In brief, if you use rewards points to purchase other cash equivalents rather than products or services, the value of the rewards points is taxable.
The Tax Court recently ruled that rewards dollars that a married couple earned by using their American Express credit cards to purchase debit cards and money orders—but not to purchase gift cards—were included in the taxpayers’ income. The court stated that its holdings were based on the unique circumstances of the case.
During the tax years at issue, each taxpayer had an American Express credit card that was part of a rewards program that paid reward dollars for eligible purchases made on their cards which they could redeem as credits on their card balances (statement credits). To generate as many reward dollars as possible, the taxpayers used their American Express credit cards to buy as many Visa gift cards as they could from local grocery stores and pharmacies. They used the gift cards to purchase money orders, and deposited the money orders into their bank accounts. The husband occasionally purchased money orders with one of the American Express cards.
The taxpayers also occasionally paid their American Express bills through a money transfer company. Using this method, they paid the American Express bill with a reloadable debit card, and the money transfer company would transmit the payment to American Express electronically. The taxpayers used their American Express cards to purchase reloadable debit cards that they used to pay their American Express bills, and the purchase of debit cards and reloads also generated reward dollars.
All of the taxpayers’ charges of more than a $400 single transaction with the American Express cards were for gift cards, reloadable debit cards or money orders. On their joint tax returns, the taxpayers did not report any income from the rewards program.
The IRS determined that the reward dollars generated ordinary income to the taxpayers. When a payment is made by a seller to a customer as an inducement to purchase property, the payment generally does not constitute income but instead is treated as a purchase price adjustment to the basis of the property. The IRS argued that the taxpayers did not purchase goods or property, but instead purchased cash equivalents—gift cards, reloads for debit cards, and money orders—to which no basis adjustment could apply. As a result, the reward dollars paid as statement credits for the charges relating to cash equivalents were an accession to wealth.
Rebate Rule & Cash Equivalency Doctrine
The Tax Court observed that the taxpayers’ aggressive efforts to generate reward dollars created a dilemma for the IRS, largely due to the vagueness of IRS credit card reward policy. Under the rebate rule, a purchase incentive, such as credit card rewards or points, is not treated as income but as a reduction of the purchase price of what is purchased with the rewards or points. The court observed that the gift cards were quickly converted to assets that could be deposited into the taxpayers’ bank accounts to pay their American Express bills. According to the court, to avoid offending its long-standing policy that card rewards are not taxable, the IRS sought to apply the cash equivalence concept, but that concept was not a good fit in this case.
The court ruled that the reward dollars associated with the gift card purchases were not properly included in income. The reward dollars taxpayers received were not notes, but instead were commitments by American Express to allow taxpayer credits against their card balances. The court found that American Express offered the rewards program as an inducement for card holders to use their American Express cards.
However, the court upheld the inclusion in income of the related reward dollars for the direct purchases of money orders and the cash infusions to the reloadable debit cards. The court observed that the money orders purchased with the American Express cards, and the infusion of cash into the reloadable debit cards, were difficult to reconcile with the IRS credit card reward policy. Unlike the gift cards, which had product characteristics, the court stated that no product or service was obtained in these uses of the American Express cards other than cash transfers.
As the court noted, the money orders were not properly treated as a product subject to a price adjustment because they were eligible for deposit into taxpayers’ bank account from acquisition. The court similarly found that the cash infusions to the reloadable debit cards also were not product purchases. The reloadable debit cards were used for transfers by the money transfer company, which the court stated were arguably services, but the reward dollars were issued for the cash infusions, not the transfer fees.
Finally, the court stated that its holdings were not based on the application of the cash equivalence doctrine, but instead on the incompatibility of the direct money order purchases and the debit card reloads with the IRS policy excluding credit card rewards for product and service purchases from income.