Tax Free Reorg and Statute of Limitations: When is a Document a Return?

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The New Capital Fire v Commissioner case from earlier this month is another in the many cases involving statutes of limitation on assessment. The case involves an old issue;  whether a document constitutes a return for purposes of starting the clock ticking on the statute of limitations on assessment.

In this case, the twist was that one taxpayer (Old Capital Fire)  was merged out of existence in a transaction that was intended to qualify as a tax free reorg under 368(a)(1)(F) (an F reorg) Following the merger, the surviving corporation (New Capital Fire) filed a corporate tax return, and with that return it included a pro forma Form 1120 that it included with its corporate tax return. That pro forma 1120 included the information pertaining to Old Capital Fire’s operations in its last short year.

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Generally speaking, when there is an F reorg, as the opinion discusses, the regs under Section 381 require that “the part of the tax year before the reorganization and the part after constitute a single tax year, and the resulting corporation must file a single full-year return.”

The problem here was apparently IRS argued that there was no valid F reorg. IRS came in 9 years or so after New Capital Fire filed its return and sought to assess a tax relating to the return that it believed Old Capital was required to separately file. If no return was filed, under Section 6501(c)(3) IRS would have an unlimited time to assess additional tax.

The issue that the Tax Court considered was whether the pro forma 1120 that New Capital included with its return was a return for purposes of starting the SOL on assessment for the tax stemming from the supposedly blown reorg.

There is plenty of old law on whether a document filed with the Service counts as a return. In 1984 the Tax Court put together the story in the oft-cited Beard v Commissioner, where it identified the following test:

(1) the document must contain sufficient data to calculate tax liability;

(2) the document must purport to be a return;

(3) there must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law; and

(4) the taxpayer must have executed the document under penalties of perjury.

Most of the New Capital Fire opinion centered on the third requirement, the need to have an “honest and reasonable attempt” satisfy the tax law. The IRS argued that the New Capital return was purposefully misleading. While it was not clear (to me anyway) what led the IRS to label it as such, the opinion noted that the New Capital return had a clear statement regarding the position that Old Capital was merged into New Capital and that the pro forma return reported “income, deductions, and credits that were included in the notice of deficiency at issue in this case.”

The opinion notes that many opinions have liberally applied the third Beard element, with a flunking only if the court found that the pro forma 1120 and the 1120 that disclosed the merger was “false or fraudulent with intent to evade tax as it pertains to Old Capital.” The Tax Court observed that the IRS came up short, as “New Capital’s 2002 return contained sufficient information to calculate Old Capital’s tax liability.”

As the opinion notes, citing cases like Zellerbach Paper v Helvering and Germantown Trust v Commissioner, perfect accuracy is not necessary. Even if New Capital whiffed and there was a separate obligation to file a different return relating to Old Capital’s short year, that mistake did not change the fact that IRS had what it needed to assess any additional tax within the normal time frame.

With that, the court concluded that IRS did in fact receive a return from Old Capital and IRS was out of luck (and time) to assess any additional tax that may have stemmed from Old Capital Fire’s merger.

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comments

  1. Saw this one, and I was intrigued by it. Unusual fact pattern for litigation, although it presumably happens with some degree of frequency. Odd that they pushed a nine-year old issue.

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