Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Crossing the Line in Tax Planning (4/22/14)

I report today on a civil case that shows how a civil dispute can involve a situation that perhaps should have been a criminal case.  In Moreland v. Koskinen, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53308 (ND AL 2014), here, the taxpayers, husband and wife, complained that the IRS had denied their first time homebuyer credit.  (The precise procedural posture of the case is unclear, but I assume it was a refund suit; the taxpayers appeared pro se.)  Essentially, the taxpayers created a paperwork façade to give the appearance of qualifying for the credit, but the facts outside the paperwork showed that they did not qualify.

The law requires that property acquired from a related person does not qualify.  The Morelands and Mollie Holland, another otherwise unrelated taxpayer  (unrelated in the sense of the statutory disqualification), wanted to qualify otherwise unqualified properties.  In order to give the appearance that the properties qualified, they created a paperwork façade to make it appear that the Morelands temporarily owned property disqualified as to Ms. Holland so that she could "purchase" the property from the Morelands and vice-versa.

The key part of the decision is (bold-facing by JAT):
In the present case, the paperwork related to all of the real estate conveyances at issue appears to indicate, on its face, that Kevin Moreland purchased the Killen property from Noble and Donna Holland, who are not related to him in any way. If the technical form of that transaction were the only relevant consideration, Kevin and Melissa Moreland might be entitled to the receive the FTHBC. However, when viewed as a whole and in the light of all of the credible evidence, it is clear that the substance of the transaction was very different from its form. In substance, Noble and Donna Holland engaged in a property swap with Janie Moreland for the purpose of making it appear that their respective children qualified for the First Time Home Buyer Credit. There was no actual transfer of the subject properties. Noble and Donna Holland never took possession of the Killen property, and Kevin and Melissa Moreland never vacated it. Kevin and Melissa Moreland paid Noble and Donna Holland only a very small percentage of the money they purportedly owe for the property, and the Hollands never tried to collect from the Morelands. Similarly, Janie Moreland never took possession of the Leighton property, and Mollie Holland did not even move into that property after it had purportedly been transferred to her. Mollie Holland never paid Janie Moreland anything for the Leighton property, and Janie Moreland has never tried to collect anything from Mollie Holland. 
Stated in terms that are most favorable to the parties involved, the only substantive transactions that took place were the transfer of the Killen property from mother (Janie Moreland) to son (Kevin Moreland), and the transfer of the Leighton property from parents (Noble and Donna Holland) to daughter (Mollie Holland). Stated less charitably, each family, in exchange for the sum of $8,000, concocted a scheme to defraud the United States government via the Internal Revenue Service. Under either construction, plaintiffs are not entitled to the First Time Home Buyer Credit.
The case involved only one set of the taxpayers involved, the Morelands.  The other set also claimed the credit.  The Court described their situation as follows:
Mollie Holland claimed a First-Time Home Buyer Credit ("FTHBC") on her Form 1040EZ Income Tax Return for 2010.29 The IRS granted her the credit, but she decided in early 2014 to return all the money she received because, after further consultation with the IRS, she determined she was not entitled to the credit and that "it wasn't right" for her to retain the money.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

GE Ducks Any Penalty for Its Bullshit Tax Shelter -- For Now (4/17/14)

I have previously written on GE's bullshit tax shelter twice blessed by the district court and twice swatted down by the Court of Appeals..  See Second Circuit Strikes Down Another BS Tax Shelter (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 1/24/12); here, and Thoughts on the the Corporate Audit Lottery (Federal Tax Crimes 2/11/12), here.  The irrepressible district court, smarting over two failed attempts to approve a GE raid on the fisc, makes another go at it in TIFD-III-E Inc. v. United States, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41472 (D. Conn. 2014), here.  (The judgment entered shortly thereafter is here.)

The Second Circuit had already approved the application of the 20% substantial understatement penalty, but, as it turns out, when pushed to the taxpayer, the tax involved, though large, would not meet the threshold requirement that the understatement be "substantial" -- defined as exceeding "(i) 10 percent of the tax required to be shown on the return for the taxable year."  Section 6662(d)(1)(A)(i), here.

Readers will recall that the 20% accuracy related penalty has another basis -- if the position is due to negligence, which has no threshold limitation.  Section 6662(c), here.  So, the Government made another run to extract from GE some penalty for having played the audit lottery and lost for its bullshit tax shelter.  Again, this time, the district court tilted for GE, thus insulating GE from any cost or penalty for playing the audit lottery.  Why?

The Court opens its opinion as follows:
Defendant, the United States, moves for an order imposing a negligence penalty on plaintiff TIFD III-E Inc. ("TIFD") for tax years 1997 and 1998. During the 1990s, TIFD's parent company, General Electric Capital Corporation ("GECC"), joined with a pair of Dutch banks ("the Dutch Banks" or "the Banks") to form an aircraft leasing company. TIFD considered the Dutch Banks to be its partners in the venture, and did not report any income allocated to the Banks on its own tax returns. During the course of this litigation, I twice found that decision to be more than reasonable; indeed, I found that the company correctly deemed the Banks to be equity stakeholders rather than lenders. TIFD III-E v. United States, 342 F. Supp. 2d 94 (D. Conn. 2004)  [*4] ("Castle Harbour I"); TIFD III-E v. United States, 660 F. Supp. 2d 367 (D. Conn. 2009) ("Castle Harbour III"). The Second Circuit twice disagreed. TIFD III-E v. United States, 459 F.3d 220 (2d Cir. 2006) ("Castle Harbour II"); TIFD III-E v. United States, 666 F.3d 836 (2d Cir. 2012) ("Castle Harbour IV"). So, after more than a decade of litigation, TIFD ultimately lost this case. In addition, the Second Circuit held that the IRS could impose a 20% accuracy penalty against TIFD for substantial understatement of its income taxes in 1997 and 1998.
Despite having "twice found that [GE's] decision to be more than reasonable," the judge candidly acknowledges that the Second Circuit disagreed.  The court then proceeds to find GE reasonable again.

I won't review the facts, for the court itself that "I assume the parties' familiarity with the facts underlying this case."  I will note that, as is common in these bullshit corporate tax shelters, a foreign bank was the linchpin to make it have the superficial appearance of working.  (Foreign banks also played an essential role in the bullshit individual Son-of-Boss tax shelters; in this regard, see my postings Credit Suisse DOJ Investigation Status and New NY Investigation (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 4/7/14), here; and NY State Agency Makes New Moves in Investigation of Credit Suisse (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 4/17/14), here.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Mitigation Provisions of the Code - An Example of How They Work to Open an Otherwise Closed Year (4/3/14)

All taxpayers facing a tax liability hope that the IRS will fail to assess within the applicable period of limitations.  For example, the IRS often requests a Form 870, Waiver of the Restrictions on Assessment, which, because it waives the notice of deficiency which, in turn, would have suspended the statute of limitations, hope that the IRS will not get around to assessing in time.  (That is vain hope in the overwhelming number of cases.)  There are a myriad of other circumstances where a similar situation occurs.

One such circumstance applied in El Paso CGP Company, L.L.C. v. United States of America, 748 F.3d 225 (5th Cir. 2014), here.  In this case, the facts are complex, but I think I can distill them for purposes of the point I want to make in this blog entry. Normally, when a year is closed, it is just closed.  If the taxpayer got a benefit he was not entitled to, that is just the IRS's tough luck; and vice versa.  However, various Code provisions and judicial doctrines may apply to mitigate the effect of the improper benefit in the closed year.  Indeed, the most beautiful such provisions are called the mitigation provisions of the Code -- Sections 1311-1314.  Essentially, the effect of those mitigation provisions in most of  the circumstances of adjustment to which they apply is to take away a double benefit to a taxpayer from achieving a tax benefit for the treatment of an item in a correct open year when the taxpayer has previously achieved a benefit in an incorrect otherwise closed year.

Without getting into the facts in too great a detail (read the opinion), the taxpayer claimed credits in 1986 which because of limits were carried forward to some later years.  After some audit activity, the parties agreed that the taxpayer had overstated the credits in question but was entitled to other credits so that, for the year 1986, the taxpayer was still entitled to a refund.  However, because the credits in question had been overstated in 1986, the carry forward of those credits to post-1986 years was wiped out, meaning that the taxpayer had deficiencies in those post-1986 years which were then closed.  This apparently was a circumstance of adjustment under the mitigation provisions.  (I have not chased down that issue, but the Court and the parties seemed to assume it.)  Under the mitigation provisions of the Code, the IRS has a one-year window from the time of the determination to assess, collect, refund or credit the tax, as appropriate for the type of adjustment.  See Section 1314(b), here.

The IRS netted the agreed upon deficiencies for the post-1986 years in the aggregate against the refund due for 1986 and refunded the difference (with appropriate interest).  But, as best I understand the opinion, the IRS did not assess the netted amount to the particular post-1986 years within the one-year period.  In other words, the IRS had collected the tax by offset but had not made the assessments for the particular years involved in that one-year period.  The taxpayer argued that, therefore, the IRS had not met the procedures required for mitigation and therefore, must treat the collection via netting as an overpayment for the post-1986 years that must be refunded.

A taxpayer making that argument or any argument that the IRS has not timely assessed does not want to launch the argument when the IRS still has time to assess.  Therefore, for example, it is common practice -- albeit perhaps not the best form -- to file a claim for refund for a year when there are not previously adjustments that would increase the tax liability near the end or after the assessment period of limitations.  (I say that is perhaps not the best form, because it may be difficult to sign a claim for refund under oath when the taxpayer knows that the unspotted adjustments wipe out the claim for refund; but that's a subject for another day.)

At any rate, this taxpayer did a mitigation variant of this timing strategy.  "A year after the Closing Agreement was executed, in August 2006, El Paso sent a precisely timed memorandum to the IRS claiming that the deficiencies for 1987-1990 must be refunded to El Paso because the IRS had failed properly to assess those deficiencies before the just-expired one-year statute of limitations."  (Bold-face supplied by JAT.) That memorandum was treated as a claim for refund.

The IRS Levy Power (4/4/14)

I have recently had email discussions with Leslie Book and Keith Fogg, authors of the Procedurally Taxing Blog, here, regarding some aspects of the levy power, particularly levy on right to receive future payments.  As a result of that discussion, I have been better educated about the levy and have made some revisions to my text.  I thank Les and Keith for their contributions to my education.

I cut and paste below the section revised and note in red-line the revised portions.  I do not include the footnotes.
VIII. Administrative Levy and Judicial Enforcement. 
A. Administrative Levy and Sale. 
  1. General Rules of Levies.
Levy includes the power to seize and sell the taxpayer's property (including interests in property and personal service compensation, such as wages).  § 6331(b) (levy); § 6335 (rules for sale).  A levy – often referred to as a seizure – is a “summary, non-judicial process, a method of self- help authorized by statute which provides the Commissioner with a prompt and convenient method for satisfying delinquent tax claims.”  The Supreme Court has said: “The IRS need never go into court to assess and collect the amount owed; it is empowered to collect the tax by non-judicial means . . . without having to prove to a court the validity of the underlying tax liability.”   
The IRS levy can involve a direct seizure of the property but more often the levy is accomplished by notice of levy to the taxpayer or third parties requiring them to turn over the taxpayer’s property in their possession.  Thus, the IRS can serve notice of levy a bank to obtain the funds in the taxpayer's bank account or can levy a brokerage firm to obtain the investments in the taxpayer's bank account.  The IRS can also levy persons or entities who appear to be third parties, asserting that they are nominees or alter egos of the taxpayer.  (I cover nominee and alter ego liability later in the text.) 
As noted, the IRS often levies on third parties by issuing “notice of levy,” which, like the IRS summons studied earlier, is simply a form that the IRS collection officer fills out and delivers to the person upon whom levy is made.  Once the person is given the notice of levy, the United States has the right to the property levied.  As to the property, the person receiving the notice of levy holds the property in a form of custodial relationship to the United States. 
The person receiving the notice of levy takes substantial risks in not responding to the levy.  The person receiving a levy is liable for the value of the property levied upon and not turned over, plus a penalty of 50%.  § 6332(d).  The defenses available to the party levied to avoid the levy are quite limited.  Nonpossession of the taxpayer’s property is a defense.  However, the “validity of the levy and competing claims to the ownership of the funds are not valid reasons for refusing to honor a levy.” The person can be relieved from the 50% penalty for reasonable cause, which would be something beyond the person's control that prevents compliance.  The IRM advises the agent to be judicious in assertion of the penalty, and courts also may give a liberal application of reasonable cause where the taxpayer is already penalize by liability for the value of the property that he may have turned over to the taxpayer. In order to protect the levied party, the levied party responding to the levy by delivering the property to the IRS is “discharged from any obligation or liability to the delinquent taxpayer and any other person with respect to such property or rights to property arising from such surrender or payment.”  § 6332(e).  As a result, practically speaking, the levied party “has two, and only two, possible defenses for failure to comply with the demand: that it is not in possession of property of the taxpayer, or that the property is subject to a prior judicial attachment or execution.”