Tax Court Jurisdiction and the EITC Ban

We welcome William Schmidt who is normally one of our regular designated order blogging. William’s post today results from a request for help from another designated order blogger, Patrick Thomas, who asked for assistance from his colleagues to do an in-depth analysis on a specific designated order from the week of July 23 to 27. During that week the Tax Court issued a heavy load of designated orders that Patrick turned into a three part series without including the case which is the subject of today’s post. William writes about Docket No. 20967-16, Katrina E. Taylor & Avery Taylor, v. C.I.R. (Order here). He focuses on the Taylor case because it brings back a jurisdictional issue for Tax Court regarding the earned income tax credit (EITC) ban that Les has written about before as is cited below. Keith

To begin with some background on the EITC ban, there have been issues through the years regarding fraud on tax returns claiming the EITC. In response, Congress provided the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Its purpose, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation: “The Congress believed that taxpayers who fraudulently claim the EIC or recklessly or intentionally disregard EIC rules or regulations should be penalized for doing so.” The Act provided for an EITC ban under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 32(k). The ban disallows a taxpayer to claim the EITC for 10 years when there claim of the credit was due to fraud (or 2 years for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, though not due to fraud). There have been issues on how fairly the IRS administers the ban. One example is that it was identified as one of the “Most Serious Problems” in the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2013 Report to Congress.

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The IRS issued a notice of deficiency to the Taylors regarding the 2013 tax year, listing a deficiency of $14, 186 and an IRC section 6662(a) accuracy-related penalty of $2,837.20. The deficiency results from disallowance of car and truck expenses the Taylors claimed on the Schedule C filed with their Form 1040.

The Taylors timely filed their Tax Court petition and the IRS filed their answer. The IRS followed up with an amended answer, raising two affirmative defenses. First, they raise an IRC section 6663 civil fraud penalty of $10,639.50, asserting the petitioners falsely claimed business-related car and truck expenses to reduce their income to make them eligible to claim the EITC. Second, the IRS raises the 10-year EITC ban pursuant to IRC section 32(k)(1)(B)(I) for improperly claiming the EITC.

To complete the procedural history, the Taylors did not participate further in their Tax Court case, which was to their detriment. They did not respond to the amended answer and the IRS followed with a “Motion for Entry of Order that Undenied Allegations be Deemed Admitted Pursuant to Rule 37(c).” The Court issued an order granting that motion, meaning the Taylors are deemed to have admitted all the statements in the amended answer, including the affirmative allegations with respect to the civil fraud penalty and the 10-year ban on claiming the EITC.

Next, the IRS filed a “Motion to Take Judicial Notice,” which requested the Court take judicial notice of the distances between the Taylors’ home and the various addresses Katrina Taylor reported driving during 2013 for her business activities. The motion asserts that the Taylors’ travel logs are unreliable and overstate the travel distances. The IRS provided Google Maps documents that show the distance and driving times for the routes Mrs. Taylor reported for the business destinations. Since the Taylors did not respond, the Court’s order granted the IRS motion, taking judicial notice of that information as facts, the accuracy of which cannot reasonably be questioned.

The IRS prepared a joint stipulation of facts that the Taylors refused to sign. The IRS filed a “Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Proposed Facts and Evidence Should not be Accepted as Established Pursuant to Rule 91(f).” The Court ordered the Taylors to respond to the motion. Since they failed to respond, the Court issued its order making the Order to Show Cause absolute, meaning the facts and evidence set forth in the proposed stipulation of facts was deemed to be established for the purposes of the case.

Turning to the facts established through the orders, the Taylors reported $105,914 in wages on their 2013 Form 1040, with $55,033 earned by Mrs. Taylor as an employee. The attached Schedule C listed financial data on Mrs. Taylor’s business, which reports no business income. It instead reports advertising expenses of $290 and car and truck expenses of $73,740, resulting in a net loss of $74,030. Also included are a Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization (Including Information on Listed Property), which states the Taylors represent they used two vehicles for business purposes, with a total of 130,513 business miles. Vehicle 1 was driven 65,212 miles and vehicle 2 was driven 65,301 miles. In response to line 24a, “Do you have evidence to support the business/investment use claimed?” their response was to check the box for “no.” Those business expenses reduced their adjusted gross income to $30,690. Since they had three minor children in 2013, they qualified for an earned income credit of $4,417 based on that income.

The IRS audited the Taylors, focusing on their car and truck expenses. The Taylors supplied two versions of a log purporting to show business miles driven for Mrs. Taylor’s business. The logs were not provided contemporaneously with her travel and state she drove the 130,513 miles on business, driving a 2004 Cadillac truck 41,483 miles and a 2006 BMW 89,030 miles. The Court states these logs are demonstrably unreliable because petitioners traded in the 2004 Cadillac truck with Mrs. Taylor signing an odometer disclosure statement reporting the odometer at time of sale as 102,345 miles while according to the provided logs the December 23, 2013 year end odometer reading was 154,990 miles. Similarly, the BMW’s trade-in odometer disclosure statement was 91,333 miles while the purported logs stated the December 17, 2013, reading to be 186,880 miles.

The Court also believed the log mileage to be inflated. The logs stated Mrs. Taylor drove the Cadillac 1,376 miles and the BMW 701 miles (totaling 2,077 miles) on September 22, 2013. The IRS points out the driving distance from Manhattan to Los Angeles is approximately 2,800 miles and “[a]t a constant speed of 70 miles per hour (“MPH”) it would take 29.7 hours to drive 2,077 miles.” The logs also report trips of 1,200 miles to 1,800 miles for other days.

The Court’s discussion within the order itself focuses on how the petitioners have not been responsive. They failed to plead or otherwise proceed within Rule 123(a). Because of the deemed established facts, the Court grants the IRS Motion for Default Judgment and enters a decision against the Taylors.

In the decision, Judge Jacobs ordered and decided that for 2013 there is a deficiency of $14,186 and an IRC section 6663 civil fraud penalty of $10,639.50 (the IRS sought an IRC section 6662 accuracy-related penalty in the alternative so that is denied as moot). Additionally, Judge Jacobs orders and decides “that the 10-year ban for claiming the earned income credit, pursuant to section 32(k)(1)(B)(I), is imposed as sought in respondent’s amended answer.”

There is no analysis regarding the 10-year ban and whether the Court has jurisdiction to impose it. The closest is a prior mention of the affirmative allegations that “petitioners…should be subject to the 10-year ban on claiming the earned income credit.”

We come back to a jurisdictional issue for the Tax Court. In the Taylor case, the Court had the 2013 tax return at issue. The jurisdictional issue is what authority the Court has with regard to the EITC ban in a case like this. Is the jurisdiction for the year in which the ban arises (2013) or for the years in which the ban will take effect (10 following years, presumably starting with 2014)?

The Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. IRC section 6214(a) states that Tax Court has jurisdiction to redetermine the correct amount of a deficiency at issue. The disallowed refundable credit banned through the EITC ban affects future years that are not before the Tax Court. In fact, IRC section 6214(b) states that the Court “shall have no jurisdiction to determine whether or not the tax for any other year…has been overpaid or underpaid.”

I note that the IRS does have the ability to assert fraud and get facts deemed stipulated in order for the IRS to meet its burden of proof on the issue of fraud. I provide a quote from Console v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2001-32 at *12, aff’d 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 15535 (3d Cir. 2003): “It is well settled in this Court that the Commissioner may establish fraud by relying upon matters deemed admitted under Rule 90Marshall v. Commissioner, 85 T.C. 267 (1985)Morrison v. Commissioner, 81 T.C. 644, 651 (1983)Doncaster v. Commissioner, 77 T.C. 334, 336 (1981). The Commissioner may also establish fraud by relying on facts deemed to be stipulated under Rule 91(f)Ambroselli v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1999-158.” My thanks to Carl Smith for providing this note and citation.

One case to consider is a prior Tax Court case, Ballard v. Commissioner, which included a Tax Court judge’s reluctance to issue an order regarding a 2-year ban on the EITC. Les Book provided prior commentary in Procedurally Taxing here. In that posting, there are links to other posts, including Carl Smith’s discussion of the jurisdictional issue of the EITC ban in the Tax Court. I agree with Les’s view that the Tax Court does not have authority to apply an EITC ban for a year of fraudulent behavior (or reckless/intentional disregard), which could be called a conduct year.

Specifically for the Taylors, I argue that while the petitioners should potentially be subject to the ban, the only year before the Court was 2013. It was within the Court’s authority to find that there was fraud in 2013, but not within their authority to apply an EITC ban for later years.

I am unsure if the Taylors were outmatched in the courtroom. If all of the allegations against them are true, though, I can understand the claims of fraud the IRS made against them. Whether their goal was to inflate business expenses to claim the earned income tax credit or not, the results are unrealistic business miles and mileage logs that do not match. Even if one does not agree with the EITC ban, the ban is an area the IRS has authority to administer. This case does not provide justification that the Tax Court has jurisdiction to administer the EITC ban for later years when 2013 was the conduct year before the Court so went a step too far in ordering the imposition of the EITC ban for the Taylors.

 

Recent Tax Court Case Sustains Preparer EITC Due Diligence Penalties

Last week in Mohamed v Commmssioner, the Tax Court sustained $7,000 of EITC due diligence penalties against a preparer. The preparer, who was a CPA, had an active business preparing individual tax returns, including many EITC returns. The opinion provides a rare court review of the imposition of these penalties.

The EITC due diligence penalty has been on the books for a while; the current penalty is $500 for each failure to comply. Requirements include preparing and retaining forms like the Paid Preparer’s Earned Income Credit Checklist, and the Earned Income Credit Worksheet. In addition, the rules require that tax return preparer must not know, or have reason to know, that any information pertaining to the EITC is incorrect.

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This penalty is even more important for preparers, as Congress recently expanded the scope of due diligence penalties to include the child tax credit and the American opportunity tax credit.

There are not many cases involving the penalty, and while Mohamed is a summary opinion, it does provide some insights into the process and limits on Tax Court review of the penalty.

The opinion discusses how IRS examined a number of Mohamed’s clients as part of its EITC due diligence audit program. He was visited by a tax compliance officer, who reviewed 50 of Mohamed’s returns. The audit report proposed a penalty on 20 of the 50 returns; while the penalty is not subject to deficiency procedures, the IRM provides and IRS allowed for Mohamed to challenge the proposed assessment before Appeals.

Mohamed met with an Appeals Officer for 6 hours to discuss the penalty; after the meeting Appeals agreed to remove the penalty from 5 of the returns. Appeals also asked for more information on 4 other returns. Mohamed sent documents to Appeals and also had a follow up phone conversation. The correspondence and phone call led Appeals to remove the penalty from another return, bringing the penalty down to 14 returns, or $7,000.

Appeals sent a closing letter indicating that it was recommending a penalty assessment on 14 of the returns; it also let Mohamed know that he could pay the penalty and file a refund claim and eventually sue in district court or the Court of Federal Claims if he wanted court review of the penalty.

IRS assessed the penalty and issued a notice of intent to levy. Mohamed did not pay and instead filed a CDP request. In the hearing he asked to challenge the underlying assessment. The settlement officer refused that request on the theory that he had a prior opportunity to challenge the penalty in the preassessment Appeals hearing.

PT readers are likely familiar with the legal issue; namely whether a prior opportunity to dispute the amount or existence of the liability includes for these purposes an administrative preassessment Appeals hearing. Taxpayers have lost in Tax Court and circuit courts on this issue (For more see Keith’s discussion Continued Developments in Taxpayer Attempts to Litigate the Merits in CDP Cases.)

Given the Tax Court and appellate courts’ views on this issue, it is not surprising Mohamed had an uphill battle. He gamely attempted to distinguish the adverse authority, arguing that Appeals did not give him a chance to rebut its conclusions and that it terminated the process prematurely.

The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that he participated fully in the examination process, had a long in-person meeting with Appeals and follow up conversations and correspondence:

In sum, the record shows that in 2015 petitioner was provided a full and fair opportunity to challenge the imposition of the disputed penalties before the Appeals Office and he meaningfully participated in that proceeding. Although petitioner would have preferred to continue to dispute his liability, we are satisfied hat the Appeals Office conducted a fair and comprehensive review of the matter and acted properly in concluding the matter by issuing its closing letter.

That the Tax Court looked into the process that Appeals provided in the preasessment hearing is a slight opening for other taxpayers who may not have had the same opportunities with Appeals. Yet Mohamed is another in the growing line of cases that show that CDP is not an avenue for challenging the amount or existence of a liability even if there is no prior opportunity for court review.

There is one other aspect of the case worth noting. Mohamed also challenged the penalty under Section 6751(b) which requires that no IRC penalty “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 or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate…”

The court considered this issue on the merits and found that the compliance officer had prepared a Form 8484, which is used to refer preparers for possible discipline to the Return Preparer Office. That form was where the compliance officer proposed the penalties, and the supervisor signed that form and approved referral.   Interestingly the record did not include a Form 8278, which is what IRS typically uses to propose preparer penalties. The lack of that form did not trouble the Tax Court:

On its face, Form 8484 is a report that IRS personnel are encouraged to use to convey information to the OPR about questionable practitioner conduct. Although the form does not function to authorize the assessment of a penalty, in this case the TCO’s acting immediate supervisor placed her digital signature on the Form 8484 indicating that she agreed with the referral of the matter to the OPR and that she approved the audit report (attached to the Form 8484) which recommended that 20 section 6695(g) penalties be assessed against petitioner. The audit report included a detailed explanation in support of each of the 20 penalties. Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the TCO’s initial determination to assess the penalties in dispute was personally approved in writing by her immediate supervisor within the meaning of section 6751(b).

As this is a summary opinion not subject to further review, there is no chance to in this case see if the IRS’s failure to seek penalty approval in the proper manner amounted to compliance with Section 6751(b). As we have discussed (most recently in Samantha Galvin’s Designated Order post from a few weeks ago), the 6751(b) issue is one that the Tax Court and other courts are increasingly facing.

IRS Expresses Disapproval of Tax Court Case Allowing EITC for Separated But Married Taxpayer

There are many complexities in the Internal Revenue Code. There are also many nuances in tax procedure. Put the two together and there are ingredients for the need for guidance. Earlier this week the IRS issued a nonacquiesence in a 2016 Tax Court case that had slipped through and I had not noticed.

The case at issue is Tsehay v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2016–200. In Tsehay, the taxpayer, a custodian whose first language was not English, had an on again off again relationship with his spouse. During 2013, the taxpayer testified (credibly, according to the opinion) that he his wife and their children lived with him though by 2014 they had separated. He, using a paid return preparer, filed a 2013 return as head of household and claimed his kids as qualifying children for the EITC and dependency exemptions. HOH status was crucial for purposes of the EITC, as married taxpayers who are not divorced or separated (or who do not live apart from their spouse for the last 6 months of the year and who otherwise generally pay ½ of the household and childcare expenses) cannot claim the EITC unless they file a joint return. There is no similar anti-MFS rule in place for claiming children as dependents.

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The opinion concluded that his credible testimony regarding his living with his kids was enough to justify his receiving dependency exemptions and the EITC.

It appears that the judge and IRS counsel may have missed the special rule that prevents MFS taxpayers from claiming the EITC.

This takes us to earlier this month when the IRS announced that it did not acquiesce in the case. We have not discussed this form of guidance in the blog. The Internal Revenue Bulletin nicely describes the IRS policy on commenting on case law, which comes in the form of acquiescence, acquiescence in result only, or nonacquiescence:

It is the policy of the Internal Revenue Service to announce at an early date whether it will follow the holdings in certain cases. An Action on Decision is the document making such an announcement. An Action on Decision will be issued at the discretion of the Service only on unappealed issues decided adverse to the government. Generally, an Action on Decision is issued where its guidance would be helpful to Service personnel working with the same or similar issues. Unlike a Treasury Regulation or a Revenue Ruling, an Action on Decision is not an affirmative statement of Service position. It is not intended to serve as public guidance and may not be cited as precedent.

Actions on Decisions shall be relied upon within the Service only as conclusions applying the law to the facts in the particular case at the time the Action on Decision was issued. Caution should be exercised in extending the recommendation of the Action on Decision to similar cases where the facts are different. Moreover, the recommendation in the Action on Decision may be superseded by new legislation, regulations, rulings, cases, or Actions on Decisions. Prior to 1991, the Service published acquiescence or nonacquiescence only in certain regular Tax Court opinions. The Service has expanded its acquiescence program to include other civil tax cases where guidance is determined to be helpful. Accordingly, the Service now may acquiesce or nonacquiesce in the holdings of memorandum Tax Court opinions, as well as those of the United States District Courts, Claims Court, and Circuit Courts of Appeal. Regardless of the court deciding the case, the recommendation of any Action on Decision will be published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin.

The recommendation in every Action on Decision will be summarized as acquiescence, acquiescence in result only, or nonacquiescence. Both “acquiescence” and “acquiescence in result only” mean that the Service accepts the holding of the court in a case and that the Service will follow it in disposing of cases with the same controlling facts. However, “acquiescence” indicates neither approval nor disapproval of the reasons assigned by the court for its conclusions; whereas, “acquiescence in result only” indicates disagreement or concern with some or all of those reasons. “Nonacquiescence” signifies that, although no further review was sought, the Service does not agree with the holding of the court and, generally, will not follow the decision in disposing of cases involving other taxpayers. In reference to an opinion of a circuit court of appeals, a “nonacquiescence” indicates that the Service will not follow the holding on a nationwide basis. However, the Service will recognize the precedential impact of the opinion on cases arising within the venue of the deciding circuit.

At times, the AOD that the Service issues has an extensive discussion of the reasoning. Other times, as in AOD 2017-05 on Tsehay, it just states the conclusion that the Service does not acquiesce in the decision. That nonaqciescence makes sense, as it appears that Tsehay is just the result of a counsel and judicial foot fault on the law. It is intended to remind counsel attorneys (and taxpayers) that it is inappropriate to rely on Tsehay for the position that married taxpayers who file an MFS return  or who are required to file an MFS return are entitled to the EITC. As a guest post from Andy Grewal discusses a couple of years ago, while Tax Court memo opinions are not supposed to be precedential (and are intended to be used only in clear cut or heavy factual cases), as a practical matter advocates and the court itself often look to and effectively rely on these cases so Counsel wanted to clear the air.

Because AODs give direct insight into Chief Counsel’s litigating position and because understanding that position allows a representative to provide valuable advice about the likelihood a case will go to trial rather than settle, the more AODs the IRS issues the better. Back in the 1970s the IRS issued AODs routinely. Today, issuing an AOD seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Still, the AODs that are issued provide a benefit when trying to understand what will happen with a case and they should not be overlooked.

Trump Budget: Perhaps Dead on Arrival But Key Themes Emerge for Tax Administration

The Trump Administration released its FY 18 budget, a budget that is generating a great deal of controversy due to unrealistic assumptions and for its slashing many entitlement programs. Since early days on the campaign the President has emphasized the need to control for errors and fraud in transfer programs. IRS has been a poster child for improper payments, and it is no surprise that this budget addresses that issue.

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The document entitled Analytical Perspectives to the budget seems to contain most of the context and description of the assumptions and additional detail. Starting at about page 99 is a discussion of the need to ensure greater integrity in federal spending programs. While I have not read line by line the budget materials there are two measures in the budget that stand out for possible impact on tax administration: oversight over tax return preparers and expanded IRS math error powers. The former in my view is a great idea and the latter not so much.

The  budget requests “authority to increase [IRS] oversight over paid preparers.” As the Administration states, “[i]ncreasing the quality of paid preparers lessens the need for after-the-fact enforcement of tax laws and increases the amount of revenue that the IRS can collect.” We have discussed this issue numerous times in PT. Increasing accountability and visibility of unenrolled preparers is on balance good for taxpayers and tax administration. The most recent IRS compliance study pegged unenrolled preparers as having the highest error rates on EITC returns, and while regulation is not a panacea, requiring minimum standards and directly bringing those preparers into the Circular 230 fold is a way to discourage preparers and taxpayers from acting as if the tax system is an unwatched cookie jar and to encourage preparers to act as gatekeepers.

The second proposal in the budget is a call to expand IRS power to essentially use math error summary assessment powers:

[W]ith this new authority, the IRS could deny a tax credit that a taxpayer had claimed on a tax return if the taxpayer did not include the required paperwork, or where government databases showed that the taxpayer-provided information was incorrect.

I understand the reasoning behind this proposal. EITC exams already hover at about 40% of all IRS exams and while IRS does these exams mostly on the cheap through correspondence, TIGTA has estimated that it still costs IRS on average about $400 for each correspondence exam. Yet the problem with the proposal is that the underlying information in many of the federal databases is not reliable enough to justify dispensing with the normal due process protections of pre-assessment notice and defined right to Tax Court review. For example, HHS maintains database on child custody but millions of lower income individuals do not have formal custody arrangements or even if they do the databases are not reliable enough to warrant automatic rejection. In addition, GAO and others have criticized past IRS administration of its math error powers, an issue that is particularly pressing if individuals rely on the claimed credit to meet basic needs.

While IRS is still an efficient administrator of refundable credits (even accounting for program error costs per $ of benefit are very low relative to other means-based benefit programs), Congress would be better served recognizing the limits of IRS ability to verify eligibility and provide additional resources to do its job properly rather than look for ways to do its job on the cheap and on the backs of the beneficiaries.

While many observers have labeled this budget dead on arrival, tax proposals and tax administration proposals often have nine lives. The theme of reducing errors and saving money through increased compliance will be recurring over the next few years, and that will likely lead to proposals like these that if enacted could mean significant tax administration changes.

New Report Discusses the Rebirth of Refund Loans

As this year’s fling season is winding down, the National Consumer Law  Center released a report discussing the filing season issues from the perspective of lower and moderate-income taxpayers. This year’s report discusses some of the main issues in the past filing season, including the Congressionally mandated delay associated with EITC and CTC refunds, the rebirth of a new form of refund anticipation loan, challenges associated with getting a Tax Identification Number, the limited ways in which states regulate commercial tax return preparers, and the onset of private debt collection.

I have been following the refund loan return, which I discussed on PT in Refund Loans on the Comeback, With A Twist and in a follow up to that post.

For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, a refund anticipation loan (or RAL) was a loan that banks made and that was secured by and paid with the proceeds of a taxpayer’s refund. In their heyday they were controversial, in part because they were almost always accompanied by high fees and high effective interest rates. In addition there was significant concern that the fees provided the incentive for preparers and banks to encourage improper claims, especially when IRS shared with preparers a debt indicator that let preparers know if the refund were likely to be delayed or intercepted to apply to a past due tax or other offset.

In 2012, RALs in their earlier incarnation dried up after IRS pulled the debt indicator and federal regulators essentially forced banks out of that business. As I discussed earlier this year, many preparers and partner banks brought back the loans this filing season, though with two key differences: the loans 1) had no stated fee and 2) were non-recourse, meaning that if the refund does not materialize due to say a refund freeze or offset the losses were not the responsibility of the individual filer. It appears that for this filing season the RAL is now a loss leader, or a way to bring clients into the door to generate prep fees and perhaps upsell other products that the preparers offer.

Given the statutory mandated delay in EITC and CTC refunds and the mostly no-fee modern RAL, it is not surprising people were attracted to this product. The NCLS report indicates that this year over 1.5 million RALS were issued, up from about 40,000 in 2015.

The report discusses that not all preparers were genuinely offering a no-fee RAL; some had disguised fees and others essentially wrapped in costs with the fee for preparing a return. Prep fees take a big bite out of many lower-income individuals’ refunds; the report discusses the wide range in fees that preparers charge to prepare EITC returns and discusses a survey from the Progressive Policy Institute that indicates EITC recipients can expect to pay between 13 and 22% of their refunds on tax prep fees and related services.

In years past, in addition to the consumer issues, I was interested in the relationship of RALs and noncompliance. I discussed that issue in a 2009 article in Stanford Law & Policy Review called Refund Anticipation Loans and the Tax Gap. Under the old RAL regime, some argued that the combination of high fees, the IRS’s release of the indicator that allowed preparers to know if the claimant’s refund would be offset or likely frozen, and the recourse nature of the loan created a divergence in the preparer’s interest in turning profits and the general interest in submitting claims that relate to eligible claimants. The dynamics have changed considerably. Since I first discussed the issue Congress tightened up due diligence rules; IRS is (albeit sporadically) enforcing those rules among preparers, and now with this new RAL product preparers rather than filers are on the hook for defaults.

From a compliance standpoint it is possible that the current rise in RALs helps ensure that preparers are actually more invested in performing due diligence, or at least more sensitive to the issues (or at least audit risk), as repayment will be based on the consumer actually getting the refund claimed.

As NCLC discusses, however, compliance is not the only issue associated with the product. It comes back to the healthy prep fees that preparers generate. If the individual were already going to use a preparer for the return, then as the report notes the RAL (assuming no hidden fee or truly no passing on of the higher costs) is just a benefit without much additional expense. But there are free options available for many lower or moderate-income individuals, such as the Free File program IRS itself makes available in tandem with the private sector and VITA sites. So to the extent that the product attracts people to high cost preparers, it creates a different dynamic.

In the past it was generally easy to criticize RALs. Now it is not so clear. The costs of RALs this time out are a little less visible though still present for those now using a paid preparer offering a RAL when they otherwise would not. Also, there are now benefits if in fact preparers’ interests are more closely aligned with the government’s in ensuring that eligible claimants apply and receive an EITC-generated refund.

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).

Brief Follow up to Today’s Post on Refund Loans

Today’s post noted that we are likely to hear from consumer groups regarding the return of refund loans. It turns out that yesterday the National Consumer Law Center issued a press release called Tax Time Kick-Off: Delays and Risks Await Many Taxpayers This Year, discussing some of this filing season’s challenges. In the release, the NCLC, which was a leading voice against the earlier use of refund loans, again warns consumers against their use:

Advocates recommend that taxpayers avoid no fee RALs if possible. One risk is that some unscrupulous tax preparers might charge more in their tax preparation fees to “no fee” RAL borrowers. Also, in the last tax season some lenders, such as EPS and River City Bank, appeared to actually impose a price for “no fee” RALs by charging a higher price for a refund anticipation check (RAC) if the preparer was offering these loans.

With RACs, the bank opens a temporary bank account into which the IRS direct deposits the refund. After the refund is deposited, the bank issues the consumer a check or prepaid card, minus tax preparation fees paid to the preparer, and closes the temporary account. RACs do not deliver refunds any faster than the IRS can, yet cost $25 to $60. Some preparers charge additional “add-on” junk fees for RACs, fees that can range from $25 to several hundred dollars.

The NCLC also discusses some of the other challenges this year, including the need for many taxpayers to get a renewed Taxpayer ID number (ITIN), the coming of private debt collectors and the need to select competent and honest preparers.

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Further note: I have updated the link to the IRS web page for this filing season.

Refund Loans on the Comeback, with a Twist

Tax filing season has kicked off. IRS has a web page dedicated to the filing season, and it includes a lot of helpful information, including information on ITIN changes and this year’s delay in releasing refunds relating to EITC and child tax credit.

The delay in the timing of the refunds is a major change.  New York Times reported last week on the resurrection in refund loans this filing season in Tax Refund Loans are Revamped and Resurrected, with the large tax prep chains offering up to $1300 within a day or so with no direct fees passed on to the individuals for the loan. The article discusses the history of refund loans, which in their earlier form carried heavy fees and attracted a lot of criticism from consumer advocates. They essentially disappeared a few years ago.

Here is why the loans have returned. As we have discussed, Congress in the PATH legislation mandated a delay in remitting refundable-credit-based refunds until mid-February. The start of filing season has traditionally been a time when millions of lower-income refund seeking individuals filed early to get the refunds. To offset the PATH delay, and as a way to stem the flow of individuals to DIY software, the large prep chains have stepped in and essentially offered access to the refund loans as a loss leader.

What happens if the refund never materializes come late February (say there is a set off or examination based refund freeze) and the loan cannot be repaid? The NYT article says the large prep chains are going to eat the loss, though I have not read the fine print on what the consumers are signing when getting the loans.

From a tax compliance perspective, this situation more closely aligns the prep companies with the government’s interest in ensuring that the claimants are in fact eligible when claiming a credit, or at least are able to get past the IRS filters on freezing a refund if there are eligibility concerns.

To be sure, the prep chains have other ways to make money on the transaction, and the prep companies are good at cross-selling. I suspect we will be hearing more from consumer groups on this practice.