to accommodate this new digital landscape.

The personal income tax return (1040) that Americans file now checks if you've handled digital assets during the tax year. Did you buy, sell, or swap a digital asset, or gain a financial interest in one? The IRS has gone to some lengths to clarify what they view as "digital assets.”

Per the IRS, Digital Assets are anything of value that's represented digitally and secured on a cryptographic ledger or similar tech. So, that includes non-fungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrencies, stablecoins, and the like. If an asset fits the digital asset profile, it's treated as such for federal income tax purposes.

Now, if you declare on your 1040 form that you've dealt with digital assets within a tax year, the IRS will expect to see a Form 8949. This form keeps track of your capital gains and losses, which happen when you sell something for more or less than you bought it for. For example, if you buy Ethereum today at $18,000 and sell it next year for $18,100, you've made a capital gain of $100, and the IRS will be more than ready to party with you. But, remember, not filing this form after making or losing money could lead to penalties for underreported taxes.

IRS says: crypto = property

When it comes to taxing crypto assets, owners should view them as property, not cash. The IRS treats them the same as any other property. That means, any time you sell, trade, or otherwise dispose of cryptocurrency with a resulting gain, you owe taxes. Whether you're trading for cash, other crypto, or, say, a pile of magic beans, if there's value in the transaction, you owe tax on any gain.

Similar to real estate and other property assets, you don't pay tax until the asset is sold or exchanged. The sale or swap is what potentially triggers the tax—like when you specifically sell Ethereum. And if there's a loss, you can deduct it, just like any other asset loss.

Side Note: One of the great things about digital assets, and something the IRS should be thrilled about, is that crypto's immediate-settlement feature makes it very easy to pinpoint the tax event. Unlike traditional assets with a trade date and a separate settlement date, all recorded by centralized third party systems (which can make mistakes), crypto transactions are straightforward to conduct and investigate. So, there should be fewer disputes about when or how a specific tax event happened.

Like most property transactions, when you earn income on the sale or exchange of crypto assets, the tax amount depends on your income. As with other assets, if you own the crypto for less than a year, you pay short-term gain tax at your regular income tax rate. If you own it for more than a year, you pay long-term gains taxes, which can be a lot lower than income tax rates for high earners.

What's even better is that tax planning for crypto is pretty much the same as for other assets; you can treat your bitcoin like you treat your Tesla shares. The same investment options available to defer taxes on individually owned property also apply to crypto. For example, if you have an IRA, you can invest pre-tax money in crypto and won't be taxed on any capital gains until you finally make withdrawals in retirement. Typical events that create a tax obligation for crypto include selling cryptocurrency for a fiat currency (like the USD), using cryptocurrency to buy goods & services, or trading one cryptocurrency for another.

Calculating cost basis

Calculating tax owed on a sale or exchange of a crypto asset hinges on the cost basis of the asset—that's the price you bought the crypto for. Let's go back to our earlier example: if you snagged some ETH for $18,000, that's your cost basis. Sell it for $28,000 a few years later, and you've got a $10,000 gain (good for you). This gain could be taxed at 15% or 20%, based on current laws and your income level, so it's important to understand whether capital gains are short term (under 1 year) or long term (over one year) when doing your tax return.

Things get a bit more complicated when investors buy the same type of crypto at different times and prices, because this can create different cost bases for the crypto you bought at different times. Luckily, most modern broker systems will do this math for you, but if you own crypto directly through a digital wallet, you are most likely going to have to figure out the average cost basis yourself.

Keeping track of crypto transactions and their cost bases can be tough, but it is definitely worth the effort. That's because the IRS lets you pick which crypto units are considered sold or exchanged. If you've bought the same crypto coins at various times and prices, you can choose which ones are considered sold or swapped, "if you can specifically identify which unit or units of virtual currency are involved in the transaction and substantiate your basis in those units." If you're aiming to postpone a bigger gain, and thus the tax, you'd pick the coins bought at a higher cost basis to sell rather than a similar asset bought at a lower cost. Timing becomes key as you might want to balance losses with gains. If all of that sounds like too much work, hire an accountant!

While crypto assets may have a bit more uncertainty and unpredictability than other assets, the government's tax approach to these assets does not. The tax treatment of crypto assets is similar to other property assets, and with careful management, you can realize the potential for tax savings just like you can with other—more traditional—investments.


Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide generalized information, and is not meant to substitute for professional advice. The contents of this article should not be taken as tax advice. Each individual's tax situation is unique and may vary from the scenarios discussed in this article. Always consult with a certified tax professional or the IRS for any legal tax advice.

Please note that we cannot guarantee the absolute accuracy of all the information provided, as tax laws frequently change and may have been updated since the article was published. Always do your own research or consult with a professional.

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