Crytpocurrency Hard Fork Explained

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Cryptocurrency Hard Fork

The IRS recently came out with Rev. Rul. 2019-24, which helps explain the following questions:

Does a taxpayer have gross income under § 61 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) as a result of a hard fork of a cryptocurrency the taxpayer owns if the taxpayer does not receive units of a new cryptocurrency?

Does a taxpayer have gross income under § 61 as a result of an airdrop of a new cryptocurrency following a hard fork if the taxpayer receives units of new cryptocurrency?

Hard Fork and Airdrop Explained

A hard fork is unique to distributed ledger technology and occurs when a cryptocurrency on a distributed ledger undergoes a protocol change resulting in a permanent diversion from the legacy or existing distributed ledger. A hard fork may result in the creation of a new cryptocurrency on a new distributed ledger in addition to the legacy cryptocurrency on the legacy distributed ledger. Following a hard fork, transactions involving the new cryptocurrency are recorded on the new distributed ledger and transactions involving the legacy cryptocurrency continue to be recorded on the legacy distributed ledger.

An airdrop is a means of distributing units of a cryptocurrency to the distributed ledger addresses of multiple taxpayers. A hard fork followed by an airdrop results in the distribution of units of the new cryptocurrency to addresses containing the legacy cryptocurrency. However, a hard fork is not always followed by an airdrop.

Cryptocurrency from an airdrop generally is received on the date and at the time it is recorded on the distributed ledger. However, a taxpayer may constructively receive cryptocurrency prior to the airdrop being recorded on the distributed ledger. A taxpayer does not have receipt of cryptocurrency when the airdrop is recorded on the distributed ledger if the taxpayer is not able to exercise dominion and control over the cryptocurrency.

For example, a taxpayer does not have dominion and control if the address to which the cryptocurrency is airdropped is contained in a wallet managed through a cryptocurrency exchange and the cryptocurrency exchange does not support the newly-created cryptocurrency such that the airdropped cryptocurrency is not immediately credited to the taxpayer’s account at the cryptocurrency exchange. If the taxpayer later acquires the ability to transfer, sell, exchange, or otherwise dispose of the cryptocurrency, the taxpayer is treated as receiving the cryptocurrency at that time.


Hard Fork Example

Situation 1: A holds 50 units of Crypto M, a cryptocurrency.

On Date 1, the distributed ledger for Crypto M experiences a hard fork, resulting in the creation of Crypto N. Crypto N is not airdropped or otherwise transferred to  account owned or controlled by A.

Situation 2: B holds 50 units of Crypto R, a cryptocurrency.

On Date 2, the distributed ledger for Crypto R experiences a hard fork, resulting in the creation of Crypto S. On that date, 25 units of Crypto S are airdropped to B’s distributed ledger address and B has the ability to dispose of Crypto S immediately following the airdrop. B now holds 50 units of Crypto R and 25 units of Crypto S.

The airdrop of Crypto S is recorded on the distributed ledger on Date 2 at Time 1 and, at that date and time, the fair market value of B’s 25 units of Crypto S is $50. B receives the Crypto S solely because B owns Crypto R at the time of the hard fork. After the airdrop, transactions involving Crypto S are recorded on the new distributed ledger and transactions involving Crypto R continue to be recorded on the legacy distributed ledger.

Law and Further Analysis


Section 61(a)(3) provides that, except as otherwise provided by law, gross income means all income from whatever source derived, including gains from dealings in property. Under § 61, all gains or undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, over which a taxpayer has complete dominion, are included in gross income. In general, income is ordinary unless it is gain from the sale or exchange of a capital asset or a special rule applies. See, e.g., §§ 1222, 1231, 1234A.

Section 1011 of the Code provides that a taxpayer’s adjusted basis for determining the gain or loss from the sale or exchange of property is the cost or other basis determined under § 1012 of the Code, adjusted to the extent provided under§ 1016 of the Code. When a taxpayer receives property that is not purchased, unless otherwise provided in the Code, the taxpayer’s basis in the property received is determined by reference to the amount included in gross income, which is the fair market value of the property when the property is received. See generally §§ 61 and 1011; see also § 1.61-2(d)(2)(i).

Section 451 of the Code provides that a taxpayer using the cash method of accounting includes an amount in gross income in the taxable year it is actually or constructively received. See §§ 1.451-1 and 1.451-2. A taxpayer using an accrual method of accounting generally includes an amount in gross income no later than the taxable year in which all the events have occurred which fix the right to receive such amount. See § 451.


Situation 1: A did not receive units of the new cryptocurrency, Crypto N, from the hard fork; therefore, A does not have an accession to wealth and does not have gross income under § 61 as a result of the hard fork.

Situation 2: B received a new asset, Crypto S, in the airdrop following the hard fork; therefore, B has an accession to wealth and has ordinary income in the taxable year in which the Crypto S is received. See §§ 61 and 451. B has dominion and control of Crypto S at the time of the airdrop, when it is recorded on the distributed ledger, because B immediately has the ability to dispose of Crypto S. The amount included in gross income is $50, the fair market value of B’s 25 units of Crypto S when the airdrop is recorded on the distributed ledger. B’s basis in Crypto S is $50, the amount of income recognized. See §§ 61, 1011, and 1.61-2(d)(2)(i).


Crypto Holdings

(1) A taxpayer does not have gross income under § 61 as a result of a hard fork of a cryptocurrency the taxpayer owns if the taxpayer does not receive units of a new cryptocurrency.

(2) A taxpayer has gross income, ordinary in character, under § 61 as a result of an airdrop of a new cryptocurrency following a hard fork if the taxpayer receives units of new cryptocurrency.