10th Circuit Affirms That Nursing Homes and Other Entities Lack Protection from Levy for Hardship

In 2017, the Tax Court issued rulings in several cases regarding the application of IRC 6343(a)(1) to entities.  The lead case was Lindsay Manor Nursing Home, Inc. v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 9 (2017).  I blogged about the group of cases here in a post with a catchy tag line about rolling the wheelchairs and beds to the curb.  Lindsay Manor appealed the decision.  I wrote about the outcome of that appeal which basically vacated the decision because Lindsay Manor was in receivership at the time of the Tax Court’s decision.

Now, another nursing home in the same group of cases, Seminole Nursing Home, Inc., has made its way to the 10th Circuit after being told in the Tax Court that it did not qualify for hardship.  The 10th Circuit decision upholds the decision of the Tax Court and the validity of the Treas. Reg. 301.6343-1(b)(4)(i).  I don’t know if the nursing home has been keeping itself open in the four years since the Tax Court decision, but now it must either succeed in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case, pay the outstanding tax, work out some form of payment agreement or, potentially, watch the IRS shut it down.

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This case came to the Tax Court as a Collection Due Process case.  IRS Appeals rejected Seminole’s offer of an installment agreement prior to the Tax Court case, stating:

Seminole had sufficient assets to pay its tax debt in full; and (2) it was ineligible for an installment agreement because it had not made all its required federal tax deposits for 2014. The Office also rejected Seminole’s economic-hardship argument, explaining that Treasury Regulation § 301.6343-1(b)(4) limits economic-hardship relief to individual taxpayers. And it determined that “[i]n balancing the least intrusive method of collection with the need to efficiently administer the tax laws and the collection of revenue, . . . the balance favors issuance of the levy, and is no more intrusive than necessary.”

The 10th Circuit engaged in a Chevron analysis to determine if the regulation appropriately interpreted the statute.  Seminole argued that the Code provides an unambiguous answer at step one, citing to IRC 7701(a)(14) for support that entities are persons under the IRC.  That section defines person to include “an individual, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company or corporation.”  Seminole also pointed out that IRC 6343(a)(1)(D) makes no distinction between individual and corporate taxpayers.

While the language of the definitional provision in IRC 7701 appears favorable to Seminole’s argument, the 10th Circuit notes that the preface to the definitions says they apply “[w]hen used in this title, where not otherwise distinctly expressed or manifestly incompatible with the intent thereof.”  It finds that the use of the word taxpayer elsewhere in the Code makes clear the word can be limited to individuals.  It says that corporations can experience economic hardship, citing an earlier case in which it made such a holding, but looking at the exemptions to levy in IRC 6343, it finds they all essentially apply to individuals and not to entities. 

The court finds it important that Seminole did not attempt to show what economic hardship for entities would look like.  It also noted that no one commenting on the regulation suggested the result for which Seminole argues.  Looking at the situation as a whole, it decides that the statute does not compel a result, leaving the Treasury free to apply its expertise in writing a regulation.

Seminole did not make the argument about disqualification of the Settlement Officer for looking at the file before the hearing that was made in the companion case of Lindsay Manor, but it did make a second argument using the reversal of the Lindsay Manor case as a basis for arguing the underlying Tax Court decision in its case lost its foundation upon the vacating of the Tax Court’s decision in Lindsay Manor for mootness.  The 10th Circuit says, however, that it did not vacate Lindsay Manor on the merits but only because of mootness at the time of the Tax Court’s ruling.  It finds that the adoption of the reasoning of Lindsay Manor to the facts of Seminole did not create an abuse of discretion.

The Seminole case fills the hole created by the mootness of Lindsay Manor.  While the outcome does not provide a surprise, this is a major victory for the IRS regarding the interpretation of the statute.  This doesn’t mean there will not be further challenges in other circuits.  The decision does, however, provide the kind of support that will greatly assist the IRS should those challenges arise.

Limiting economic hardship to individuals seems consistent with the statutory scheme of the levy provisions.  Because of the hardship that closing down a nursing home could create for the individuals living there, nursing home cases provide one of the best litigating vehicles for challenging the limits created by the regulation.  Still, the hardship is directly the hardship of the entity and not of the individuals who reside at the facility.  The situation becomes very sympathetic if the economic hardship experienced by the entity results from government delays.  Other cases have addressed the imposition of the trust fund recovery penalty upon nursing home operators who could not make the necessary tax payments because of significant delays in Medicare payments.  If the cause of the hardship is another part of the government, courts should look for ways to mitigate the taxpayer’s problem even where the taxpayer is an entity but limiting the concept of hardship to individuals generally seems appropriate.  It’s hard to say the 10th Circuit was wrong in upholding the regulation as a reasonable interpretation of the statute.

CCA Distinguishes Between Continuous Levies on Wages and Levies on Social Security Income

A relatively brief IRS CCA briefly highlights some confusion concerning the effect of a continuous levy on wages on the ten-year statute of limitations on collections.

That there is some confusion on the topic is not surprising.

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For example we have previously discussed problems the IRS has struggled to properly compute the SOL; see Keith’s post NTA Highlights Errors in IRS Calculation of Collection Statute of Limitations.

Taxpayers also can get hung up, especially when there is a levy that may relate to a fixed payment stream that may continue well beyond the ten-year period. See for example  Levy on Social Security Benefits: IRS Taking Payments Beyond Ten Years of Assessment Still Timely where I discussed Dean v US.  In Dean the taxpayer alleged that the IRS recklessly disregarded the law by continuing to levy on a taxpayer’s Social Security payments beyond the ten-year SOL on collections. 

Dean held that the ten-year collection statutes of limitation period does not prevent collection beyond ten years from assessment when there is a continuous levy relating to a fixed and determinable income stream that is made before the ten-year period expires.

The IRS is authorized to issue continuous levies on wages and certain other federal payments disbursed by U.S. Bureau of Fiscal Service.  One way to contrast the wage levy with one-time levy is to compare the wage levy with the levy on a bank account.  If the IRS levies on a bank account, it only recovers from the levy the funds in the account at the time the levy is issued.  If money comes into the bank account the next day, the debtor gets to keep it unless (until) the IRS levies again.

By contrast, a levy on salary is continuous from the date such levy is first made until such levy is released.  Most taxpayers cannot financially survive a wage levy.  In many ways a wage levy usually motivates otherwise recalcitrant taxpayers to work with the IRS.  The recent CCA briefly discusses some IRS confusion concerning the effect of a continuous levy on wages.

A continuous levy on salary and other recurring steams is continuous from the date such levy is first made until such levy is released. Unlike social security payments at issue in Dean, however, the right to receive wages is not fixed and determinable. The CCA notes that a revenue officer technical advisor had initially believed that a continuous wage levy under Section 6331(e) would remain in effect even if the collection statute (CSED) “had run so long as the levy was made prior to the end of the CSED.” 

As the CCA discusses, the taxpayer’s absence of a right to receive wages beyond the ten-year period means that once the ten year SOL runs, the IRS is required to release the continuous levy. Unless IRS goes to the bother of getting a judgment, the IRS cannot reach wages after the ten-year period elapses.

There are other payment streams that are fixed and determinable that will allow a continuous levy to remain in effect beyond the ten-year period. For example, when there are royalties relating to a published book an author has a fixed and determinable right to royalties. A levy reaches royalties for sales of those books in the future. A note payable provides another example of a stream of payments.  If the IRS levies on the note, it reaches all future payments whether or not the payments are due prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.  The levy does not accelerate the payments but merely places the IRS in the shoes of the taxpayer.

The key inquiry is whether payment is not dependent upon the performance of future services. There can be disputes as to whether the stream is truly independent of future services, as Keith and I discuss in more detail in Saltzman and Book ¶14A.15, which addresses property exempt from levy.  Here, the IRS technical advisor confused the continuous nature of the wage levy with the effect of a levy on property for which the taxpayer is due a stream of payments.  The CCA sets the IRS employee straight, but the confusion is easy to understand.

Buying Property from the IRS

A short Chief Counsel Advisory opinion provides a cautionary tale for those purchasing property from the IRS.  CCA 2021021011190596 explains that if the buyer at an IRS sale does not follow through and make all of the payments necessary to complete the purchase, the IRS can declare the sale null and void.  When it does so, the purchaser forfeits all of the payments made to that point and the IRS can resell the property.

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When the IRS seizes real or tangible property, IRC 6335 governs the sale.  Subsection (a) provides:

As soon as practicable after seizure of property, notice in writing shall be given by the Secretary to the owner of the property (or, in the case of personal property, the possessor thereof), or shall be left at his usual place of abode or business if he has such within the internal revenue district where the seizure is made. If the owner cannot be readily located, or has no dwelling or place of business within such district, the notice may be mailed to his last known address. Such notice shall specify the sum demanded and shall contain, in the case of personal property, an account of the property seized and, in the case of real property, a description with reasonable certainty of the property seized.

The IRS created a special unit within the collection division to deal with sales because the rules governing sales are specific, the number of sales is not that great, and the effort of revenue officers (ROs) to follow the technical rules created too many problems and took the ROs too much time.  So, once the IRS seizes property, the RO in charge of collecting from the taxpayer turns the property over to the PALS unit for it to conduct the actual sale.  If the sale results in full satisfaction of the tax liability, then the RO is finished with the case.  If the sale does not result in full satisfaction, which is probably the more likely outcome, then the RO continues to pursue collection.

Since RRA 98, the IRS has conducted relatively few seizures and therefore holds relatively few sales.  Because these events occur infrequently, no one at the IRS becomes familiar with the process as a routine.  I suspect that certain ROs conduct most of the seizures and some never do so.  Similar to the lack of deep knowledge on the IRS side because of the low number of seizures and sales is the lack of deep knowledge on the buyer side.  Buyers must understand what they are purchasing if they buy property from the IRS and the failure to understand the rules that govern purchases can lead to unhappy outcomes.  Purchasing property from the IRS at one of these sales will look like a real bargain and it could be.  It could also be a trap for the unwary.

IRC 6335(b) provides the rules regarding the notice of sale that the IRS must give:

The Secretary shall as soon as practicable after the seizure of the property give notice to the owner, in the manner prescribed in subsection (a), and shall cause a notification to be published in some newspaper published or generally circulated within the county wherein such seizure is made, or if there be no newspaper published or generally circulated in such county, shall post such notice at the post office nearest the place where the seizure is made, and in not less than two other public places. Such notice shall specify the property to be sold, and the time, place, manner, and conditions of the sale thereof. Whenever levy is made without regard to the 10-day period provided in section 6331(a), public notice of sale of the property seized shall not be made within such 10-day period unless section 6336 (relating to sale of perishable goods) is applicable.

IRC 6335(e) governs the manner of sale.  It is the rules set forth in this section that are the focus of the CCA.  The IRS should not seize and sell property that has no equity.  In order words, it cannot just seize property to cause the taxpayer an inconvenience.  It actually did that prior to 1980 as a way of disrupting businesses that were pyramiding their taxes.  Now, the RO needs to make a determination prior to seizure that the sale will bring positive dollars to the Treasury.  Instead of seizing property with no equity, the IRS now brings injunction action against taxpayers who pyramid and who it cannot shut down with administrative action as discussed here and here

Of course, the RO could make a mistake in determining value, but the RO cannot just seize property to thwart the taxpayer from conducting business.  One of the other reasons seizures are down since 1998 is that a willful failure by the RO in the seizure could trigger the application of sin number one of the 10 deadly sins resulting in possible termination of employment.  We have written about the 10 deadly sins here and here.  Some ROs do not want to take that risk, which means ROs will be, or certainly should be, very careful when deciding to seize property and following through.

The manner of sale rules under IRC 6335(e) provide:

(1) In general

(A) Determinations relating to minimum price.

Before the sale of property seized by levy, the Secretary shall determine—

(i)

a minimum price below which such property shall not be sold (taking into account the expense of making the levy and conducting the sale), and

(ii)

whether, on the basis of criteria prescribed by the Secretary, the purchase of such property by the United States at such minimum price would be in the best interest of the United States.

(B) Sale to highest bidder at or above minimum price

If, at the sale, one or more persons offer to purchase such property for not less than the amount of the minimum price, the property shall be declared sold to the highest bidder.

(C) Property deemed sold to United States at minimum price in certain cases

If no person offers the amount of the minimum price for such property at the sale and the Secretary has determined that the purchase of such property by the United States would be in the best interest of the United States, the property shall be declared to be sold to the United States at such minimum price.

(D) Release to owner in other cases

If, at the sale, the property is not declared sold under subparagraph (B) or (C), the property shall be released to the owner thereof and the expense of the levy and sale shall be added to the amount of tax for the collection of which the levy was made. Any property released under this subparagraph shall remain subject to any lien imposed by subchapter C.

In the case on which the CCA focuses, an RO has seized property, turned it over to the PALS who have sold it with a provision that the purchaser will pay something down and something over time.  The purchaser has defaulted on one of the subsequent payments.  The CCA determines that the appropriate IRS official can declare the purchaser in default and the purchase null and void.  This will give the IRS the chance to resell the property while keeping the payments it received from the first purchaser.  The CCA does not talk about who will benefit from the defaulted proceeds – the taxpayer or the IRS.  That’s governed by another provision.

The CCA notes that:

Discretion to return to the purchaser any portion of the amount paid is not stated in or implied in the Code or the Treasury Regulations. Both provide that any amount paid by a defaulting bidder “shall be forfeited.” I.R.C. § 6335(e)(3); Treas. Reg. § 301.6335-1(c)(9). Similarly, there is nothing in the IRM that suggests any circumstances under which the Service would have the ability to return any portion of the amount forfeited under section 6335(e)(3). In fact, the IRM has special accounting procedures for how the Service is to handle forfeited bid-in amounts. See I.R.M. 5.10.6.5.1(2) (cross-referencing I.R.M. 3.17.63).

The IRS will take the forfeited amounts and place them in the general treasury account, meaning that the taxpayer will not get the benefit of the forfeited payments, but instead, the general public gets those benefits.  The taxpayer may benefit if the next sale brings in more money or may lose if it does not.

Limitation on Offset When the Government Seeks to Collect Restitution

The case of United States v. Taylor, No. 2:06-cr-00658 (E.D. PA 2021) brings out a limitation on the right to offset when the Government is collecting on a court-ordered restitution amount.  Here, the Government, specifically the Department of Justice, gets its hand slapped for levying on the social security of a convicted criminal.  The levy here is the 15% on social security that regularly arises with respect to outstanding federal tax obligations.  There is no indication in the opinion that the IRS made a restitution based assessment in this case or any kind of assessment.  This appears to be a case involving the payment of the court ordered restitution payment and not a derivative liability stemming from the restitution order.  The court does not mention the IRS other than in relation to the crime committed by the petitioner.

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Ms. Taylor and others were convicted of conspiracy to defraud the IRS.  The federal district court that sentenced her and then ordered her to pay a restitution judgment of $3.3 million.  The court, however, failed to take into account her financial resources and the Third Circuit vacated the restitution order and remanded the case so that the district court could make an appropriate determination of her ability to pay as well as her culpability.

On remand, the court determined her ability to pay was $100 per year and noted that the government could come back to the court for an increase if her circumstances changed.  This happened in 2012.  Between 2012 and 2019 when Ms. Taylor became eligible for aged-based social security benefits, the government did not return to the court to seek an increase, although it did make a preliminary determination that she could pay $25 a month.

The restitution payments were listed with the Bureau of Fiscal Services as available for offset pursuant to the Treasury Offset Program (TOP) because they were delinquent federal debts.  When the social security payments began, TOP began offsetting 15% of her social security (about $235 a month) and applied the funds taken from her monthly social security check to her outstanding restitution obligation.  She continued to comply with the court order to pay $100 a year.

When Ms. Taylor initially brought the action complaining of the TOP offset, she did so pro se.  The district court appointed Peter Hardy, one of the top white collar criminal defense attorneys in Philadelphia who also taught as an adjunct professor at Villanova when I was there and has guest posted for us in the past (for example, see this terrific post on the crime fraud exception to the attorney client privilege).  Undoubtedly, Ms. Taylor benefited from his appointment.

The court provides some background on the TOP program which we have discussed previously here and here

Ms. Taylor argued that she was in compliance with the restitution order, making the TOP offset inappropriate.  She also argued that her restitution debt was not delinquent, meaning it was not one the government should refer to TOP.  The Government argued that the referral to TOP was appropriate because she had a large outstanding debt.  The court finds that the debt is not delinquent:

“[U]nlike a civil judgment, the restitution order is the product of a ‘specific and detailed [statutory] scheme addressing the issuance . . . of restitution orders arising out of criminal prosecutions.’” Id. at 1204 (quoting United States v. Wyss, 744 F.3d 1214, 1217 (10th Cir. 2014)). Section 3572(d) states that “[a] person sentenced to pay a fine or other monetary penalty, including restitution, shall make such payment immediately, unless, in the interest of justice, the court provides for payment on a date certain or in installments.” 18 U.S.C. § 3572(d)(1). This subsection provides that the full payment of restitution is not due immediately if a court establishes a payment plan for restitution. See Martinez, 812 F.3d at 1205. Thus, “a defendant subject to an installment-based restitution order need only make payments at the intervals and in the amounts specified by the order.” Id. Section 3572 also explicitly defines when a payment of restitution is delinquent or in default. See 18 U.S.C. § 3572(h)-(i). A “payment of restitution is delinquent if a payment is more than 30 days late.” Id. § 3572(h). A “payment of restitution is in default if a payment is delinquent for more than 90 days. Notwithstanding any installment schedule, when a fine or payment of restitution is in default, the entire amount of the fine or restitution is due within 30 days after notification of the default.” Id. § 3572(i). These provisions “would be unnecessary, even meaningless, if the total restitution amount were already owed in full under an installment-based restitution order.” Martinez, 812 F.3d at 1205. It is evident from the structure and language of § 3572 that under an installment-based restitution order, the restitution debt only becomes delinquent when a defendant’s installment payment is more than 30 days late.

The court tells the government that if it wants more from Ms. Taylor it needs to come back to the court and request more.  It cannot simply offset at a time when she has continued to comply with the court’s order.  The court orders the government to stop the offset and to return to her all the money taken through TOP.  Perhaps the government will come looking for her and seek to raise the amount she must pay from $100 a year to a larger number.  Because she became unemployed as a result of the pandemic, this might prove difficult.

It’s unclear if the conspiracy to defraud the IRS could turn into a tax assessment.  If the IRS made a tax assessment of the liability or some part of the liability, it could collect on the tax liability independent of the restitution order and through a tax assessment could potentially levy on her social security.  Ms. Taylor, as part of her defense to the taking of the social security funds, argued that the taking of these funds put her into a difficult financial situation.  If the IRS made a tax assessment, it could not levy, even through TOP, if doing so would create financial hardship as defined by IRC 6343(a)(1)(D).  Convicted tax criminals generally make difficult taxpayers from whom to collect.  Ms. Taylor appears to fit into that category.

Levy on Social Security Benefits: IRS Taking Payments Beyond Ten Years of Assessment Still Timely

Dean v US involves a motion to dismiss a taxpayer’s suit alleging that the IRS recklessly disregarded the law by continuing to levy on a taxpayer’s Social Security payments beyond the ten year SOL on collections.  The magistrate concluded that the IRS’s actions were not improper and recommended that the case be dismissed. The district court approved the recommendation and Dean timely appealed to the 11th Circuit, which affirmed the district court.  The case nicely illustrates how the ten-year collection period does not prevent collection beyond the ten-year period when there is a timely levy relating to a fixed and determinable income stream.

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Dean owed over two million dollars for tax years 1997-2005. IRS assessed the liabilities in 2007; IRS recorded a notice of federal tax lien shortly thereafter. In 2013, IRS served a levy on Dean and the SSA for the unpaid tax. Following the levy, SSA began paying over all of the benefits slated for Dean to the IRS. I here note as a tangent that this differs from the federal payment levy program under 6331(h), which authorizes an automatic 15% levy on certain federal benefits, including social security. IRS is not precluded from issuing continuous manual levies, as it did here, where it could take all of the benefits, subject to exemptions that the taxpayer establishes as per 6334(a)(9).

In 2017, with the CSED expiring, IRS filed a certificate of release of federal tax lien stating that Dean had “satisfied the taxes,” that the lien was “released,” and authorized the proper IRS officer to “note the books to show the release of this lien.” IRS also abated the assessments.

Dean at this point believed that the levy on his social security benefits should have stopped. When it did not, he filed a complaint in federal court alleging that the levy was an unauthorized collection action and he sought over $64,000 in damages.

Unfortunately for Mr. Dean, as the magistrate noted, the argument does not “hold water” (allowing me gleefully to link to the great Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei scene in My Cousin Vinny).

The regs under Section 6331 describe the relationship between a levy and fixed and determinable payments: “[A] levy extends only to property possessed and obligations which exist at the time of the levy.” 26 C.F.R. § 301.6331–1(a). “Obligations exist when the liability of the obligor is fixed and determinable although the right to receive payment thereof may be deferred until a later date.” Id. 

An obligation is fixed and determinable “[a]s long as the events which gave rise to the obligation have occurred and the amount of the obligation is capable of being determined in the future …. It is not necessary that the amount of the obligation be beyond dispute.” United States v. Antonio. 71A AFTR 2d 93-4578], *6 n. 2 (D. Haw. Sept. 24, 1991). Numerous cases establish that Social Security benefits are a fixed and determinable obligation of the SSA and are subject to one-time levies. 

As the lower court opinion discusses, the 2013 levy created a custodial relationship between IRS and the SSA and as such the benefits came into constructive possession of the IRS. The regs under Section 6343 also provide that “a levy on a fixed and determinable right to payment which right includes payments to be made after the period of limitations expires does not become unenforceable upon the expiration of the period of limitations and will not be released under this condition unless the liability is satisfied .” 26 C.F.R. § 301.6343-1(b)(1)(ii).

The Eleventh Circuit also helpfully explains the relationship between the levy and the benefits, directly refuting the claim that the collection occurred after the expiration of the SOL:

Instead, the IRS seized his entire Social Security benefit—that is, his “fixed and determinable right to payment” of his Social Security benefit in monthly installments—immediately upon issuing the notice of levy in June 2013. 26 C.F.R. § 301.6343-1(b)(1)(ii); see Phelps, 421 U.S. at 337. Having seized his entire benefit before the expiration of the collection limitations period, the IRS was not required to relinquish it after the period expired. See 26 C.F.R. § 301.6343-1(b)(1)(ii).

The lower court opinion also nicely discusses the lack of legal significance of the IRS’s abatement of the assessment and issuance of the release of federal tax lien. Both events did not change that Dean owed an underlying tax.  As to the abatement, taxpayers are liable for the tax regardless of whether there has been an assessment. While the release of the federal tax lien affects the IRS’s security interest, it did not release the levy and had no bearing on the underlying tax debt.

Death and Taxes

On the substantive side of tax issues Congress is focusing on death and taxes as it studies and debates whether to eliminate the stepped up basis currently given to property upon the death of the owner.  This debate is not new.  When I was in law school in the mid-1970s taking a class in estate and gift taxes Congress was engaged in the same debate and decided to eliminate the stepped up basis in the middle of my semester.  The professor, a prominent local practitioner, deserved extra duty pay for trying to follow the twists and turns during the run up and passage of the repeal of the stepped up basis that semester.  Of course, the following year Congress repealed the repeal of the stepped up basis putting us back where we are today.  Because of my law school experience with this issue almost five decades ago and my personal experience as a beneficiary of the stepped up basis, I follow the debate with interest.

This blog focuses on procedure, however, and I wanted to bring to everyone’s attention to a death and taxes story playing out on the collection side of the house.  This story also has roots in the current pandemic and efforts for relief for those impacted by it.

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On April 30, 2021, the IRS issued SBSE-05-0421-0031 “Levy Actions Involving FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Funds.”  In this guidance the IRS instructs collection employees to release bank levies if the funds in the account include money received by the taxpayers as COVID-19 Funeral Assistance funds provided by the Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA).

We have written before about tracing funds into a bank account and whether certain funds in a bank account that can be traced from sources on which the IRS could not levy at the time of payment should be protected from levy once placed in a bank account.  See the excellent post by Les on this subject here.  Generally, the IRS takes the position that money in a bank account is fair game for its levy no matter what source, protected from levy or not, generated the funds in the bank account.  In the case Les discusses in his post the 10th Circuit hinted that maybe veteran’s benefits exempted from levy in the list at IRC 6334(a)(10) could retain protection if properly traced.

Despite its normal view that funds going into a bank account become fair game, the kinder, gentler IRS carves out an exception here if the funds subject to the levy have arrived in order to pay the funeral expenses of a loved one.  It makes sense for the IRS to make this exception and avoid having to explain the taking of these funds but the decision raises again the issue of when the IRS should back away from funds in a bank account.

Backing away creates its own difficulties which drives the normal IRS position on this issue.  First, the IRS has no idea the source of the funds in a bank account and no realistic way to find out except from the taxpayer.  The notice contemplates that after a levy the taxpayer will tell the IRS that it has levied on the funeral funds.  That itself presents a couple of problems.  One concerns how many taxpayers will know that the IRS has created this exception.  The bank levy could easily be generated by an Automated Call Site (ACS) with little or no contact between the IRS and the taxpayer.  The taxpayer will learn from the bank, at some point, that the IRS has levied but is unlikely to be aware of this guidance and will only contact the IRS out of some sense of unfairness that it levied upon the funeral funds for a loved one, perhaps stopping the funeral.  That also raises the second problem of just getting through to the IRS to tell it about this issue even if you know about the policy.  Getting through is not easy and this will be a family in the midst of grieving.

Assuming the taxpayer knows about the policy or calls to complain generally and assuming the taxpayer gets through, then the IRS will request documentation to verify the funds came from FEMA, when they came, how much came, etc.  Once the taxpayer satisfies the verification procedure, the IRS will release the levy on the verified funds.

The IRS has created a similar but more taxpayer friendly procedure for accounts with PPP funds and Recovery Rebate stimulus payments requiring the IRS to check before making the levy.  As mentioned above, that can be difficult for the IRS.

The procedure for the FEMA funds tracks, in many ways, the procedure for levies where multiple parties own the bank account.  Following its narrow victory in United States v. National Bank of Commerce, 472 U.S. 713 (1985) a procedure developed providing bank notification of the owners and a 21 day opportunity for owners of the account to come in and show that the money in the account belonged to them rather than to the taxpayer who owed the tax causing the levy.  The taxpayer’s wife and mother jointly owned the account at issue in that case making for some interesting dinner table conversations.  The verification that the wife and mother would have provided to show the money belonged to one of them rather than the taxpayer would track the verification procedures developed for the FEMA payments.  The IRS and banks have used this system now for over 35 years and it seems to work.

What if all bank levies had a 21-day hold with the opportunity not only for co-owners to verify ownership but for the taxpayer to verify any funds that protected by IRC 6334 or by special designation such as the FEMA funds here? If such a system existed, taxpayers would not need to read SBSE memos to know when to raise their hand and they would have a process of talking to the IRS through the bank that might work better than trying to call a number where a low percentage of taxpayers get through.  Such a system would also eliminate the second hand taking of funds Congress sought to preserve for the taxpayer and would make it less necessary for taxpayers with outstanding liabilities to need to find alternatives to banking to preserve those special assets.

Unlicensed Chiropractor’s Retirement Account Not Exempt From Garnishment Even When Subject to Prior Child Support Order

US v Clark explores whether the government can use its restitution powers to seize assets in an individual’s retirement accounts. While not a tax case, its analysis is dependent on the meaning of Section 6334(a)(8) which exempts from IRS levy “salary, wages, or other income . . . necessary to comply” with child-support orders. 

The case involves Thomas Clark, who owes over a half million dollars in restitution stemming from Clark’s guilty plea from operating a chiropractic clinic that fraudulently billed insurance companies for services he performed without a license. 

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The Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA) allows the government to garnish a defendant’s property to satisfy a restitution order.  The restitution statute in Title 18 borrows exemptions from Section 6334, which provides that certain property is exempt from levy. 

The government sought to levy from assets in two of Clark’s retirement accounts. The Fifth Circuit has held that the MVRA generally permits the government to garnish assets held in a retirement account to satisfy a restitution order. The wrinkle was that Clark estimated that he owed approximately $1,000/month in child support. He argued that the property in his retirement accounts amounted to “other income” under 6334(a)(8) that was necessary for him to comply with his child support and thus exempt from garnishment.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed. In so doing it noted that the issue is somewhat complicated by the consequences of Clark withdrawing assets from the IRA; the withdrawal itself would trigger income tax consequences (unlike cash in a savings account). That suggests some support for Clark’s position.

Ultimately the court found for the government and relied on ejusdem generis, which provides that confronted with a list of specific terms that ends with a catchall phrase, courts should limit the catchall phrase to “things of the same general kind or class specifically mentioned.” (citing ANTONIN SCALIA & BRYAN A. GARNER, READING LAW: THE INTERPRETATION OF LEGAL TEXTS 199 (2012)). With that canon the court looked at 6334(a)(8) as a “textbook example” of ejusdem generis leading it to conclude that “we should read “salary, wages, and other income” as “salary, wages, and other [similar] income.” 

For further support the court discussed Woods v. Simpson, 46 F.3d 21, 24 (6th Cir. 1995), which held that an inheritance was not exempt under 6334(a)(8) as it was not in the same category as salary or wages. Instead “other income” is limited to “items received by individuals for services rendered, such as bonuses, tips, commissions, and fees.”  

Conclusion

Simply put the child support exemption relates to amounts received directly from a taxpayer’s labor. Once placed in an account, the protection disappears, and the government is free to use its collection powers. 

The Clark decision finds direct support in Section 6334(c), which “provides that no property or rights to property shall be exempt from levy other than the property specifically made exempt by [Section 6334(a)].” Even if an asset itself is generating income, or would trigger income inclusion, or is funded with income which itself would have been exempt from levy, the government is not restricted from levying the underlying property. 

In 2016 I discussed a related issue in Maehr v Koskinen; in that case the taxpayer/army veteran argued that the 6334(a)(10) protection against levy as applied to veterans service related disability benefits should extend to funds in an account that were solely comprised of those benefits. Shortly after my post Keith also discussed the reach of 6334(a)(10). My post flagged the issue in Maehr; a 2018 district court opinion at 121 AFTR 2d 2018-1198 and appellate opinion we did not discuss held that Section 6334(a)(10) did not protect funds that were already paid.  I note as well that Congress has shown itself capable of using tracing method to free assets from levy—it has done so in the second round of economic impact payments and also uses broader language (“payable to or received by…” ) to protect a minimum amount of compensation from levy in 6334(a)(9).

District Court Holds That Premature Withdrawal from Retirement Account Under Threat of Levy Subject to 10 Percent Additional Tax

In this post I will discuss Thompson v US, an opinion from the Northern District of California that explores the limits to an exception to the 10% penalty on early withdrawals from tax favored retirement plans when the distribution is used to pay an assessed federal tax liability on account of a levy.

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The facts of Thompson are straightforward. Facing a significant tax liability and “under imminent threat of levy and lien collection by Field Collections,” the Thompsons withdrew over a million dollars from a retirement account.  There are a number of exceptions to the additional 10% tax on levied on the gross distributions from a retirement plan. The most commonly known is the exception for distributions after an employee turns 59 1/2; another is found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), which provides that the 10% additional tax does not apply if the distribution is “on account of a levy under Section 6331.”

The Thompons paid the tax and filed a claim for refund, arguing that they were not subject to the early distribution additional tax under the Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) “on account of a levy” exception.

After IRS rejected the claim and the Thompsons sued for a refund in federal court, the government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Thompsons’ withdrawal was voluntarily made and thus not “on account” of a levy and thus outside the exception in 72(t)(2)(A)(vii). The Thompsons in response did not deny that there was no actual levy, but instead argued that the government “took all the legally required steps to set in motion a levy, issuing Final Notices/Notices of Intent to Levy on December 12, 2012.” In addition, facing the threat of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which posed a “threat to Mr. Thompson’s business, his livelihood and his ability to generate funds sufficient to pay the balance of the liability over time,” meant that the withdrawal was not truly voluntary and and therefore should not be subject to the penalty.

For support, the Thompsons pointed to Murillo v Comm’r, where there was a distribution from a retirement plan that arose due to a forfeiture order and the Tax Court held that the taxpayer was not subject to the penalty, and to an earlier case, Laratonda v Comm’r, where the Tax Court, prior to the statutory exemption for levies now found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), found that a taxpayer whose funds from a retirement account were withdrawn pursuant to an IRS levy was not subject to the penalty.

The district court distinguished the Thompsons’ facts from the exception the Tax Court fashioned in Murillo and Laratonda:

Plaintiffs rely on the court’s emphasis on the involuntary nature of the withdrawals in Murillo and Laratonda in support of their assertion that they have stated a valid claim. Yet the limited facts alleged here are distinguishable from both Murillo and Laratonda in a crucial respect. Here, Plaintiffs’ retirement account was not, in fact, levied and the distribution was triggered not by any act of the IRS but by Plaintiffs’ own acts. In other words, Plaintiffs were actively involved in the distribution.

For good measure the district court noted that the legislative history to Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) explicitly referred to the exception as not applying to voluntary withdrawals to pay in the absence of an actual levy, as well as a 2009 Tax Court case, Willhite v Comm’r, which held that a taxpayer who had withdrawn funds from a retirement account following receipt of a notice of intent to levy was subject to the 10 % penalty.

Conclusion

In finding for the government and granting dismissal of the complaint, the district court did, however, throw a lifeline to the Thompsons. It noted that cases like Murillo suggest that there “may be circumstances other than a levy (for instance, a forfeiture) where a withdrawal is involuntary and therefore does not trigger the 10% penalty under § 72(t).” While noting that the Thompsons did not allege facts to support a plausible inference that the exception applies, it dismissed the complaint without prejudice, meaning that the Thompsons can file an amended complaint, which could include facts that would support such an inference.

In dismissing the complaint the district court held that it “need not decide at this juncture whether Plaintiffs might be able to state a claim based on allegations that the withdrawal was involuntary and coerced for reasons other than the fact that the IRS had set in motion a levy.”

I suspect that the Thompsons may have a difficult time navigating the narrow exception that Murillo supports. The issue of avoiding the 10% additional tax based on the levy exception is one Keith discussed most recently here, when he updated readers on Dang v Commissioner, involving a taxpayer who requested that IRS levy on his retirement account to ensure that the 10% tax did not apply. That post generated thoughtful comments, and Joe Schimmel suggested that perhaps IRS should draft a revenue procedure that allows the taxpayer to elect a levy on a retirement account. If the IRS listened to Joe that would have allowed the Thompsons to avoid what seems like a fairly punitive result of paying what amounts to an additional fairly harsh penalty for their tax troubles–admittedly of their own doing.

One other issue that the Thompons apparently did not raise is whether Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b). As one might expect, another of our longtime readers and pioneer on this issue, Frank Agostino (joined by Malinda Sederquist) has weighed in on this in the latest issue of the Monthly Journal of Tax Controversy. Frank and Malinda point to analogous authority in the bankruptcy context, which has held that Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of determining priority status, and they recommend that taxpayers challenge the Section 72(t) 10% addition under Section 6751(b). Frank and Malinda do note that there is a summary non precedential Tax Court opinion holding that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b) and they also acknowledge El v Commissioner, a 2015 opinion that held that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 7491(c).

Whether this can be raised by the Thompsons in an amended complaint is unclear, as they would run into a likely variance challenge if they had not raised the 6751(b) issue in their original claim. I have no doubt, however, that Frank and friends and others will be pressing this issue.