Disguised Sales to Partnerships, BBA Centralized Audits and Due Process

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Returning to look at the BBA regime, Monte Jackel examines final BBA regulations and issues relating to a partner’s gain on a disguised sale with a partnership. Les

The final BBA regulations reflect that “partnership-related items” are the items that are subject to the uniform centralized partnership audit regime. (T.D. 9844; Reg.§301.6241-1(a)(6)(ii)-vi)). These “partnership-related items” are those shown or reflected, or required to be shown or reflected, on a partnership income tax return (form 1065), or is otherwise required to be maintained in the partnership’s books and records. On the other hand, an item shown or required to be shown on an income tax return of a person other than the partnership that results from the application of the Internal Revenue Code to a partnership-related item based upon the other person’s specific facts and circumstances, including an incorrect application of the Code or taking into account erroneous facts and circumstances of that person, is not a partnership-related item.

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On the surface, the distinction between non-partnership related items and partnership- related items seems clear in most cases. Examples 1 and 2 under reg. §301.6241-1(a)(6)(vi) are the most helpful in this regard. Example 1 stands for the proposition that even though an income producing event occurs between a non-partner person and the partnership, only the deduction or expense relating to the transaction, and not the income of the other person from the very same transaction, is a partnership-related item. Similarly, example 2 involves a purported loan to the partnership by a non-partner person whereby it is stated that although the treatment of the purported loan on the partnership’s return, which presumably includes whether it is debt or equity and related interest expense, is a partnership-related item, the treatment of the purported loan in the hands of the other person, which also presumably includes a debt versus equity determination, is not a partnership-related item. Further, that appears to be the case if the persons in examples 1 and 2 were instead partners of the transferee partnership. For example, if there was a disguised sale under reg. §1.707-3, the tax effects of a purchase must clearly be reported on the partnership return but the sales gain would apparently only be reported on the partner’s separate form 1040. 

Even though the very same transaction with the same parties is involved on both sides of the transaction, the final regulations push strongly in the direction noted immediately above, although it would have been very useful if alternative facts under examples 1 and 2 had tested the results if the other person had been a partner instead. 

In both examples 1 and 2, the other person is clearly not identified as a partner in the partnership at issue. If that were otherwise the case, section 6222 would generally require the partner to follow the partnership’s treatment of the item. The most pertinent example of the case where the other person is in fact a partner, for purposes of this commentary, is a disguised sale by the partner to the partnership under section 707(a)(2)(B) and reg. §1.707-3. (It should be noted as an aside that the only significant set of BBA audit regulations that are still in proposed form are those relating to attribute adjustments under sections 704, 705, 706, 6225, and 6226, REG-118067-17, Feb. 2, 2018). 

The regulations are also unclear, and this relates to the main point at issue in this commentary, as to whether the computation of the imputed underpayment (IU) includes the sales gain that the partner will incur if it is determined in a partnership proceeding that a sale and purchase occurred under section 707(a)(2)(B) and its underlying regulations. 

As a technical matter, in computing an IU, there is first a determination of whether there is a “partnership adjustment” which is any adjustment to a partnership-related item. (Reg. §§301.6241-1(a)(6)(i), 301.6225-1(a)(1), 301.6225-1(b)). Thus, unless the item is a “partnership-related item”, it will not enter into the computation of an IU. 

Similarly, if an election is made under section 6226 to push out a partnership adjustment that is part of an IU, there first needs to be a determination of whether the item is a partnership-related item. 

For these reasons, it is critical to understand whether, in the case of partner-partnership transactions, the item attributable to the partner side of the transaction is a partnership-related item and a partnership adjustment. Given the fact that the proposed regulations specifically listed disguised sales and related items as partnership-related items (prop. reg. §301.6241-6(b)(5)) and the final regulations do not include that language but contain instead the “reportable on the partnership return” or “reportable on the other person’s return” standard, the apparent answer is that the partner sale gain on a disguised sale with a partnership will not be part of the computation of an IU.  

The preamble to T.D. 9844 is confusing and circular in how it describes what is a partnership-related item in these types of cases, particularly when there is a transaction between a partner and the partnership. It states, in pertinent part:

“[The proposed regulations] provided as an example of an “item of income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit” any items related to transactions between a partnership and any person including disguised sales, guaranteed payments, section 704(c) allocations, and transactions to which section 707 applies….One comment suggested that this provision inappropriately included partner items such as a disguised fee under section 707(a)(2)(A) and the gain or loss a partner may realize from a disguised sale under section 707(a)(2)(B). … Similarly, another comment expressed concern about situations where a partner was not acting in the partner’s capacity as a partner, but rather as a counterparty to a transaction with the partnership. …. These comments are addressed by the final regulations …regarding the definition of partnership-related item. …[T]he final regulations clarify that items or amounts relating to transactions of the partnership are items or amounts with respect to the partnership only if those items or amounts are shown, or required to be shown, on the partnership return or are required to be maintained in the partnership’s books and records. The final regulations further clarify that items or amounts shown, or required to be shown, on a return of a person other than the partnership (or in that person’s books and records) that result after application of the Code to a partnership-related item and that take into account the facts and circumstances specific to that person are not partnership-related items and, therefore, are not determined at the partnership level under the centralized partnership audit regime. ….”

There are a number of issues with how this particular provision (partnership-related item) is defined and the explanation given for it in the final regulation preamble as it relates to transactions between a partner and a partnership where the partner is acting in a partner capacity and, thus, the transaction is not governed by section 707(a)(1) (partner acting in non-partner capacity). In that latter case, the final regulation is worded properly because unless either res judicata or collateral estoppel apply to the other non-partner person, the determination at the partnership level has nothing to do with how the other person reports the transaction, which can be inconsistent with how the partnership treats it because that other person is not a partner.  An assessment of tax at the partnership level will have absolutely no effect on the assessment of tax of that other person in that case.

A transaction between a partner and the partnership invokes, first, section 6222 which generally requires the partner to report the transaction consistently with how the partnership reports it. Thus, if the partnership treats a contribution of built-in gain property to it as a purchase because it is determined to be a disguised sale under reg.§1.707-3, then the partner must also treat the transaction as a purchase by the partnership absent timely notice of inconsistent treatment by the partner. 

This would seem to mean that since the same factors are taken into account in determining whether there is a sale and a purchase under reg. §1.707-3(b)(1) and 1.707-3(b)(2), it would be difficult for a partner who files an inconsistent treatment statement under section 6222(c) to sustain a position that there is no sale by him even though the partnership either reports or is required to report that a purchase occurred as part of a partnership level proceeding. 

If the issue of whether the partner sold property to a partnership is determined first before the partnership level proceeding, section 6222(d) states that if the partnership was not a party to the partner proceeding then the partner determination is not binding on the partnership. Although such a determination is not technically binding on the partnership, it is difficult to see how a later separate partnership level proceeding based on the same facts with the same parties could lead to a different result but that is not discussed or explained in any set of BBA audit regulations. 

However, the reverse is not true. Thus, section 6222 does not prohibit a proceeding at the partnership level from binding the partner in a partner level proceeding relating to the same transaction with the same facts. It would seem that any partnership level proceeding as to whether there was a sale would bind the partner as well under common law rules given that the same prime legal issue (whether there was a sale) and the same facts as well as the same parties are involved. Section 6223(b) says as much by stating that “A partnership and all partners of such partnership shall be bound (1) by actions taken …by the partnership, and (2) by any final decision in a proceeding …with respect to the partnership.” See, also, reg. §301.6223-2(a). 

Now, for the “due process of law” question left unaddressed in the regulations. Assume, as it appears is most likely the case as discussed above, that the gain portion of the disguised sale is not a partnership-related item but only the purchase side of the transaction is a partnership related item. (If the sales gain was part of the computation of the IU, the liability for tax under section 6225 would then be shared by all adjustment year partners and would not be limited to the selling partner only. If, on the other hand, the push-out election is made under section 6226 in that case, then the partners with whom the partnership-related adjustment “is associated” will be required to include the amount in income. That push-out may allocate all of the sales gain to the seller although the regulations do not address that issue either). 

Left unresolved by the regulations, and here I think lies the due process question in a nutshell, is whether the selling partner may still contest in a separate proceeding whether he owes tax on the now determined (by the partnership) disguised sale to the partnership. It seems that the legal issue involved (sale versus contribution) will be resolved by how the partnership treats the transaction or is required to treat the transaction in a partnership level proceeding. And section 6222(b) seems to allow for immediate assessment as a mathematical error the inconsistent treatment by the partner as a non-sale if the partnership treats the transaction as a purchase and the partner does not file a notice of inconsistent treatment. And even if the partner does file a notice of inconsistent treatment, it is not clear whether the doctrines of collateral estoppel or res judicata or other common law doctrine will apply to prevent the selling partner from relitigating the question in a separate court proceeding.

But this is not all there is to the question. Only the partnership representative can represent the partnership in a proceeding with the IRS regardless of the limitations on the representative’s power in the partnership agreement. This seems to mean that the selling partner, if he is not the partnership representative, can be forced solely to pay tax on a transaction, the sale, without the partner’s participation in the IRS proceeding with the partnership. If the partnership proceeding occurs first, can inconsistent treatment by the partner result in an immediate math error assessment? If a notice of inconsistent treatment is given, is the prior partnership proceeding legally binding so that no challenge to the merits can occur anyway in the separate partnership proceeding? And, is this a violation of due process by the government taking property from the partner without any rights by the partner to contest or challenge the partnership proceeding?

The answer to this question is not clear. On the one hand, the partner has agreed to enter into the partnership and will be charged with the knowledge that the partnership representative is the sole party representing the partnership with the IRS. Thus, it may be argued, the partner has given his consent to the consequences of not being able to participate in his own audit in this kind of case. On the other hand, are the terms of the statute and regulations sufficient to override fundamental notions of no taking of property by either the federal government or the states “without due process of law” as set forth by the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution? 

It should be noted that the regulations could most likely have eliminated this issue by stating that the seller partner side of the transaction is also a partnership-related item along with the partnership purchase side of the transaction. In that case, the tax liability would be shared by all adjustment year partners under section 6225 and there would be no meaningful due process question. (Otherwise, the entire BBA audit regime would be unconstitutional). But the regulations seem to say just the opposite, as this commentary has explained. 

I know that both sides of this argument have been taken by a number of practitioners. I have previously taken the position that there is a clear violation of due process in this case and the BBA statutory regime is invalid to that extent. I still think so. What do others think?  

Comments

  1. Robert Kantowitz says

    The argument that “you broke it, you own it,” is a powerful one. It seems reasonable to allow the government to say that no one forced you to enter into this PS, so if you do, you have voluntarily agreed to the procedural rules.

    But there are three overlapping counters to this:

    1. Partnerships as a mode of business activity long predate the Republic, let alone the tax law. It is not the government that grants individuals the right to conduct business in that form, and so the government cannot impose a tax provision on doing business in that form that violates due process. I personally do not believe that the government can claim that its power to license corporations also allows it to require them to give up due process rights in connection with taxation, and I think Citizens United supports that, but the taxpayer’s argument in the PS context is virtually ironclad.

    2. The “voluntary” argument fits even less well with inadvertent partnerships or arrangements that for all non-tax purposes are not partnerships but that fall under subchapter K.

    3. If one appeals to administrative convenience, we can all agree that the TEFRA rules frustrated the IRS, but we can also agree that the BBA rules (including some of the gratuitous anti-taxpayer provisions like not offsetting between partners) tilt too far the other way. If the IRS is going to extract money from an individual, they should be bending over backwards to allow that individual notice and an opportunity to be heard.

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