District Court Denies 6511(h) Financial Disability Claim

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We have covered several cases in which the taxpayer sought to hold open the statute of limitations based on financial disability here, here, here, and here.  In Estate of Kirsch v. United States, the taxpayer’s estate loses, which is the norm for these cases, but does so with slightly different facts than the usual case.

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Ms. Kirsch passed away on September 16, 2016.  Her estate brought this action seeking to recover a refund of an overpayment for her 2008 return.  She did not file the 2008 return until June 5, 2015.  Her estate argued that the delay in filing was due to financial disability.  When she filed her 2008 return seeking a refund, she knew that she had missed the time for filing a refund absent the suspension caused by the financial disability provisions.  So, she submitted with the return two statements, one from her doctor and the other from her son.

The doctor’s statement provided:

Florence W. Kirsch is a patient known to me.

  1. [Ms.] Kirsch has been diagnosed with a cognitive mental impairment;
  2. It is my medical opinion that in addition to issues in remembering to take certain medications, her mental impairment has prevented [Ms.] Kirsch from managing certain aspects of her financial affairs;
  3. It is my medical opinion that the mental impairment has lasted for a continuous period of not less than twelve months and will continue to last indefinitely;
  4. While first diagnosed on January 3, 2012, [Ms.] Kirsch first began reporting issues with her memory in 2007. Given the progressive nature of cognitive mental impairments, [Ms.] Kirsch would have begun to experience adverse effects of her mental impairment first in 2007 and it became progressively worse.

 

The statement from her son, which it what makes this case somewhat unusual, involves a durable power of attorney granted to him.  In 2003, Ms. Kirsch created a durable power of attorney naming her husband as her agent and her son, Ken Kirsch, as the successor agent.  Mr. Kirsch, the husband, passed away on March 28, 2009, before the 2008 return was due.  Ken Kirsch did not exercise his authority under the power immediately.  He said in his statement that he lives on the West Coast, some distance from his mother in Massachusetts and did not realize that his assistance was required until about the time the refund claim was filed when her symptoms became more pronounced.

The statute requires that the taxpayer seeking to suspend the normal three year period for filing a refund claim show financial disability and defines that as someone who “is unable to manage [her] financial affairs by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of the individual which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”    You cannot be considered financially disabled unless “proof of the existence thereof is furnished in such form and manner as the secretary may require.”  The IRS has not gotten around to writing regulations on this issue yet but it issued Rev. Proc. 99-21 which sets out the requirements regarding a statement from a physician’s medical opinion.  The Rev. Proc. also sets out the requirement of a statement from the claimant that no person was authorized to act on the individual’s behalf during the period of impairment described in the doctor’s statement.  The second requirement exists because the statute also provides that a person is not financially disabled if “any other person is authorized to act on behalf of such individual in financial matters.”

The IRS argued that no suspension of the statute should occur in this case based on the inadequacy of the doctor’s statement and the existence of the durable power of attorney to the son.  The court agreed with both points.

The problem with the doctor’s statement her is the uncertainty of the starting point.  The statement says Mrs. Kirsch “would have begun” experiencing the effect of her mental impairment in 2007 but does not make a clear statement that in 2007 she could not manage her financial affairs.  The problem may stem in part from the doctor’s uncertainty about the progression of her illness.  The situation here mirrors other situations in which taxpayers have tried to claim financial disability.  The creation of the durable power of attorney several years before might suggest her family members saw a problem but, on the other hand, the delay in action by her son suggestions whatever impairment existed, he did not see it from afar.  The family tried to fix the problem by submitting another statement from the doctor.  The court acknowledged a willingness to receive a supplement statement citing Bowman v. Internal Revenue Serv., No. CIV-S-09-0167 MCE GGH PS, 2010 WL 178094 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 30, 2010); however, it found that the supplemental statement did not cure the defect because it still did not say exactly when she became financially disabled.  The physician continues to discuss her abilities based on an examination in 2012 where the issues existed and her statements that they began in 2007 but does not describe when the impairment crossed the line into financial disability.  Doing so would be a hard task for almost any physician.  The statement just talks about her cognitive abilities becoming worse over time.

Additionally, the Court finds that even if the doctor’s statement had contained satisfactory language, it still would not have found financial disability because of the power of attorney given to the son to assist her.  His letter states that he was authorized to assist her.  The son argued that the durable power of attorney did not become effective under Massachusetts law until “the designees became aware that they had such authorization.”  The Court holds that even if he is right about Massachusetts law he was authorized to act on his mom’s behalf during the time periods referenced in the doctor’s letter.  As such, the estate cannot meet the criteria in the statute.

I agree with the Court that the doctor’s letter leaves something to be desired in terms of clarity about exactly when Mrs. Kirsch became impaired.  The statute creates a very difficult task for a doctor how sees a patient only infrequently.  The doctor knows when the patient can no longer function with financial affairs (or can make a reasonably educated opinion based on observation) and knows that the inability did not turn on like a light switch but does not know exactly when the line was crossed.  It would seem that where the doctor makes a statement like the one here that other evidence should be allowed to more precisely pinpoint the timing when the line was crossed or a non-treating professional should be allowed to take the doctor’s opinion coupled with the other evidence and give a professional opinion.  Stating precisely when someone can no longer handle their financial affairs would not have been the goal of the doctor at the time of treatment and hindsight will not always allow for precision in this type of diagnosis.

The problem with the power of attorney exists whenever the person with the power is remote or not paying careful attention.  Not many children want to step in and declare their parent incompetent with financial affairs.  It is nice to create the power before the parent loses the capacity to grant it; however, deciding to exercise it requires a different calculus.  Where, as here, the son was remote it becomes even more difficult.  He was not seeing his mom on a regular basis apparently and would have had difficulty recognizing when her actions crossed over the line.  I see this with my own dad.  My sisters and I are in constant contact with him.  While at 91 his cognitive abilities are not what they once were, he is still quite financially able.  We see little things but we are watching closely.  Someone who is remote will have a very difficult time until a significant event occurs.

No one is arguing that the refund does not belong to the estate but for the statute of limitations on claiming it.  While the finality of a statute of limitation provides benefits, I question whether the benefits are great enough in these situations.  Do we have to make it so hard to recover monies lost because of cognitive decline?  I do not think we do.  I think we should be more compassionate.  This money is an overpayment of tax.  Someone who has spent a lifetime complying with the tax statutes should get a break when compliance becomes difficult because of cognitive decline.  We should err on the side of returning the money.

Comments

  1. Carl Smith says:

    Maybe, it is time for Congress to simply say there is no statute of limitations for making income tax refund claims for individuals who were over 75 when the return was due or the overpayment was made.

  2. I wonder how the family made the request to the IRS for financial disability. In the case of taxpayers who are experiencing an urgent matter that requires the refund be received as quickly as possible. TAS can sometimes push these things through, as was my experience with a client who had mental health issues and was about to be evicted from her home.

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