The EITC Ban – It’s Worse Than You Realized

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco. Bob tells a disaster story with a happy ending but we must keep in mind that the happy ending only occurred because the low income taxpayer had found her way to a clinic where she received free and highly competent representation. Other stories similar to this one exist in the system without the happy ending provided here.  

As we have written before, the time for contesting the EITC ban in Tax Court is unclear. Another possible avenue for taxpayers in the position of Bob’s client is to seek orders regarding the ban from the Tax Court. I cannot say whether the taxpayer would have obtained relief in the Tax Court but the existence of the prohibited assessments would provide a basis for an injunction which might have gotten the client to the right place. Keith

There is a film genre often referred to, because of the primary plot device, as “disaster movies.” The golden age was the 1970s, with films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. Minor actions or problems interact in ways that create huge challenges. Each time the characters survive one obstacle, losing a few members of the group in the process, a new threat arises. How many, and which, characters will eventually survive?

The tax administration equivalent is the earned income tax credit (EITC) ban.

The EITC ban process is seriously flawed, as has been pointed out frequently. Les discussed it here on Procedural Taxing in blog posts in January 2014 and July 2014. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has been complaining about it for years, with the most detailed coverage in her 2013 Annual Report to Congress. Patrick Thomas made a presentation on it (outline available on the LITC Toolkit website, if you have access) at the December 2016 LITC Grantee Conference. Les and William Schmidt addressed the specific issue of Tax Court jurisdiction over the ban in 2016 and 2018 respectively. I strongly recommend a thorough review of all of the above – including comments to the blog posts! – to anyone who deals with taxpayers who claim the EITC.

This post discusses the IRS administrative process for applying (and correcting?) the ban. It also points out how the interaction of the EITC ban process with problems elsewhere in the tax administration process can turn a serious issue into an absolute disaster. This is the story of one such disaster.

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Background

Section 32(k)(1), added by the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, establishes that the EITC shall not be allowed for

the period of 2 taxable years after the most recent taxable year for which there was a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit under this section was due to reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations (but not due to fraud)

If there is a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit was due to fraud, the disallowance period is 10 taxable years instead.

This is an absolute ban but there is also an indefinite potential disallowance, in Section 32(k)(2):

In the case of a taxpayer who is denied credit under this section for any taxable year as a result of the deficiency procedures under subchapter B of chapter 63, no credit shall be allowed under this section for any subsequent taxable year unless the taxpayer provides such information as the Secretary may require to demonstrate eligibility for such credit.

Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) explains that

Denial of the EIC as a result of the deficiency procedures occurs when a tax on account of the EIC is assessed as a deficiency (other than as a mathematical or clerical error under section 6213(b)(1)).

And Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(c) specifies Form 8862 as the information required to demonstrate eligibility. The instructions make clear that the taxpayer should not file Form 8862 during the years that a ban applies, but it will be required if the EITC is disallowed, even absent a final determination of fraud or reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, to claim the EITC in any other years. If the form is properly completed and the IRS determines the taxpayer is eligible for the EITC, then the taxpayer is re-certified and need not submit Form 8862 again – unless the EITC is denied again.

Under Section 6213(g)(2)(K), the IRS can adjust the tax return by math error correction, rather than the deficiency procedures, if the taxpayer claims the credit during the ban period or without providing the required information for recertification. Nina Olson fought against that idea for years but it was eventually enacted in the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.

First obstacle: Location and language

Our LITC client – let’s call her “Maria” – was originally audited with respect to her 2014 return. She did a very good job of responding to the audit before even coming to our clinic. Most often, issues in an EITC audit concern proving relationship to the qualifying child or that the child lives with the taxpayer. Maria resolved those to the satisfaction of Exam/Appeals but one stumbling block remained: filing status. She filed her return as “single,” which of course should have been “Head of Household,” but the IRS insisted that she was married. Section 32(d) specifies that married taxpayers can claim the EITC only if they file joint returns. The IRS reclassified her filing status as “Married Filing Separately.” That was where the resolution bogged down, because Maria was adamant that she was not married.

Unfortunately, Maria lives in Texas, one of only ten states (plus the District of Columbia) that recognize common law marriage. She didn’t know that and she didn’t realize what the IRS was arguing from the correspondence she received. Maria doesn’t speak English and the “common law” part got lost in the translation by her son, who may not be familiar with the concept either. When she came to our clinic, we were able to explain the problem to her. We also determined that she had two arguments for claiming the credit.

First, she arguably did not meet the requirements under Texas law for a common law marriage. She had lived with her putative husband – let’s call him “Jose” – but she did not intend to be married and did not hold herself out to others as being married. We were persuaded as to the absence of intent by her obvious surprise when we explained what the IRS was saying. While corresponding with Exam/Appeals, before she came to the clinic, she submitted proof that she was not married: a certificate from the county clerk’s office that there was no record of a legal marriage between Maria and Jose. That’s not the type of evidence you’re likely to submit if you are aware of the existence of common law marriage. And if you’re not aware, that certainly suggests that you lacked the intent.

The more difficult aspect was the “holding out” requirement, because Maria and Jose had filed joint tax returns for several years prior to 2014. Jose may have held himself out to the IRS as married to Maria but I don’t think she did. She didn’t realize what the tax returns she signed meant. She thought Jose was claiming her as a dependent, not that she was presenting herself as his spouse. But it was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, to prevail on the first argument.

Our second argument was better. Under Section 7703(b), Maria could file her return as Head of Household, even though married, if (a) she maintained a household for a child who lived there and (b) she and Jose lived apart for at least the last six months of the year. Under Reg. 1.32-2(b)(2), such a return is not subject to the limitation of Section 32(d).  Jose had moved out in 2013; he was working in the oil fields in South Texas and living in his truck to save money to start a business. When he moved out, she even began paying him rent.

Second obstacle: Exam/Appeals and evidence

Unfortunately, there was no documentary evidence that Jose no longer lived there. He still received mail at the address where Maria lived and continued to use that address on subsequent tax returns he filed. You can’t get mail addressed to a truck and you can’t use the truck as your address on a tax return. There was no rental agreement or utility bill for the truck either, so the IRS could find no records showing a different address for him. So as far as Exam and Appeals were concerned, he still lived with Maria.

The IRS also was not satisfied with the substantiation for the agreement to pay rent. Maria and Jose documented that arrangement with a very formal rental agreement. (How many taxpayers would think to do that?) Unfortunately, Maria’s copy of the agreement was unsigned and it was only for a term of one year, which did not cover all of 2014. Maria continued paying rent after that but they did not think to prepare a new agreement until she was audited. Also, Maria didn’t have records of the payments to Jose, because she paid him in cash.

Maria’s case stumbled over what appears to be a larger problem with correspondence audits. During my limited time at the LITC, Exam and Appeals both appear to rely exclusively on documentary evidence. That may be understandable, given drastic reductions in staffing and the absence of face-to-face meetings in correspondence audits, but I don’t think it’s reasonable – particularly on something like this that had huge potential consequences. We offered to arrange a telephone conference (including translator) with Maria and could have put together an affidavit if they preferred that. But they just rejected the idea of testimony. Luckily, Counsel can and does accept testimonial evidence, so we were still hopeful. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to go to Tax Court, when we encountered another obstacle.

Shortly after we filed the Tax Court petition for the 2014 tax year, the IRS sent an audit notice for 2015. The same process repeated with the same result – Exam and Appeals rejected our explanations due to a lack of documentary evidence and Maria received a notice of deficiency. The IRS had frozen the refund for 2015 during the audit, so further delay did create some financial hardship.

Third obstacle: Error in a ministerial or administrative action

Once Appeals returned the docketed case for 2014 to Counsel, we submitted a declaration by Maria setting forth what her testimony would be. Within a week, the IRS attorney agreed to concede the case in full. The stipulated decision for 2014 was filed a day after we filed the petition for 2015. And in less than three months, we had a full concession from Counsel for 2015 and another stipulated decision. So, great results for Maria, right? Alas, here’s where we ran into an unrelated issue that had a very unfortunate interaction with the EITC ban.

I had never given much thought to the question of how Exam and Appeals proceed after issuing a notice of deficiency. I should have, although I’m not sure I could have avoided this problem. Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) sections 4.8.9.25 and 4.8.9.26 set forth the process when the taxpayer petitions and when the taxpayer defaults, respectively, after a notice of deficiency. It seems to be an elaborate process with many safeguards – a tax litigation counsel automated tracking system, a related docketed information management system, and checking the Tax Court website if not in those systems to confirm that the taxpayer defaulted. There is even a follow-up process for the occasional situation when the responsible employee receives the docket list after tax was assessed.

For both 2014 and 2015, we filed Tax Court petitions timely. As we all know, Section 6213(a) states in unequivocal terms that

no assessment of a deficiency . . . shall be made, begun, or prosecuted until such notice [of deficiency] has been mailed to the taxpayer, nor until the expiration of such 90-day or 150-day period, as the case may be, nor, if a petition has been filed with the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court has become final.

This is a disaster story, though, so you’ve undoubtedly guessed (correctly) that for both years the IRS assessed tax and reversed the EITC, while there was a pending Tax Court case. The IRS imposed the EITC 2-year ban in both cases and issued Notice CP 79A.

Why did this happen? I really don’t know. While I was writing this post, out of curiosity I reviewed the limited number of Tax Court deficiency cases our clinic handled in our two years of existence. For all the non-EITC cases, transaction code 520 “bankruptcy or other legal action filed” was posted to the transcript consistently in less than a month after the date the petition was posted to the Tax Court online docket. But for three of our six EITC cases in Tax Court, including Maria’s cases for 2014 and 2015, transaction code 520 was posted to the transcript significantly later: 64, 212, and 221 days after the respective petition was posted to the Tax Court docket. Every process is only as strong as its weakest link – in this case, human error or delay. Someone somewhere didn’t realize that we had challenged the notice of deficiency and didn’t get the information into the computer, so the assessments – and EITC bans – proceeded for those three cases. (Our other client made it to safety relatively early in the process.)

I reported the issue of premature assessments from these cases in the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS) last year, and I suspect other people have done so as well. It’s always a problem, but the consequences can be worse when the EITC ban is put into play.

Fourth obstacle: The difficulty of reversing an illegitimate assessment and EITC ban

Section 6213(a) provides a remedy if the IRS assesses or takes collection actions while a Tax Court case is pending:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 7421(a), the making of such assessment or the beginning of such proceeding or levy during the time such prohibition is in force may be enjoined by a proceeding in the proper court, including the Tax Court, and a refund may be ordered by such court of any amount collected within the period during which the Secretary is prohibited from collecting by levy or through a proceeding in court under the provisions of this subsection.

It doesn’t provide for enjoining the imposition of the EITC ban, though. In addition, IRM 4.13.3.17 provides that errors concerning an EITC assessment can be resolved through the audit reconsideration process, although presumably this is intended to apply when the taxpayer provides additional documentation after a legitimate assessment.

Perhaps foolishly, we tried to resolve the problem for 2014 informally. I gave the IRS attorney assigned to the case a copy of the notices issued by the IRS and asked if she could have it corrected. Because she had already referred the docketed case to Appeals, she passed that documentation along to the Appeals Officer. I followed up with the Appeals Officer twice, with no response. But the problem was eventually resolved; the assessment was reversed, and the IRS mailed Notice CP 74, recertifying Maria for EITC. Problem solved, and since the Tax Court case was still pending, no harm, no foul.

For 2015, I responded directly to the assessment and Notice CP 79A. That notice presents the ban as a fait accompli; there was no reference to what the taxpayer should do if she disagreed with the IRS action. As noted above, the recertification process applies only after the ban period. The accompanying Notice CP 22E for the assessment suggested the taxpayer call if she disagreed with the changes. Instead, I wrote a letter – remarkably polite under the circumstances – pointing out that the assessment and imposition of the ban were illegal because of the pending Tax Court case and requesting the IRS “take all necessary corrective actions immediately.” Exactly one month later (which qualifies as “immediately” in any large bureaucracy), the assessment was reversed. We had filed the stipulated decision in the meantime and finally, almost six months after our letter and five months after the stipulated decision, the IRS issued a refund. This was a long time for a low-income taxpayer to wait for a refund, but better late than never.

Let’s summarize the timeline, because this is getting confusing.

2014 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 11/30/2016
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 2/24/2017
  • Assessment/ban – 4/17/2017
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 5/3/2017
  • Clinic contacts Counsel and Appeals regarding the premature assessment – 6/5/2017, 6/21/2017, 7/24/2017
  • Assessment reversed – 11/13/2017
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 1/23/2018

2015 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 10/16/2017
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 1/16/2018
  • Assessment/ban – 2/26/2018
  • Clinic letter to IRS – 3/2/2018
  • Assessment reversed – 4/2/2018
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 4/5/2018
  • Refund issued – 8/3/2018
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 8/29/2018

Fifth obstacle: Enter the math error adjustment

Just when we thought Maria’s problems were over, on 7/2/2018 she received Notice CP 12, a math error adjustment denying EITC, for her 2016 tax return. We either didn’t notice or didn’t realize the significance at the time, but when the IRS reversed the premature assessment for her 2015 tax year, it did not issue Notice CP 74 recertifying her for EITC.

There had been an assessment of tax, on account of the EITC, as a deficiency for 2015, so it met the requirements of Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) and Section 32(k)(2). Of course, that assessment for 2015 was illegal and had been reversed. The stipulated decision in the Tax Court case meant there never was and never would be a legitimate final assessment or determination of reckless or intentional disregard of rules or regulations for 2015. Because there is no process to confirm the validity of the EITC ban first, the failure to recertify automatically resulted in issuance of the math error adjustment.

Luckily, although a math error adjustment can be assessed without judicial review, taxpayers can simply request that the adjustment be reversed within 60 days, although – if appropriate – it can be re-asserted through the deficiency process. Section 6213(b)(1) and (2). That’s exactly what we requested for the 2016 tax year, by letter on 7/24/2018.

And, of course, since this is a disaster story, you know that Maria also received Notice CP 12 for her 2017 tax return.

Sixth obstacle: Further delay for an audit?

The IRS mis-handled our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016. Of course. Notice CP 12 states:

If you contact us in writing within 60 days of the date of this notice, we will reverse the change we made to your account. However, if you are unable to provide us additional information that justifies the reversal and we believe the reversal and we believe the reversal is in error, we will forward your case for audit. This step gives you formal appeal rights, including the right to appeal our decision in the United States [Tax] Court before you have to pay additional tax. After we forward your case, the audit staff will contact you within 5 to 6 weeks to fully explain the audit process and your rights. If you do not contact us within the 60-day period, you will lose your right to appeal our decision before payment of tax.

That’s consistent with Section 6213(b) as well as IRM 21.5.4.5.3 to 21.5.4.5.5 (general math error procedures) and IRM 21.6.3.4.2.7.13 (EITC math errors specifically). A substantiated protest can result in just reversing the math error adjustment; an unsubstantiated protest will result in referral to Exam.

The IRS treated our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016 as an unsubstantiated protest and referred it to Exam. Perhaps they misclassified our protest because they expect a substantiated EITC protest to provide documentation regarding relationship or residence or SSNs. Our protest was based on a premature assessment and assertion of the ban, and the failure to reverse the ban imposed as a result of the audit of 2015. We certainly had substantiated our basis for that. But when you provide a type of substantiation that they’re not anticipating . . .

So we received an audit letter dated November 9th. Further delay before Maria will receive her refund. To add insult to injury, the notification of what was happening was inadequate and would have been confusing to an unrepresented taxpayer. There was no response to the protest, telling us that they were referring the case to Exam for review. That might have provided an opportunity to clarify the nature of our protest before initiation of the audit. The audit letter did not explain the connection with the math error adjustment. For that matter, the IRS did not – as specified in the IRM – abate the disputed adjustment.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the same thing would have happened when we protested the math error adjustment for 2017 as well. Luckily . . .

The rescue party arrives! Maria makes it to safety!

Our efforts hadn’t met with much success, so we contacted our Local Taxpayer Advocate office in mid October. The case advocate spent a lot of time and effort, chasing from one office to another on Maria’s behalf. He pointed out the premature bans, the decisions by the Tax Court, and the IRS policy against auditing an issue that were examined in either of the two preceding years with no change or a nominal adjustment. Even after he elevated the discussion to managers in the operating units, there was still a lot of resistance. I’m not sure he would have succeeded without the gentle reminder of the possibility of a Taxpayer Assistance Order. Just as I was finishing this post, he called us with the good news. The 2-year ban is being lifted, the two math error adjustments are being reversed, and the examination of 2016 is being closed. Soon Maria will be getting the remainder of the refunds she requested on her 2016 and 2017 tax returns.

Final thoughts

I’m getting used to the unfortunate difficulty of convincing Exam/Appeals that our clients are entitled to the EITC. I didn’t worry that much about the EITC ban because most of the time either we prevail or our clients aren’t entitled to the EITC and won’t claim it in the future anyway. I certainly didn’t anticipate how much trouble the EITC ban can cause even when we win the battle over the EITC itself.

TAS Systemic Advocacy also continues to look at these issues. They approached me after hearing about the case, before I even got around to reporting it in SAMS. Nina Olson has been fighting the problems with the EITC ban for years but still meets with resistance. Maybe this example of how much can go wrong will help in that fight. We can only hope.

The positive part of any ordeal like this is that, amid all the mindless adherence to byzantine and flawed processes, you can still encounter the IRS working the way it should: getting the right result, protecting the government fisc while also protecting taxpayer rights. In Maria’s case, those bright spots were Counsel, the case advocate at LTA, and the folks at TAS Systemic Advocacy. Without people like them, these tax issues can be devastating, not just for Maria but also for a lot of other taxpayers in similar situations.

 

Designated Orders: 8/6/18 to 8/10/18

William Schmidt of the Legal Aid Society of Kansas brings us this week’s designated order post. The case discussed involves a mystery regarding how the IRS made the assessment that led to the filing of the notice of federal tax lien that led to the collection due process case. There may be more orders yet to come in this case. Because the case is scheduled for trial next month in Denver, perhaps Samantha Galvin, another writer of designated order posts and one of the clinicians working in Denver, will have personal knowledge of the case. Keith

For the week of August 6 to 10, there were two designated orders from the Tax Court so this posting will be briefer than usual. It is unclear if this is a week where summer vacations took their toll. Both orders examined are from the same case so the analysis will include all the orders for the week.

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Docket No. 6161-17 L, Debra L. March v. C.I.R.

The Court provided 2 orders in this case starting from IRS Appeals issuing a determination to sustain the filing of the notice of lien for the collection of income tax for tax years 2009 and 2010.

Petitioner had a prior collection due process (CDP) case, Docket No. 10223-14, resulting from a notice of intent to levy. In the prior case the IRS issued a notice of determination sustaining the levy and the petitioner filed a Tax Court petition in which it challenged the validity of the assessment. The parties to that case entered into a stipulated decision on June 25, 2015, that did not sustain Appeals’ determination. The decision document stated that the IRS would abate the liability for tax year 2009 on the basis that the IRS failed to send the statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD) to the petitioner’s last known address. The Court, in the current case, states that it assumes the IRS complied with the decision entered in the prior case and made the abatement.

At issue in this week’s designated order is how the IRS came to have an assessment against the petitioner after the abatement of the prior assessment. The case presents a very curious situation; however, the order does not resolve the mystery but rather seeks to have the parties, particularly the IRS, explain how to resolve it.

At some point after the “presumed abatement” of the 2009 assessment following the first CDP case in Tax Court, the IRS appears to have reassessed the 2009 liability and filed a notice of lien on that 2009 liability. Appeals issued a notice of determination on February 6, 2017. The notice of determination states that the original assessment was abated (due to the wrong address on the notice of deficiency) and the taxpayer was given additional time to file an original tax return. Since the taxpayer continued not to file the return for 2009, the IRS reinstated the assessment. The problem with the verification is that how the IRS reinstated the assessment remains entirely unclear. It seems clear that the taxpayer did not consent to the reassessment by filing a tax return. What remains unclear is what the IRS did to acquire authority to reassess.

The language of the Settlement Officer in the notice of determination contains only a vague statement regarding the basis for the new assessment. For verification, the notice of determination states: “The Settlement Officer verified through transcript analysis that the assessment was properly made per IRC section 6201 for each tax and period listed on the CDP notice.” Ms. March timely petitioned the Tax Court on March 6, 2017 with the new CDP case again contesting the assessed liability.

The Court then analyzes code section 6201. Section 6201(a)(1) authorizes the IRS to assess “taxes…as to which returns…are made” though Ms. March has yet to file a return for 2009. The Court states that the other provisions for making an assessment do not seem to apply beyond the authority for the IRS to determine a deficiency, mail the taxpayer a SNOD, and assess the deficiency upon the passage of 90 days following the mailing (unless the taxpayer files a timely petition with Tax Court). But, the parties stipulated in that prior case that no SNOD was properly mailed, and the notice of determination appears to indicate no SNOD was mailed subsequent to the conclusion of the first Tax Court case.

The Court would like an explanation for the authority the IRS had to “restore the tax assessment.” The Court’s order is for the IRS to file a status report explaining the position about the validity of the 2009 income tax underlying the lien filing at issue in the case.

Takeaway: The IRS looks to have been caught making another bad assessment and then providing an alleged verification that fails to verify the proper statutory procedure for making an assessment. Perhaps they will have a suitable explanation or be able to cite different authority. Either the IRS “reinstated” the assessment without statutory authority for doing so or the Settlement Officer did not know how to write the verification section of the CDP determination and explain a statutory basis for the new assessment. In either case the IRS does not look good but if the IRS simply “reinstated” the assessment as the Settlement Officer describes, it appears the IRS is headed for its second CDP loss with respect to the same taxpayer for the same year for the same problem. Under the circumstances, the IRS attorney might also have noticed this issue before it got in front of a judge a second time. Tough. 

The Court discusses an IRS motion to show cause regarding why proposed facts and evidence should not be accepted as established. This order relates to a routine Rule 91(f) motion requiring a party to stipulate. Because the petitioner is unrepresented, the judge explains in the order how stipulations can be used to include evidence that a self-represented petitioner such as Ms. March would otherwise have to introduce at trial on her own. The judge also explained that Ms. March would not be prevented from introducing additional evidence beyond what was including in the stipulated evidence. The order provides an example of a typical Tax Court order to a pro se taxpayer in which the Court provides a simple, straight-forward explanation of the rules and why the unrepresented individual should comply for their own best interest. While this order uncoupled from Order 1 discussed above would not deserve designated order status, it offers a glimpse of a routine order issued in Tax Court cases to pro se petitioners uncomfortable with the stipulation process for fear of stipulating themselves out of court.

After providing the careful explanation for the benefit of the petitioner, the Court granted the IRS motion to show cause and ordered that the petitioner file a reply on or before August 27. If no response is provided, the Court will issue an order accordingly.

Takeaway: While the Court is reasonable in explaining to an unrepresented petitioner the process of stipulations, the Court also does not stray from the rules or let that delay the upcoming trial (September 24 in Denver).

 

 

As If: Tax Court Holds that Restitution Assessment Does Not Attract Late Payment Penalties or Interest

This week in Klein v Commissioner the Tax Court in a division opinion held that assessments of restitution do not generate underpayment interest or late payment penalties. This is an important holding and a case of first impression.

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Section 6201(a)(4) gives the Service to power to assess restitution “in the same manner as if such amount were such tax.” Following a restitution assessment, Internal Revenue Manual provisions and Service policy has been to impose underpayment interest and late payment penalties on amounts that are unpaid similar to other unpaid tax.

To the facts at hand. In Klein, after some delay, the taxpayer fully paid the restitution, as well as interest that accrued pursuant to the statute in Title 18 that allowed for restitution. The taxpayer did not pay the separate Title 26 interest and late payment penalties that the Service imposed and assessed.

The IRS commenced administrative collection with respect to the unpaid interest and penalties. In a CDP proceeding the taxpayer challenged the Service’s right to impose underpayment interest and civil penalties, having claimed that it fully paid what was due.

The taxpayer had to clear the hurdle that she could challenge the Service’s imposition of penalties and interest in the CDP proceeding. The Court found that it was possible, noting that in a CDP proceeding, “underlying tax liability refers to the assessed liabilities that the IRS is seeking to collect via the challenged lien or levy.”

The opinion then considered the Service’s interest and penalty procedures in place for restitution assessments under the Internal Revenue Manual. The Tax Court held that the statutory language that gives IRS the power to assess restitution “as if” it were a tax does not transform the assessed restitution into a tax for purposes of the penalty and interest provisions. In doing so, the opinion discusses how the statute is drafted in the subjunctive mood.

For those who may have forgotten their Latin, the opinion explains what that means:

This clause is drafted in the subjunctive mood. Clauses of this type are commonly used to express a counterfactual hypothesis. See, e.g., Andrea A. Lunsford, The St. Martin’s Handbook 633 (5th ed. 2003) (describing the subjunctive mood as expressing “a wish, suggestion, requirement, or a condi- tion contrary to fact”). For example, assume a statute providing that certain per- sons (green card holders, perhaps) shall be treated “in the same manner as if they were citizens.” In such a statute, Congress would necessarily presume that such persons were not in fact citizens, providing merely that they should be accorded the treatment which citizens receive.

So as Alicia Silverstone in Clueless can attest, “as if” is an important phrase. As the opinion explains, the “as if” in the statute provides “the counterfactual hypothesis that restitution is a tax for the limited purpose of enabling the IRS to assess that amount, thus creating an account receivable on the taxpayer’s transcript against which the restitution payment can be credited.” It is treated like a tax but is not a tax.

In addition to parsing the statute, the opinion notes that the criminal concepts of tax loss and restitution do not neatly equate with the concepts of civil tax liability. In 2010 when Congress gave the IRS the power to assess (and collect) restitution it did not alter the fundamental distinction between the separate criminal and civil concepts.

To be sure, if the Service gets around to a civil examination, it can potentially generate an assessment that would be based on deficiency procedures. (for readers who would like more background on the interplay of the deficiency assessment procedures and the relatively new restitution assessment procedures see Keith’s post from this past spring discussing the issue here). If the Service were to conduct a civil examination and the amount assessed under deficiency procedures is both unpaid and exceeds what has previously been collected, it will be possible for Title 26 interest and civil penalties to start running.

 

When Can the IRS Reassess After Abatement

Guidance was issued on December 7, 2016, and released on March 31, 2017, regarding reassessment after abatement.  The Procedure and Administration Division of Chief Counsel’s office issued the guidance to an attorney in a field office.  The guidance addressed the following question:

“Whether the statute of limitations for assessment of the section 6651(a)(2) addition to tax for failure to pay remains open after an erroneous administrative First Time Abatement, such that the Service may reassess the addition to tax.”

The guidance concludes that the normal three year statute of limitations for assessment does not apply to the addition to tax imposed in 6651(a)(2) and, therefore, the IRS can reassess a failure to pay addition to tax at any time during the ten year statute of limitations for collection.  The guidance document, though relatively short, contains a couple of statute of limitations issues worth discussing.

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The facts giving rise to the opinion deserve brief mention.  In this case the taxpayer filed a joint return with her husband.  They reported the tax on the return but failed to pay the tax reported on the return.  Later they filed an amended return reporting more tax which they also failed to pay.  The taxpayer’s husband filed a bankruptcy petition but she did not.  The filing of the bankruptcy petition by one spouse causes the IRS to split the tax account from one master file account into two non-master file accounts.  Guest blogger Marilyn Ames discussed master file and non-master file accounts in an earlier post and understanding the differences is important in interpreting IRS transcripts.

Depending on the timing of the bankruptcy, the husband might have discharged the 6651(a)(2) liability.  For penalties and additions to tax, the provision governing discharge is found in BC 523(a)(7) and has a three year rule.  For the same reason, discussed below, that the normal assessment rules do not apply to the 6651(a)(2) liability, the three year rule is a little different in a failure to pay situation since the liability derives from post-return actions (or inactions.)  Whether the husband discharged this liability does not matter in this advisory opinion.  The opinion focuses on the wife’s liability.  Because she did not file bankruptcy, her husband’s discharge, if any, will have no impact on her.  He might discharge not only the 6651(a)(2) liability but the tax and the interest.  She would still have a liability for these amounts no matter how her husband’s bankruptcy treats them with respect to him.

Because she still owes this liability, she called the IRS and requested first time abatement.  Steve has written a couple of excellent posts on first time abatement (FTA), here and here, which have proven to be among the most popular posts of all time.  FTA more frequently occurs with late filing and not late payment but here the IRS person on the phone granted her FTA for late payment.  However, sometime after granting her FTA, the IRS determined that it made a mistake because “she had a penalty or addition to tax within the three years prior to the tax period at issue.”  I suspect the mistake related to the placing of her liability for the tax in a non-master file account.

When the IRS mistakenly abates a liability, it has a few good, but old, cases on which it relies to reverse the mistake and it cites to those cases in the advisory opinion.  The first case is Carlin v. United States, 100 F. Supp. 451 (Ct. Cl. 1951) which held that “if the Commissioner abates the assessment, it ceases to exist or to have any effect thereafter.  The Commissioner cannot subsequently rescind his actions or restore the assessment, but must rather make a new assessment unless, of course, the statute of limitations has previously expired.”  The second case always cited in these situations is Crompton-Richmond v. United States, 311 F. Supp. 1184 (S.D.N.Y. 1970) holding that “if the statute of limitations has not run, the IRS may simply make a new assessment of the tax liability that has been abated.”

These cases allow the IRS to essentially have a “do over” when it erroneously abatement a taxpayer’s liability; however, they limit the do over to the statute of limitations.  Although neither of the quotes in the preceding paragraph make precisely clear which statute of limitations it means, the relevant statute of limitations in these cases is the statute of limitations on assessment.  That gives the IRS a relatively short window within which to fix the problem.  The normal rule on the statute of limitations for assessment of three years from the due date of the return does not apply, however, if the liability comes from 6651(a)(2).

The guidance explains that the assessment period for a 6651(a)(2) liability cannot end three years from the due date (or filing date) of a return because this addition to tax runs for 50 months after the filing date.  During the 50 months after the filing date, the taxpayer gets hit with another liability under the statute for every month that passes based on the outstanding liability as of that month.  Because the assessment of this liability must extend past the normal three year period for assessment, the guidance concludes that the time period for assessment remains open for the ten year statute of limitations on collection.  As with the reassessment after abatement case law, the case law on this ten year statute of limitations is fairly thin and exists in lower court opinions.  The leading case is United States v. Estate of Hurd, 115 A.F.T.R.2d 2015-38 (C.D. Cal 2015).

So, the guidance concludes that because the statute of limitations on collection remained open in W’s case the IRS could reverse the abatement and reassess the liability against her.  The guidance is not surprising and does not break new ground but because this issue does not arise and get discussed very often the guidance is worth looking at if you have a reassessment situation.

 

Second Circuit Tosses Penalties Because of IRS Failure To Obtain Supervisor Approval

–Or, Tax Court Burnt by Second Circuit’s Hot Chai

Yesterday the Second Circuit decided a very important decision in favor of the taxpayer pertaining to the Section 6571 requirement that a direct supervisor approve a penalty before it is assessed.  In Chai v. Commissioner, the Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court, holding the Service’s failure to show penalties were approved by the immediate supervisor prior to issuing a notice of deficiency caused the penalty to fail.  In doing so, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected the recent Tax Court holdings on this matter, including Graev v. Commissioner, determining the matter was ripe for decision and that the Service’s failure prevented the imposition of the penalty.  Chai also has interesting issues involving TEFRA and penalty imposition that will not be covered (at least not today), and is important for the Second Circuit’s rejection of the IRS position that the taxpayer was required to raise the Section 6571 issue.   It is lengthy, but worth a read for practitioners focusing on tax controversy work.

PT regulars know that we have covered this topic on the blog in the past, including the recent taxpayer loss in the very divided Tax Court decision in Graev v. Commissioner.  Keith’s post on Graev from December can be found here.  For readers interested in a full review of that case and the history of this matter, Keith’s blog is a great starting point, and has links to prior posts written by him, Carlton Smith, and Frank Agostino (whose firm handled Graev and also the Chai case). Graev was actually only recently entered, and is appealable to the Second Circuit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the taxpayer in that case files a motion to vacate based on the Second Circuit’s rejection of the Tax Court’s approach in Greav.

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Before discussing the  Second Circuit holding, I will crib some content from Keith, to indicate the status of the law before yesterday.  Here is Keith’s summary of the holding in Graev:

The Court split pretty sharply in its opinion with nine judges in the majority deciding that the IRC 6751(b) argument premature since the IRS had not yet assessed the liability, three judges concurring because the failure to obtain managerial approval did not prejudice the taxpayers and five judges dissenting because the failure to obtain managerial approval prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency prevented the IRS from asserting this penalty (or the Court from determining that the taxpayer owed the penalty.)

That paragraph from Keith’s post regarding the holding doesn’t cover the lengthy and nuanced discussion, but his full post does for those who are interested.  The Second Circuit essentially rejected every position taken by the majority and concurrence in Graev, and almost completely agreed with the dissenting Tax Court judges (with a  few minor differences in rationale).

For its Section 6751(b) review, the Second Circuit began by reviewing the language of the statute.  It highlighted the fact that the Tax Court did the same, and found the language of the statute unambiguous, a conclusion with which the Second Circuit disagreed.

Section 6751(b)(1) states, in pertinent part:

No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination…[emph. added]

The Tax Court found the lack of specification as to when the approval of the immediate supervisor was required allowed the immediate supervisor to approve the determination at any point, even after the statutory notice of deficiency was issued or the Tax Court reviewed the matter.

The Second Circuit, however, found the language ambiguous, and the lack of specification as to when the approval was required problematic.  The Second Circuit stated “[u]understanding § 6751 and appreciating its ambiguity requires proficiency with the deficiency process,” and then went through a primer on the issue.  To paraphrase the Second Circuit, the assessment occurs when the liability is recorded by the Secretary, which is “essentially a bookkeeping notation.”  It is the last step before the IRS can collect a deficiency.  The Second Circuit stated the deficiency is announced to the taxpayer in a SNOD, along with its intention to assess.  The taxpayer then has 90 days to petition the Tax Court for review.  If there is a petition to the Court, it then becomes the Court’s job to determine the amount outstanding.  As it is the Court’s job to determine the amount of the assessment, the immediate supervisor no longer has the ability to approve or not approve the penalty.  The Second Circuit agreed with the Graev dissent that “[i]n light of the historical meaning of ‘assessment,’” the phrase “initial determination of such assessment” did not make sense.  A deficiency can be determined, as can the decision to make an assessment, but you cannot determine an assessment.

The Second Circuit then looked to the legislative history, and found the requirement was meant to force the supervisor to approve the penalty before it was issued to the taxpayer, not simply before the bookkeeping function was finalized.  The Court further stated, as I noted above, if the supervisor is to give approval, it must be done at a time when the supervisor actually has authority.  As the Court noted, [t]hat discretion is lost once the Tax Court decision becomes final: at that point, § 6215(a) provides that ‘the entire amount redetermined as the deficiency…shall be assessed.”  The supervisor (and the IRS generally) can no longer approve or deny the imposition of the penalty.  The Court further noted, the authority to approve really vanishes upon a taxpayer filing with the Tax Court, as the statute provides approval of “the initial determination of such assessment,” and once the Court is involved it would no longer be the initial determination.  Continuing this line of thought, the Second Circuit stated that the taxpayer can file with the Tax Court immediately after the issuance of the notice of deficiency, so it is really the issuance of the notice of deficiency that is the last time where an initial determination could be approved.

This aspect of the holding is important for two reasons.  First, the Second Circuit is requiring the approval at the time of the NOD, and not allowing it to be done at some later point.  Second, this takes care of the ripeness issue.  If the time is set for approval, and it has passed, then the Court must consider the issue.

Of potentially equal importance in the holding is the fact that the Second Circuit stated unequivocally that the Service had the burden of production on this matter under Section 7491(c) and was responsible for showing the approval. It is fairly clear law that the Service has the burden of production and proof on penalties once a taxpayer challenges the penalties, with taxpayers bearing the burden on affirmative defenses.   The case law on whether the burden of production exists when a taxpayer doesn’t directly contest the penalties is a little more murky (thanks to Carlton Smith for my education on this matter).  The Second Circuit made clear its holding that the burden of production was solely on the Service, and the taxpayer had no obligation to raise the matter nor the burden of proof to show the approval was not given.  The Service had argued the taxpayer waived this issue by not bringing it up earlier in the proceeding, which the Second Circuit found non-persuasive.

As to the substance of the matter, the Second Circuit held the government never once indicated there was any evidence of compliance with Section 6751.  Since the Commissioner failed to meet is burden of production and proof, the penalty could not be assessed and the taxpayer was not responsible for paying it.  A very good holding for taxpayers, and we would expect a handful of other case to come through soon.  Given the division within the Tax Court, and the various rationales, it would not be surprising to see other Circuits hold differently.

Procedure Grab Bag: CCAs – Suspended/Extended SOLs and Fraud Penalty

My last post was devoted to a CCA, which inspired me to pull a handful of other CCAs to highlight from the last few months.  The first CCA discusses the suspension of the SOL when a petition is filed with the Tax Court before a deficiency notice is issued (apparently, the IRM is wrong on this point in at least one spot).  The second touches on whether failing to disclose prior years gifts on a current gift tax return extends the statute of limitations for assessment on a gift tax return that was timely filed (this is pretty interesting because you cannot calculate the tax due without that information).  And, finally, a CCA on the imposition of the fraud penalty in various filing situations involving amended returns.

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CCA 201644020 – Suspension of SOL with Tax Court petition when no deficiency notice

We routinely call the statutory notice of deficiency the ticket to the Tax Court.  In general, when a taxpayer punches that ticket and heads for black robe review, the statute of limitations on assessment and collections is tolled during the pendency of the Tax Court case.  See Section 6503(a).  What happens when the petition is filed too soon, and the Court lacks jurisdiction?  Well, the IRM states that the SOL is not suspended.  IRM 8.20.7.21.2(4) states, “If the petition filed by the taxpayer is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the Service did not issue a SND, the ASED is not suspended and the case must be returned to the originating function…”  But, Chief Counsel disagrees. Section 6503(a) states:

The running of the period of limitations provided in section 6501 or 6502…shall (after the mailing of a notice under section 6212(a)) be suspended for the period during which the Secretary is prohibited from making the assessment or from collecting by the levy or a proceeding in court (and in any event, if a proceeding in respect of the deficiency is placed on the docket of the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court becomes final), and for 60 days thereafter. (emph. added).

Chief Counsel believes the second parenthetical above extends the limitations period even when the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction because no notice of deficiency was issued.   The CCA further states, “Any indication in the IRM that the suspension does not apply if the Service did not mail a SND is incorrect.”  Time for an amendment to the IRM.  I think this is the correct result, but the Service likely had some reason for its position in the IRM, and might be worth reviewing if you are in a situation with the SOL might have run.

CCA 201643020

The issue in CCA 201643020 was whether the three year assessment period was extended due to improper disclosure…of prior gifts properly reported on prior returns.  In general, taxpayers making gifts must file a federal gift tax return, Form 709, by April 15th the year following the gift.  The Service, under Section 6501(a) has three years to assess tax after a proper return is filed.  If no return is filed, or there is not proper notification, the service may assess at any time under Section 6501(c)(9).

In the CCA, the Service sought guidance on whether a the statute of limitations was extended where in Year 31 a gift was made and reported on a timely filed gift tax return.  In previous years 1, years 6 through 9, and 15 prior gifts were reported on returns.  On the year 31 return, however, those prior gifts were not reported.  That information was necessary to calculate the correct amount of tax due.

Section 6501(c)(9) specifically states:

If any gift of property the value of which … is required to be shown on a return of tax imposed by chapter 12 (without regard to section 2503(b)), and is not shown on such return, any tax imposed by chapter 12 on such gift may be assessed, or a proceeding in court for the collection of such tax may be begun without assessment, at any time. The preceding sentence shall not apply to any item which is disclosed in such return, or in a statement attached to the return, in a manner adequate to apprise the Secretary of the nature of such item.

Chief Counsel concluded that this requires a two step analysis.  Step one is if the gift was reported on the return.  If not, step two requires a determination if the item was adequately disclosed.  Counsel indicated it is arguable that the regulations were silent on the omission of prior gifts, but that the statutory language was clear.  Here, the gift was disclosed on the return, and the statutory requirements were met.  The period was not extended.  I was surprised there was not some type of Beard discussion regarding providing sufficient information to properly calculate the tax due.

CCA 201640016

Earlier this year, the Service also released CCA 201640016, which is Chief Counsel Advice covering the treatment of fraud penalties in various circumstances surrounding taxpayers filing returns and amended returns with invalid original issue discount claims.  The conclusions are not surprising, but it is a good summary of how the fraud penalties can apply.

The taxpayer participated in an “Original Issue Discount (OID) scheme” for multiple tax years.  The position take for the tax years was frivolous.  For tax year 1, the Service processed the return and issued a refund.  For tax year 2, the Service did not process the return or issue a refund. For tax year 3, the return was processed but the refund frozen.  The taxpayer would not cooperate with the Service’s criminal investigation, and was indicted and found guilty of various criminal charges.  Spouse of taxpayer at some point filed amended returns seeking even greater refunds based on the OID scheme, but those were also frozen (the dates are not included, but the story in my mind is that spouse brazenly did this after the conviction).

The issues in the CCA were:

  1. Are the original returns valid returns?
  2. If valid, is the underpayment subject to the Section 6663 fraud penalty?
  3. Did the amended returns result in underpayments such that the penalty could apply, even though the Service did not pay the refunds claimed?

The conclusions were:

  1. It is likely a court would consider the returns valid, even with the frivolous position, but, as an alternative position, any notice issued by the Service should also treat the returns as invalid and determine the fraudulent failure to file penalty under Section 6651(f).
  2. To the extent the return is valid, the return for which a refund was issued will give rise to an underpayment potentially subject to the fraud penalty under Section 6663. The non-processed returns or the ones with frozen refunds will not give rise to underpayments and Section 6663 iis inapplicable.  CC recommended the assertion of the Section 6676 penalty for erroneous claims for refund or credit.
  3. The amended returns did not result in underpayments, so the Section 6663 fraud penalty is inapplicable, but, again, the Service could impose the Section 6676 penalty.

So, the takeaway, if a taxpayer fails to file a valid return, or there is no “underpayment” on a fraudulent return, the Service cannot use Section 6663.  See Mohamed v. Comm’r, TC Memo. 2013-255 (where no valid return filed, no fraud penalty can be imposed).  In the CCA, Counsel believed the return was valid, but acknowledged potential issues with that position.  Under the Beard test, a return is valid if:

 four requirements are met: (1) it must contain sufficient data to calculate tax liability; (2) it must purport to be a return; (3) it must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law; and (4) it must be executed by the taxpayer under penalties of perjury. See Beard v. Comm’r,  82 T.C. 766 (1984). A return that is incorrect, or even fraudulent, may still be a valid return if “on its face [it] plausibly purports to be in compliance.” Badaracco v. Comm’r, 464 U.S. 386 (1984).

The only prong the CCA said was at issue was the third prong, that the return “must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law.”  As the taxpayer had been convicted of Filing False Claims with a Government Agency/Filing A False Income Tax Return, Aiding and Abetting, and Willful Attempt to Evade or Defeat the Payment of Tax, it is understandable why you would question if the returns were “an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law.”  Further, the Service had imposed the frivolous filing penalty under Section 6702, which only applies when the return information “on its face indicates that the self-assessment is substantially incorrect.”

The CCA notes, however, it is rare for courts to hold returns as invalid solely based on the third prong of Beard, but clearly there would be a valid argument for the taxpayers in this situation.  The CCA acknowledges that by stating “[t]o guard against the possibility that the returns are not valid, the Service should include the Section 6651(f) fraudulent failure to file penalty as an alternative position,” so the taxpayer could pick his poison.

As to the underpayment, Counsel highlighted that overstatements of withholding credits can give rise to an underpayment under the fraud penalty.  The definition was shown as a formula of Underpayment = W-(X+Y-Z).  W is the amount of tax due, X is the amount shown as due on the return, Y is amounts not shown but previously assessed, and Z is the amount of rebates made.  Where the refund was provided, the penalty could clearly apply.  In “frozen refund” situations, the Service has adopted the practice of treating that amount as a sum collected without assessment, which can cancel out the X and Y variables so no underpayment for the fraud penalty will exist.

But, as shown above, even if the fraud penalty may not apply, the Section 6651 penalty will likely apply if the return is invalid, or the frivolous position penalty under Section 6702 may apply.

Collecting Partnership Debt from General Partners

The 9th Circuit recently sustained the district court which sustained the bankruptcy court in the case of Pitts v. United States.  The taxpayer sought a determination that the taxes claimed against her in the bankruptcy proceeding were discharged.  The courts determined that the taxes were not discharged, rejecting various arguments that she presented.  The case breaks no new legal ground but serves to highlight how the IRS collects from general partners.  If you have this issue, you might look at IRM Part 5, specifically 5.1.21, 5.17.7, and 5.19.14.

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Ms. Pitts was the general partner of DIR Waterproofing. DIR failed to pay its employment taxes including both trust fund and non-trust fund portions. The IRS would typically make some effort to collect from the partnership and then seek to collect from the partners. The opinion does not describe the efforts made here, but the IRS did issue a notice of federal tax (NFTL) against Ms. Pitts. In these situations the IRS does not go through a separate assessment process for Ms. Pitts but uses the assessment made against the partnership in order to pursue collection against her. The NFTL would reference the partnership debt although it would make clear that the lien is against her. Because the debt arose through the partnership, she argued that it was a state law debt and the IRS was limited to collect as a state law creditor. The 9th Circuit made three separate explanations of why her arguments failed.

First, the court pointed out that under IRC 6321 Ms. Pitts was a person liable to pay any tax and, as such a person, a lien arises under federal law which attaches to all of her property and rights to property once the IRS makes demand for payment and payment is not made. This is federal law and not state law creating the lien. The court cited several cases in support of its position.

Next, the court found that the IRS can use all of its administrative enforcement tools because she is secondarily liable on this debt. The court cited to a Supreme Court decision, United States v. Galletti, 541 U.S. 114 (2004) that may have caused Ms. Pitts to make the arguments she made here but which should also have suggested to her that these arguments would likely fail. In Galletti, similarly situated taxpayers to Ms. Pitts went into bankruptcy where the IRS filed a proof of claim based on the assessment against the partnership in which they were general partners. The Gallettis argued that no debt existed against them because the IRS had not made an assessment against them (and the statute of limitations on assessment of the partnership debt had run by the time of the bankruptcy.) In that case, the bankruptcy court, the district court, and the 9th Circuit agreed with the Gallettis. These opinions relied upon the definition of ‘taxpayer’ in IRC 7701 and looked to the separate nature of the partners as taxpayers from the partnership. The IRS pushed the case to the Supreme Court, which held that the IRS did not need to make a separate assessment because the Gallettis were liable under state law as general partners of the partnership.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Thomas said:

“Under a proper understanding of the function and nature of an assessment, it is clear that it is the tax that is assessed, not the taxpayer. See §6501(a) (“the amount of any tax … shall be assessed”); §6502(a) (“[w]here the assessment of any tax”). And in United States v. Updike, 281 U. S. 489 (1930), the Court, interpreting a predecessor to §6502, held that the limitations period resulting from a proper assessment governs “the extent of time for the enforcement of the tax liability,” id., at 495. In other words, the Court held that the statute of limitations attached to the debt as a whole. The basis of the liability in Updike was a tax imposed on the corporation, and the Court held that the same limitations period applied in a suit to collect the tax from the corporation as in a suit to collect the tax from the derivatively liable transferee. Id., at 494-496. See also United States v. Wright, 57 F. 3d 561, 563 (CA7 1995) (holding that, based on Updike‘s principle of “all-for-one, one-for-all,” the statute of limitations governs the debt as a whole).

Once a tax has been properly assessed, nothing in the Code requires the IRS to duplicate its efforts by separately assessing the same tax against individuals or entities who are not the actual taxpayers but are, by reason of state law, liable for payment of the taxpayer’s debt. The consequences of the assessment–in this case the extension of the statute of limitations for collection of the debt–attach to the tax debt without reference to the special circumstances of the secondarily liable parties.”

Ms. Pitts wants the courts to recognize that the assessment only applies to her because of the operation of state law and since it is the operation of state law causing her to become liable she wants the debt treated as state law debt and not tax debt with the exceptions to discharge applicable to tax debts. The 9th Circuit, perhaps still remembering the Galletti outcome, does not allow her to split hairs in this manner. State law plays an important role in creating the liability but her liability is for a federal tax debt.

The 9th Circuit rejects her argument that state law creates the statute of limitations. It also rejects her argument that the continuation by the IRS of its efforts to collect this debt violates the discharge injunction. I did not go back and read the earlier opinions to see the age of the debt. The trust fund portion of the partnership’s unpaid employment taxes will always be excepted from discharge because B.C. 507(a)(1)(C) will always make this a priority debt in bankruptcy and that will always make it excepted from discharge under B.C. 523(a)(1)(A). The non-trust fund portion of the partnership employment tax debt should become dischargeable for bankruptcy petitions filed more than three years after the employment tax return due date, assuming it timely filed the returns. The court engages in no analysis of this issue making me think that she is not entitled to a discharge of the non-trust fund portion; however, depending on the timing of the debt and the bankruptcy petition, this portion of her debt could potentially be discharged in her bankruptcy just as in the bankruptcy of the partnership itself.

This case demonstrates how the IRS will proceed to collect from a general partner. It simply uses the assessment against the partnership to open the full range of administrative collection tools given to it under the Code. The effort by Ms. Pitts to use the Galletti opinion to argue that the operation of state law which lets the IRS go after the general partners without a separate assessment should also limit the IRS in its ability to collect. The 9th Circuit rejects that limitation on the power of the IRS in this situation and, I think, its decision is correct. The issue brings up in another context the interplay between state law which creates certain rights and obligations and the federal tax collection law which builds upon the state created rights and obligations.

Procedure Grab Bag – Foreign Tax Credits

Two cases dealing with foreign tax credits, with very different litigation records; one being denied cert by SCOTUS (Albemarle, which we’ve covered before) and one tossed on summary judgement in the District Court (Estate of Herrick) with the taxpayer prevailing on making a late election where no late election was permissible.  The second case has pretty interesting regulatory interpretation.

No SCOTUS

The first has been covered here on PT before on at least two occasions.  SCOTUS has denied cert in Albemarle Corp. v. US.  When the Federal Circuit reviewed the case, I wrote the following in a SumOp:

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Hopping in the not-so-wayback-machine, in October of 2014, SumOp covered Albemarle Corp. v. US, where the Court of Federal Claims held that tax accruals related back to the original refund year under the “relation back doctrine” in a case dealing with the special statute of limitations for foreign tax credit cases.   As is often the case in SumOp, we did not delve too deeply into the issue, but I did link to a more robust write up.  It seems the taxpayers were not thrilled with the Court of Federal Claims and sought relief from the Federal Circuit.  Unfortunately for the taxpayer, the Fed Circuit sided with its robed brothers/sisters, and affirmed that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the refund claim had not been made within the ten year limitations period under Section 6511(d)(3)(A).   This case deserves a few more lines.  The language in question states,  “the period shall be 10 years from the date prescribed  by law for filing the return for the year in which such taxes were actually paid or accrued.”   When the tax was paid or accrued is what generated the debate.

In the case, a Belgium subsidiary and its parent company, Albemarle entered into a transaction, which they erroneously thought was exempt from tax, so no Belgian tax was paid.  Years in question were ’97 through ‘01.  In 2002, Albemarle was assessed tax on aspects of the transaction in Belgium, and paid the tax that was due.   In 2009, Albemarle filed amended US returns seeking about $1.5MM in refunds due to the foreign tax credit for the Belgian tax.  Service granted for ’99 to ’01, but not ’97 or ’98 because those were outside the ten year statute for claims related to the foreign tax credit under Section 6511(d)(3)(A).  Albemarle claimed that the language “from the date…such taxes were actually…accrued” means the year in which the foreign tax liability was finalized, which would be 2002 instead of the year the tax originated.  Both the lower court and the Circuit Court found that the statute ran from the year of origin.  The Circuit Court came to this conclusion after a fairly lengthy discussion of what “accrue” and “actually” mean, plus a trip through the legislative history and various doctrines, including the “all events test”, the “contested tax doctrine”, and the “relation back” doctrine.  The Court found the “relation back” doctrine was key for this issue, which states the tax “is accruable for the taxable year to which it relates even though the taxpayer contests the liability therefor and such tax is not paid until a later year.” See Rev. Rul. 58-55.  This can result in a different accrual date for crediting the tax against US taxes under the “relation back” test and when the right to claim the credit arises, which is governed by the “contested tax” doctrine.

At that time, McDermott, Will and Emery posted some “Thought Leadership” (I’ve hated that term for a long time, but the summary is extensive and helpful), which can be found here.  The final paragraph of their advice is right on the mark, indicating there is no circuit split, so there likely would be no SCOTUS review.  It also provides great additional parting advice, stating:

Taxpayers in similar situations wishing to take positions contrary to the Federal Circuit’s decision, and without any option other than litigation, may want to file suits in local district court to avoid the negative precedent. Taxpayers may also want to consider filing protective refund claims in situations where it does not appear that a tax payment to a foreign jurisdiction will actually be made (and there will be enough time to file a formal refund claim with the IRS) within 10 years from the date the U.S. federal income tax return was filed to avoid the situation in Albemarle.

Not so late election

The second foreign tax credit case is the Estate of Herrick v. United States from the District Court for the Central District of Utah, where an estate filed late income tax returns seeking a refund for a decedent who had resided and worked in the Philippines for a number of years.  The taxpayer failed to file income tax returns during that period, under the mistaken belief that no income tax would be due because of credits for the foreign tax he was paying (not how that works).  The Service created SFRs, and assessed and collected over a $1MM in tax for the years in question.  The taxpayer sought summary judgement on its refund claim, which the IRS was contesting, arguing the taxpayer was not entitled to the credit or exclusion for foreign income taxes or that there were insufficient facts to establish that he was entitled to the same.

Under Section 911, some taxpayers living and working abroad in some circumstances can exclude a portion of the foreign earned income, and under Section 901, there is a credit for foreign tax that is paid, which can be applied against US income tax (as most of our readers know, under Section 61, the United States generally treats all income of its citizens, wherever earned, as being taxable income—these provisions help to reduce the potential for double taxation with the other jurisdictions).

As to the second claim, that insufficient evidence was available regarding the credits, the IRS position largely applied to one year.  For all other years, the taxpayer had showed copies of its returns, copies of his employer’s information related to him for the years in question, and the taxing authority in the Philippines verified all the information, including payment.  For one year, only a copy of the return and the employer’s information was available.  The Court found this was sufficient evidence to show proof of payment.

The second argument the Service made was that the taxpayer could not obtain the foreign earned income exclusion under Section 911 because the taxpayer had not made the election on a timely filed return or within one year of a timely filed return.  See Treas. Reg. 1.911-7(a)(2)(i).  Seems damning.

The Court, however, stated that the Service was only looking to subsections (A) through (C), and not giving consideration to subsection (D) in the Regulations allowing for elections to made when:

(D) With an income tax return filed after the period described in paragraphs (a)(2)(I) (A), (B), or (C) of this section provided –

(1)  The taxpayer owes no federal income tax after taking into account the exclusion and files Form 1040 with Form 2555 or a comparable form attached either before or after the Internal Revenue Service discovers that the taxpayer failed to elect the exclusion; or

(2)  The taxpayer owes federal income tax after taking into account the exclusion and files Form 1040 with Form 2555 or a comparable form attached before the Internal Revenue Service discovers that the taxpayer failed to elect the exclusion.

The Court found the first prong under (D) did not apply.  The taxpayer claimed that it did not owe any federal income tax, because the IRS had already assessed and collected an amount over the total amount outstanding.  The Court stated, however, the fact that no tax was due at the time of filing was not the question, and the determination was whether any tax was due for the year, which had been the case but the Service had already collected that amount via levy.

The Court, however, held that the second prong did apply.  The Court found the Service had not discovered the failed election.  The Court found the Service had determined the taxpayer failed to file returns for the years in question, but that was not the same as discovering the taxpayer failed to make the election (would anyone be surprised if the Service doesn’t concede this point in other jurisdictions?).  This allowed the taxpayer to make the election on the late filed returns.