Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do Tax Preparers Get Penalized On Their Own Returns?

Do tax preparers ever get penalized by the IRS on their own returns?
We are going to look at one today: Joyce Anne Linzy (JAL). She is party to a Tax Court Memorandum Decision issued on November 7, 2011.
JAL is a tax preparer with more than 15 years’ experience. During 2007 she operated an income tax return preparation business. She owned an apartment building in which she both lived and worked: the business was on the first floor and she lived on the second floor. She also rented out second-floor space that she did not use as a residence.
There were a number of proposed IRS adjustments for the Court to consider:
1.    JAL omitted $2,500 of gambling income.

This is actually the least of her problems.

2.    JAL claimed almost $35,000 of contract labor.

There is no problem with claiming this deduction, but the IRS expects one to maintain documentation to substantiate the deduction upon examination. Here is the Court’s language on this matter:

“Petitioner presented canceled checks, bank account statements, receipts and invoices purporting to substantiate various items claimed as business expenses deductions. These records are not well organized, and have not been submitted to the Court in a fashion that allows for easy association with the portions of the deductions that remain in dispute. Nonetheless, we make what sense we can with what we have to work with…”

The Court is trying to work with JAL. They are referring to the Cohan rule: if the Court knows that a taxpayer incurred an expense, it can (with some statutory exceptions) allow estimates of the actual expenses. JAL must be quite the tax adept, though, as the Court goes on…

“None of the numerous receipts petitioner offered in support of her claimed contract labor expense were for contract labor.”

“The checks are photocopied such that the dates are missing or incomplete, and the full amount cannot be determined…”
Oh, oh.
“These records are incomplete, and there is not enough information to permit a reasonable estimate. Accordingly, respondent’s complete disallowance of petitioner’s … deduction for contract labor is sustained.”

3.    Mortgage interest

JAL used one-third of the building for her tax return business. She deducted one-half of the mortgage interest as a business expenses.

Seems like simple math.

4.    Depreciation

During 2007 she purchased several depreciable items. She did not depreciate the cost of these items but instead claimed the costs as contract labor expenses.

Some of these items could not be immediately expensed under Section 179 because they related to building improvements. These items included siding and tuck pointing. Buildings of course have a long depreciation life, so the swing between immediately expensing and depreciating over many years is magnified.

There was no fallback position here for JAL.

5.    Charitable contributions

You may be aware that you are required to get a timely statement from the charity describing the contribution and that you received nothing of monetary value in return, or to estimate the amount if there was monetary value. You are supposed to have this in hand before you file your return.

JAL seems to have forgotten this.

She deducted a $2,500 donation to Schneider School.

Here is the Court:
“Although petitioner received a receipt from the Chicago Public Schools, it does not qualify as a contemporaneous written acknowledgement because it does not state whether she received any goods or services in return for her contribution.”

She deducted a $7,500 donation to Faith Deliverance.

Again, here is the Court:
“The letter does not state whether petitioner received goods or services in exchange for contribution and was not received by the earlier of her return’s filing date or its due date…. Thus there is no contemporaneous written acknowledgement from the donee that would permit petitioner to deduct the contributions.”

6.    The substantial understatement penalty
This is a “super penalty” if you misstate your taxable income by too much. The IRS defines “too much” as more than 10% of the final tax but at least $5,000.
JAL had no problem leaping over this hurdle.
The IRS can waive this penalty if one has “reasonable cause.” There are a number of factors that constitute reasonable cause, but a common one is reliance on a tax professional. In fact, I drafted a letter this week requesting abatement of this very penalty, and the reason I gave was their reliance on a tax professional. What happens, however, when you are a tax professional and it is your OWN tax return?
Here is the Court:
“Petitioner’s records were insufficient to substantiate several of her claimed deductions, and she failed to keep adequate books and records. Furthermore, petitioner, a tax return preparer with more than 15 years experience, improperly deducted….Petitioner offered no evidence that she acted with reasonable cause and in good faith. Accordingly, we hold that petitioner is liable … due to negligence or disregard of rules or regulations.”
The penalty alone was over $3,100.
What can I say about JAL?
A lesson here is that the Tax Court is going to hold a professional preparer to a higher standard. Now, JAL was not an attorney, CPA or enrolled agent, but when she stepped into “professional preparer” shoes the Court was going to be less lenient. It is not unreasonable, as others pay you for knowing more about the tax system than the average person. It seems to me that JAL did not rise to the occasion.

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