A few weeks ago, former President Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana Trump, died at her home. She was buried in a discreet area at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
A golf course seems like an unusual place to be buried even though the scenery is pleasant and the grounds generally well maintained. It turns out that in 2017 the Trump Organization submitted a proposal for build a cemetery on part of the golf course.
So why would this golf course have a double existence as a cemetery? Sociology professor Brooke Harrington has a the theory. She thinks Trump is doing this as a ploy to avoid paying taxes on the golf course’s real estate.
She quotes a publication of the New Jersey Division of Taxation which states that cemetery companies are exempt from paying property, income and sales taxes. This could lead to what she calls a “tax avoidance trifecta.”
However, a publication is not the same as the New Jersey tax code. Several sections of the New Jersey Revised Statutes deal with the taxation of cemeteries.
New Jersey Law stipulates that land intended solely for use as a cemetery is exempt from tax.
To operate as a cemetery business in New Jersey, it must be a non-profit corporation. This does not necessarily mean that the business cannot make a profit. This means that the company must comply with state nonprofit corporation laws. In addition, the company’s business charter or certificate of incorporation must specify that the purpose of the company is for the acquisition and preservation of land for use exclusively such as a cemetery or the disposal of human remains.
This means that the company that owns and operates the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster cannot be a graveyard company since it operates a for-profit golf course. Thus, the entire golf course is not exempt from property taxes.
A possible workaround would be to create a not-for-profit entity for the purpose of operating as a cemetery. This non-profit organization would then manage designated areas of the golf course specifically for cemetery purposes. The land would be exempt from property taxes and the cemetery society that manages the land would be exempt from state income and sales taxes. Although this does not protect all land from property taxes, it can protect some of it.
This could possibly work if done on a very small scale on land specifically intended for use as a cemetery. There might be people who are willing to pay what is supposed to be a large sum to be buried on a golf course. Annual maintenance costs will likely be negligible.
But if done on a larger scale, it’s less likely to work as a tax-saving device and could even cost businesses dearly. Excessive headstones on the course grounds would likely scare off some golfers and those renting the course grounds for other events like weddings. Even the tax authorities would wonder if the land was used uniquely for cemetery purposes. For example, in the 2021 version of the New Jersey Appraiser’s HandbookIn determining whether land is used as a cemetery, assessors are advised that “the land used or dedicated for cemetery purposes is a question of fact in each case where the evidence clearly indicates that the property is in fact used as a cemetery or interior consider it reasonably. »
In addition, part of the golf courses are already subject to a reduced property tax. New Jersey law grants lower property tax rates to land that has been converted to farmland. The golf course has converted part of the property into agricultural land which includes raising goats, growing hay and cutting wood. Converting this land into a cemetery may not result in much tax savings.
Finally, if this loophole is so good, why aren’t other golf courses in New Jersey (or states with similar laws) taking advantage of it?
We will probably never know if there is a sinister motive behind the creation of a cemetery on a golf course and why Ivana Trump is buried there. Maybe the Trump Organization just wants to bury family members there or sell eternal membership to highly motivated members. But the theory that this is a tax avoidance scheme seems far-fetched. Being a cemetery business is not limited to operating land dedicated to the deceased. And it looks like it wouldn’t work on a large scale and wouldn’t make much business sense.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolves tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people who have large student loans. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.