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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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June 21, 2003: The Barter System

Q: (At the mall talking with a young friend.) I read about Abe Lincoln. He took some "weird" things for his pay. How about you?

A: I know every attorney has experienced unusual fee payments and I have written about this in the past. But with your indulgence, it might be fun to let me stroll down memory lane.

My early loyal client base that gave me the stability to help my practice take root was made up of farm and ranch folks in Weld, Washington, and Yuma counties, some of whom would drive 300 miles or more (round trip) to Fort Collins. I have always been grateful for that. Many of them did not have a lot of cash lying around, but I wanted to help them with the many legal problems faced by people in agriculture.

Especially in the early years, I received useful payments such as eggs and sacks of potatoes, pickles, and pinto beans. Hay bales I would sell or give away, along with assorted chicks, piglets, horseshoes, and bailing twine. I did receive several beef quarters, however.

But unlike honest Abe, I was never offered homemade apple pie, or a deed to a cabin site, or even a cord of wood (not a lot of trees in eastern Colorado).

However, I did decline some offers. A year's supply of manure was a bit more than I could accommodate at that time (from a dairy farmer). A shed full of hula-hoops in "original wrapping" (bought as an investment by a farmer) did not catch my fancy. Being non-mechanical, I tactfully said no to a broken- down grain combine (although I am sure my brother would have loved to tinker with that particular hunk of junk). I have also turned down a number of offers to become a "partner" in an agricultural enterprise or an "investor" in exchange for my fees. Besides the conflict-of-interest issues, I am an attorney and wanted to remain one.

But the one turn down I still have second thoughts about was bull-riding lessons. A client had seen me ride several weeks before and didn't want to waste time trying to find another lawyer, since he figured I would not last very long if I continued to ride like I did.

But here is the law part (for those of you wondering if I would get to it). Remember any such "revenue" has to be declared and included in gross income for tax purposes, including, among other things, the value of merchandise won from games or at game shows, barter exchanges for the value of goods or services received, net gambling income, and fringe benefits at work (unless excluded by the Internal Revenue Code regulations or tax court rulings). It might be possible to argue that these exchanges are gifts but, if given for services, labeling as such might be hard to sustain. Thus, if these kinds of receipts cannot be designated as gifts and then come to light, the IRS tends to be unhappy.

But Abe Lincoln did not have the IRS to contend with since income taxes were not yet established, and he probably had a much better ability to take and store his "fees" than was available to me in Fort Collins. So if a kid 150 years from now is reading old issues of the Coloradoan and runs across this column, he or she will note that lawyers in 2003 didn't receive a lot of the neat stuff that lawyers in 1853 received.

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