Are Nonresident Aliens Exempt From the Loss of Personal Exemptions?

We welcome back guest blogger Robert G. Nassau. Professor Nassau teaches at Syracuse University College of Law and directs its low income taxpayer clinic. Today he discusses a little-known tax increase that the December 2017 tax law may cause for agricultural guest workers who pay taxes as non-US residents. As a former Vermont resident I take issue with Professor Nassau’s maple syrup supremacy claims, but on a professional level I had similar experiences working with Jamaican guest workers who pick Vermont’s apples and other crops, working long, hard hours far from home to support their families in Jamaica. Any tax increase will be sorely felt by these taxpayers. Christine

Until recently, I thought I had left International Tax in my side-view mirror (“rear-view mirror” is a cliché, and I was taught to avoid those).  Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I was a Big Law Tax Associate, three of my “specialties” were Eurodollar transactions, foreign tax credit maximization, and FIRPTA (don’t bother to look it up), none of which was relevant when I moved to Little Law, but all of which validated my bona fides when Syracuse University College of Law was looking for an adjunct to teach International Tax.  Years later, SUCOL had sadly dropped International Tax, but happily added a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, which I, as the devil they knew, got to direct.  And, as they say, the rest is history.  (So much for avoiding clichés.) 

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Last year, our Clinic formed a relationship with the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York, through which LASMNY referred to us a number of foreign “temporary agricultural workers.” These gentlemen, mostly from Jamaica, validly reside in the United States and work in our agriculture industry.  They receive H-2A Visas and have Social Security Numbers.  Some come every year; some come for two or three months; and some come for as long as six or seven months.  (For those readers whose notion of New York is Broadway and Wall Street, please note that the Empire State is #2 nationally in apple production, #2 in cabbage (think sauerkraut), #3 in pumpkins and grapes (we have over 400 wineries), and #4 in sweet corn, squash and snap beans.  We are also #1 in the world, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in maple syrup.  Take that Justin Trudeau!)   

For tax purposes, these non-U.S. citizens are classified either as resident aliens, in which case their income tax treatment is nearly identical to that of a citizen, or nonresident aliens, in which case their income tax treatment is governed by special rules in Subchapter N of the Code (Section 861 et seq.).  The definitions of resident alien and nonresident alien are set forth in Section 7701(b), which, for the holder of an H-2A Visa, looks to a formula based on days of physical presence within the United States.  By way of simple example, someone in the U.S. for 90 days a year would always be a nonresident alien (“NRA”), whereas someone in the U.S. for 150 days a year would quickly become a resident alien.   

Among the special rules governing the tax treatment of NRAs are Sections 873(a) and (b), which limit an NRA’s allowable deductions.  For tax years prior to 2018, an NRA was not allowed a standard deduction, but was allowed a personal exemption, pursuant to Section 873(b)(3), which provided – and still provides:

The deduction for personal exemptions allowed by section 151, except that only one exemption shall be allowed under section 151 unless the taxpayer is a resident of a contiguous country or is a national of the United States. 

Now comes TCJA 2018, which, as we all know, was not the poster child for precise statutory draftsmanship, but did, for tax years 2018 through 2025, eliminate personal and dependent exemptions, replacing them with a larger standard deduction and expanded child tax credit.  Or at least it did this for U.S. citizens and resident aliens.  But what about NRAs?  

Congress’ method for eliminating personal exemptions was not to repeal Section 151, but rather, in Section 151(d)(5)(A), to make the “exemption amount” zero for 2018 through 2025.  But that’s not all Congress did.  Realizing that the concepts of “dependent” and “exemption amount” had repercussions throughout the Code, Congress also enacted Section 151(d)(5)(B), which provides:

For purposes of any other provision of this title, the reduction of the exemption amount to zero under subparagraph (A) shall not be taken into account in determining whether a deduction is allowed or allowable, or whether a taxpayer is entitled to a deduction, under this section. 

During 2018, the Treasury Department released some guidance regarding Section 151(d)(5)(B).  For example, in Notice 2018-70, it announced that the exemption amount should not be treated as zero for purposes of determining whether someone is one’s qualifying relative, which is relevant for the new partial child tax credit for taxpayers who do not have a qualifying child; and in Notice 2018-84, it announced similar principles for purposes of the premium tax credit and shared responsibility payment.   

But crickets regarding Section 873(b)(3) . . . until the recent publication of the tax forms used by NRAs: Form 1040NR and Form 1040NR-EZ.  In each of these Forms, the line once used for claiming personal exemptions is gone.  The IRS has not yet released Instructions for Form 1040NR, but it has for Form 1040NR-EZ, and there, under “What’s New” is the sentence: “For 2018, you cannot claim a personal exemption.” 

So, the IRS has clearly concluded that, notwithstanding Section 151(d)(5)(B), an NRA is no longer entitled to any personal exemptions.  But is that right?  The plain language of Section 151(d)(5)(B) states: “For purposes of any other provision of this title, the reduction of the exemption amount to zero under subparagraph (A) shall not be taken into account in determining whether a deduction is allowed or allowable or whether a taxpayer is entitled to a deduction, under this section” (emphasis added).  Certainly, Section 873(b)(3) is an “other provision of this title.”  Can’t one argue that the reduction of the exemption amount to zero is irrelevant for purposes of allowing an NRA to claim personal exemptions, because that reduction is “not to be taken into account in determining whether a deduction is allowed” for purposes of Section 873(b) (an “other provision”)? 

The only relevant Legislative History for Section 151(b)(5)(B) is found in a footnote in the TCJA Conference Report, which states:

The provision also clarifies that, for purposes of taxable years in which the personal exemption is reduced to zero, this should not alter the operation of those provisions of the Code which refer to a taxpayer allowed a deduction (or an individual with respect to whom a taxpayer is allowed a deduction) under section 151.

Section 873(b)(3) does not “refer” to a taxpayer allowed a deduction under Section 151; it actually allows the deduction.  But then, neither does the definition of qualifying relative in Section 152(d) refer to a taxpayer allowed a deduction under Section 151; rather, it refers to the exemption amount, and the Treasury Department has decided that is good enough for Section 151(d)(5)(B) purposes. 

I do not know the answer to this question of statutory interpretation, though I feel there is enough in Section 151(d)(5)(B), and not enough contrary anywhere else, to take a valid reporting position that an NRA is still entitled to a personal exemption.  But, I’m prepared to be proven wrong.   

It would, of course, have been nice if Congress had spoken more clearly on this issue by, perhaps, explicitly suspending Section 873(b)(3) for 2018 through 2025.  Or, in the alternative, Congress could have said it wanted NRAs to start paying tax from Dollar One.  Because the bottom line, if the new Form 1040NR is correct, is that a temporary agricultural worker making $7,000 during his 100 days in America in 2018 will now owe $700 in tax, rather than $285.  Is that really what Congress intended?  Is that really fair?

Using a Refund Suit to Remedy Identity Theft of Return Preparer Fraud

Today, we welcome guest blogger, Robert G. Nassau.  Professor Nassau teaches at Syracuse University College of Law and directs the low income taxpayer clinic (LITC) there.  Today, he discusses twin problems that have plagued my taxpayers, identity theft and preparer fraud.  He has employed refund suits before to resolve cases in which the IRS has frozen a taxpayer’s earned income tax credit and in the post today he explains how he used a refund suit to solve a seemingly intractable identity theft/preparer fraud issue.  His pioneering and innovative use of refund suits to craft favorable results for his clients is probably what caused him to become the author of the chapter on refunds in the book “Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS.”  The book is gearing up for its seventh edition in 2017 and Professor Nassau has signed on for another update of the refund chapter.  Keith

As all tax professionals know, tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud are widespread, and trying to assist a victim of these crimes – despite significant procedural improvements made by the Internal Revenue Service – can make one envy Sisyphus and his Boulder Problem.  Recently, the Syracuse University College of Law Low Income Taxpayer Clinic successfully resolved one such taxpayer’s ordeal – and did it by filing a refund suit in Federal District Court.  This is his story.

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The Taxpayer.

Prior to 2011, John Doe (not his real name) had traditionally prepared and filed his own tax returns, and had never had any problems.  When he was working on his 2011 return, his calculations were not leading to his accustomed refund.  When he mentioned his dilemma to a friend, she suggested that he contact Bonnie Parker (not her real name), who, according to the friend, was very knowledgeable in all things tax.  John went to Bonnie, showed her his W-2, and gave her some additional personal information.  Bonnie said she would look into it and get back to him, but she never did.  John never saw her again.  John himself did not timely file his 2011 return, because he was considering filing for bankruptcy, and thought he had three years to file the return.

The Crime Perpetrated.

Unbeknownst, at the time, to John, Bonnie submitted a fraudulent return using John’s identity and some of his legitimate information, and received a refund of about $5,000.

The Crime Discovered.

In early 2013, John realized that something was amiss, as he started to get collection notices regarding “his” 2011 tax return.  The Service had audited John’s “return” on the basis of both automated underreporting and child-based benefits.  Because the audit was ignored, John now found himself assessed close to $6,000.

The Failure of Traditional Remedies.

Having “put two and two together,” John filed his real 2011 return in the summer of 2013, claiming a refund of about $2,000.  This return was not processed.  In early 2014, John went to his local Taxpayer Assistance Center, where he was encouraged to submit an Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039), which he did.  This did not solve the problem.  Later in 2014 he was told to submit a Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit (IRS Form 14157-A), and a Complaint: Tax Return Preparer (IRS Form 14157).  John submitted both of these Forms.  He also filed a police report with the Syracuse Police Department.  None of this solved his problem.  In fact, while he was trying to solve his 2011 problem, his refunds for 2012 and 2013 (and, later 2014) were all offset and applied to his 2011 “debt,” reducing it to around $2,000.  In early 2015, John sought help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which, despite diligent efforts by his Case Advocate, was unable to fix the problem.  Apparently, the Service was confused by whether this was an Identity Theft case or a Return Preparer Fraud case.  In addition, the Service was suspicious of John and his “relationship” with Bonnie.  Ultimately, his Case Advocate suggested that he contact the Syracuse LITC.

Commencement of the Refund Suit.

Concluding that it would be fruitless to try to solve John’s problem administratively (that train had left the station and was not coming back), the Syracuse LITC decided to file a refund suit on John’s behalf in Federal District Court, which it did in November 2015.  The Complaint sought a recovery of John’s claimed refunds on his actual 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 returns. In our view, because each of those returns had claimed a refund; six months had passed since each return had been filed; and it was not more than two years from John’s receipt of a notice of disallowance with respect to any of his claims (there had been no such notices), the District Court had jurisdiction to hear his case.  (Section 6532(a)(1) of the Code.)

The Department of Justice Answers.

In his Answer, the attorney for the Department of Justice raised two interesting points (while denying most of the factual assertions for lack of knowledge): (1) the refunds for 2012, 2013 and 2014 had actually been granted – they had just been offset to 2011, therefore, there was no issue for those years; and (2) there might be a jurisdictional issue regarding 2011, because there was currently a balance due for 2011, and, pursuant to United States v. Flora, one cannot bring a refund suit if one still owes any part of the taxes assessed for that year.  While this first point is not without a good deal of merit, the second point creates a fascinating potential Catch-22 (fascinating from a tax law perspective, not from a solve-the-problem perspective).  If the DOJ attorney were correct, the Court would implicitly have to conclude that the fraudulent return was the real return, when the case is premised on the fact that the fraudulent return is fraudulent and the real return shows a refund (hence no Flora issue).  Effectively, if the DOJ attorney were correct, one might never get his “day in court” to prove that he was the victim of identity theft or return prepare fraud.

How It Played Out.

While reserving his Flora argument, the DOJ attorney flew to Syracuse to depose John.  Having listened to John’s story in person, and having done some independent sleuthing of his own, the DOJ attorney concluded that John was telling the truth.  He arranged to have the fraudulent 2011 return (and its liability) purged from the system, and John’s actual 2011 return respected and processed.  Interestingly, that actual 2011 return wound up showing a small liability, but it was more than offset by John’s 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 refunds, so he received a significant check.  It took thirteen months from the time John filed his refund suit until the time his account was rectified and he received his proper refund.

Lessons and Observations.

Given John’s – and even TAS’s – inability to solve his tax problem administratively, a refund suit seemed his best, if not only, resort.  While it took over a year to reach the correct result, the refund suit brought with it an intelligent, diligent and dedicated DOJ attorney who, to his credit, seemed more concerned with reaching the correct result than with trying to set a new jurisdictional precedent.  It also brought a Judge who seemed to believe John from the “get-go,” and who prodded the parties toward settlement.  While we would certainly recommend fully exhausting one’s administrative avenues of relief first, where those have proven unsuccessful, we would encourage taxpayers to file refund suits to get the result they deserve.