The IRS recently issued an important ruling on the taxability of cryptocurrency staking rewards, determining that staking rewards are essentially “income” and, therefore, taxable upon receipt and not deferrable until sale or swapping. Below, we will look at the ruling in more detail and what it means for taxpayers. But first, let us revisit the concept of cryptocurrency staking as a refresher.
Crypto Staking 101: What Is Staking?
Staking, at its most basic form, is a way for holders of cryptocurrencies to earn rewards or passive income on their digital assets without needing to sell.
One way to think of staking is like a high-yield savings account. When you stake digital assets, you deposit and lock up your coins. This helps run and maintain security on different blockchains (depending on the asset staked). In return, you typically receive more of the digital asset staked.
Rates of return on digital asset staking can be lucrative; however, staking is not without risks.
Staking risks include:
The inherent volatility of cryptocurrencies, where the rewards earned can be less than the change in the underlying digital asset price (causing an overall loss).
Minimum lock-up periods, where staked assets cannot be unstaked and sold or swapped and therefore are illiquid for a period.
Counterparty risk if operating as part of a staking pool, where rewards can be negated as a bad actor and therefore never paid out.
The staking pool or underlying digital asset can be hacked, leading to a loss of funds (remember, there is such a thing as FDIC insurance to protect depositors in the cryptocurrency realm).
Taxability of Staking Rewards
The tax treatment of buying and selling cryptocurrencies is clear. In IRS Notice 2014-21, the government declares that crypto trades should be treated as property, resulting in capital gains treatment like other property bought and sold. Staking, however, is different than trading.
To clarify, given the vague mechanisms of crypto staking, the IRS recently issued a ruling declaring that crypto staking rewards need to be included when received in a taxpayer’s gross income. This ruling formalizes the position taken by the IRS in the Jarrett case.
The argument in the Jarrett case was that the coins received as staking rewards are new property that was created and not the same as income, interest, etc. Essentially, this means the staking rewards are zero-basis assets that would be taxed when sold and not upon receipt. They made the argument that staking rewards were like the products of a baker, where each new cake, although from the same recipe, is a newly created product/asset and, therefore, taxable upon sale.
The court determined that staking rewards, due to their proof-of-stake creation mechanism, are not a new asset, but compensation for helping to maintain and provide validation of the underlying blockchain, with the staked assets used as collateral.
As a result, staking rewards are income when “received.” The taxable amount is the fair market value of the coins when the taxpayer receives the staking reward in an “unlocked” manner. In other words, once the taxpayer controls the staking rewards, the taxpayer is capable (regardless of exercising this capability) of selling them.