Overpayment, or Not?

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco. Today Bob untangles the issue of deposits versus payments in relation to stipulated decision documents filed with the Tax Court. The character of the taxpayer’s remittance matters here, as it determines whether they are entitled to overpayment interest. For those looking to make a deposit rather than a payment, the IRS gives detailed instructions in Rev. Proc. 2005-18, which Stephen discussed in a post here. Christine

A Tax Court memorandum opinion, dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction, came out recently in Hill v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2021-121 (Oct. 25, 2021).  I almost didn’t read it, because lack of jurisdiction is usually clear-cut and (by definition) memorandum opinions don’t address novel or unsettled issues of law.  This sounded like something I could skip, without missing much.  But that would have been a mistake. 

The jurisdictional issue was not quite as clear as I assumed, and the opinion included a lot of helpful little nuggets along the way.  Reminders of nuances that I rarely think about or skip when discussing a topic; or explanations of things that I’ve seen for years without giving them much thought.  When you read nuggets like that, you may think “Of course, that makes sense; why didn’t I think of that?”  This sometimes qualifies as a Blinding Flash of the Obvious, or, for persons of a certain age, perhaps a “V-8 moment.”  These nuggets were that for me anyway, and hopefully also for at least a few of the readers of Procedurally Taxing.

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The parties had entered a stipulated decision in the case on July 19, 2019.  (Docket no. 794-18; the stipulated decision is not available in DAWSON.)  Then the petitioner filed a motion on August 14, 2020, to redetermine interest under section 7481(c) and Tax Court Rule 261.  Those rules allow the petitioner to challenge either (a) excessive underpayment interest assessed pursuant to the court’s decision and paid or (b) insufficient overpayment interest allowed on an overpayment determined by the court.  The first category was a good reminder for me of a nuance I occasionally skip when explaining procedure to students: underpayment interest is not subject to deficiency procedures but there is still a route to a refund suit in Tax Court for such amounts. 

But this case involved the second category.  The IRS had not paid any overpayment interest on a check received from the government for this case after the stipulated decision was entered, and the petitioner argued that it should have.  A basic requirement of a motion to redetermine overpayment interest is that the court finds in its previous decision that the taxpayer made an overpayment.  The stipulated decision, however, determined a gift tax deficiency but did not determine an overpayment.  I was generally aware of this type of motion but somehow had never dealt with it before.  So the opinion offered a useful explanation, but the conclusion that there was no jurisdiction seemed straight-forward. 

Money Due to Petitioner, But . . . It’s Not an Overpayment

The jurisdictional issue was not as easy to resolve as I had assumed.  The petitioner did get a $3,473,750 check (without interest) because of the decision, but the court decided that there was no overpayment.  The gift tax deficiency for tax year 2011 was $6,790,000 but the petitioner had given the IRS a check for $10,263,750 back in 2012.  Why wasn’t that an overpayment??  Because the 2012 remittance was a deposit under section 6603, not a payment.  A deposit does not become a payment until it is used to pay a tax, which happens after the assessment, which happens after the Tax Court decision.

The petitioner didn’t argue that the 2012 remittance was a payment.  That would have been very difficult to do, as the opinion cites multiple times that the petitioner had referred to it as a deposit and cited section 6603 specifically.  The petition itself referred to “depositing” that amount and the petitioner alleged that it was “intended as a deposit pursuant to I.R.C. § 6603(a)” in the motion to redetermine interest.  Apparently, the petitioner did not refer to the 2012 remittance as a payment until his reply to the IRS response to the motion.

He did, however, argue that the 2019 stipulated decision had in substance determined an overpayment.  It was an ingenious argument (kudos to counsel) but ultimately unsuccessful.  I’ll get to what that involved, and why the judge disagreed, after a brief digression.

Asking For the Return of a Deposit

When explaining the differences between “deposit” and “payment” to my students, I usually explain one key difference much the way the court did here.  A taxpayer “could demand the immediate return of his deposit at any time” but could get back a payment “only by pursuing the IRS’ formal refund process, which could be lengthy.”  That certainly is an important benefit, as the court points out, particularly when the statute of limitations for refund claims has expired.  Of course, that is a slight simplification.  Section 6603(c) says that the right of return on request is not absolute and does not apply “in a case where the Secretary determines that collection of tax is in jeopardy.”  This was another nuance that I sometimes skip when explaining deposits; I hadn’t really given it much thought.  I have some questions/concerns about the process for jeopardy determinations, in this context or others, but that’s a topic for another day.

In this case, the petitioner requested in 2014 that the IRS return the deposit.  Did the IRS return the deposit right away?  No.  It asked for additional information about the potential gift tax liability, citing the limitation on return when collection in jeopardy.  (This may have sounded strange to some Texans – worry that a member of the extended Hunt family, as in “Hunt Oil Company,” would not be able to pay the tax?)

The IRS apparently resolved its concerns about ability to collect the tax, but it still did not return the deposit.  The gift tax liability arose from a settlement of civil litigation in district court over division of wealth among family members.  Under the settlement reached, the petitioner was required to assign his rights to installment payments from his father (total amount $30,675,000) to trusts for the benefit of his children.  Because of the potential gift tax liability, the registry of the district court, rather than the taxpayer, issued the check for $10,263,750 payable to Treasury.  The IRS eventually concluded that, if the petitioner insisted on return of the deposit, it would have to be returned to the district court registry instead.  So the funds remained with the IRS.

In Substance, A Determination of an Overpayment?

OK, back to the jurisdictional argument.  The stipulated decision stated that “there is a deficiency in gift tax due from petitioner for the calendar year 2011 in the amount of $6,790,000” and that “there are no deficiencies in gift tax due from, nor overpayments due to petitioner for the calendar years 2010 and 2015.”  It said nothing about an overpayment for 2011.

The petitioner argued that a stipulation in the decision was, in substance, a determination of an overpayment.  That stipulation provided for the $10,263,750 to be transferred from the 2012 tax year, where it was originally applied, to the 2011 tax year.  It then went on to say: “It is further stipulated that the deficiency for the taxable year 2011 is computed without considering the prepayment credit of $10,263,750.”  Since $10,263,750 is more than the $6,790,000 deficiency, that sure sounds like the court had determined an overpayment, doesn’t it?

The court pointed out two problems with that argument.  The second problem was that the stipulation referenced the $10,263,750 as a “prepayment credit” rather than a payment.  There could not have been an overpayment when the 2019 decision was entered, because “a deposit is not a payment of tax prior to the time the deposited amount is used to pay a tax,” and that doesn’t occur until after assessment.  Even then, only the amount used to pay the tax becomes a payment; the remainder is an unused deposit that is returned to the taxpayer.  No overpayment.

One thing that is not intuitively clear to most of my students is that “deficiency” is not the same thing as “amount the taxpayer owes.”  The Form 4549, Income Tax Examination Changes, in a notice of deficiency helps them to see the difference.  (We see the Form 4549 version more often than the Form 5278 version, but they’re very similar.)  At the bottom of page 1 of Form 4549, line 13 includes changes to certain amounts on the return that are subject to deficiency procedures.  Line 14 is the total deficiency.  Line 15 is for changes to that are not subject to deficiency procedures, but which affect how much the taxpayer owes.  And line 16 is the bottom-line amount that either the taxpayer owes the government, or the government owes the taxpayer. 

Line 15, for our clinic clients, tends to be one of two different things: a frozen refund, or additional withholding because the Automated Underreporter program identified an information return not included on the return.  That makes sense to students, that our client would owe less because more was withheld than reported on Form 1040 or the account transcript shows a balance due the taxpayer for a frozen refund.  Page 2 of Form 4549 helpfully lists other things that might be included there: taxes paid by a RIC or REIT on undistributed capital gains, excess Social Security, additional Medicare tax, and other timely payments.

The notice of deficiency, as with virtually all notices, is an opportunity for the IRS to “suggest” payment, so of course they tell the taxpayer how much to send.  They include an estimated amount of interest on page 2 of Form 4549, for the same reason.  But clinic clients don’t always catch that and may be needlessly worrying about having to pay the full amount of the deficiency when the actual amount due might be substantially less.  But I digress.

The stipulation used the term “prepayment credits” but the court concludes that the deposit not only doesn’t affect the deficiency amount but also doesn’t create an overpayment, for the reasons stated above.

I realized something, while reading this opinion, about what I’ve been seeing on stipulated decisions for years.  If something like a frozen refund or additional withholding resulted in an overpayment, there is no stipulation about that on page 2 of the decision.  It’s not necessary, because if those adjustments created an overpayment, the amount of the overpayment is already stated on page 1 of the decision.  The stipulation only appears if such adjustments reduce the balance due, but still leaves a balance due the government.  I think I noticed and understood that subconsciously but had never thought about it consciously that way.  So . . . “Blinding Flash of the Obvious.”

Above The Line versus Below The Line

I’ve always thought of those terms as differentiating deductions, whether one that reduces gross income to adjusted gross income or one that reduces adjusted gross income to taxable income – where the “line” is adjusted gross income.  You likely do, too.  As it turns out, those terms are also used to differentiate parts of stipulated decisions.  In that case, the “line” is the judge’s signature at the bottom of page 1.  As Judge Lauber explained, only the information “above the line” reflects determinations by the court.  That’s all the court has jurisdiction to decide – the amount of the deficiency, the amount of any penalties, and the amount of any overpayment.  The stipulations on page 2, “below the line,” are simply agreements between the parties.  This was another “Blinding Flash of the Obvious” for me; if you asked me, I might have explained it properly, but I hadn’t really given it much if any conscious thought. 

Most stipulations are routine items.  The court can enter the decision.  Any deficiency stated does not include underpayment interest, which will be assessed as provided by law.  Any overpayment stated does not include overpayment interest, which will be credited or paid as provided by law.  For regular cases, the parties may stipulate that respondent can assess without waiting for the Tax Court decision to become final.  And there may be stipulations of “prepayment credits” that reduce the amount owed by the petitioner but do not create an overpayment.

Since the stipulation that the petitioner relied on was “below the line,” the court (judge) hadn’t even determined that there was a deposit.  This was the court’s first reason for rejecting the petitioner’s argument – not only was there no overpayment, but also the court had not made a determination even about the existence of the deposit.

But All Is Not Lost!

The petitioner got no relief from the court, but that’s not the end of the story.  The IRS hadn’t previously paid any interest on the returned $3,473,750.  While arguing the motion to redetermine interest, at least the IRS conceded that the petitioner was entitled to interest on the returned deposit, although at the lower interest rates applicable to section 6603 deposits.  (That rate is 3% less than the rate for overpayments; from the fourth quarter of 2011 through the first quarter of 2016, it was 0%.)  The IRS said that meant the interest payable would be $218,122 instead of the $1,267,323 that petitioner had claimed.  At least it’s something.

For me, this “simple” dismissal for lack of jurisdiction in a memorandum opinion was a very good explanation/reminder/Blinding Flash of the Obvious!

Complications from Extensions and Unprocessible Returns

Bob Probasco returns today with an important alert on overpayment interest. Christine

A few months ago, Bob Kamman flagged a number of surprising phenomena he’d observed recently, one of which related to refunds for 2020 tax returns.  Normally, when the IRS issues a refund within 45 days of when you filed your return, it doesn’t have to pay you interest.  That’s straight out of section 6611(e)(1).  Yet, taxpayers were getting refunds from their 2020 returns within the 45 day period and the refunds included interest.  As Bob explained, that was a little-known benefit of COVID relief granted under section 7805A.  Not only were filing and payment dates pushed back but also taxpayers received interest on refunds when they normally would not have.

On July 2, 2021, the IRS issued PMTA 2021-06, which raised two new wrinkles—one related to returns that were not processible; the other related to returns for which taxpayers had filed extensions.  How do those factors affect the results Bob described?

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Interest on Refunds Claimed on the Original Return

The general rule is that the government will pay interest from the “date of the overpayment” to the date of the refund.  Normally the “date of the overpayment” will be the last date prescribed for filing the tax return, without regard to any extension—April 15th for individuals—unless some of the payments shown on the return were actually made after that date.  But there are three exceptions applicable to refunds claimed on the original return: 

  • Under section 6611(b)(2), there is a “refund back-off period” of “not more than 30 days” before the date of the refund, during which interest is not payable.  In practice, this period is significantly less than 30 days.  See Bob Kamman’s post and the comments for details.
  • Under section 6611(b)(3), if a return is filed late (even after taking into account any extension), interest is not payable before the date the return was filed.
  • Under section 6611(e)(1), no interest is payable if the refund is made promptly—within 45 days after the later of the filing due date (without regard to any extension) or the date the return was filed.

Section 6611(b)(3) and (e)(1) affect when overpayment interest starts running, while section 6611(b)(2) affects when it ends.

Other Code provisions, however, may adjust this further.

When Is the Return Considered Filed?

This is where “processible” comes in.  Section 6611(g) says that for purposes of section 6611(b)(3) and (e), a return is not treated as filed until it is filed in processible form.  As the PMTA explains, a return that is valid under Beard v. Commissioner, 82 T.C. 766 (1984), may not be processible yet, because it omits information the IRS needs to complete the processing task.  IRM 25.6.1.6.16(2) gives an example of a return missing Form W-2 or Schedule D.  Those are not required under the Beard test, but the return cannot be processed “because the calculations are not verifiable.”  The PMTA also mentions a return submitted without the taxpayer identification number; still valid under the Beard test but the IRS needs the TIN to process it.

As a result, under normal conditions, if a valid but unprocessible return is filed timely, and a processible return is not filed until after the due date, the latter is treated as the filing date for purposes of section 6611(b)(3) and (e).  The return is late, so the taxpayer is not entitled to interest before the date the (processible) return was filed.  And the 45-day window for the IRS to issue a refund without interest doesn’t start until the (processible) return was filed.

And Now We Add COVID Relief

The previous discussion covered normal conditions, but today’s conditions are not normal  As we all recall, the IRS issued a series of notices in early 2020 that postponed the due date for filing 2019 Federal income tax returns and making associated payments from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020.  The IRS did the same thing for the 2020 filing season, postponing the due dates from April 15, 2021, to May 17, 2021.  (Residents of Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas received a longer postponement, to June 15, 2021, as a result of the severe winter storms.)

This relief is granted under authority of section 7508A(a)(1), responding to Presidential declarations of an emergency or terroristic/military actions.  For purposes of determining whether certain acts were timely, that provision disregards a period designated by Treasury—in effect, creating a “postponed due date.”  The acts covered are specified in section 7508(a) and potentially, depending on what relief Treasury decides to grant, include filing returns and making payments.  For the 2019 filing season, the IRS initially postponed the due date for payments and then later expanded that relief to cover the due date for filing tax returns.

(Yes, the section 7508A provision for Presidentially declared emergencies piggybacks on the section 7508 provision for combat duty.  As bad as the disruptions caused by COVID have been, I prefer them to serving in an actual “combat zone.”  Hurricane Ida, which I am also thankful to have missed, may be somewhere in between.  All get similar relief from the IRS.)

Section 7508A(a)(2) goes beyond determining that acts were timely.  It states that the designated period, from the original due date to the postponed due date, is disregarded in calculating the amount of any underpayment interest, penalty, additional amount, or addition to tax.  No penalties or underpayment interest accrue during periods before the postponed due date, just as they don’t accrue (in the absence of a Presidentially declared emergency) before the normal due date. 

That’s the right result, and section 7508A(a)(2) is necessary to reach it.  Section 7508A(a)(1) simply says that the specified period is disregarded in determining whether acts—such as payment of the tax balance due—are timely.  It doesn’t explicitly modify the dates prescribed elsewhere in the Code for those acts.  The underpayment interest provisions, on the other hand, don’t focus on whether a payment was timely.  Section 6601(a) says underpayment interest starts as of the “last date prescribed for payment” and section 6601(b) defines that without reference to any postponement under section 7508A.

What about overpayment interest on a refund?  Section 7508A(c) applies the rules of section 7508(b).  That provision tells us that the rule disregarding the period specified by Treasury “shall not apply for purposes of determining the amount of interest on any overpayment of tax.”  Great!  We won’t owe interest for that designated period—April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020 for the first emergency declaration above—on a balance due, but we can potentially be paid interest for that period on a refund.

Section 7508(b) also states that if a postponement with respect to a return applies “and such return is timely filed (determined after the application of [the postponement]), subsections (b)(3) and (3) of section 6611 shall not apply.”  That certainly sounds reasonable with respect to 6611(b)(3); it’s a de facto penalty of sorts for filing late, but if you filed your 2019 tax return by July 15, 2020, that should be treated as though you had paid by the original due date of April 15, 2020. 

Section 6611(e)(1) is a little bit different.  It’s not a de facto penalty for late filing; it’s essentially (1) a recognition that processing returns and issuing refunds takes some minimal amount of time and (2) possibly a small incentive for the IRS to do that expeditiously.  But when Treasury grants relief after a Presidentially declared emergency, any refund issued from a timely return will include interest, unless some other provision overrides it.  That’s what Bob Kamman’s Procedurally Taxing post pointed out and explained. 

And Now, the PMTA

It appears that the PMTA is correcting earlier analysis.  I haven’t been able to track down any earlier guidance, but the PMTA refers to “our previous conclusions” and those differed from the conclusions in the PMTA.  The conclusions in the PMTA seem correct.  Summarized:

  1. If the IRS determined a postponed due date under section 7508A, a return filed by the postponed due date means section 6611(b)(3) and (e) do not apply.  The return need only be valid under the Beard test to be timely and trigger the provisions of section 7508A; it doesn’t need to be processible.  This is what the “previous conclusions” got wrong, apparently thinking that whether a return was timely for purposes of section 7508A depended on whether it was processible.  But section 6611(g) defines “timely” only for purposes of section 6611(b)(3) and (e), not section 7508A.  It doesn’t matter whether the return was timely filed for purposes of 6611(b)(3) and (e); section 7508A negated them.  The default rules below don’t apply.  Interest will run from the date of the overpayment and there is no exception for a prompt refund.
  2. If the IRS determined a postponed due date under section 7508A, but a valid return is not filed by the postponed due date, it doesn’t meet one of the requirements for sections 7508A(c)/7508(b)—that the return is timely filed by the postponed due date—so the default rules below apply. 

Default rules, if there was no section 7508A relief from Treasury, or the taxpayer did not file a valid return by the postponed due date.  Sections 7508A(c)/7508(b) have no effect, so sections 6611(b)(3) and (e) are in effect and the return is “filed” only when it is processible pursuant to section 6611(g).  Thus:

  • If a processible return is filed by the original due date (or extended due date if applicable) it is not late under section 6611(b)(3), so interest runs from the date of the overpayment.  If it is filed after the original due date (or extended due date if applicable) it is late under section 6611(b)(3), so interest runs from the date the processible return was filed.
  • Whether or not the processible return is filed late, no interest is payable at all if the IRS makes a prompt refund under section 6611(e).  The 45-day grace period starts at the later of the original due date (even if the taxpayer had an extension) or the date the return is filed. 

Note that a return filed after the postponed due date (July 15, 2020) but on or before the extended due (October 15, 2020, if the taxpayer requested an extension) is not timely for purposes of section 7508A.  As a result, sections 6611(b)(3) and (e) are not disregarded.  But it is timely for purposes of 6611(b)(3).  Interest runs from the date of the overpayment rather than the date the return is filed, but the taxpayer may still lose all interest if the IRS issues the refund promptly.

Although the PMTA doesn’t mention it, the “refund back-off period” of section 6611(b)(1) will apply in all cases.  That rule is not dependent on whether a return is processible or filed timely, and it is not affected by a Presidentially declared emergency.

Two Final Thoughts

First, I think the PMTA is clearly right under the Code.  That the IRS originally reached the wrong conclusion, in part, is a testament to the complex interactions of the different provisions and the need for close, attentive reading.  I double-checked and triple-checked when I worked my way through the PMTA.  This was actually a relatively mild instance of a common problem with tax.  Code provisions are written in a very odd manner.  They’re not intended to be understandable by the general public; they’re written for experts and software companies, and sometimes difficult even for them.  I suspect that people who work through some of these complicated interpretations would fall into two groups: (a) those who really enjoy the challenging puzzle; and (b) those who experience “the pain upstairs that makes [their] eyeballs ache”.  My bet is that (b) includes not only the general public and most law school students but also a fair number of tax practitioners.  Which group are you in?

Second, that (relative) complexity leads to mistakes.  I assume that these interest computations have to be done by algorithm.  There are simply too many returns affected to have manual review and intervention for more than a small percentage.  An algorithm is feasible but will require re-programming every time there’s a section 7508A determination, with changes from year to year.  Even when the law is clear, there is a lot of opportunity for mistakes to creep in.  (We’re seen some of those recently in other contexts, e.g., stimulus payments and advanced Child Tax Credit.)  Whether by algorithm or manual intervention, particularly given the change from the original conclusions, there’s a good chance that some refunds were issued that are not consistent with the correct interpreation and may not have included enough interest.  Is the IRS proactively correcting such errors?  If the numbers are big enough, it might be worth re-calculating the interest you received—it’s easier than you may think—and filing a claim for additional interest if appropriate.

The End of the Line for the Pareskys?

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns today with perhaps his final update on the Paresky case. Christine

I’ve blogged about the Paresky case before (here, here,  here, and here).  The latest development, and probably the end of the line, came on Friday when the Eleventh Circuit issued its opinion.  The circuit court agreed with the district court, as well as the Second Circuit in Pfizer Inc. v. United States, 939 F.3d 173 (2d Cir. 2019), and the Federal Circuit in Bank of America Corp. v. United States, 964 F.3d 1099 (Fed. Cir. 2020).  District court jurisdiction for “tax refund suits” does not apply to stand-alone suits for additional overpayment interest.

Nothing about the decision was really surprising.  The contrary decision in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005) was always a strained interpretation of the jurisdictional statutes, and the trend has been moving away from that interpretation over the past few years.  The Eleventh Circuit evidently thought it was an easy case as well; Carl Smith pointed out to me that the decision came only 35 days after oral argument, compared to 17 months for the Pfizer decision.  That’s fast!  But I thought I would offer a few comments as we perhaps close this chapter.

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What was this dispute all about, again?? There are two provisions that might offer district court jurisdiction for a stand-alone case seeking additional interest from the government on tax overpayments.  28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) covers claims for recovery of taxes, that is, tax refund suits.  28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2)—the “little” Tucker Act—covers claims against the government under the Constitution, Acts of Congress, regulations, contracts with the government, or non-tort damages.  The little Tucker Act is limited to claims of $10,000 or less, whereas the courts can hear tax refund suits for any amount.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1), however, the Court of Federal Claims can hear Tucker Act claims for any amount.

Court also have, with very rare exceptions, concluded that a tax refund suit—even if that includes stand-along cases for additional overpayment interest—is subject to the 2-year statute of limitations (from the IRS denial of the administrative claim) in section 6532.  Tucker Act claims, however, fall under the general 6-year statute of limitations (from the date the cause of action accrued, generally when the overpayment was scheduled): 28 U.S.C. § 2401 for district courts or 28 U.S.C. § 2501 for the CFC.

In these cases—Scripps, Pfizer, Bank of America, and Paresky—the taxpayers were arguing that their cases fit under “refund suit” jurisdiction.  And the government was arguing strenuously that their claims only qualified for jurisdiction under the Tucker Act.  Thus, when the amount at issue was over $10,000, the CFC would be the only available forum.

If taxpayers can always go the Court of Federal Claims, why is this important to them??

I think it’s primarily a matter of forum-shopping.  Pfizer’s case involved an issue—interest payable when a refund check is lost and has to be re-issued—for which there was a favorable Second Circuit precedent: Doolin v. United States, 918 F.2d 15, 18 (2d Cir. 1990).  Bank of America’s case, on the other hand, appears to have been filed in Western District of North Carolina to avoid an unfavorable Federal Circuit precedent, specifically, Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 827 F.3d 1026 (Fed. Cir. 2016).  (I’m guessing here, but it seems very likely from looking at the pleadings that Wells Fargo would have been a huge incentive to avoid the Federal Circuit.)

For Pfizer and Bank of America, the courts’ decision were not fatal.  Pfizer could still hope for the same result in the CFC; at least, I’m not aware of any negative precedent there.  Bank of America may have lost a significant portion, but not all, of its claim by winding up in the CFC.

The Pareskys, though, were not forum shopping.  In fact, they initially filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims.  But they faced a statute of limitations problem.  By the time they filed suit, the 6-year statute of limitations for Tucker Act claims had expired.  So the CFC dismissed their case for lack of jurisdiction but transferred it to the Southern District of Florida at their request.  A refund suit, for which the statute of limitations had not yet expired, was their only hope.  (The Eleventh Circuit pointed out in a footnote that the Tucker Act statute of limitations had not expired yet when the IRS denied their refund claim, so they still had time to file in the CFC.  And, of course, they could have filed suit even while the refund claim was pending.  Alas, they did not.)

Does this result make sense from a policy perspective?

Debatable.  There are two conflicting policies involved here.  On the one hand, Congress wanted most—and all large—Tucker Act claims to go to the CFC, because claims against the federal government are their area of expertise.  Thus, the $10,000 limit on Tucker Act claims in district court; provide easier access to local courts, but only for smaller cases where the difficulty and expense of litigating in a far-off forum would be relatively harsher.

On the other hand, Congress wanted taxpayers to be able to bring all federal tax refund suits in their local forum.  That may have reflected a judgement that: (a) the relative expertise of the CFC is less of an issue; and (b) there may be a lot more tax refund suits than Tucker Act claims, so it’s better to spread those out. Which of those policies should rule when the suit at issue is for additional interest on federal tax overpayments?  Hard to say.  There are fewer of these cases than tax refund suits, and it may be beneficial to establish precedents that will apply uniformly to all taxpayers.  But the same rationales for district court jurisdiction without a dollar limitation for refund suits might apply to these suits as well.  I doubt if Congress collectively gave it much thought.  If they had, perhaps they would have been comfortable with district courts hearing these cases, just as Pfizer, Bank of America, and the Pareskys wanted.  But we now have three circuit courts that have decided that’s not what Congress enacted.

So, is this really the end of the line for the Pareskys?

They’re really very sympathetic plaintiffs.  The dispute arose out of their losing a lot of money in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and filing refund claims to recoup taxes because of the loss.  (Rather ironic that Mr. Madoff passed away between oral arguments and the decision, isn’t it?)  This decision is pouring salt on the wound.  But, alas, I don’t see much hope at all for them.  They might ask for an en banc review or file a cert petition with the Supreme Court.  But I think both would likely be rejected.  (DOJ Tax Division might like to see this case go to the Supreme Court, to overturn Scripps, but I seriously doubt if they could convince the Solicitor General to support granting cert.)  And even if an en banc review by the Eleventh Circuit or cert by the Supreme Court were granted, I would certainly expect them to reach the same decision.

As far as the issue in general, without a Supreme Court decision, we may still see some of these cases crop up occasionally in other circuits.  The score is still only 3–1 and if the money involved is enough and precedents dictate that a district court would be a more favorable forum, taxpayers may take a shot at it.  But if the issue comes before any of the nine circuits remaining that still haven’t addressed it, I expect they would wind up agreeing with the Second, Eleventh, and Federal Circuits.

TEFRA + LCU = Confusion, Part 3

In today’s post Bob Probasco concludes his three-part series on General Mills and the intersection of TEFRA and “hot interest.” Part One can be found here. Part Two, here. Christine

In Part 1, I described the decision by the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit in General Mills, Inc. v. United States, 957 F.3d 1275 (Fed. Cir. 2020), aff’g 123 Fed. Cl. 576. (2015).  The taxpayer’s refund suit sought recovery of $6 million of excessive underpayment interest, but the court dismissed the case based on a jurisdiction issue from a special TEFRA provision.  I thought that the court made a crucial assumption, never clearly stated, as to the conceptual framework for adjustments resulting from a TEFRA proceeding.  Part 2 explained why an alternative framework, which would have supported the taxpayer’s position instead of the government’s, is not only possible but perhaps the best way to think about these issues.  Because the court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, based on the TEFRA provision, we didn’t get a decision regarding the merits issue, concerning whether the IRS has assessed too much interest.  It’s an issue that I had never dealt with before and I think the IRS’s position may be wrong.  That’s what today’s post, Part 3, is about.

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Background

The case involved two sets of tax returns and audits: those for the General Mills (“GMI”) corporate tax returns and those for partnership tax returns for General Mills Cereals, LLC (“Cereals”).  Various members of the GMI consolidated group were partners in Cereals, so the partnership tax returns – and any audit adjustments – for Cereals flowed through to GMI.  The IRS audited the 2002-2003 tax returns (both corporate and partnership) and later the 2004-2006 tax returns (same).  Although there are some slight differences between the audits for those two periods, for simplicity I will focus on the 2002-2003 tax returns.

Audits began for both GMI and Cereals in 2005 for these years.  The IRS issued a 30-day letter for the GMI audit on June 15, 2007, asserting proposed deficiencies of more than $143 million for 2002 and almost $83 million for 2003.  The partners in Cereals entered into settlement agreements in July 2010.  On August 27, 2010, the IRS issued a document described as a “notice of computational adjustment” to GMI, identifying additional underpayments, resulting from the Cereals audit, of about $16 million for 2002 and more than $33 million for 2003.

The IRS assessed additional taxes, penalties, and interest resulting from the Cereals audit in September 2010.  GMI paid all outstanding balances for these years, including interest, on April 11, 2011.  The IRS sent GMI detailed interest computation schedules for these years, apparently for the first time, on April 18, 2011 and April 20, 2011.  The schedules reflected that the IRS began charging a higher underpayment interest on July 15, 2007.  GMI filed refund claims on March 28, 2013, arguing that the interest IRS accrued and assessed was almost $6 million too high.  GMI then filed this refund suit on January 30, 2014.

The Basis for GMI’s Refund Claim – LCU Interest The interest rate for large corporate underpayments (LCU) is governed by section 6621(c), as supplemented by Treas. Reg. § 301.6621-3, which increases the normal underpayment interest rate by 2% for a corporate taxpayer’s underpayments that exceed $100,000.  It was enacted in 1990, as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, and has typically been referred to by practitioners ever since as “hot interest.”  There are two key concepts in determining whether, and when, to apply hot interest: the “threshold underpayment” and the “applicable date.”

Threshold Underpayment

Whether hot interest applies is not, oddly enough, determined by comparing the underpayment balance to $100,000.  The regulation establishes a “threshold underpayment,” a term of art that appears only here.  Hot interest applies if that amount, rather than the underpayment balance, exceeds the $100,000 statutory requirement.  The threshold underpayment is defined as the correct amount of tax (excluding penalties and accumulated interest) less all payments made by the last date prescribed for payment.  Thus, it appears to be a cumulative amount rather than the result of a particular transaction such as an audit.  (But see below regarding “applicable date.”)  Once hot interest is triggered, the higher interest rate would apply to the entire underpayment balance going forward, including interest and penalties and any amounts subsequently assessed.  Under the IRS interpretation, hot interest would apply even if the actual underpayment balance declines below the $100,000 threshold as a result of payments.

The existence of a threshold underpayment is determined only when there is an assessment, not merely because of a proposed deficiency.  (Contrast the determination of the “applicable date” discussed below.)  If the taxpayer receives a 30-day letter or a notice of deficiency for $110,000 but the amount is reduced to $90,000 prior to assessment, the threshold underpayment is only $90,000 and hot interest does not apply.  But even if an amount greater than $100,000 is originally assessed, the regulation states that hot interest will not apply if a subsequent judicial determination reduces the tax liability (and therefore the threshold underpayment) below $100,000.

The regulation doesn’t specifically address whether a subsequent administrative determination reducing the tax liability (e.g., an abatement resulting from a refund claim) would reduce the threshold underpayment, potentially below $100,000.  Based on the definition of the threshold underpayment in the Code, it should – but I haven’t run across a ruling on this specific question.  The IRS has challenged whether an abatement reduces the threshold underpayment but to my knowledge only in the specific context of an NOL carryback.  The IRS lost, in Med James, Inc. v. Commissioner, 121 T.C. 147 (2003), but in that case the reduction from an NOL carryback was asserted as a counterclaim in a deficiency proceeding.  If the abatement had been granted in an administrative determination, the taxpayer might have had to pay and file a refund claim/suit to address the hot interest issue.

Determining the amount of the threshold underpayment is complicated enough that the IRS can easily make mistakes.  But if you look at the amounts above, it’s clear that GMI met the threshold underpayment requirement.  That is only one part of the answer, though.  To determine whether/when hot interest applies, the IRS also must determine the applicable date. 

Applicable Date

Interest on underpayments generally runs from “last date prescribed for payment,” typically the unextended return due date.  The higher rate for hot interest only applies “for periods after the applicable date.”  For assessments subject to deficiency proceedings, the applicable date is 30 days after the earlier of a “letter of proposed deficiency which allows the taxpayer an opportunity for administrative review in the Internal Revenue Service Office of Appeals” (i.e., a 30-day letter) or the notice of deficiency.  That’s section 6621(c)(2)(A).

Section 6621(c)(2)(B)(i) is a special rule that applies to tax assessments not subject to the deficiency procedures; for such underpayments, the applicable date is 30 days after a letter or notice of the assessment or proposed assessment.  This would apply to certain taxes other than income tax.  This category also would include two common situations involving income tax: amounts shown on the original return but not paid on or before the last date prescribed for payment, and summary assessments for “mathematical or clerical errors.”

Although not explicitly addressed in the Code, the regulation includes within the scope of section 6621(c)(2)(B)(i) “underpayments attributable, in whole or in part, to a partnership item.”  For those, the applicable date would be the 30th day after the first letter or notice that notifies the taxpayer of an assessment of the tax.

The Code also identifies three exceptions under which a letter or notice that otherwise qualifies would not establish an applicable date and start hot interest running:

  • A 30-day letter or notice of deficiency that is withdrawn.
  • A 30-day letter or notice of deficiency for which the taxpayer pays the amount in full within 30 days after the letter or notice is sent.
  • Any letter or notice involving “small amounts,” that is, an amount that is not greater than $100,000 (as with threshold underpayment, excluding penalties and interest). 

As with threshold underpayments, the proper determination of the applicable date may be complicated and subject to error.  GMI believed that the IRS applied the law incorrectly and charged hot interest when it should not have.

IRS application and GMI’s argument

Interest at the normal underpayment interest rates generally (with some common caveats) begins as of the filing due date, without regard to extensions, rather than when the IRS made the assessments.  But the increased interest rate for hot interest starts only on the applicable date. What does that mean when there are multiple assessments, including adjustments flowing through from TEFRA audits?

The IRS position apparently is that hot interest starts, for the entire underpayment balance, as of the first applicable date for any component of that underpayment balance.  As noted above, GMI’s corporate audit resulted in a 30-day letter issued on June 15, 2007.  So the IRS interest calculations increased the interest rate starting on July 15, 2007, one month later, for the entire underpayment balance, including that attributable to the computational adjustments from the TEFRA audit.

GMI, on the other hand, read sections 6621(c)(2)(A) and (B)(i) as bifurcating the underpayments for these tax periods.  The portion of the underpayment attributable to the corporate audit and the portion of the underpayment attributable to the TEFRA audit would have separate applicable dates.  Hot interest for the portion of the underpayment attributable to the corporate audit might start as of July 15, 2007.  But the first letter or notice that notified GMI of an assessment of tax from the TEFRA audit was issued on August 27, 2010.  So hot interest for that portion of the underpayment shouldn’t start until September 26, 2010, more than three years later than the applicable date the IRS used. 

I think GMI’s position is certainly a reasonable interpretation.  The Code is, as almost always, ambiguous and the drafters may not even have considered this situation.  GMI’s particular situation, an assessment resulting from a corporate audit followed by an assessment resulting from a TEFRA audit, is not explicitly addressed anywhere in the 4-1/2 pages of regulations either.  There are six examples in the regulations, but none involve this situation.  Indeed, none of the examples even involve a partnership adjustment.

GMI pointed out that section 6621(c)(2)(A) already uses a “the earlier of” comparison between a 30-day letter and a notice of deficiency for which no 30-day letter was issued.  If Congress didn’t want to bifurcate the underpayments in a situation like GMI’s, why not simply include the provision regarding non-deficiency proceedings as 6621(c)(2)(A)(iii) instead of 6621(c)(B)(i)?  

I think it would be possible to carry the argument even further, arguing that hot interest applies only at the level of individual components of the underpayment balance, rather than the entire balance.  Other interest provisions apparently work that way, e.g., the “restricted interest” provisions in sections 6601(c) and 6611(e).  The references in section 6621(c) to letters or notices arising from specific adjustments, rather than to the entire underpayment balance, are very similar to the restricted interest provisions.  That arguably suggests the same approach of applying the special rule to components rather than the entire balance.

That interpretation could also be inferred from the exception in section 6621(c)(B)(iii), under which a letter or notice for a deficiency or assessment less than $100,000 does not start hot interest running.  Before that provision was added in 1997, hot interest would be triggered when the threshold underpayment from two or three separate transactions exceeded $100,000.  That’s reflected in Treas. Reg. § 301.6621-3(d), Example 2, which has not been revised to be consistent with the Code provision as amended in 1997.  What’s the purpose of section 6621(c)(B)(iii)?  Maybe it reflects a determination that hot interest should be applied only to individual transactions over $100,000, rather than a cumulative balance.  And maybe that implies that the applicable date should be determined separately for each of those transactions.

Further support is available from the exception in section 6621(c)(B)(ii), under which a letter or notice for which the taxpayer pays the amount in full within 30 days does not start hot interest running.  That looks very much like an incentive for quick payment, doesn’t it?  But if hot interest applies at the level of the entire underpayment balance rather than individual transactions, the incentive starts looking strange.  There is an extra incentive to pay quickly for the first deficiency/assessment that triggers hot interest, but that extra incentive goes away for the second, third, etc. deficiency/assessment.  Why would that be the case? I don’t recall ever seeing this issue before the Federal Circuit’s decision came out.  The case was filed in the Court of Federal Claims in 2014, and that court ruled in 2015, but I missed those at the time.  To my knowledge, this issue has not been addressed in any other cases.  (If anyone has seen it elsewhere, please let me know!)  So I was eager to see the court’s analysis.  Alas, there was none.  The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, so we’re still waiting for the courts to rule on this issue.

TEFRA + LCU = Confusion, Part 2

In Part Two of this three-part series, Bob Probasco examines the dissenting view in the recent General Mills case out of the Federal Circuit. Part One can be found here. Christine

In Part 1, I described the decision by the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit in General Mills, Inc. v. United States, 957 F.3d 1275 (Fed. Cir. 2020), aff’g 123 Fed. Cl. 576 (2015). The parties’ briefs on appeal can be read here: Opening Brief, Answer, and Appellant’s Reply. The taxpayer’s refund suit sought recovery of $6 million of excessive underpayment interest, but the court dismissed the case based on a jurisdiction issue from a special TEFRA provision.  I thought that the court made a crucial assumption, never clearly stated, as to the conceptual framework for adjustments resulting from a TEFRA proceeding. 

Part 2 explains why an alternative framework, that would have supported the taxpayer’s position instead of the government’s, is not only possible but perhaps the best way to think about these issues.  This case involved the intersection of TEFRA and the complex interest provisions of the Code.  The combination is messy. 

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Brief Recap of the Facts and the Majority’s Position The case involved partnership audits and adjustments for partnership tax returns for General Mills Cereals, LLC (“Cereals”).  Different members of the General Mills (GMI) consolidated group were partners in Cereals, so the tax returns—and any audit adjustments—for Cereals flowed through to GMI.  The IRS audited the 2002-2003 tax returns (both corporate and partnership) and later the 2004-2006 tax returns (same).  Although there are some slight differences between the audits for those two periods, for simplicity I will focus on the 2002-2003 tax returns.

Audits began for Cereals in 2005 for these years.  The partners in Cereals entered into settlement agreements in July 2010.  On August 27, 2010, the IRS issued a “notice of computational adjustment” to GMI, identifying additional underpayments resulting from the Cereals audit, of about $16 million for 2002 and more than $33 million for 2003. 

The IRS assessed additional taxes, penalties, and interest resulting from the Cereals audit in September 2010.  GMI paid all outstanding balances for these years, including interest, on April 11, 2011.  The IRS sent GMI detailed interest computation schedules for these years, apparently for the first time, on April 18, 2011 and April 20, 2011.  The schedules reflected that the IRS began charging a higher underpayment interest rate (“hot interest”) on July 15, 2007.  GMI filed refund claims on March 28, 2013, arguing that the higher interest rate should not have started until September 26, 2010.  It then filed this refund suit on January 30, 2014.

The government argued, and the majority agreed, that the relevant statute of limitations for such refund claims was the six-month period specified in section 6230(c)(2) for challenging erroneous computational adjustments rather than the two-year limitation period of section 6511.  As a result, the refund claims were filed untimely, and the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The Dissent

The Federal Circuit’s decision was 2-1.  Judge Newman dissented and would have reversed the dismissal for lack of jurisdiction.  She thought section 6511, rather than 6230(c), applied to these refund claims.  Section 6231(a)(6) defines a computational adjustment as “the change in the tax liability of a partner which properly reflects the treatment under this subchapter of a partnership item.”  She concluded that the “payment of interest is not a ‘tax liability.’”  Further, “partnership item” should not be construed so “‘broadly as to cover claims that depend on the unique circumstances of an individual partner.’” (quoting Prochorenko v. United States, 243 F.3d 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2001)).  Thus, the refund claims were not correcting errors in computational adjustments of a partnership item; they were for refund of an overpayment of interest, to which the two-year limitation period in section 6511 apply.

Judge Newman found no hint in the TEFRA legislative history of any Congressional intent to truncate the two-year limitations period in section 6511.  She also quoted a 2001 Supreme Court case:  “[I]n cases such as this one, in which the complex statutory and regulatory scheme lends itself to any number of interpretations, we should be inclined to rely on the traditional canon that construes revenue-raising laws against their drafter.”

Possible Confusion Regarding the Conceptual Framework?

As I read the majority opinion and the applicable Code sections, it occurred to me that the analysis—as well as the regulation that defined resulting interest as a computational adjustment—rested in part on an assumption about the governing framework.  Specifically, the IRS, DOJ, and Court seem to think of adjustments to the partners’ returns as falling into two categories only:

  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are not required.  This encompasses those for which partner-level determinations are not necessary. 

That seems consistent with the structure of former section 6230.  Section 6230(a)(2)(A) provides circumstances under which deficiency procedures apply and section 6230(a)(1) effectively is “everything else.”

The government puts interest in the second category, even though partner-level determinations are necessary.  (They certainly were in this case because the interest computations depended on information that was not part of the TEFRA proceedings.  The notice, and therefore applicable date used by the IRS, were part of the corporate audit.)  The decision to put interest into the second category perhaps was because interest doesn’t fit into the first category, which “shall apply to any deficiency attributable to . . ..”  Interest is not a tax liability and therefore is not included in the definition of deficiency and therefore does not fall within section 6230(a)(2)(A).  Where else can it be?  Only section 6230(a)(1).

But that is only the case if assessments of additional interest are computational adjustments.  The dissent concluded that interest assessments don’t fit within the definition of a computational adjustment.  An alternative framework would be that adjustments to partners’ returns, resulting from a partnership-level proceeding, fall into three categories:

  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 

In that case, the six-month period in section 6230(c)(2) only applies to the first two categories.  The third falls under the two-year period of section 6511 for normal refund claims.

This certainly seems as though it could have been what Congress intended.  Before TEFRA, we just had deficiency procedures and interest was not subject to those; it was just assessed after tax was assessed.  Did Congress intend partnership proceedings and computational adjustments to only address the same types of adjustments that deficiency proceedings covered—underlying tax, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts?  And then rely on the existing process for assessing interest, which is to simply assess it and require the taxpayer to pay and file a refund claim?  I haven’t done a deep dive into the legislative history, but that seems very plausible to me.  It’s also arguably the best interpretation under the definition of a computational adjustment quoted above in the discussion of the dissent.

There is a technical argument to the contrary that could support the majority’s position. 

  • Section 6601(e)(1) says that references to “tax” shall be deemed also to refer to interest, except for such references in subchapter B of chapter 63 (sections 6211-6216). 
  • So “tax” in section 6230(a)(2)(A) would include interest, but that section doesn’t mention “tax,” it refers to “deficiency”. 
  • And the reference to “tax” in section 6211(a), defining “deficiency,” doesn’t include interest.  Therefore, interest is not part of a deficiency. 

Thus, interest is included in the definition of a computational adjustment in section 6231(a)(6), which has a direct reference to “tax.”  But section 6230(a)(2)(A) has only an indirect reference (through section 6211) to tax, so interest is not included to the category of computational adjustments for which a deficiency proceeding is appropriate. 

But that’s highly technical and formal.  Common sense would say that—for purposes of the TEFRA provisions—if interest is not included in a deficiency for purposes of section 6230(a)(2)(A), it shouldn’t be included in a change to tax liability for the definition of computational adjustment in section 6231(a)(6).

The Court of Federal Claims opinion addressed this question, whether interest is incorporated in the definition of a computational adjustment, in more detail than the Federal Circuit’s decision.  The CFC didn’t rely entirely on the regulation and in fact suggested that would be insufficient by itself.  It cited several cases, some of which addressed a former version of section 6621(c), which increased the interest rate for “tax-motivated transactions” (TMT); the CFC, along with other courts, considered TMT interest analogous to hot interest.  But those cases never addressed the definition of computational adjustment, other than in the regulation.

For example, in N.C.F. Energy Partners v. Commissioner, 89 T.C. 741 (1987), the partnership sought to challenge penalties and TMT interest in its proceeding, although they were not asserted in the final notice of partnership administrative adjustment.  The IRS moved to dismiss those portions of the case for lack of jurisdiction.  The court concluded that additional findings of fact with respect to individual partners would be required, so those issues should not be addressed in the partnership proceeding.  The court did not directly interpret the definition of a computational adjustment, although it seemed to suggest that TMT interest would be addressed in a deficiency proceeding.

In White v. Commissioner, 95 T.C. 209 (1990), the IRS issued a notice of deficiency including TMT interest after the conclusion of the partnership proceeding.  The IRS moved to dismiss the interest determination from the deficiency proceeding.  The court agreed, 13-2 in a reviewed opinion.  That case, however, turned on the question of whether interest was included in a “deficiency.”  The court did not address how a later assessment of interest should be handled, as a computational adjustment or just a normal assessment of interest.

In Pen Coal Corp. v. Commissioner, 107 T.C. 249 (1996), the notices of deficiency had included tax, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts and had also determined that hot interest applied, without determining the amount.  The IRS sought to strike the interest determinations from the deficiency proceeding.  The court agreed, following White, but again did not interpret section 6231(a)(6).

Finally, in Olson v. United States, 172 F.3d 1311 (Fed. Cir. 1999), the taxpayers filed refund suits in the Court of Federal Claim.  They argued that various assessments (including TMT interest) resulting from a settlement of a partnership proceeding were invalid because they had received no notices of deficiency.  The CFC granted the government’s motion for summary judgement, concluding that notices of deficiency were not required and noting that no other basis for the refund was asserted.  The Federal Circuit agreed.  There was a brief reference to interest being included in the definition of a computational adjustment, but that mentioned only the regulation with no interpretation of the applicable Code section. 

Practical Considerations

The regulation stating that interest is included in a computational adjustment may have been influenced by an assumption—possibly shared by the DOJ and court—that interest computations are generally straight-forward and easy to verify.  If so, it might seem simplest to include interest in a computational adjustment not subject to deficiency procedures.  As with the allocation of the previously determined change in the underlying tax, errors would be rare but easily detected.  A computational adjustment, even with the abbreviated period within which to file a refund claim, would be a reasonable compromise.

However, while interest calculations for most taxpayers are indeed straight-forward and easy to verify, that is often not the case with large businesses who may have multiple changes to tax liability implicating several different issues of interest calculation.  Sometimes the law is not clear; other times the law is clear, but errors occur frequently.  Specialist firms provide taxpayers with reviews of interest computations to identify potential problems.  That process, however, can take a long time.

This also means that an abbreviated period within which to file refund claims relating to interest is not a good idea from a policy perspective.  The description in the Federal Circuit’s decision suggests that by the time GMI received the April 2011 interest computation schedules it had all the necessary information to identify the basis for a refund claim based on when hot interest rates should apply.  But that was more than six months after the August 2010 notice that the CFC considered the initial notice of computational adjustment.  It was even more than six months after the assessment of interest in September 2010.  I defy anyone to look at a lump sum assessment of interest for a large corporate taxpayer and be able to determine how that amount was calculated.

Even if the Federal Circuit decided that the April 2011 schedules were the initial notice of computational adjustment with respect to interest, six months is still not a lot of time within which to file a comprehensive refund claim covering all interest errors that might have been contained in those computations.  Rushing to file a refund claim based only on the issue concerning hot interest might have risked forfeiting claims based on other issues.

Thus, even if the correct legal determination were that the six-month period to file refund claims applied to computational adjustments relating to interest, it seems like a bad policy choice.

Conclusion  

Between the dissent, the alternative framework for classifying adjustments arising from a TEFRA proceeding, and the practical considerations, there seems to be at least a reasonable argument that interest should not be included in the definition of computational adjustments and not subject to the accelerated refund claim provisions of section 6230(c).  But that’s now what the regulation the IRS wrote say—and challenging the validity of the regulation would be difficult—and that’s not what the Federal Circuit decided.

This concludes the discussion of the TEFRA jurisdictional issue.  Part 3 addresses the substantive issue: exactly when the higher hot interest rate should have started.  It’s a complicated issue in these specific circumstances and, to my knowledge, has not yet been ruled on by any court.

TEFRA + LCU = Confusion, Part 1

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco for a three-part series inspired by the Federal Circuit’s recent 2-1 decision tossing General Mills’ refund claim as untimely under TEFRA, although the claim would have been timely under the standard timeframes of section 6511. Part 1 sets the stage and examines the majority’s reasoning. Christine

On April 23, 2020, the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its decision in General Mills, Inc. v. United States, 957 F.3d 1275 (Fed. Cir. 2020), aff’g 123 Fed. Cl. 576 (2015).  The taxpayer’s refund suit sought recovery of $6 million of excessive underpayment interest it had paid to the IRS.  The court ruled for the government and dismissed the case.  It’s an unusual case, with aspects I had never dealt with before, so I thought Procedurally Taxing readers might enjoy it.  Fair warning, though: the TEFRA partnership audit procedures are complicated, as are the “large corporate underpayment” (LCU interest, or “hot interest”) provisions of the Code.  When they intersect, turbulence is likely.

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The Facts

The case involved two sets of tax returns and audits: those for the General Mills (“GMI”) corporate tax returns and those for partnership tax returns for General Mills Cereals, LLC (“Cereals”).  Different members of the GMI consolidated group were partners in Cereals, so the tax returns—and any audit adjustments—for Cereals flowed through to GMI.  The IRS audited the 2002-2003 tax returns (both corporate and partnership) and later the 2004-2006 tax returns (same).  Although there are some slight differences between the audits for those two periods, for simplicity I will focus on the 2002-2003 tax returns.

Audits began for both GMI and Cereals in 2005 for these years.  The IRS issued a 30-day letter for the GMI audit on June 15, 2007, asserting proposed deficiencies of more than $143 million for 2002 and almost $83 million for 2003.  The partners in Cereals entered into settlement agreements in July 2010.  On August 27, 2010, the IRS issued a “notice of computational adjustment” to GMI, identifying additional underpayments, resulting from the Cereals audit, of about $16 million for 2002 and more than $33 million for 2003. 

The IRS assessed additional taxes, penalties, and interest resulting from the Cereals audit in September 2010.  GMI paid all outstanding balances for these years, including interest, on April 11, 2011.  The IRS sent GMI detailed interest computation schedules for these years, apparently for the first time, on April 18, 2011 and April 20, 2011.  The schedules reflected that the IRS began charging a higher underpayment interest rate (“hot interest”) on July 15, 2007.  GMI filed refund claims on March 28, 2013, arguing that the higher interest rate should not have begun until September 26, 2010.  As a result, the IRS had accrued almost $6 million too much interest.  GMI then filed this refund suit on January 30, 2014.

The “hot interest” issue underlying the claim is intriguing and I was looking forward to reading the court’s analysis of it.  But the opinion focuses instead on the jurisdictional TEFRA provision that formed the basis of the government’s motion to dismiss.  I’ll have more discussion of the hot interest issue in Part 3.  But because the taxpayer lost on the jurisdictional issue, we will have to wait for another day for a court decision on the merits issue.

The Jurisdictional Question—TEFRA Computational Adjustments

Framework

A preliminary reminder:  the TEFRA provisions—Subtitle F, Chapter 63, Subchapter C—were stricken and replaced with a new regime for partnership audits, by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  References herein to specific Code sections are to the TEFRA versions, not the BBA versions.

As we all remember, TEFRA established unified partnership audit proceedings, with special rules for assessments of partners based on any resulting adjustments to the partnership tax return.  The changes to the partners’ tax liabilities to reflect the partnership adjustments are called “computational adjustments,” section 6231(a)(6).  Computational adjustments were initially understood as falling into two categories, depending on whether a partner-level determination was required.  If no such partner-level determination was required, the IRS simply assessed any additional amounts due.  (Mechanical applications, such as recalculating an itemized deduction for medical expenses, were not considered “determinations.”)  If a partner-level determination was necessary, the IRS had to issue a notice of deficiency, providing an opportunity for judicial review. 

The two categories became three with the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.  Penalties had been identified as a problem.  There might be necessary partner-level determinations to address penalty defenses.  Litigating those defenses (including defenses by indirect partners) in a partnership-level proceeding was not considered feasible but removing all penalties to deficiency proceedings was not an ideal approach either.  Thus, whether a penalty generally applied would be resolved in a partnership-level proceeding.  The IRS could then proceed to assessment without a deficiency proceeding, requiring partners to raise partner-level defenses in a refund claim/suit.  So the categories were:

  • Adjustments for which a partner-level determination was not required (immediate assessment allowed).
  • Adjustments for which a partner-level determination was required, other than penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts (deficiency proceeding required).
  • Adjustments for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts (immediate assessment allowed).

Those were specified in section 6230(a).  Although that section didn’t address interest, the IRS did, by regulation.  Treas. Reg. § 301.6231(a)(6)-1(b) provides that a “computational adjustment includes any interest due with respect to any underpayment or overpayment of tax attributable to adjustments to reflect properly the treatment of partnership items.”  The IRS treats such adjustments of interest as computational adjustments that can be assessed immediately.

Claims Arising Out of Erroneous Computations

For computational adjustments that are assessed directly and cannot be challenged in a deficiency proceeding in Tax Court, section 6230(c) provides an opportunity for challenge.  The taxpayer may file a refund claim for erroneous computations that:

  • Are necessary to apply the results of a settlement, final partnership administrative adjustment (if not challenged in Tax Court), or a Tax Court decision challenging the FPAA. 
  • Impose any penalty, addition to tax, or additional amount which relates to an adjustment to a partnership item.

These refund claims “shall be filed within 6 months after the day on which the Secretary mails the notice of computational adjustment to the partner.”  Thereafter, a refund suit can be brought within the period specified in section 6532(b) for refund suits.  And section 6511(g) provides that section 6230(c) applies, rather than section 6511, with respect to tax attributable to partnership items.

I’ve actually never dealt with a section 6230(c) refund claim before and perhaps others haven’t either.  This case was a good reminder of the different limitation period.  But it’s particularly fascinating because of a quirk introducing when dealing with interest resulting from a TEFRA proceeding.

Application in GMI’s Case

The Notices GMI Received

Let’s start with the communications at the conclusion of the Cereals (partnership) audit, as those were relevant to the basis for the motion to dismiss.  The IRS and GMI executed a settlement agreement on July 27, 2010.  It addressed “any deficiency attributable to partnership items, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts that relate to adjustments to partnership items, as set forth in the attached Schedule of Adjustments (plus any interest provided by law.)”  The same “any interest provided by law” language also appeared elsewhere in the settlement agreement, but there was no reference to hot interest or even the amount of interest that would result.

On August 27, 2010, the IRS sent a cover letter with Form 5278, Statement—Income Tax Changes.”  That form included a line for “Balance due or (Overpayment) excluding interest and penalties” with a corresponding dollar amount.  No amount was shown for interest, but the cover letter stated that the IRS “will adjust your account and figure the interest.”  Still no reference to hot interest.  The IRS assessed the tax deficiencies plus interest (including hot interest) on September 3, 2010, but no schedule showing how the amount of interest had been computed was sent to GMI at this time. 

On April 18, 2011, the IRS sent GMI an interest computation schedule for each of the four years, showing that hot interest began running on June 15, 2007—the date of the notice of proposed deficiency for the corporate audit.  The IRS sent another interest computation schedule for one of the years on April 20, 2011.

GMI paid the additional taxes and interest (including hot interest) on April 11, 2011.  It then filed refund claims on March 28, 2013, within the traditional two-year period after the payment in section 6511, and then this refund suit.  The government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the six-month period of section 6230(c) applied and therefore the refund claims were filed too late.

The Majority Opinion

GMI’s attorneys did a very professional, thorough job of identifying arguments that the refund claims were timely.  The majority opinion in the Federal Circuit shot them all down.

The notices received did not qualify as “computational adjustments.”  The majority’s response: Treas. Reg. § 301.6231(a)(6)-1(b) specifically included interest in the scope of computational adjustments and GMI did not challenge the validity of the regulation.  The Court of Federal Claims also cited several cases, including the Tax Court and other Circuit Courts, that it concluded supported the conclusion that interest is a computational adjustment.

However, I think (and the dissent may have agreed) the validity of the regulation is not clear.  And I don’t find the cases cited by the Court of Federal Claims very persuasive either.  Stay tuned for further discussion in Part 2.

Refund claims for “computational adjustments” only cover computation errors, not the legal error that GMI alleged.  The majority relied on the fact that section 6230(b) addressed “mathematical and clerical errors appearing on partnership returns,” implying that section 6230(c) must refer to a different class of errors.  It also cited a Seventh Circuit that reached the same conclusion, for the same reason. 

This isn’t entirely persuasive either.  An alternative, and to my mind more persuasive, distinction would be that section 6230(b) concerns mathematical or clerical errors on the partnership return while section 6230(c) concerns errors in a computational adjustment to make the partner’s return consistent with a substantive adjustment to the partnership return in a TEFRA proceeding.  Two entirely different things, aren’t they?  And most direct assessments (other than interest) without deficiency proceedings can only be challenged based on: (a) mathematical errors in allocating the change in tax liability; or (b) partner-specific penalty defenses.

The section 6230(c) refund claim provision applies only to adjustments necessary to apply the settlement, but the partnership audit and settlement did not address how hot interest should be computed.  GMI pointed out that (a) the partnership settlement agreements did not cover any aspect of how interest would be computed and (b) a global settlement agreement had explicitly carved out any implication that GMI had agreed to interest computations.  The court’s response focused on the boilerplate language “any interest provided by law.” 

I don’t consider this persuasive either.  Can you imagine a settlement agreement concerning the underlying tax liability that, instead of identifying the specific adjustments, said “any adjustments to income or expenses provided by law”?   Of course not.  That’s not a “settlement” in any normal sense of the word.  Similar boilerplate language about interest abounds in tax controversy but I’ve always considered that as intended simply to avoid any implication, by omission, that the parties had agreed that interest would not apply.  I don’t think boilerplate language like that has ever been interpreted to mean that the parties had settled on the resulting computation.  The fact that interest was “clearly contemplated” doesn’t mean that it was settled.

Section 6511 also applies and is an alternative available to taxpayers.  Here, the court relied on the general principle that a narrower, specifically drawn statute pre-empts a broader provision.  That’s generally true, although it may not always apply. 

For policy reasons, the section 6230(c) refund claim provision should not apply to claims that are entirely due to a partner’s unique factual circumstances.  This seems one of GMI’s less persuasive arguments, and the court simply pointed out there was no authority to support this position.

Section 6230(c) only applies to refund claims that are attributable to partnership items and the “applicable date” that GMI was disputing is not a partnership item.  As with the preceding item, this was a difficult argument and the court disagreed that a “partnership item” was a general requirement for all these refund claims.  Although the court did not go into detail, there is a structural argument.  The only reference to “partnership item” in that provision is in section 6230(c)(1)(A)(i), which relates to a computational adjustment to make the partner’s return consistent with the partnership return.  That sounds very much like making the partner’s return consistent with the partnership return as filed.  By comparison, section 6230(c)(1)(A)(ii) addresses computational adjustments relating from a TEFRA audit—settlement, FPAA, or court decision.  Section 6230(c)(1)(A)(i) would cover GMI’s situation, and it does not mention “partnership item.”  Neither does section 6230(c)(2), which governs the refund claims, mention “partnership item.” 

The notices received by GMI did not provide adequate notification of the determination.  The Court of Federal Claims seemed to consider even the initial notice on July 27, 2010, to have provided adequate notification.  It relied on GMI’s acknowledgement that “interest is generally the type of item that is ‘implicit in a computation of tax with respect to settled items so that it need not be expressly computed or even identified in the notice of computational adjustment that applies to the settlement.’”  Interest may be straight-forward in other contexts but certainly was not here. 

However, the Federal Circuit relied instead on the interest computation schedules received in April 2011 as providing adequate notice.  From the court’s description, it appears those did make it clear that hot interest would be applied and what applicable date would apply.  GMI argued those were still insufficient because they didn’t mention the six-month limitation period in section 6230(c) or even that a jurisdictional period was being triggered.  In addition, the schedules didn’t mention the TEFRA proceeding or segregate interest arising from the corporate audit for that arising from the Cereals audit.  The court simply rejected those as not required elements of a notice of computational adjustment.

And so, the majority dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.  Unless/until the issue comes up in another circuit, that decision will stand.  But it’s not necessarily the correct decision.  In Part 2, I’ll briefly summarize the dissent and then add some further thoughts on how the framework applied by the majority is arguably not the best way to think about these types of adjustments.  A different conceptual framework could lead to a decision in the taxpayer’s favor.

Complications With Rolling Credit Elect Transfers – Part 2

Bob Probasco returns with Part Two of his examination of rolling credit elect transfers and their treatment for interest purposes. Christine

In Part 1, I discussed the result in Goldring v. United States, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177797, 2020 WL 5761119 (E.D. La. Sept. Sep. 28, 2020) and started laying the framework for a critique of the decision.  That included the treatment of credit elect transfers (CETs), which is now pretty much settled law.  Now we’ll take a look at previous cases with the specific scenario at issue in Goldring – rolling CETs – for which the results have been mixed.

Treatment of rolling CETs for interest purposes

FleetBoston Fin. Corp v. United States, 483 F.3d 1345 (Fed. Cir. 2007) is the only Circuit Court decision clearly on point, for now.  (Rolling CETs were also involved in Marsh & McLennan Cos. v. United States, 302 F.3d 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2002), but the taxpayer agreed with the government’s position later adopted in FleetBoston and the case addressed a different statutory provision, so the court did not have to decide this issue.)  It concluded that interest computation should take into account only the first CET, from the year at issue, and ignore subsequent (rolling) CETs.  Under that approach, the underpayment interest assessed against the Goldrings would be entirely valid.

In re Vendell Healthcare, 222 B.R. 564 (Bankr. M.D. Tenn. 1998), Otis Spunkmeyer, Inc. v. United States, 2004 WL 5542870 (N.D. Cal. 2004), and the dissent in FleetBoston follow the use of money principle from Avon Products and progeny.  The balance in the year at issue doesn’t become “due and unpaid” until the CET amount actually provides the taxpayer with a benefit in a subsequent year – either applied to an estimated tax installment to avoid the addition to tax or included in an overpayment that is refunded instead of transferred to the next year.  Under that approach, the Goldrings would be entitled to a full refund of the underpayment interest.

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FleetBoston disagreed with Vendell and Spunkmeyer, concluding that they

disregard both the account-specific meaning of the term “paid” in the Internal Revenue Code and the regulatory scheme under which a credit elect overpayment will be deemed to reside in the tax account for the succeeding year, even if it is not needed to pay estimated tax in that year. 

In other words, the use of money principle is a tool of statutory construction but cannot override the specific terms of the statutes enacted by Congress. 

Who’s right?

The FleetBoston interpretation may be correct, but I don’t think either the Code or the regulatory scheme are as clear as the Federal Circuit thought they are.  FleetBoston distinguished Vendell and Spunkmeyer in part because of “the account-specific meaning of the term ‘paid’ in the Internal Revenue Code.”  But the issue in these cases is when underpayment interest under section 6601(a) begins running, the “last date prescribed for payment,” not when it stops, “the date paid.”  As discussed in Part 1, Avon Products, Inc. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2nd Cir. 1978) concluded that the beginning date was not clearly addressed by the statute and effectively re-wrote it; the IRS acquiesced in not only the holding but also the reasoning.  That suggests it would be feasible and permissible to re-write it again to address rolling CETs.

The relevant part of the regulatory language, which is the same in both § 301.6402-3(a)(5) and § 301.6611-1(h)(2)(vii), says only that “such amount shall be applied as a payment on account of the estimated income tax for such [succeeding] year or the installments thereof.”  The regulations were enacted back in 1957 and didn’t address when underpayment interest on a subsequently determined deficiency would run.  (I found nothing helpful in the Federal Register when the proposed and final regulations were issued; I doubt if the IRS thought about issues with subsequently determined deficiencies at that time.)  That was worked out through cases and revenue rulings, not regulations.  Even Revenue Ruling 99-40 doesn’t specifically address situations where the CET is not needed at all for estimated tax installments and is rolled to the next year rather than refunded. 

The parties in Goldring argued a lot about the interpretations of cases and rulings, and whether they should apply here.  The disagreement seems to flow from fundamentally different frameworks for thinking about CETs, both in general and with rolling CETs, in this context.

Government perspective – it’s a matter of accounting 

From the perspective of the government (and the FleetBoston court), the focus is on the fact that money has been transferred from one year to another year – the particular year to which the overpayment was first transferred.  The statute and regulations are clear.  The subsequent CETs and the other years are irrelevant.  This has intuitive appeal.  Generally, interest is computed on each tax year independently.  Independence of each tax year is a foundational principle for many purposes in our system and the language in the regulations for CETs is consistent with that perspective.  The initial CET is irrevocable and anything that happens thereafter (a subsequent CET) is not related to the original CET.  If a deficiency arises in the original year of the overpayment, you figure out the effective date of the transfer to the succeeding year, using the approach developed in the cases and summarized in Revenue Ruling 99-40.  If the election on the original year’s return is made before the due date of the return for the succeeding year, which it almost always is, the transfer (a “payment” in the succeeding year) would be effective no later than the due date of that return.

That amount of money is sitting in only one tax year at any point in time.  This is generally how the IRS would record it on account transcripts.  Under this interpretation, in the Goldring case, the amount at issue would be:

  • Included in the account for the 2010 tax year from April 15, 2011, until transferred out on April 15, 2012
  • Transferred into the account for the 2011 tax year on April 15, 2012, and remaining there until transferred out on April 15, 2013
  • Transferred into the account for the 2012 tax year on April 15, 2013, and remaining there until transferred out on April 15, 2014
  • Etc.

In other words, the Code doesn’t offset the 2010 deficiency against the overpayment in 2011 (or subsequent years) as a result of the CET.  The Avon Products decision was not a broad interest netting solution; it just addressed when the transfer between years is considered to take place.

Taxpayer’s perspective – prevent inequitable results

From the perspective of the taxpayer (as well as Vendell, Spunkmeyer, and the FleetBoston dissent), the language is ambiguous enough to allow a construction to meet the policy objectives of Congress.  Avon Products and its progeny, combined with other Code provisions such as sections 6601(f) and 6611(b)(1) and the global interest netting regime of section 6621(d), evidence a strong desire by Congress to avoid “interest arbitrage” results that might be unfair to taxpayers when there are both overpayments and underpayments outstanding.  Global interest netting protects taxpayers from paying underpayment interest at a higher rate than received for overpayment interest on equivalent balances outstanding at the same time.  The same principle should protect all taxpayers from paying underpayment interest during periods when there was an equivalent overpayment balance outstanding for which the taxpayer doesn’t receive interest at all.

Section 6621(d) only allows, by its terms, netting of overpayments on which interest is allowable and underpayments on which interest is payable.  If not for the fact that overpayments that the taxpayer elects to CET to the following year do not earn overpayment interest, that section would give the Goldrings the result they ask for.  But excluding CETs from the reach of section 6621(d) was not necessarily Congress’s intention.  I haven’t done a comprehensive review of the legislative history, but I suspect that limiting section 6621(d) to overpayments on which interest is allowable and underpayments on which interest is payable was only intended to maintain certain restricted interest provisions that give the government an incentive to act quickly. 

For that matter, was the regulation providing that an overpayment transferred by CET does not earn overpayment interest the best decision?  Section 6402(b) is a broad specific grant of authority to issue regulations.  But this was also an exception to the general rule of section 6611(a).  The provision makes some sense, given the solution in Avon Products and progeny, if the taxpayer does not continue to roll over CETs.  The IRS could have written the regulation to address rolling CETs in a way that would conform to the Congressional purpose of disallowing government interest arbitrage.

Avon Products and its progeny have an effect very similar to netting.  Prior to those decisions, the IRS treated the original overpayment in those situations (on which interest was not allowable because it was used for a CET) and the subsequently determined deficiency as separate and independent transactions.  Thus, until the CET was effective, there was – for the same year – an overpayment transaction that didn’t earn interest at all and an underpayment transaction for which the IRS charged interest.  Avon Products combined the two transactions into a single balance before computing interest, what I term “annual interest netting.” 

Notably, the final result of this line of cases and rulings did not treat the CET as effective based on an artificial date, such as the date the return was filed for the overpayment year or the unextended filing due date of the overpayment year.  Instead, the CET was effective only when the taxpayer got a benefit from having the money in the succeeding year.  The current IRS practice limits the effective date of the CET to no later than the unextended filing due date for the succeeding year.  Why should it be limited that way, if the taxpayer receives no benefit in the first succeeding year and instead rolls the amount over to the next year? 

Even if the government’s accounting perspective is respected, is the application of it necessarily immutable?  The CET from Year 1 to Year 2 creates a “negative payment” in Year 1 and a payment in Year 2.  The CET from Year 2 to Year 3 creates a “negative payment” in Year 2 and a payment in Year 3.  Can we consider the payment in Year 2 (from Year 1’s CET) and the “negative payment” in Year 2 (from Year 2’s CET) to have simply offset to eliminate both?  Perhaps.

Where do we go from here?

The government’s position prevailed in FleetBoston, the only Circuit Court decision on the issue of rolling CETs to date.  Vendell, Spunkmeyer, and the FleetBoston dissent held for taxpayers on this issue.  The Goldring decision ruled for the government in a fairly cursory manner and it has now been appealed.

I’m not sure which of the opposing position will prevail in the Fifth Circuit.  I suspect the interpretation in FleetBoston will prevail.  But there are certainly arguments for the taxpayers’ position.  We have an example, over the past couple of years, of a single Circuit Court decision on an issue that might have seemed durable – but wasn’t, once other Circuit Courts eventually considered the issue.  We’ll see whether that happens here.

Complications With Rolling Credit Elect Transfers – Part 1

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco. In Part One of this two part post, Bob dives into the history of “credit elect transfers” and their treatment for interest purposes. Part Two will analyze the Goldring case in more detail and discuss the arguments that are likely to be made on both sides as the case goes before the Fifth Circuit. Christine

A brief order was issued in September, concerning an issue related to interest on federal tax overpayments and underpayments.  In Goldring v. United States, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177797, 2020 WL 5761119 (E.D. La. Sept. Sep. 28, 2020), the court granted the government’s motion for summary judgement, concluding that the IRS properly assessed $603,335 of underpayment interest.  The court rejected the taxpayers’ arguments concerning the proper treatment of interest in situations with rolling credit elect transfers.

We’re all familiar with “credit transfers,” the terminology for IRS authority under Code section 6402(a) to apply an overpayment for one year against an outstanding tax liability for another year.  IRS records show tax balances from the government perspective, of course, under which an overpayment by the taxpayer is a liability or, in accounting terminology, a credit.  (These transfers show up on transcripts with transaction codes 826/706, labeled “credit transferred out”/“credit transferred in”.)

A “credit elect transfer” (CET) is one the taxpayer requests, on their tax return; I frequently make such an election and some of you may as well.  The election, made on line 36 of the Form 1040 for 2020, is to apply part or all of the overpayment shown on the return to your estimated tax obligations for the next year.  The overpayment that the taxpayer elects to transfer does not earn overpayment interest for the period before the transfer, even if the return is filed well after the due date of that return.  This is not a statutory restriction; section 6402(b) just authorizes Treasury to prescribe regulations governing such CETs.  It did, including § 301.6402-3(a)(5) and § 301.6611-1(h)(2)(vii).

As for “rolling credit elect transfers,” those may be most easily illustrated by the facts of this case.   

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Facts

I’m going to dispense with most of the details and just focus on the key facts regarding the specific issue at hand.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Goldring’s 2010 tax return showed an overpayment of $6,782,794, which was applied to their 2011 tax return at their request.
  • Their 2011 tax return showed an overpayment of $6,521,775, which was applied to their 2012 tax return at their request.
  • Their 2012 tax return showed an overpayment of $5,869,478, which was applied to their 2013 tax return at their request.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Thus, “rolling” CETs – the Goldrings kept rolling over their overpayments to the next year instead of receiving refunds. 

I’ve used CETs often, occasionally even rolling CETs, although the numbers were much smaller than for the Goldrings.  I intended to use the CET against the estimated tax installment obligation due at the same time as my tax return.  It was easier to make that portion of the obligation by CET rather than making a separate payment for year 2 and getting a refund (without interest) for year 1 several weeks later.

Mr. and Mrs. Goldring had something else in mind.  They anticipated a possible audit deficiency for their 2010 tax return.  Their accountants had suggested the rolling CETs as a way to keep funds with the IRS sufficient to cover the potential deficiency, thereby avoiding underpayment interest.  Remitting a separate deposit in the nature of a cash bond would have been an option as well.  Perhaps rolling CETs were seen as a low key way to accomplish the same thing, without waving a red flag to alert the IRS of the potential deficiency?  If there had never been a deficiency for 2010, the rolling CETs wouldn’t have been an issue.  Eventually the Goldrings would have asked for a refund instead of rolling the overpayments over.  No interest would be allowed on the refund and that would have been an end of it.

But, as they feared, there was a deficiency for 2010.  The IRS began an audit on April 15, 2013 and issued a 30-day letter on August 11, 2015.  Appeals agreed with the audit determination and issued a notice of deficiency for $5,250,549 on March 30, 2017.  On June 20, 2017, rather than go to Tax Court, the taxpayers consented to immediate assessment.  The audit deficiency was eventually paid from overpayment balances for later returns, specifically, Mrs. Goldring’s 2014 separate tax return and Mr. Goldring’s 2016 separate tax return. A refund claim and this refund suit followed.

The validity of the 2010 deficiency itself had been resolved in this same case, by an order issued on April 13, 2020.  That left the question of interest that had been assessed on the deficiency.  The IRS assessed underpayment interest on the 2010 deficiency for the period from April 15, 2012, the due date for the 2011 tax return, until paid.  The Goldrings argued that, because the IRS always had money in its possession sufficient to cover the audit deficiency, no underpayment interest should be accrued.        

The District Court’s Opinion

The court decided this issue in favor of the government.  Section 6601(a) provides for underpayment interest as follows:

If any amount of tax imposed by this title . . . is not paid on or before the last date prescribed for payment, interest on such amount . . . shall be paid for the period from such last date to the date paid.

The regulations sections cited above provide that the portion of an overpayment designation as a CET “shall be applied as a payment on account of the estimated tax for [the succeeding] year or the installments thereof.”  The 2010 CET was irrevocable and resulted in transferring $6,782,794 from the account for the taxpayers’ 2010 tax year to the account for their 2011 tax year.  That transfer from 2010 to 2011 was effective as of April 15, 2012, the due date of the 2011 tax return.  The original overpayment in 2010, transferred to 2011, would not earn overpayment interest.  But it could shield the taxpayers from underpayment interest from a subsequently determined deficiency, until the funds were deemed transferred to 2011.  Underpayment interest began accruing on April 15, 2012, the last date prescribed for payment for the year to which the overpayment was transferred, and continued until April 15, 2015 and April 15, 2017, when the deficiency was paid by section 6401(a) transfers from subsequent tax returns.  The plaintiffs were not entitled to a refund of underpayment interest and the government was entitled to summary judgement.

This sounds like a very straightforward application of clear law, doesn’t it?  Particularly since the printed order was just barely over 4 pages and the “law and analysis” portion is only 2 pages, double-spaced.  But I’m not sure that answer is necessarily the best interpretation of the law.  Here’s why.

Treatment of CETs for interest purposes

Today, in most instances when you elect to apply some or all of an overpayment to estimated taxes for next year, interest issues don’t come up at all.  You’re not entitled to interest on the overpayment, by regulation.  When an interest issue does come up, it’s because the IRS audits the year with the overpayment and determines a deficiency.  With most CETs, the method of calculating underpayment interest on that subsequently determined deficiency is no longer contested. 

But there was a great deal of uncertainty before the decision in Avon Products, Inc. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2nd Cir. 1978).  By the last date prescribed for payments of its 1967 taxes, the unextended filing due date, the taxpayer had paid in $44,500,086.58.  When it finally filed its tax return on September 15, 1968, it reported its tax liability as $44,384,460.26, resulting in an overpayment of $115,626.32, which it elected to apply to 1968’s tax liability.  A subsequent audit determined that its correct liability was $44,483,062.42, resulting in a deficiency of $98,602.17.

Section 6601(a), by its literal terms, only charges interest on underpayments if the correct tax liability was not paid on or before the last date prescribed for payment.  But the amount paid as of the last date prescribed for payment was $44,500,086.58, which was more than the adjusted tax liability of $44,483,062.42.  Under the literal terms of the statute, the IRS could not assess any underpayment interest at all for that deficiency.

The interpretation didn’t seem right either, but the Second Circuit found an elegant solution.  It interpreted “last date prescribed for payment” in these situations to mean the moment at which the tax first became “due but unpaid.”  It was fully paid by March 15, 1968, the last date prescribed for payment.  But a CET was effectively a “negative payment,” just as a refund would have been.  It reduced the net amount paid by Avon from $44,500,086.58 (as of the date prescribed for payment) to $44,384,460.26 (after the CET).  At that point, the tax liability became “due but unpaid” and underpayment interest would begin accruing.

When the “negative payment” is a refund, we know when that happened and therefore when underpayment interest on a subsequently determined deficiency begins.  But what is the effective date of a “negative payment” by CET?  That wasn’t clear.  The IRS argued for the due date of the return without regard to extensions, or March 15, 1968.  Avon argued for September 15, 1968, the date of both (a) filing the 1967 return and making the election to apply the CET to 1968’s tax liability and (b) the due date of an estimated tax installment for Avon’s 1968’s tax liability.  The Second Circuit agreed with Avon.

Avon Products, several subsequent cases – May Dep’t Stores Co. v. United States, 36 Fed. Cl. 680 (C.F.C. 1996); Kimberly-Clark Tissue Co. v. United States, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3100 (E.D. Pa. 1997); Sequa Corp. v. United States, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5288 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 22, 1996); Sequa Corp. v. United States, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8556 (S.D.N.Y. June 8, 1998) – and a series of revenue rulings eventually developed what is now the standard treatment for CETs.  “When a taxpayer elects to apply an overpayment to the succeeding year’s estimated taxes, the overpayment is applied to unpaid installments of estimated tax due on or after the date(s) the overpayment arose, in the order in which they are required to be paid to avoid an addition to tax for failure to pay estimated income tax under §§ 6654 or 6655 with respect to such year.”  Revenue Ruling 99-40.

The logic behind this solution was to avoid a double benefit, to either the taxpayer or the government.  The CET amount would provide a potential benefit to the taxpayer in the year of the overpayment (1967 in the Avon Products case) for periods before the effective date of the transfer.  Overpayment interest was not allowable, but the CET amount would reduce the subsequently determined deficiency that would be subject to underpayment interest.  The CET amount would benefit the taxpayer in the succeeding year (1968 in the Avon Products case) for periods after the effective date of the transfer.  It would either (a) avoid the addition to tax for failure to pay estimated taxes or (b) be refunded to the taxpayer for its use.  There would be no period during which the taxpayer received a potential benefit for neither year or received a potential benefit for both years. 

None of the cases or revenue rulings specifically dealt with situations in which the CET is not needed for an estimated tax installment.  IRS practice has been to apply any remaining portion as of the due date of payment for the succeeding year’s tax liability.  That makes perfect sense if there is no rolling CET, as the taxpayer will either need that amount to pay the liability or receive a refund.  It makes less sense in situations with rolling CETs, as in the Goldring case.  That had to wait for a new series of cases, and the results are mixed.  I’ll turn to that in Part 2.