Good Fortune (for the IRS)

This week the Tax Court in Good Fortune Shipping v Commissioner,148 TC No. 10 upheld regulations relating to the exemption of income from the international operation of ships. Taxpayers are frequently teeing up issues relating to the validity of regulations, and this opinion is an important victory for the government. I will briefly describe the case and the way the Tax Court resolved the dispute.

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The statutory scheme under Section 883 (wildly simplified) is that gross income attributable to international shipping activities is exempt from US tax if the foreign country in which the corporation is organized grants an equivalent exemption to corporations organized in the United States. In Good Fortune the owners of the shipping company were in fact residents of a country that did grant a similar exemption, but the shareholders held the stock in bearer form rather than in registered form. The statutory scheme tied the exemption to shares “owned by individuals” of a reciprocating foreign country; the regulations additionally restricted the benefit to shares that were owned in a certain way, and in particular excluded from the possible statutory exclusion scheme shares that were owned in bearer rather than registered form.

Bearer ownership and transferability is generally evidenced by physical delivery; registered form ownership ties ownership to a name that is registered with the corporation or its agent. US tax law has generally frowned on conveying benefits that are dependent on residence of ownership when shares or securities are held in bearer form for the obvious reason that it is easy to circumvent rules that are meant to tie exclusions or reduced withholdings on beneficial ownership in a particular jurisdiction when ownership can be conveyed just by possessing the security. Bearer form ownership promotes privacy, which is a value that tax agencies weigh quite differently than taxpayers.

In Good Fortune, in upholding regulations that essentially stated that bearer shares of a foreign corporation may not be taken into account in establishing the ownership of the stock of the foreign corporation, the Tax Court, applying the two-step Chevron analysis, leaned heavily on Mayo in finding that Congress had not spoken directly on the issue (step 1) and ultimately concluded that the regulations in place for the year in question were a permissible construction of the statute (step 2).

In finding that the precision needed was lacking in Step 1 the opinion emphasized that there was a legislative gap in how to prove ownership:

The words “owned by individuals” in section 883(c)(1) do not, as petitioner appears to acknowledge, explain or otherwise address how to establish ownership by individuals for purposes of section 883(c)(1), let alone how to establish ownership where the shares of the foreign corporation are owned in bearer form. The dictionary definitions of the word “own” on which petitioner relies which petitioner claims are unambiguous definitions, do not address the problem under section 883(c) of determining how to establish ownership by individuals for purposes of section 883(c)(1) that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) confronts when it examines a return of a foreign corporation seeking the benefits of section 883(a)(1) for a prior taxable year

Upon reaching Step 2, the opinion looked to legislative history to 1986 statutory changes that tied the reciprocal exemption to corporate ownership rather than just the location of where the ship was registered:

A foreign corporation’s entitlement under section 883(a)(1) to exclude certain income from gross income and exempt that income from U.S. tax no longer was based solely upon the country in which the foreign corporation’s vessel was registered or documented. Instead, Congress added in its amendment of section 883 in the 1986 Act a second hurdle to that favorable treatment by enacting section 883(c) in order to curb abuse by residents of certain foreign countries who owned stock in a foreign corporation that was seeking the benefits of section 883(a)(1) where those foreign countries did not provide an equivalent exemption to U.S. corporations.

With that context the opinion discussed how bearer shares, which tie ownership to physical delivery, “make it virtually impossible to know who the actual shareholders or owners of a corporation are because the only proof of ownership is physical possession at a particular point in time of the paper bearer share certificate.” The absence of a registry contributes to ownership anonymity. As such, it was a short step for the court to conclude that the regs passed muster under Step 2:

We conclude that the bearer share regulations do not contravene section 883(c)(1) but are a reasonable construction of that section which provides the IRS with the appropriate tools needed to enforce section 883. The bearer share regulations provide certainty and resolve the difficult problems of proof associated with establishing ownership of bearer shares, especially for prior taxable years. In not allowing bearer shares to be taken into account in establishing the ownership of the stock of a foreign corporation for purposes of determining whether the foreign corporation is described in section 883(c)(1) and thus whether it is entitled to the benefits of section 883(a)(1), the bearer share regulations set forth a sensible approach to effecting the intent of Congress in enacting section 883(c)(1) to ensure that abuse will not occur which will result in certain types of shipping transportation income described in section 883(a)(1) not being taxed.

Good Fortune shows how in the absence of statutory detail on implementation, agencies have considerable discretion in promulgating rules, especially true when the rules relate to exemptions, which as the Tax Court noted here, are to be interpreted narrowly.

Tax Court Holds that Points Paid on Interest Only Refinancing Not Deductible

This week in Singh v Commissioner the Tax Court in a summary opinion held that a taxpayer was not entitled to deduct the amounts paid in respect of points on a refinancing of a principal residence. Determining whether interest on a home is deductible is complicated by the reality that for many taxpayers information returns or settlement statements may not completely or accurately indicate the amount that can be deducted.

One such issue relates to when consumers are paying interest on a modified mortgage; as we have discussed before (see. e.g. a guest post by Dave Vendler discussing the issue and related litigation) the Form 1098 that most financial institutions issue does not reflect the amounts that were attributable to the accrued but unpaid interest at the time of the modification. This is an issue that is currently the subject of an IRS guidance project (a copy of the American Bankers Association and Mortgage Bankers Association comments on the proposed guidance can be found here). [As an aside I will moderate a panel discussion on that topic at the ABA Tax Section May meeting in DC as part of the Individual and Family Committee].

Singh does not involve a modified mortgage though does spin off of some of the challenges that many Americans faced following the great recession. In Singh the taxpayer refinanced two mortgages on his principal residence with an interest only loan that was for an indefinite period.

Part of the costs that Singh paid included points on the interest only refinancing. To the extent that the points represent interest taxpayers may deduct the points over the course of the loan (assuming of course that the interest is otherwise deductible). This sweeps in Section 461(g), which requires a cash basis taxpayer to amortize prepaid interest over the life of the loan, just as if the taxpayer were on the accrual method of accounting. Section 461(g)(2) provides an exception to the amortization requirement in 461(g)(1) and allows a taxpayer to deduct the payment of certain points if they were paid “in connection with the purchase or improvement of, and secured by, the principal residence of the taxpayer.”

For taxpayers who seek to refinance years after the original purchase or who do not use proceeds of a refinancing to substantially improve the residence, the immediate deduction exception in Section 461(g)(2) provides no help. When is a refinancing close enough to the original purchase to be eligible for the 461(g)(2) immediate deduction? There is a well-known 8th Circuit case from 1990, Huntsman v Commissioner, that provides guidance for taxpayers seeking a deduction for points. In Hunstman, the 8th Circuit allowed an immediate deduction, emphasizing that the taxpayer refinanced to extinguish short-term loans from the original purchase, rather than just seeking to get a lower interest rate or accomplish other financial goals. That connection in Hunstman allowed the taxpayer to take advantage of the Section 461(g)(2) exception on the points paid on the refinancing.

This brings us back to Singh. A refinancing arising (and points paid on that refinancing) many years after the original purchase differs from Huntsman. In addition, the Tax Court noted that Singh could not deduct the points even under the general Section 461(g)(1) authority, which treats the points as amortized over the life of the loan, as Singh’s loan was for an interest only loan for an indefinite period.

The upshot for Singh was no deduction, and accuracy-related penalties for good measure. This is a a good reminder that the deductibility of interest on residences is sometimes not just a matter of plugging in information off a form 1098 or settlement document.  I suspect there is a great deal of confusion and error in this area of the tax law.

Tax Expenditures and Complexity

I returned last week from a conference that focused on the challenges that tax agencies across the world face in administering tax systems. One part of our tax system stood out in comparison with other systems. While most systems rely in some part on tax agencies to administer tax laws that promote social goals in addition to raising revenue, IRS seems to be the champ in terms of administering social programs embedded in the tax laws.

The other day the Congressional Budget Office released a blog post summarizing tax expenditures. Whether a particular item in the Code is classified as an expenditure is subject to some debate, but the CBO defines the terms as an “array of exclusions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits that reduce revenues for any given level of tax rates in the individual, payroll, and corporate income tax systems.”

Like direct spending, tax expenditures promote certain activities (like home ownership) or benefit some classes of taxpayers or entities. CBO estimates that tax expenditures will reach around $1.5 trillion in 2017, or around half of all federal revenues.

As the CBO blog post notes, the top expenditures in terms of total revenues foregone are the following:

  1. The exclusion from workers’ taxable income of employers’ contributions for health care, health insurance premiums, and premiums for long-term care insurance;
  2. The exclusion of contributions to and the earnings of pension funds (minus pension benefits that are included in taxable income);
  3. Preferential tax rates on dividends and long-term capital gains;
  4. The deferral for profits earned abroad, which certain corporations may exclude from their taxable income until those profits are returned to the United States; and
  5. The deductions for state and local taxes (on nonbusiness income, sales, real estate, and personal property).

The CBO post and its link to recent Congressional testimony and an annual Joint Committee report discussing tax expenditures have more detail on these and others (like refundable credits, deductions for charitable contributions and home mortgage interest deductions).

The National Taxpayer Advocate, in her 2016 annual report has noted the complexity and burden that follows from many expenditures. Congress’ desire to target benefits to certain taxpayers or reward certain activities often is accompanied by complexity in terms of eligibility criteria. Not surprisingly, lobbyists can influence legislation in ways that are meant to hide the impact of provisions that favor certain industries or even specific taxpayers.

As Congress perhaps turns its attention to tax reform (though there seems to be many legislative balls in the air so reform is no sure thing), it would be wise for Congress to consider administrability and complexity in determining whether the IRS is the appropriate agency to be in charge of specific programs or benefits.

In this year’s annual report the NTA proposes that Congress take a “zero-based budgeting” approach that specificically calls on Congress to weigh burdens on taxpayers and the IRS:

The starting point for discussion would be a tax code without any exclusions or reductions in income or tax. A tax break or IRS-administered social program would be added back only if lawmakers decide, on balance, that the public policy benefits of running the provision or program through the tax code outweigh the tax complexity burden the provision creates for taxpayers and the IRS.  At the end of the exercise, tax rates can be set at whatever level is required to raise the amount of revenue that Congress determines is appropriate.

There are many specific targets for consideration if Congress is not up for the task of taking on wholesale reform. When one considers the array of education benefits and the hodgepodge of family status benefits embedded in the tax code it seems like a Congress intent on simplifying the lives of taxpayers and IRS would have plenty of places to start.

 

 

Taxpayer Rights and Declining Budgets

Today marks the opening of the Second International Taxpayer Rights Conference. It is hosted by the Institute for Austrian and International Tax Law at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) in Vienna, Austria.

This conference connects government officials, scholars, and practitioners from around the world to explore how taxpayer rights globally serve as the foundation for effective tax administration.

For two days, the conference will consider a range of issues, including:

  • Taxpayer Rights in Multi-Jurisdictional Disputes
  • Privacy and Transparency in Tax Administration
  • Access to Taxpayer Rights: The Right to Quality Service in Today’s Environment
  • Transforming Cultures of Agencies and Taxpayers
  • Impact of Penalty Administration on Taxpayer Trust

There are some very interesting panelists and over 160 attendees representing 40 different countries.  Facebook live sessions of the conference can be found at www.facebook.com/TaxAnalysts.org/videos

I am appearing on a panel discussing taxpayer rights in era of reduced agency budgets. My talk is entitled Thoughts on Taxpayer Rights and an Uncertain Future, and an upcoming paper based on it will be published as part of the conference proceedings. A significant number of the panelists’ talks will result in published papers.

Part of my talk addresses how an agency can best juggle its multiple roles when faced with declining resources. This is an issue the IRS knows well. To be sure, there have been trends like e-filing that allow for a more efficient and lean tax agency, and many developed countries are squeezing efficiency gains out of tax administrators. Yet budget pressures on the IRS have been constant over the last five years, and it looks like more major cuts are coming. For example, the NY Times reported last week that a Trump budget would include a 14% funding cut for the IRS.

The issue of declining resources and a drop in IRS service is a good way to link last week’s hearings sponsored by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittees on Government Operations and Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules that focused on the IRS “failure to efficiently direct available resources to customer service and what might be done to improve it.”

The hearings included an IRS executive discussing IRS performance in the last year or so, with a generally optimistic discussion of improvements (due in part to the FY 16 the first increase in six years to IRS funding) over the dreadful 2015 filing season when some measures of service like answering phone calls and responding to correspondence were weak by most every measure. Last week’s TIGTA testimony is a more measured assessment of IRS performance and lays out some of the specific 2017 filing season challenges and difficulties IRS has in staffing taxpayer assistance centers and performing

The GAO in its written testimony found an uptick in IRS’s service last filing season as compared to 2015, though still found considerable room for improvement:

In summary, we found that IRS provided better telephone service to callers during the 2016 filing season—generally between January and mid-April—compared to 2015. However, its performance during the full fiscal year remained low. Furthermore, IRS does not make this nor other types of customer service information easily available to taxpayers, such as in an online dashboard. Without easily accessible information, taxpayers are not well informed of what to expect when requesting services from IRS. We also found that IRS has improved aspects of service for victims of IDT refund fraud However, inefficiencies contribute to delays, and potentially weak internal controls may lead to the release of fraudulent refunds. In turn, this limits IRS’s ability to serve taxpayers and protect federal dollars.

The mainstream media has picked up on some of the implications of continued IRS budget cuts; see, e.g. Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post Trump’s gift to Americans: Making it easier to cheat on their taxes. Deep cuts in IRS budgets as may be on the horizon are likely to create continued complaints both about declining direct measures of compliance and on measures of IRS service like answering the phone and making employees available to meet in person with taxpayers. Budget cuts and drops in service tend to hit hardest on those with fewer resources. In addition, while IRS has now adopted a formal set of taxpayer rights, to ensure protection of those rights it often takes a committed agency both willing to identify problems its taxpayers experience and to ensure its procedures and practices respect and promote those rights. Whether IRS will be able to balance its many responsibilities while respecting the taxpayer rights it agrees to protect is something that is on uncertain ground in this uncertain time.

 

 

 

Shredding Documents and Proving You Paid a Tax: Lawyer Cannot Prove Payment

This week’s summary opinion in Paynter v Commissioner is a relatively straightforward case in many respects: a taxpayer habitually filed his income tax return with a balance due; IRS sent him some collection notices; and he claimed to have paid but had no proof. It is not surprising that the Settlement Officer and the Tax Court held that Paynter was still on the hook.

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Some aspects of the case that stand out. Paynter is a lawyer, and he justified his practice of not paying estimated taxes because, as he said at trial, “I never have and I don’t like the process.” Moreover, the year at issue was 2006; IRS sent a balance due notice in 2007 (about $16,000 in tax) but without any explanation did not send any other collection letters until 2014.

I guess it is not that surprising that some lawyers do not have stellar tax compliance practices and at times IRS seems to not engage in best collection practices. I also think it is not that surprising that “I don’t like the process” does not amount to reasonable cause as a defense to civil penalties.

Yet the case raises a bunch procedural issues. The taxpayer made an estoppel argument against the government based on the delay in seeking collection. The opinion notes that the delay caused the taxpayer hardship and that the IRS failed to explain why it sat on the assessment for close to 8 years. Yet, the opinion discusses the high bar that taxpayers must clear to win an estoppel argument:

  1.  the Government knew the facts of the taxpayer’s situation;
  2.  the Government intended that its conduct be acted on or acted so that the taxpayer had a right to believe it was so intended;
  3.  the taxpayer was ignorant of the facts; and
  4.  the taxpayer relied on the Government’s conduct to his injury.

On top of those requirements, in the Ninth Circuit (where an appeal would lie if it were not an S case) a party seeking to invoke estoppel must also prove the government’s affirmative misconduct, which requires misrepresentation or concealment of an affirmative fact. There was no evidence suggesting the IRS’s deliberately lied or made false promises, and the court, while not condoning the IRS’s delay, concluded that it did not preclude collection. While the case was old, it was still within the 10 year SOL on collection (the opinion did note, however, that the taxpayer did not raise a possible abatement of interest claim, which would have potentially led to some consequence for the delay).

Another interesting part of the opinion is its discussion of how long taxpayers should retain records. The court took judicial notice of the fact that the taxpayer’s bank was closed and the FDIC took over as receiver (discussing as well the standard under federal rules of evidence for it to do so). Due to the bank no longer being around and his 2013 shredding of his 2006 tax records, the taxpayer claimed he could not prove with documents that he paid the tax. He testified that he was certain that he did. He recalled that in either 2007 or 2008 he went in person to the Santa Rosa IRS office and paid in full his 2006 liability. Given the taxpayer’s practice of not paying estimated taxes, filing tax returns with no or little payment, and waiting for IRS bills before paying, the taxpayer also had a bunch of years when he paid following IRS sending a balance due letter. IRS had record of those other years’ payments but no record of the 2006 payment.

The taxpayer justified his absence of documentary proof in part on IRS standards for retaining records. The opinion notes that the IRS has general standards for record retention. IRS states on its web page that there is no hard and fast rule for record retention: “the length of time you should keep a document depends on the action, expense, or event which the document records.” The IRS generally ties the discussion to records relating to proving an item claimed on the return and the general 3-year SOL on assessment, rather than proving that a taxpayer has paid and the 10-year SOL on collection. Yet this case is a good reminder that it is on the taxpayer to prove payment, and testimony alone in the absence of proof is likely not enough if IRS records do not reflect payment.

Paynter also raises some old CDP issues we have previously discussed, including whether issues of payment amount to questions of liability or collection, an issue that the Tax Court has not resolved (see footnote 9) and is relevant because in some circuits in collection cases the Tax Court is bound to the record from Appeals. At the end of the day, the Tax Court concluded that Paynter failed to prove his case under any standard.

One question that the opinion does not directly address is the IRS’s failure to meet the RRA 98 requirement for IRS to send taxpayers an annual reminder of a balance due. There is no specific remedy if IRS fails to comply with that requirement, though I suspect it may have helped Paynter if he had sought interest abatement and this seems to be precisely the kind of case Congress had in mind when adding that requirement.

Sixth Circuit Holds Potential Misconduct in CDP Hearing Does Not Give Rise to Wrongful Collection Action

In Agility Network Services v US the Sixth Circuit held that a taxpayer who alleged that Appeals botched its collection due process hearing could not bring a wrongful collection action against the IRS because the hearing did not arise “in connection with any collection of Federal tax.”

In this post I will summarize the court’s reasoning and offer some observations on its approach.

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Agility Network Services involves a CDP case that did not go well. The owner of Agility Network Services (Agility Network) and her husband were employees of the company. Agility Network had overdue employment taxes; after the IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien, it requested a CDP hearing. After seven months (and according to the taxpayer only after it got Taxpayer Advocate involved because the Revenue Officer would not forward the case file), the hearing was scheduled for December 2012. Once the hearing was scheduled and held, the taxpayer did not like the manner in which it was conducted and the outcome:

[The Appeals Officer] refused to investigate the taxpayers’ assertion that they tried to make payments but that the IRS refused to accept them; [the Appeals Officer] misstated the tax code and Internal Revenue Manual while offering excuses for [the Revenue Officer’s] failure to process the taxpayers’ CDP request; Allen refused to discuss the taxpayers’ requested installment plan, reasoning that they did not make enough money to justify one; and Allen denied the taxpayers’ request to abate penalties. Furthermore, [the Appeals Officer] stated at the hearing “that she knew . . . [the Revenue Officer’s] actions were made with the genuine intent to help the taxpayers.” The taxpayers contend that this statement proves [the Appeals Officer] had an impermissible ex parte communication with [the Revenue Officer]. The hearing ended with the taxpayers having discussed only one issue of the many they had planned to raise.

In May of 2013 (about seven months after the first meeting and I think prior to the issue of a determination) Appeals scheduled a follow-up meeting. In July 2013, and pursuant to the taxpayer’s request, a new Appeals Officer met with the taxpayer. At the follow-up meeting, the taxpayer requested that IRS withdraw the NFTL and agree to a proposed installment plan. The new Appeals Officer rejected the request (and a request to record the meeting), though this Appeals Officer based his installment agreement rejection on the grounds that the taxpayer earned too much money rather than too little.

After the unsatisfactory second meeting, the taxpayer began a voluntary $5,000 month payment. It also brought an action in federal district court seeking a restraining order against the IRS to prevent enforced collection and sought damages under Section 7433 alleging that the Appeals conduct in both hearings amounted to wrongful collection action. The district court found that the Anti-Injunction Act prevented the restraining order and that the Appeals Officer’s conduct did not arise in connection with a “collection action.”

On appeal the Sixth Circuit quickly affirmed the lower court’s tossing of the restraining order request on the grounds that the Anti-Injunction Act prevented the request to restrain the government’s collection efforts.

The Sixth Circuit gave the Section 7433 issue some more attention. Section 7433 provides for damages for wrongful collection actions. As Appeals has become more involved with collection matters some taxpayers have unsuccessfully sought to use Section 7433 to recover damages for misconduct that arises in a collection case in Appeals. We have previously discussed this issue; see Keith’s post on the Antioco case Appeals Fumbles CDP Case and Resulting Resolution Demonstrates Power of Installment Agreement, which Stephen also discussed in a Summary Opinions post. In those prior posts, we noted that the district court in Antioco held that in a CDP case the Settlement Officer was not engaged in collection action but was rather reviewing the collection action. That review was not enough to bring Appeals’ alleged misconduct within the scope of a Section 7433 wrongful collection claim.

Agility Network likewise concludes that 7433 is not a remedy for alleged misconduct in a CDP hearing but has a more robust appellate court consideration of the issue. In deciding against the taxpayer, the Sixth Circuit explained that it its view Appeals’ conduct in the hearings relates to affirmative rights that a taxpayer has in the collection process, rather than the government’s collection of taxes:

The relevant question, then, is whether an IRS agent acts “in connection with any collection of Federal tax” when she conducts a CDP hearing. Under the most reasonable interpretation of the phrase, the answer is no. In common parlance, an IRS agent acting in connection with tax collection would be taking an affirmative step to recover money owed to the government. In contrast, a CDP hearing is a right bestowed upon a taxpayer, at the taxpayer’s request, to provide protection from abusive or unduly burdensome tax collection. The hearing does not help the IRS collect on a tax debt, but in fact impedes collection, at least temporarily, to the taxpayer’s benefit

To be sure the Sixth Circuit also acknowledged that it was possible to take a broader reading of the phrase “in connection with any collection of Federal tax” to include CDP proceedings:

Under this reading, any IRS agency action involving a person who owes a tax debt is “in connection with tax collection.” Under this interpretation, an IRS agent acts in connection with tax collection during a CDP hearing because, at that point, the IRS has already initiated the levy or lien process against the taxpayer.

It rejected that broader reading for two reasons: one, such an approach renders the language in the statute limiting the remedy to collection actions superfluous, essentially encompassing “almost everything IRS agents do. The agency exists to collect revenue, after all.”

Second, the Sixth Circuit cited the maxim that courts are to narrowly interpret exceptions to sovereign immunity, leading it to note that between two reasonable interpretations courts should opt for the one that leads to a narrower waiver.

Some Observations

I think this presents a closer case than perhaps the opinion reflects. The rationale the court uses to distinguish a CDP matter from collection action is a bit outdated. While a CDP hearing is certainly a taxpayer right that arises only if a taxpayer properly invokes the proceeding, it is a statutory right that all taxpayers enjoy in the collection process. Once invoked, Appeals has jurisdiction to compel IRS to refrain from collection and also to dictate the manner that the IRS collects an agreed and assessed liability. To argue that CDP is only an impediment to collection misstates the possible benefit that CDP is meant to provide to the government. It is not in the government’s interest to collect a tax when the IRS fails to ensure that it followed its statutory or administrative procedures.

Collection cases are the mainstay of the Appeals docket. Like it or not Appeals is part and parcel of the collection process. There is a functional partnership between Appeals and Collection. This is especially apparent in cases where the taxpayer requests a withdrawal of an NFTL, where it is in the taxpayer’s strong interest to get prompt review of the request.  It is clear in this case that Appeals’ delay in considering and deciding contributed to the taxpayer dissatisfaction.  Under CDP, Appeals is statutorily charged with ensuring that the collection action balances the need for efficient collection action with the taxpayer’s concern that the action be no more intrusive than necessary.  In a CDP hearing, especially in the context of considering the request to withdraw a notice of federal tax lien filing, Appeals’ responsibilities seem to directly relate to the IRS’s collection of taxes.

Tax Court Holds It Does Not Have Jurisdiction to Consider Reasonable Salary Determination in Exams of S Corps

Last month in Financial Consultant Fails To Avoid Self-Employment Tax With S Corp Structure we discussed the possible ways that service-performing employee/shareholders in S Corps can minimize employment taxes. IRS is aware of the abuses in this area and seems to be looking carefully at S Corps that are profitable and pay what it thinks are low wages to those key employee/shareholders.

In the last few weeks there have been some interesting Tax Court orders considering a jurisdictional issue spinning from IRS audits of S Corps and their shareholders.

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First some background.

Individuals who earn service income directly have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, which are often referred to collectively as the self-employment tax. [Note that the tax rate for Social Security taxes is 12.4% and the rate for Medicare taxes is 2.9%; for 2017 Social Security taxes are levied only on the first $127,200 while the Medicare rate applies to all service income]. If the S corporation, rather than the individual, earns that income, then the S corporation does not have a separate employment tax liability and the shareholder does not have self-employment tax liability on his share of the S corporation’s income.

The scheme minimizes employment tax obligations by essentially paying below market wages to the S Corporation’s shareholder/employee; cash still comes out to the shareholder/employee in the form of other distributions.

As part of an IRS audit, IRS will examine the S Corp’s return and analyze the reasonableness of the salaries. If IRS thinks the wages are not high enough, it will send the S Corp a Form 4668, Employment Tax Examination Changes Report, which can propose what it thinks the reasonable salary is and thus propose employment tax increases (as well as penalties). Interestingly, this is the reverse of old reasonable compensation cases where C Corp shareholder/employees would pay themselves a salary that IRS argued was too high. As Keith notes and based on his experience in litigating a couple of those older reasonable compensation cases (see, e.g., Royal Crown v Comm’r) these are time-consuming to litigate and, as with many valuation cases, often involve expert testimony.

As a substantive matter, the key inquiry should be whether the payments that the shareholder received that were not labeled as compensation were remuneration for services. Not surprisingly, comparables are key, and IRS will look to industry and regional standards.

This brings us back to the procedural issues.

In response to the IRS issuing an Employment Tax Examination Changes Report (Form 4668) some S Corps have filed petitions to Tax Court to attempt to get the Tax Court to consider the reasonableness of the salaries.

Employment taxes are generally not subject to the deficiency procedures. The Tax Court has jurisdiction under Section 7436 to consider proceedings relating to determinations of an individual’s employment status. (Lavar Taylor has discussed this provision extensively in his series of posts considering the SECC v Commissioner case).

Even though the S Corps are not getting a notice of deficiency in a couple of recent cases they have essentially claimed that the IRS’s adjustments to the salaries that the corps paid to its shareholders are determinations for purposes of Section 7436.

The Tax Court has disagreed stating that the IRS adjustments have nothing to do with a determination of employee status but only relate to the amount of salary that should have been paid to someone who the parties already agree is an employee.

To that end, see the discussion in Azarian v Commissioner, involving a S Corp that operated a law firm and had a sole shareholder, where the Tax Court granted the IRS’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that it did not have jurisdiction:

Petitioner consistently treated Mr. Azarian as an employee for the taxable periods at issue. Therefore respondent did not make a determination that Mr. Azarian was an employee of petitioner, but rather concluded that petitioner failed to report reasonable wage compensation paid to Mr. Azarian for 2012-14. Section 7436(a)(1) only confers jurisdiction upon this Court to determine the “correct and the proper amount of employment tax” when respondent makes a worker classification determination, not when respondent concludes that petitioner underreported reasonable wage compensation, as is the case here.

The Tax Court took a similar approach in Arroyo Corp v Commissioner, also an S Corp exam looking at the reasonableness of salaries to shareholder/employees, where it stated that while the IRS made a determination with respect to the amount of the compensation, that was insufficient to generate jurisdiction under Section 7436.

Conclusion

S Corps wishing to challenge the IRS on these issues will likely have to go the refund route, though given the divisible nature of employment taxes those corporations need not fully pay any proposed liability. The Tax Court has closed one door though it is possible that a CDP proceeding could allow a taxpayer to challenge the liability, though that issue spins off other procedural issues, including whether the S Corp had a prior opportunity to challenge the liability. That issue is subject to considerable uncertainty, though last week’s Tenth Circuit opinion in Keller Tank v Commissioner sustained the Tax Court and IRS’s restrictive approach to the definition of prior opportunity (stay tuned as we will blog that case this week).

Tip of the hat to our hard-working blogging colleague Lew Taishoff, whose blog on the Tax Court brought these recent orders to my attention.

 

 

Preparer “Doctors” the Return Adding Phantom Income: Court Sustains Preparer Penalties

Tax return preparers have heightened requirements when preparing returns claiming many refundable credits. While the IRS lost the battle over regulating unlicensed preparers, it does have tools to examine and sanction preparers who violate those rules. There have been very few opinions considering whether a preparer’s conduct justifies the imposition of civil penalties. Last week in Foxx v US the Court of Federal Claims held that a preparer was subject to a civil penalty under Section 6694(b) for his willful or reckless conduct relating to his failure to make reasonable inquiries into income from taxpayer’s purported auto-detailing business. The IRS claimed that the taxpayer did not in fact earn the income in question. The Foxx case presents the what frequent guest poster Carl Smith has referred in a guest post to as the topsy-turvy world of earned income tax credit (EITC) cases because the creation of the phantom income fueled a refundable EITC that exceeded the taxpayer’s income and self-employment tax liability.

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George Foxx came to the attention of the IRS after it audited the tax return of Shakeena Bryant. Bryant had claimed an EITC; almost all of the earned income on the return was from an auto-detailing business she reported on Schedule C. Foxx referred to himself as the tax doctor and claimed to have 37 years of tax return prep experience. Bryant went to the tax doctor with a friend of hers, Herman James. On audit of Bryant’s return, the IRS disallowed the credit. During the audit, she agreed that she did not have the income necessary to justify her claiming the credit. In correspondence, Bryant claimed that she was instructed by Foxx to report the income to justify the refund.

IRS then examined Dr. Foxx and assessed a $5,000 penalty under Section 6694 for his willful or reckless conduct in preparing the return (note there is a separate $500 penalty under Section 6695(g) for violating the due diligence rules; that penalty was not at issue in the case). After an administrative appeal of his penalty IRS reduced it to $2500. Foxx paid and sued for refund.

The government deposed Bryant’s friend (James) who accompanied her to Dr. Foxx when the Tax Doctor prepared her return.

The case on the surface turned on whether the preparer George Foxx 1) facilitated the improper claiming of the credit by instructing the taxpayer how to goose the credit and make it look legitimate by applying for a business license even in the absence of the actual business or 2) prepared the return based on what Bryant told him about her business.

A bad fact for the Tax Doctor in this case was that James on deposition supported Bryant’s version of the facts. Both Bryant and James stated that she obtained a business license the same day the return was prepared pursuant to Dr. Foxx’s instruction. James also stated that Dr. Foxx “explained that such a license would allow him to obtain more money for Ms. Bryant, and Dr. Foxx, not Ms. Bryant, created the false business income that appeared on Ms. Bryant’s tax return.”

According to the opinion, Foxx clamed that in preparing the return he relied upon Bryant’s business license and two pages of his notes that outlined expenses associated with the business.

What was potentially a he said/they said case evolved into the court concluding that it did not matter which version was true. Even if Bryant did tell the preparer about her income the court concluded that Foxx had an affirmative obligation under the specific EITC due diligence regulations to dig deeper:

Dr. Foxx argued before the IRS that his reliance on Ms. Bryant’s alleged statements regarding her business was reasonable because Ms. Bryant otherwise would have only earned approximately $15 in 2007 based on the W-2 she provided to Dr. Foxx. Such an argument is misplaced; Ms. Bryant’s financial situation did not relieve Dr. Foxx of his obligation to make reasonable inquiries into any auto detailing business purportedly conducted by Ms. Bryant after she did not provide adequate documentation. His failure to do so was an intentional or reckless disregard of relevant Treasury Regulations [referring to the due diligence regulations under Section 6695]

Schedule C and Compliance Generally

As the Foxx case illustrates, the EITC creates the odd incentive for the creation of phantom income that could fuel a tax refund. That phantom income could also create a record of social security benefits that could generate Social Security benefits.

While noncompliance with the EITC generates significant attention, the absence of information reporting that ties much income to self-employed taxpayers contributes to those taxpayers in general comprising the largest source of the individual tax gap. EITC noncompliance among self-employed taxpayers is a small but significant part of the tax gap that is associated with self-employed taxpayers. Despite the EITC comprising a small portion of the tax compliance problem among the self-employed, there are special due diligence obligations imposed on preparers who prepare EITC returns with Schedule C’s that do not apply to other Schedule C returns.

On the IRS’s EITC web page for professionals it has a special training section discussing Schedule C. The training states that preparers “generally can rely on the taxpayers’ representations, but EITC due diligence requires the paid preparer to take additional steps to determine that the net self-employment income used to calculate the amount of or eligibility for EITC is correct and complete.”

IRS has on its EITC due diligence web site a series of scenarios discussing what it believes are examples of when preparers need to take additional steps. One of the scenarios involves a self-employed housecleaner who comes to a preparer claiming exactly $12,000 in earnings with no records and no expenses. A similar example is in the regulations. For the house-cleaner with the rounded off income figures and no expenses the IRS advice states that a preparer should “probably not” prepare the return in the absence of at least a written record of expenses and earnings, though opens the door a bit if the taxpayer “can reasonably reconstruct” the earnings and expenses. To that end the advice suggests that the preparer should ask how much she charges per house, as well questions relating to how many houses she cleaned on average per week and probe as to the reason for the lack of expenses (e.g., the homeowners provided all supplies).

Back to Foxx

One does not need to have a suggestion that a preparer has encouraged the fabrication of phantom income to generate preparer penalties. A cautious reading of the Foxx opinion is when preparing a return with an EITC based on self-employment income the preparer should  require documentary evidence supporting the amount claimed to have been earned and any expenses that are incurred. In the absence of records (a sure bet for many) the preparer should document and retain an explanation as to how he came to the net earnings, tying conclusions to specific information that the client has provided. For a taxpayer with little in the way of documents, it would be a good idea to have the taxpayer in writing affirm the manner that the preparer computed a business’ net earnings and state that the facts that the preparer is relying on are accurate to the best of the taxpayer’s recollection. Absent that the preparer opens himself up to a charge that he has failed to make “reasonable inquiries” in the presence of incomplete information (one of the requirements under the due diligence regulations).