Friday, January 31, 2014

The President’s myRA

The President introduced something called a “myRA” at the State of the Union speech. He explained…

… while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k) s. That’s why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: myRA. It’s a savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. myRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in.”

The idea here is to encourage small retirement savers. The concern is that routine bank or investment fees (for example, the annual “maintenance” fee for an IRA) may discourage some (or many) from saving for retirement. Under the myRA, the government picks up that tab. The concept makes sense.

The myRA would function as a Roth-type account. Monies going in would not be deductible for income taxes.

Contributions will be automatic, voluntary and small. Initial investments could be as low as $25 and ongoing contributions as low as $5. Contributions would be made through “automatic” payroll deductions.

COMMENT: “Automatic” meaning actual employers who pay people in actual payroll department to process these transactions. Automatic seems to mean “magical” inside the Washington beltway. 

The myRA big deal will be the savers account balance “will never go down.”

COMMENT: Somewhat like a savings account or certificate of deposit. There are – by the way – no annual fees for those accounts either. They are “magical.”

The myRA will earn the same interest rate as the federal employees Thrift Savings Plan Government Securities Investment Fund.

NOTE: Which returned 1.47% in 2012. Unfortunately, inflation for 2012 was 1.8%. The G Plan pays investors the investor the average return on long-term Treasury bonds.  

It will be available to households earning up to $191,000 annually.

Participants will be able to save up to $15,000, or for a maximum of 30 years. 

            COMMENT: Remember: this is a “starter” savings plan.

There would be a provision to transfer the account to a Roth IRA.

COMMENT: That part makes sense, as these accounts can be described as “Roth-lite.”

The President created this by executive action this past Wednesday.

            COMMENT: Really? 

Reflecting the crowd currently occupying it, this White House also wants to compel employers that do not offer myRA’s to offer automatic enrollment IRAs.

OBSERVATION: Approximately half of American workers are not covered by a retirement plan at work, propelling policy mandarins to talk about “mandatory” solutions to the retirement “problem.” I acknowledge the problem - two problems, in fact. First, that many people do not save enough. It might help if they had a job, though. Second, that these hacks and their “mandatory” solutions are themselves a problem.  

Call me completely underwhelmed. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Court Strikes Down Clergy Housing Exemption

It is a section of the tax Code that goes back to 1954, yet a judge in Wisconsin has determined that the section is unconstitutional.

Makes one wonder how we survived all these years, doesn’t it?

It is the Freedom from Religion Foundation Inc v Lew decision by District Judge Barbara Crabb in November 2013. It deals with parsonages.

Parsonages are related to a church or religious organization. The Code section addressing parsonages is Section 107, and it goes back almost to the passing of the income tax itself. The provision started life in a humble way, allowing ministers of the gospel to exclude in-kind housing (i.e., the “parsonage”) from taxable income. Fast forward a few decades, and the section expanded in 1954 to include cash allowances, wherein one is provided tax-free cash to apply to housing one selects (rather than a house owned by the church).

You have to admit, it is a sweet tax break. I would not mind if such a break existed for practicing tax CPAs.

Would my tax wish be discriminatory? Well, yes. One would have to be a CPA specializing in tax and in practice in order to get the exclusion. What if you were a CPA but did not work in tax? Too bad. You would not qualify under my tax exclusion. 

In tax talk, the Foundation went after section 107 on the Constitution’s “establishment” clause. Judge Crabb found that: 

[Section] 107(2) violates the establishment clause under the holding in Texas Monthly, Inc v Bullock 489 U.S. 1 (1989), because the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.”
Let’s backtrack a bit. Here is Code section 107:

In the case of a minister of the gospel, gross income does not include—

107(1)   the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation; or
107(2)   the rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.

The judge is looking at Section 107(2), which is the cash allowance parsonage. What about the in-kind parsonage of 107(1)?
Initially the Foundation went after both 107(1) and 107(2), but the government motioned for summary judgment. The Foundation backed off, pressing only on Section 107(2).


It has to do with having “standing” to challenge a law. In brief, one is required to show injury, or the possibility of injury, traceable to the defendant and subject to remedy by the court.  As the Foundation did not have a parsonage of its own, it could not claim standing under Section 107(1). It did however change its compensation policy to pay a cash allowance to its “ministers of the gospel” (I admit, I do not understand that combination of words in reference to this Foundation), thereby bringing it into the orbit of Section 107(2). Since Foundation employees could not benefit from Section 107(2), the Foundation obtained standing.

I am not certain this lawsuit is really about taxation as opposed to hate politics, but it does have dramatic tax repercussions.

The clergy housing exemption benefits approximately 44,000 priests, ministers, rabbis and imams. It is estimated to “cost” $700 Treasury million per year. For many, it is not an insignificant piece of their compensation.  It may mean the difference between continuing in religious leadership or curtailing or abandoning their work because of financial strain.

Then there are others, such as the pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, who have to push the matter. The pastor is building a 16,000 square foot house, which, when completed, will be one of the largest homes in Charlotte.

My thoughts?

The tax code has long recognized that some employees are not in control of where they live, and the code has provided breaks accordingly. For example, innkeepers are usually not taxed on their accommodations, nor persons working in remote areas, nor – for that matter – the President of the United States for residency in the White House. This is the “convenience of the employer” doctrine, and it has been around as long as Section 107 itself.

Does a parsonage meet the “convenience of the employer” standard?

We don’t know, as Judge Crabb did not go there. Her decision is based on the establishment clause.

To her credit, Judge Crabb has said her ruling would not take effect until all appeals are concluded.

We can expect the politicians to step in before this story is done.

I do like the idea of a President paying taxes for living in the White House, though.

Friday, January 24, 2014

JPMorgan's Nondeductible Madoff Deal

On January 7, 2014, JPMorgan entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department. This is another payment in the ongoing Bernie Madoff saga, and the bank agreed to pay a $1.7 billion settlement as well as $350 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $543 million to a court-appointed trustee.

Madoff kept significant balances with JPMorgan.  Banks are the first line of defense against fraud, but JPMorgan never filed suspicious activity reports with regulators, even though there were significant reservations as to when they became suspicious. The bank did not admit any criminal activity in the agreement, but it did allow that it missed red flags from the late 1990s to late 2000s.

What caught my eye was the following text from the following joint release by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and FBI:
… JPMorgan agrees to pay a non-tax deductible penalty of $1.7 billion, in the form of a civil forfeiture, which the Government intends….”

This is unusual language.

The tax code provides a tax deduction for all of the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.

And then the tax Code starts taking back. One take back is Section 162(f):

162(f) FINES AND PENALTIES.— No deduction shall be allowed under subsection (a) for any fine or similar penalty paid to a government for the violation of any law.

Let’s drill down a little bit into the Regulations:

This prohibition applies to any fines paid by a taxpayer because the taxpayer has been convicted of a crime (felony or misdemeanor) in a full criminal proceeding in an appropriate court.   The prohibition also extends to civil fines if the fines are intended by Congress as punitive in nature.

So, if fines are paid pursuant to a criminal case, then the taxpayer is hosed. However, if fines are paid pursuant to a civil case, there is one more step: are the fines punitive in nature?

Attorneys differentiate damages between those that are remedial and those that are punitive. A remedial payment is intended to compensate the government or another party – to “make one whole,” if you will. It is intended to restore what was disturbed, upset or lost, and not intended as penalty or lashing against the payer.

Let’s complicate it bit. There is a court case (Talley Industries Inc v Commissioner) that allows damages to be deductible if they are remedial in intent, even if labeled as a fine or penalty.

EXAMPLE: The NFL fines a player for unnecessary roughness. The NFL can call this a fine, but it is not a fine per Section 162(f) and will be deductible to the player involved.

You are seeing how this is fertile hunting ground for tax lawyers. Unless the payment is pursuant to a criminal case, odds are good that it is deductible.

Now remember that this agreement is Madoff related, and that there are hard feelings about JPMorgan’s involvement with Madoff over the years, and you can see why the Justice Department included the “nondeductible” language in the agreement.

Let’s take this a step further. Under Talley, JPMorgan could deduct the $1.7 billion on its tax return. Remember, it is not a fine or penalty under Sec 162(f) just because somebody somewhere called it as such.

Would JPMorgan be likely to do this?

This is a “deferred prosecution” agreement.  If JPMorgan did deduct the settlement, they might not have an issue with the IRS, but they would likely have a very sizeable issue with the Justice Department.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Are You Automatically Liable For Taxes On a Fraudulent IRA Withdrawal?

Sometimes people pursuing a divorce do stupid things.

I am looking this afternoon at Roberts v Commissioner.

The first thing I am thinking is that the wife will be fortunate to not be criminally charged. The second thing I am thinking is that the IRS could not present a more unfriendly face if they cast polar bears adrift on ice floes.

The Roberts in the case is the husband (H).

Roberts and his wife (W) married in 1990. They separated in 2008, permanently separated in 2009 and divorced in 2010.

Roberts and his wife kept joint bank accounts. After they separated, W kept the account at Washington Mutual and he kept his account at Harborstone. He did not have a checkbook for, write checks on or make withdrawals from Washington Mutual. In short, he had no idea about that account, despite the fact that his name was still on it.

In September 2009 one of his IRA custodians received a faxed withdrawal request for $9,000. The fax came from the company for which W worked. Coincidence, surely. The request was signed, but it was not signed the way Roberts normally signed his name.

A second IRA custodian also received two withdrawal requests, the first for $9,000 and the second for $18,980.

All the monies were deposited to that Washington Mutual account.

This took place over a two-month period. During that stretch, the wife deposited approximately $4,000 from her paycheck. She however spent over $41,000 from the account. The Court asked her about this discrepancy:

“We do not find credible [the wife’s] testimony that she was unaware of the sources of the deposits made to the Washington Mutual account when, in many instances, the deposits dwarfed the account’s balance at the time.”

Roberts let his wife prepare the 2008 tax return. Why not? She had prepared the returns for prior years.

She filed her return as “married filing separately.”

She filed his return as “single.”

She decreased the amount of his W-2 by $3,000. She increased his withholding by $3,000.

And she had his refund deposited to her bank account at Washington Mutual.

Roberts never saw the tax return.

You have figured out what was happening, of course.

Roberts continued oblivious to all this until he receives those pesky Forms 1099-R from the IRA custodians. Surely, they made a mistake. Alternatively he was the victim of a theft, he reasoned.

As the divorce grinds on he learned the truth of the matter. The divorce court considered the withdrawals when separating the property between the spouses.

In 2010 the IRS notified Roberts that they want almost $14,000 in tax and approximately $3,300 in penalties.

To say that the IRS took a strict reading of the tax law is to understate things. They argued: 

(1)  The income was his because he was the owner of the IRA accounts.
(2)  The monies were deposited into Washington Mutual, a jointly owned account.
(3)  The monies were used to pay for “family” expenses.
(4)  He never attempted to return the monies to the IRAs, even after he learned of the withdrawals.

Because of all this, the IRS argued that Roberts had unreported income in 2008.

It is pretty easy to tell that the Tax Court knew that the wife was lying. The Court also was brooking little patience for the IRS’ hyper-technical reading of the law, such as:

Roberts must include in income the amounts withdrawn from his IRAs even though he did not consent nor was he aware the distributions occurred.

Then the IRS trotted out two Tax Court decisions in Bunney and Vorwald.

In Bunney the IRS argued that the recipient of an IRA distribution was automatically the taxable party. 

COMMENT: The Court did not accept that argument in that case. Why would they do so now?  

In Vorwald the Court decided that a mandatory IRA distribution pursuant to a court-ordered garnishment for child support was income to the taxpayer.

            COMMENT: The IRS made more sense with this cite.

The problem with Vorwald is that the taxpayer had a legal obligation, and his IRA account was drained pursuant to that legal obligation. In the instant case Roberts was – essentially – robbed. He did not know that his wife was taking out monies to set up her post-divorce household, with a vacation sprinkled in.

The IRS then brought up their (in my opinion) best argument. In Washington state (where Roberts and his wife resided), an individual must discover and report unauthorized signatures within one year – essentially, a one-year statute of limitations.  Roberts did not do that. Granted, the withdrawals were taken into consideration when dividing marital property, but Roberts did not press for return of the monies.

And the Court did something unexpected: it paused. The IRS had a valid point. However, if there was a one-year statute of limitations, then Roberts had until 2009 to press his case. The Court looked at the tax years the IRS was challenging: year 2008 only. No year 2009.

Oops, said the Court. Sorry IRS. You flubbed.

The Court dismissed any taxes and penalties attributable to the IRA mess. It did allow taxes and penalties attributable to other minor issues on Roberts’ tax return.

We sometimes used to include a moral when reviewing tax cases. What would be the moral for today’s discussion? How about …

If you are divorcing, you may want to separate your finances, including your bank account – and your tax return – from the person you are divorcing.

Just saying.