Lesser Known Nuances of Innocent Spouse Relief, Designated Orders 2/11/2019 – 2/15/2019

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During the week of February 11, 2019, Judge Buch designated a bench opinion in an innocent spouse case that highlights some lesser known nuances of the conditions and factors analyzed (Docket No. 24737-17L, Traci Newburn v. C.I.R (order here)).

These nuances are likely not new to more seasoned practitioners but may be helpful for those starting out or those who have not handled many innocent spouse cases.

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The case itself involves a petitioner, the requesting spouse, who is a widow. Her late husband had a schedule C business that fixed and maintained the fire repression systems in commercial kitchen hoods and filters. Petitioner was not meaningfully involved in the operation of the business. The returns showed balances which were never paid, so petitioner requested equitable relief under section 6015(f).

Section 6015(f) requires the analysis of threshold conditions, and then a decision is made after analyzing the factors found in either the streamlined conditions or facts and circumstances test. The list of factors is found in Rev. Proc. 2013-34, but the Court routinely points out that it is not bound by the factors, only considers them to be guidelines and makes its decision based on the totality of the facts and circumstances. I won’t go on and reiterate all there is to know about innocent spouse relief, but instead focus on a few lesser known considerations addressed in the bench opinion.

The first lesser known nuances the Court identifies relate to one of the threshold conditions, specifically the seventh condition, which states, “absent certain enumerated exceptions, the tax liability from which the requesting spouse seeks relief is […] an underpayment resulting from the non-requesting spouse’s income.”

The nuances are found in the “enumerated exceptions.” While the record supports the fact that petitioner was not involved in the operation of the business, it is less clear whether petitioner had an ownership interest in the business because she was listed as a 50% owner on some of the tax returns. The Court points out that a requesting spouse may still meet the threshold condition if the ownership interest is solely due to the operation of community property law or was nominal. Petitioner and her late husband resided in a community property state, so the Court thinks that may be the reason for 50/50 ownership delineation listed on the returns. The Court also relies on petitioner’s testimony that she was not aware she owned an interest and was not involved in the business’s operations to decide that her ownership was nominal, and she satisfies this condition.

The next lesser known nuance is in the analysis of marital status, which is a factor found in the streamlined conditions and the facts and circumstances test. Generally, the factor favors relief if the requesting spouse and non-requesting spouse are considered not married due to divorce or legal separation. But where the non-requesting spouse has died, the requesting spouse is considered not married under Rev. Proc. 2013-34 if “the requesting spouse was not an heir to the non-requesting spouse’s estate that would have had sufficient assets to pay the liability.”

The Court here notes that the estate did not have sufficient assets to pay the liability, and therefore, petitioner is treated as not being married for purposes of the marital status factor.

The Court moves on to analyze the knowledge factor (which is also a factor found in the streamlined conditions and in the facts and circumstances test.) The knowledge factor is applied differently depending on whether the case involves an understatement or an underpayment. There can be cases where both an understatement and an underpayment are at issue, and in such cases both knowledge tests must be applied. In addition, the knowledge factor can be satisfied either with actual knowledge or a reason to know.

This case is an underpayment case, so the analysis is whether petitioner had knowledge or reason to know the balance would not be paid. The Court finds that petitioner did not have actual knowledge about whether the balance would be paid but did have reason to know it would not be paid. She had reason to know because she knew that she and her husband were experiencing financial difficulties around the time the returns were filed. They had recently sold their house in a short-sale and cut back on household expenditures.

The final nuance is found in compliance (which is only a factor in the facts and circumstances test). Compliance isn’t simply filing all required tax returns, but the compliance must also be in good faith. Filing several years’ worth of returns right before the trial, like petitioner did, is not complying in good faith.

After reviewing the above-mentioned factors, their lesser known nuances and examining the totality of the facts and circumstances, the Court denies petitioner relief in the designated bench opinion.

The Disappointed “Whistleblower” Tries Again

Docket No. 8179-17W, Robert J. Rufus v. C.I.R. (order here)

The last time we saw Mr. Rufus was in July of 2018 (see my previous post on this case here), when the Court granted summary judgment to the IRS. But the ever-persistent petitioner and his counsel are back with a motion to reconsider part of his case related to his supplemental claim.

The supplemental claim was about amended returns that the target filed, on which the target claimed bad debt deductions. With respect to this claim, the IRS’s position was that they “had not proceeded with an administrative or judicial action based on petitioner’s information.” This was determined by the administrative record and found not to be an abuse of discretion in the original opinion.

In support of his motion for reconsideration, petitioner argues several things, including that the Court made a substantial factual error, petitioner did not have enough opportunity to engage in discovery and that the information he provided was not tainted.

While petitioner argues he was still in the process of discovery when summary judgment was granted, he does not argue that he has newly discovered evidence – which would have potentially helped his motion for reconsideration. The Court takes issues with the fact that petitioner (who is, again, represented by counsel) did not raise this issue when responding to the IRS’s motion for summary judgment, so it finds he cannot raise it now.

The Court finds petitioner’s second referenced argument to be irrelevant. The revenue officer mistakenly thought the information petitioner provided was tainted so she documented the fact that she did not audit the return based on that information. The Court finds that this supports IRS’s argument, and does not support granting a motion for reconsideration – which puts an end to petitioner’s hope for a whistleblower award in this case.

The three remaining orders designated during the week of February 11 were all designated by Judge Carluzzo. In one order he denies the IRS’s motion to compel the production of documents because he surmises that petitioners’ failure to respond means they don’t have the substantiation required for their case, so compelling them to produce it will not change anything (here). In another order (here) he reinforces the Court’s arguably incorrect stance that a notice of determination is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling  (see my previous post on this topic here). And in the final designated order, Judge Carluzzo grants the IRS’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in a case where the petition was filed three years late with audit reconsideration documents attached (here).

Samantha Galvin About Samantha Galvin

Samantha Galvin is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Taxation and the Assistant Director of the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) at the University of Denver. Professor Galvin has been teaching full-time at the University of Denver since October of 2013 and teaches courses in tax controversy representation, individual income tax, and tax research and writing. In the LITC, she teaches, supervises and assists students representing low income taxpayers with controversy and collection issues.

Comments

  1. Off topic, but readers might be interested in what the Administration budget proposal for FY 2020 says about IRS:

    Invests in a 21st Century Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
    The IRS collects approximately $3.5 trillion in tax revenue annually and processes more than 253 million tax returns and forms resulting in more than $464 billion in tax refunds. The Budget proposes $11.5 billion in base funding for IRS to ensure that IRS can fulfill its core tax filing season responsibilities, continue critical IT modernization efforts, and provide acceptable levels of taxpayer service.The Budget also proposes legislation enabling additional funding for new and continuing investments to expand and strengthen tax enforcement. These additional proposed investments are estimated to generate approximately $47 billion in additional revenue at a cost of $15 billion, yielding a net savings of $33 billion over 10 years. The Budget also includes several proposals to ensure that taxpayers comply with their obligations and that tax refunds are only paid to those who are eligible, including: improving oversight of paid tax preparers; giving IRS the authority to correct more errors on tax returns before refunds are issued; requiring a valid Social Security Number for work in order to claim certain tax credits; and increasing wage and information reporting.

    The Budget provides $290 million for the IRS’s multiyear IT modernization efforts, including upgrading its antiquated infrastructure and integrating its multiple case management and tax processing systems. Approximately 90 percent of individual taxpayers file their taxes electronically and can check on the status of their funds electronically. However, for most other taxpayer interactions, taxpayers and the IRS must interact through the mail, which slows the resolution of issues. These funds would also be used to increase taxpayers’ ability to interact with IRS securely and electronically, improving the time it takes for IRS to resolve concerns.

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