The IRS Cracks Open the Door to Electronic Communications

In 2016 the IRS released its Future State vision, featuring seamless electronic interactions between the agency and taxpayers or their representatives. Progress towards this vision has been slow, as IRSAC noted in its 2018 and 2019 reports. (Les also wrote several posts on the Future State, its implications, and related developments.) Today the IRS remains far behind lenders, brokers and banks in the digital customer interactions it offers. While the IRS’s privacy concerns with electronic communications have not abated, faced with the coronavirus pandemic the agency adapted quickly, recognizing the need for digital communications if taxpayers’ matters are to progress as people shelter in place. In today’s post, guest blogger James Creech describes important new IRS parameters for email correspondence and electronic signatures. Christine

On March 27, 2020 as part of the IRS’s response to COVID-19 the IRS issued an internal memorandum temporarily modifying the existing prohibitions against the acceptance of electronic signatures and use of email to send and receive documents. For the Service these modifications were a necessary adjustment to the realities of remote work. It allows many of the cases in progress prior to the People First Initiative to continue to move forward even if it is just to avoid a statute of limitations expiring. It is also an acceptance that many taxpayers who must interact with IRS employees are sheltering in place and may lack access to any technology beyond a smartphone. It is interesting to note that the memorandum does not specify an end date for these temporary procedures unlike many of the other aspects of COVID-19 that expire on July 15, 2020.

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Electronic Signatures

The most important part of the IRS accepting electronic signatures is not how they accept them but rather what types of documents have been approved for electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are temporarily permitted on documents required to extend a statute of limitations or to close an agreed upon matter such as Forms 870 and 872. Beyond those forms, the memorandum only lists a few specific forms by number but it appears that it should be interpreted broadly. As a catch all, it states that long as the form is not normally subject to standard filing procedures, ie a 1040x or 8832, an electronic signature is permitted and the document can be submitted electronically. An IRS employee can request further guidance from their internal policy office on the specific email acceptance policy. Given that the internal guidance is vague it might be incumbent on a practitioner to remind an IRS employee that this option is available should there be some hesitation about accepting particular form.

One other routine document specifically listed by the memorandum is a power of attorney. On the surface the inclusion of the 2848 seems of limited utility. The CAF units are located in service centers that are currently closed, new matters are not being assigned to the field, and adding a power of attorney midway through working through an issue with a Revenue Agent is relatively rare. However for tax clinics and taxpayers who need to either add or change a representative mid stream specifically stating a power of attorney can be filed with an electronic signature is a useful inclusion.

If a document is eligible for an original electronic signature, the signature itself can be submitted in a number of widely used file formats including pdf and jpeg file types.

The real value for practitioners in the modification is the ability to send in photographs of a signature, or to have a client electronically sign a document on smartphone without the need to print the document at all, and still have it accepted by the IRS. Without this ability many taxpayers could potentially have to either have to physically meet their representative in order to sign a document, or worse yet many pro se taxpayers could be unable to meaningfully participate in moving cases forward because they lack access to a printer or a scanner.

Emailed Documents

The IRS now allows employees to both send and receive emails, including emails with attachments. For practitioners receiving emails the procedures are similar to receiving a physical copy of information from the IRS. The attachment is sent as a standalone email in an encrypted SecureZip. The 12 character password is then relayed to the practitioner over the phone, or by some other means than email, and the attachment can then be opened.

Sending documents to the IRS is a little more complicated. In order to protect the IRS, incoming email is not being accepted without an established relationship between the taxpayer or their representative. The IRS employee must also first request that the documents be sent through the normal e-fax channels prior to offering the use of email.

If the taxpayer is unable to send an e-fax or wishes to use email the employee must still take steps to dissuade them from doing so. They must advise the taxpayer that email is not secure. They must request that all attachments should be encrypted to the best of the taxpayer’s ability and baring that any information must be in a valid format. Links to files in the cloud are not accepted. Finally they should advise the body and subject line of the email must not contain any sensitive or identifying information. All of these steps are perfectly reasonable for security purposes but may be intimidating to some taxpayers.

If the taxpayer is sending a document that contains an electronic signature the taxpayer must attest to the signature by including a statement similar to “The attached [name of document] includes [name of taxpayer]’s valid signature and the taxpayer intends to transmit the attached document to the IRS.” It is worth noting that if there are technical issues with the .gov email address, IRS employees are prohibited from using personal email addresses as a back up.

Privacy Concerns

Part of the reluctance on behalf of the Service to accept emailed documents in the past has been a well-founded worry about introducing viruses into a secure system. From the IRS’s point of view requiring a known taxpayer to opt in to email, and follow the required procedures and formats, should greatly reduce this risk.

Email for the practitioner has its own set of privacy concerns. From a technical perspective sending an email to the IRS is no different than an e-fax. E-faxes are routed to IRS employees’ email addresses so the only difference is the terms of service for the e-fax vs the email provider.

Slightly different is what happens to the data once it is on a laptop in the IRS employee’s home. Fortunately for taxpayers the IRS has a robust set of data privacy protections that can be found in Section 6103. Generally speaking the IRS has done a good job of training employees on the importance of Section 6103. Without going into much detail, Section 6103 prohibits the disclosure or inspection of sensitive taxpayer information by anyone who is not authorized to view the material. The punishment for violations of Section 6103 can range from potential criminal charges for willful disclosures to administrative sanctions, including termination, for less serious breaches. Violations of Section 6103 also give taxpayers a right to a civil cause of action against the United States under IRC Section 7431.

Section 7431 was given additional teeth in the Taxpayer First Act of 2019 that is especially relevant right now given that all IRS employees are working remotely. Even though the IRS has safeguards in place to protect taxpayer information, such as requiring that laptops containing sensitive data are encrypted, accidents do happen.

Prior to the Taxpayer First Act taxpayers were only notified of a Section 6103 disclosure violation if the violation resulted in criminal charges. This left many taxpayers in the dark if return information was disclosed in a non willful manner. The Taxpayer First Act significantly broadened this disclosure to impacted taxpayers, including when IRS “proposes an administrative determination as to disciplinary or adverse action against an employee arising from the employee’s unauthorized inspection or disclosure of the taxpayer’s return or return information” and it requires that the IRS affirmatively inform taxpayers of the civil cause of action against the government. It remains to be seen whether there will be an uptick in Section 6103 violations but if expanded use of email does not trigger a wave of taxpayer notifications, then privacy may not be such a barrier to making this modification permanent.

While the limited acceptance of electronic signatures and use of email was expanded to benefit IRS employees during this difficult time, it is impossible to see this as anything but beneficial for taxpayers. Even with the required hurdles it makes engagement with the IRS easier, quicker, and more approachable to anyone who does not have a scanner and an e-fax service.

Virtual Currency, FBAR, and the Ripple Effect

We welcome back guest blogger James Creech. In this post James explains some of the current uncertainties surrounding virtual currency, particularly in how future IRS guidance might interact with legal positions taken by other federal agencies. Christine

Recently FinCen informed the AICPA Virtual Currency Task Force that Bitcoin and other Virtual Currencies do not trigger FBAR reporting even when held in an offshore wallet.

This guidance comes as a bit of a surprise for some tax practitioners. Conventional wisdom had been that there was a difference between Virtual Currencies being held in cold storage on a thumb drive in a foreign county, and those being held by a foreign third party who also retained the private keys to the Virtual Currency as a part of their service. It was believed that if the private keys were stored by the wallet service, and the wallet service could convert the Virtual Currency to fiat currency, then the account could be considered similar to an online poker account and reportable under U.S. v Hom, No. 14-16214, 9th Cir., (7/26/16).

While this will be welcome news for many taxpayers who hold foreign wallets, this guidance by FinCen has the potential to be more impactful on the tax consequences of Virtual Currencies than would initially be apparent. The IRS has long relied on other agencies to define key terms, and to more fully develop the legal nature of Virtual Currencies. This FinCen guidance may be the beginning of a deepening rift between agencies.

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It is expected that the IRS will be releasing new Virtual Currency guidance shortly that will address some of the technological developments in the industry. One of the areas that could be addressed by this guidance is whether Virtual Currency held in foreign wallets is reportable on Form 8938. If the IRS decides that the Hom rational is correct and that foreign wallets are reportable this will create another significant distinction between the FBAR and Form 8938. For taxpayers this creates a higher likelihood of unfilled Form 8938’s due to taxpayer error and greater confusion between FBAR and Form 8938 requirements. I expect that this increased error rate will be higher than normal due to the fact that the Virtual Currency community relies heavily on industry blogs that many times are more interested in promoting virtual currency purchases rather than informing readers about compliance requirements.

For tax practitioners this split also raises questions of how much weight to put on the guidance of other administrative agencies. Because the IRS has issued so little guidance on Virtual Currency there are very few absolutes. We know that Virtual Currency is property because Notice 2014-21 clearly says so. What we don’t know is how far that definition goes, or if it can be treated like other specialized types of property. In the non-IRS context, the SEC has defined certain types of Virtual Currency as securities, and the CFTC has said that it is a commodity. It logically follows that if the IRS says a certain Virtual Currency is property, and the SEC says this Virtual Currency is a security, that a dealer in that particular Virtual Currency should be able to use a mark to market election under IRC 475. Given that Virtual Currencies as a whole suffered a bear market in 2018, a mark to market treatment might provide a desirable tax loss for many in the industry.

If there is a split in the FBAR and Form 8938 definitions, then assumptions that the IRS will allow taxpayers to import definitions from other agencies in order to tackle unaddressed issues lose some of their logic. It is impossible to overstate how important prior FinCen definitions are for IRS Virtual Currency guidance. The root definition of what is a Virtual Currency for IRS purposes is based in a 2013 FinCen definition of “convertible virtual currencies”. If the IRS does not see eye to eye with FinCen then there is a diminished likelihood that the IRS would adopt a CFTC definition and allow Virtual Currencies the same type of preferential tax treatments that they would allow for an established commodity. Of course the opposite reaction might also be true. If the IRS is the first agency to state that foreign wallets are reportable, we might see FinCen respond by adjusting their guidance to require FBAR disclosure as well. Either way, the pending IRS guidance will tell us a lot about how the IRS is thinking about Virtual Currencies and how it intends to incorporate guidance from other administrative agencies.

Tax Court Urged to Permit Limited Scope Appearances by Counsel

We welcome first-time guest blogger James Creech to Procedurally Taxing. James is a tax controversy attorney in solo practice in San Francisco and Chicago. He currently chairs the Individual and Family Tax Committee of the ABA Section of Taxation. Here James discusses comments submitted by the ABA Tax Section urging the adoption of a limited appearance rule in Tax Court, and he explains his support for the proposal from the perspective of a pro bono calendar call attorney. As one of the authors of the comments I hope the Court agrees with James. Christine

On October 3rd, the ABA Section of Taxation submitted comments to the Tax Court urging the court to amend Tax Court Rule 24 in order to create a new limited scope appearance. The comments are primarily aimed at allowing pro-bono volunteers to speak on the record during a calendar call without having to worry about broader ethical issues and without worrying about assuming responsibility beyond a solitary appearance. Importantly, while calendar calls are the primary focus, the Tax Section recommendation does not restrict the use of limited scope appearances to only calendar calls. The comments urge permission for limited scope representation in any situation where 1. the limitation is reasonable given the circumstances; 2. the limitation does not preclude competent representation or violate other rules; and 3. the client gives informed consent. This broader request would allow pro-bono volunteers to not only assist during the trial setting session but would open the door to assisting during trial itself, or during appeals hearings in docketed tax court matters.

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A limited scope representation rule could help a large number of taxpayers. According to the comment 69% of all petitioners are unrepresented. When looking only at S cases that number jumps to 91%. Currently during the typical calendar call session there is a limited amount of time where petitioners can meet with a pro-bono attorney and often they are overwhelmed with the process. Allowing limited scope representations would allow pro-bono volunteers to increase their assistance and reduce the burden on both petitioners and the Court.

Under the Tax Section’s proposal, beginning a limited scope representation would require the pro-bono volunteer to complete a Tax Court form that clearly identified the date, the time period of the representation, the activity, and the subject matter. On the sample forms attached to the comments, these lines are prominently displayed and are likely to reduce much of the client’s uncertainty the limited representation. This form would then be signed by the pro-bono attorney and served on both the Court and opposing counsel. For representations that are part of the calendar call program, the ABA Tax Section comment language specifically states that the representation ends at the conclusion of the calendar call. If a practitioner wishes to extend the representation through trial a separate notice of completion must be filed with the Court and served upon respondent.

As a frequent calendar call volunteer, the recommendations made in the ABA Tax Section comment are welcome and frankly overdue. One of the biggest frustrations of a calendar call pro-bono attorney is the inability to speak to the court on behalf of a pro-se litigant even when it comes to something as simple as requesting a continuance. Calendar Call volunteers often spend a significant amount of time with a pro-se litigant teaching them the basics of Tax Court procedure, what facts are relevant, and what the roles of Chief Counsel attorneys and the Court are. At the conclusion of the meeting it is not unusual to wait in the back of the courtroom only to watch them step up to the podium and start rehashing irrelevant facts that are unhelpful to the Court. It then takes time for the Judge to give the opportunity for the litigant to speak, inform them why they are in court today, and to ask questions about what their goals are. Often what should be a two minute request for a specific trial day or a continuance can turn in to ten minutes of the Judge trying to get a sense of the evidentiary issues and if trial is the fairest way to resolve the case. Allowing a pro-bono attorney to approach the podium with the petitioner would eliminate these issues. I believe a limited scope rule would give petitioners a better sense that they were able to communicate their needs and that they had a fair opportunity to be heard both of which are essential to due process.

Enacting the ABA Tax Section’s proposal for limited scope representation would benefit volunteers, pro-se taxpayers, chief counsel, as well as the Court. Volunteers would more certainty that their time would be put to good use. Pro se litigants would get a fairer outcome because they would be able to better communicate their needs to the Court and explain the relevant facts in their case. Finally, the Court would benefit from increased efficiency and a trial record that better reflected what the parties believed the facts to be.

Overall the Tax Section comment does a great job of striking a balance between the needs of volunteer attorneys ethical compliance and workload considerations with their desire to help pro-se petitioners. The inclusion of clear sample forms gives the Court and pro-bono volunteers a better idea of how this rule could be implemented and what pro-se litigants might expect should this proposal be adopted. In my opinion the Tax Court should implement a limited scope rule that is substantially similar to what the ABA Tax Section proposes.