Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Congress Speaks Up on Innocent Spouse Tax Relief

I am glad to see that Congress is addressing the IRS’s position concerning innocent spouse and litigated in Cathy Marie Lantz v. Commissioner.

Here is a summary of the issue:

There are three “types” of innocent spouse claims. Let’s refer to them by the Code subsections they are presented under: (b), (c) and (f). Type (b) is the classic innocent spouse: the erroneous items belong to one spouse; the other spouse did not know or have reason to know. Type (c) is for divorced spouses and allows each spouse to determine his/her liability as if the spouse had filed a separate return.

Type (f) is more of an expansive innocent spouse rule. It was passed years after the original provisions (it was passed in 1998), and it seeks to provide an opportunity for spouses who cannot meet the (sometimes technical) requirements of (b) and (c).

What (b) and (c) have in common is that the spouse has to file the innocent spouse claim within two years of contact by the IRS. What happens, though, if the one spouse is not told by the other spouse of the contact? Could happen. Some would say it will happen. Say further that two years go by. The spouse then learns of the problem and tries to pursue innocent spouse relief under (f). Does the two year rule apply to an (f) filing?

Interestingly, Congress did not include a two year rule in (f), a point which many practitioners, including myself, interpret to mean that Congress did not mean to include a two year rule in (f). Seems straightforward. The law was in place; Congress was aware of the law and chose not to include the two year requirement.

The IRS does not agree. The IRS argues that Congress delegated authority to it to write administrative Regulations for (f), and that, after consulting with Carnac the Magnificent, it believes that Congress intended for there to be a two-year requirement under (f). Congress just forgot to write it in to the law.

There was a case last year,Cathy Marie Lantz v. Commissioner, which unfortunately agreed with the IRS. To be fair, there is a technical argument, and the argument can be persuasive. Unfortunately, it does not pass the “common sense” test.

Congress has now chimed in and 49 Representatives — including all the Democrats who sit on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee — have told the IRS Commissioner that the IRS had “violated the spirit of the original law” in limiting relief to two years. Three Democratic senators — Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee; Tom Harkin of Iowa; and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — have sounded the same theme.

The national IRS taxpayer advocate - Nina Olson – has also asked for the two year limit to be extended or revoked.

Let’s hope something comes of this.

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