Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sometimes the IRS Just Doesn't Believe You

I was reading the following recently, and we will use it as a springboard for our discussion today:
In its continued assault on real estate investors, the Court held in Jafarpour and Prang v. Commissioner, …, the taxpayers were not actively involved in a real estate trade or business nor was she a real estate professional ….

Prang is just one more taxpayer to fall under the IRS’s aggressive assault on real estate investors.
That writer and I do not agree on Jafarpour and Prang (“Prang”).
We are talking today about the taxation of real estate activities. Ever since 1986 we have had the passive activity rules, which Congress used to address the problem of tax shelters. The overall concept is simple: if an activity is considered to be passive, then losses from the activity cannot be subtracted from income considered nonpassive. Here is an example: you will not be allowed to claim losses or tax credits from an Alpaca investment against your W-2 income and bonus.
There are exceptions for real estate activities. This is not surprising, considering how significant real estate is to the national economy. The exception that Prang wanted was the “real estate professional” exception. If she could attain that, then her real estate activities would be nonpassive. She could subtract losses to her heart’s content.
There are two basic requirements to being a real estate pro:
(1)   More than one-half of your work hours have to be real-estate related, and
(2)   You have to work more than 750 hours in real estate
We have several real estate pro clients. A builder or broker qualifies, for example. These guys work real estate full-time, so they are easy to identify. What if you mix real estate with non-real estate activities? Further, what if the total hours are close?  You had better keep good records. That gets us to Prang.
Jafarpour was the husband. He sold stock options in 2006.
Prang was the wife. She was a chiropractor. Unfortunately she got injured and sold her practice during the middle of 2006.
So Prang and her husband came into cash and were looking for something to do. They have some experience in real estate. They have rented a former residence in California for a decade, for example. She attended seminars on real estate investing, including a course at the community college. The community college instructor explained the additional depreciation available for Katrina-affected areas (referred to as the GO Zone).
Mrs. Prang liked the idea and they snapped up three properties in Louisiana and Alabama. They almost immediately signed contracts with management companies to handle the properties. After all, they live almost 2,000 miles away. They returned to California.
They claimed over $271,000 in real estate losses on their 2006 tax return. Surprisingly, this caught the IRS’ attention. They were audited.
Jafapour immediately admitted that he was not a real estate pro for 2006. Not a problem, as Mrs. Prang claimed that she was the real estate pro. The IRS said: let’s go through the math: how many hours did you work and how many hours were in real estate?
The way to prove this is to show a record or log, preferably kept contemporaneously, showing what you did and how long it took. Mrs. Prang had an appointment book at the chiropractic office, so that should establish the chiropractic hours. The IRS looked at it and had questions. Daily visits were often illegible. There were daily totals, but the IRS was unable to determine what the totals represented. The totals frequently did not coincide with the number of patients filled-in for the day or the hours Mrs. Prang was supposedly working. Prang deepened the hole by attesting that she left the practice after selling in June. However there were e-mails and notations that she was still involved.
The IRS moved over to the real estate logs. The log was divided into sections. Immediately they were curious because she wrote her activities in pen but the number of hours in pencil. Mrs. Prang explained that she did this so she could cross-reference her time with phone records and make adjustments. Flipping through, the IRS saw several times the same task recorded in multiple sections. More than once the amount of time seemed excessive for the task. For example, Prang noted that she spent one hour on November 8, 2006 reading the following e-mail:
Hi Lecia, I'm your loan processor and will be your main contact person from this point on. I received the FedEx package you sent back. I will review it and prepare the file for my underwriter to review. I will update you with the status within 3 business days."
So she was a slow reader. The IRS pressed on. They spotted several days where she said he worked 17 or more hours, which was impressive. Problem is that she noted the same tasks on more than one day. She described doing something while she was actually on a plane back to California, which would have been a Copperfield-worthy trick. Some of the e-mails she claimed to have sent were from her husband’s e-mail account - and electronically signed by her husband.
The IRS came to the conclusion that she manufactured the logs after-the-fact, which greatly weakened their credibility. She worked the logs to get the answer she wanted. The IRS trusted none of it, denied her real estate professional status and disallowed her loss.
Prang went to Tax Court. Here is the Court:
We would have to engage in complete guesswork to determine how much time Ms. Prang spent at her chiropractic business on a particular day during 2006, let alone the entire year. We decline to engage in such dubious speculation.”

We are not convinced that Ms. Prang contemporaneously recorded her actions in the real estate log. Petitioners' unreasonable assertions are so pervasive that the entire log is tainted with incredibility. Moreover, petitioners' appointment book is frequently illegible and generally ambiguous. While Ms. Prang may have invested a considerable amount of time in real estate activities during 2006, petitioners' records are simply too unreliable for us to draw any sound conclusion.”
The Tax Court found the logs unreliable. With them she couldn’t prove her real estate pro status. Without that status she could not claim losses. Without the losses she owed the IRS a lot of money. And she owed a big penalty.

My Take:  I have had a real estate pro audit before, and the IRS challenged the logs directly. I was younger and working under a partner at another firm. In that case, I felt that the examining agent and supervisor were being unreasonable. The client had maintained but had not assembled the data into a usable, calendar form.  The agent felt that fact impugned the log, whereas my argument was that the log was little more than an administrative compilation of existing data. The agent disallowed pro status, the group manager sided with the agent, we appealed and won in Appeals. Quite a hassle - and we had better facts than Prang. For all that the client fired us. It did not go as smoothly as he would have liked. I wasn’t too thrilled about it either.

I try to be blunter with clients these days about the hazards of tax representation. Lose the examiner’s trust, for example, and you may not convince him/her that the sun came up this morning. Catch the examiner on a pet peeve and he/she may raise the body more often than a Living Dead episode. You may have an examiner too green to realize that classroom examples rarely occur outside the classroom. You may run into a coordinated exam, in which a specialized group – not necessarily the examiner - is calling the shots.  A lot can go wrong.

Was Prang an “aggressive assault” on real estate investors? I do not see it. What I do see is someone gaming the system. They got caught. That’s all.

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