How Not to Do a Reverse Morris Trust Deal

Morris Trust transactions are a popular means of divesting unwanted businesses on a tax-free basis. However, you must execute the transaction in a specified manner. If you don't, two levels of taxes will ensue.

Does it make a difference, for taxes purposes, if the steps taken to complete a so-called reverse Morris Trust transaction are done out of sequence? A recent technical advice memorandum (TAM) from the Internal Revenue Service explains the potential problems, and why the order of the steps matters. In the example provided by the IRS, several companies are involved in a transaction that leads to a taxable event.

To set the stage, this is what we know about the companies:
• Delta Corp. owned all of the stock of two other companies, Tau Inc. and Center Inc.
• On or about October 28, 1981, Tau merged with SubOne Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of FirstCorp.

In the merger, FirstCorp issued 1,120,763 of its shares, with 1,011,084 issued directly to Delta’s shareholders. (This was done because Delta’s shareholders had responded to a tender offer in which the stock of FirstCorp was offered by Delta to its shareholders in exchange for their Delta stock.) In addition, the remainder of the FirstCorp stock — 109,679 shares — was issued to Delta, and was promptly redeemed by FirstCorp for cash.

The pieces of the transaction added up to a reverse Morris Trust deal; that is, the transaction encompassed all the steps of a reverse Morris Trust except that the steps occurred “out of sequence.” Indeed, the merger preceded, rather than followed, the distribution of stock to the “distributing company’s” shareholders. In this case, the distributing company was Delta.

The question posed to the IRS’s national office was whether the transaction should be “recharacterized” as a non-pro-rata exchange by the tendering Delta shareholders. If the transaction can be recharacterized, neither the distribution of the Tau stock nor the second-step exchange of Tau stock for FirstCorp stock would be taxable when looked at through the lens of Sections 355 and 368 of the tax code.

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However, the national office ruled that the transaction should not be recharacterized. Accordingly, both Delta and the tendering Delta shareholders were taxed with respect to the distribution by Delta of its FirstCorp stock to its shareholders in exchange for their Delta stock. (See LTR 8821001, October 20, 1987.) Here’s why.

The parties structured the transaction as a merger of Tau into SubOne, specifically as an exchange for FirstCorp common stock followed by a non-pro-rata exchange of FirstCorp common stock to any tendering Delta shareholders. If the form is followed, the distribution of FirstCorp stock to the Delta shareholders fails to meet the requirements of Section 355, the rule that allows corporations to make tax-free distributions of stock to their shareholders.

The reason the transaction fails is because in a Section 355 transaction, the distributing corporation must dole out at least an amount of stock in the controlled corporation that constitutes “control.” (For this purpose, control means the ownership of stock possessing at least 80% of the total combined voting power of all classes entitled to vote and at least 80% of the total number of shares of each class, if any, of the nonvoting stock.) In this case, Delta distributed only 15.07% of the FirstCorp voting stock.


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