IRS Examination Division’s Requirement to Consider Collectibility of Potential Assessment

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On September 7, 2016, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued a report, entitled Examination Collectibility Procedures Need to be Clarified and Applied Consistently, looking at the failure of the Examination Division to consider collection in making decisions on who it should examine.  It found that the Examination Division did not follow its own collectibility procedures in 56% of the cases it sampled.  TIGTA pointed out in the report that the failure to follow these procedures led to collection closing 50% of all exam cases that came into the hands of field collection offices and 19% of all exam cases that came into the Automated Collection System (ACS).  At a time when the IRS examination resources have dropped by about 30% over the past six years and collection resources have dropped by almost 40% over that period, does it make sense to go after taxpayers at the examination stage who will turn into uncollectible accounts, or would it make more sense to look on the shelf at cases needing examination where the taxpayer has the ability to pay the liability in the event of an additional assessment.

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IRM 4.20.1.5.1 (February 26, 2013) provides that the Examination function of stovepipe SBSE “must strive for quality assessments and promote and increased emphasis on early collections in the continuing effort to reduce the Collection function’s inventory and currently not collectible (CNC) accounts.”

The full text of this IRM provision states:

  1. Examination may need to suspend collection activity on a taxpayer’s account. Examiners can suspend collection activity using Transaction Code (TC) 470 with Closing Code (cc) 90 or by using “STAUP” procedures.
  1. The use of TC 470 with cc 90 is restricted to those situations where it is expected that an adjustment will fully pay the tax for the suspended tax year. For example, if the IRS discovers that an obvious error created a balance-due condition in one tax year, and an adjustment will reduce the balance due to zero, the IRS can request the necessary tax adjustment and also request that this collection suspension code be entered for the specific tax year. This will ensure collection action is suspended while the adjustment is made and overpayments for other tax years will not be used to pay the tax in question.
  1. It is imperative that TC 470 with cc 90 is used correctly and only in those instances that meet the criteria outlined above. If TC 470 cc 90 is used incorrectly when adjustments may not be appropriate or when an adjustment does not eliminate the balance due, credits from a taxpayer’s other tax years will be refunded to the taxpayer rather than being used to satisfy the amount still owed for the suspended tax period. See IRM 5.1.15, Abatements, Reconsiderations and Adjustments.
  1. In instances where the TC 470 cc 90 criteria is not met, Collection activity can be suspended for a fixed period of time using Command Code “STAUP.” For example, an examiner encounters the situation where the suspension of collection activities is necessary when one or more of the following is expected to reduce the balance due to zero:
    1. Claims
    2. Net operating loss (NOL) carryback
    3. Credits carried back

In these instances, examiners can request a suspension with Command Code “STAUP.” Command Code STAUP is an IDRS command code used to accelerate, omit, or delay the issuance of an IDRS balance due notice. A STAUP will stop any notice from being issued or destroy a printed notice not yet mailed. See IRM 2.4.28, Command Codes STAUP, STATI, and STATB.

To achieve that goal, IRM 4.20.1.2 (February 26, 2013) provides that Exam employees should consider collectibility during the pre-contact, audit and closing phases of an examination.  In fiscal year 2015 approximately 75% of the accounts receivable owed to the IRS was listed as uncollectible.  The IRM provisions seek to keep the IRS from building more and more inventory in the uncollectible category.

I wrote about this issue previously in the context of the trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP).  Since the collection function handles TFRP investigations it sits in the best place to determine whether to work the case and does not need to refer the matter to anyone in order to make that determination.  Despite language directing the IRS to only pursue TFRP investigations on taxpayers able to pay, the comments received to that post almost uniformly took the view that the collection function did not make a determination on collectibility prior to initiating TFRP investigations.  If collection is not doing this, it is easy to believe that Exam would not follow the requirement to select cases that will result in collection of the resulting assessment.

TIGTA has some good stats in its report.  One is the information that between 2011 and 2015 Collection received an average of 707,789 new delinquent accounts each year as a result of an examination assessment.  TIGTA determined that if the examination division had focused on auditing taxpayers with the ability to pay the IRS “could have assessed approximately $109 million on cases that were more collectible.”  The IRS must balance the use of its enforcement tools such as an examination as a basis for generating revenue against the need to ensure a fair and just tax system.  The idea that taxpayers with a low potential for collection should get a free pass from collection does not sit well.  Yet, neither does the idea that the IRS spends a significant percentage of its examination resources generating assessments that merely sit on the books for 10 years without any resulting collection.

The IRM provisions do not require that the IRS examiners guarantee the collection function will collect on the assessments they generate, but the IRM does suggest that considering the collectibility of an assessment should factor into the decision to pursue an examination.  TIGTA stated that it planned to “review a sample of Examination cases closed as surveyed due to doubt of collectibility; however, the IRS does not systemically track these cases.”  So, TIGTA had no way to determine if the IRS had declined to audit cases, “survey” them in IRS parlance, in circumstances in which the taxpayers had even a less chance of collection than the ones the IRS chose to audit.

TIGTA interviewed examination employees during this course of its study and these employees “told us that they rarely or never survey a return due to collectibility.”  These employees cited the potential adverse impact on voluntary compliance as a reason for not surveying cases due to a lack of collectibility.  TIGTA cited to the language in the IRM which speaks in absolutes about the ability to collect rather than in degrees.  It seems very logical to conclude that the IRS should not exam returns where the chance of collection is absolutely zero.  I have watched it do that on many occasions in the assessment of individuals following a criminal prosecution.  The 2010 changes allowing assessment based on the restitution order removes the need for the IRS to devote examination resources to those cases in most criminal cases, though I do not know whether it walks away from the assessment of additional taxes in all criminal cases in which collection has a near zero chance.

TIGTA recommends that the IRS change the IRM to provide “clear instruction on documenting collectibility determinations, including examples of when cases should be given consideration for being surveyed….”  The IRS agreed with this recommendation and stated that it will update the IRM.  The IRS response also stated that the broader goal of examination in promoting voluntary compliance must enter into the decision and that collectibility should not drive the decision of who to examine.  The IRS response hits the right tone.  Whether the IRS will make changes that meaningfully change the role of collectibility in the choosing of cases to exam is something to watch as the IRS updates this IRM and implements the suggestions made by TIGTA.

The recommendations section of the report contains a discussion of the need for the examination division to coordinate with the collection division in making the collectibility determination.  The response suggests that the examination division has concerns about that proposal.  Based on the comments received in my earlier post about the collection division’s ability to incorporate collectibility into its own TFRP determinations, I cannot fault the examination division for their concerns.  The issue of how to incorporate collectibility into workload decisions requires a deep policy look by the IRS.  The TIGTA report exposes the issue but cannot resolve the policy issues that underlie the correct approach.  The same policy issues presented here also exist as the cases move forward into litigation and the difference in approaches between the litigators in Chief Counsel’s office and the Department of Justice also cry out for a uniform policy that takes into account the need to have a tax oversight system that promotes uniformly fair laws but does not waste limited resources chasing uncollectible accounts.

Because I represent low income individuals, a high percentage of the cases in which I represent individuals in Tax Court involve assessments the IRS will probably never collect.  I tell my clients that the fight in Tax Court represents a skirmish.  Even if we lose that skirmish, we can win the overall battle by obtaining an offer in compromise.  We do not send our clients away after the Tax Court phase, and post-trial work on those cases is often more important than the pre-trial or trial work because we settle the matter for a very low payment.  Knowing that the case will get resolved for a nominal payment makes me sad at all of the resources that Exam, Counsel, and the Tax Court put into the case so that my client will pay $50 and keep current on their filing obligations for the next five years.  I do not have the answer but it lies in a policy that avoids spending significant resources on uncollectible cases.

 

Comments

  1. Jerry Borison says:

    Keith – I have a case now that some years have been petitioned to the Tax Court on deficiencies and those years and others are before collection for the amount due with the return. We have an OIC in progress on the latter items. We requested Counsel’s office to hold the cases that are in Tax Court until we resolve the collection issue. In the past, it was not uncommon for Counsel’s office to do so by asking us to sign a decision document for the entire liability and if an agreement on payment was reached, they would then enter the full liability decision docs but that if there was no agreement, we’d go back to square one with the Tax Court case.

    I cited to 35.8.6.2.1 (07-25-2012), which says, “If an offer in compromise is submitted by a petitioner while the petitioner’s case is pending in the Tax Court, a stipulation of the full amount of the deficiencies and penalties (those determined in the statutory notice or those redetermined on the merits by agreement of the parties) should be obtained from the petitioner. The reason for requiring the stipulation of the full amount, as determined or as redetermined in such cases, is to protect the Service’s ability to collect additional amounts pursuant to a collateral agreement in the event the financial status of the petitioner should change. Also, the Service could seek collection of the full liability if the petitioner defaults on the payments.”

    Apparently, that directive is no longer followed, at least in Denver. Or, more correctly, Counsel views it as within their discretion and choose not to follow it. TIGTA should be considering this matter also.

    Jerry

  2. But you’re assuming that the purpose of IRS enforcement activity is to collect revenue. I think they lose money on most cases (but maybe they make up for it in volume). The actual purpose is to intimidate taxpayers into compliance — an approach that has not been shown to work, but for which there still is not a tested alternative.

    The best returns to audit, IRS strategy has apparently concluded, are those of people who play fast and loose with taxable income calculations, while trying to avoid collection efforts. There may not be much blood in those turnips, but they will spread the word of their IRS encounters among friends and relatives, who will then pass along the stories, perhaps exaggerating the travails. These taxpayers, moving in the same circles as the noncompliant, may share the same reluctance to file honestly and pay timely. But if they hear enough about what happens if they follow a bad example, they may think twice. That’s the IRS enforcement mission: Encourage second thoughts.

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