Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Can A Trust Carryback A Loss for A Tax Refund?

I am remembering a tax issue from 2004. The firm I was with had a sizeable business client. The business owner had two daughters and wanted them to participate in the business. One daughter did; the other daughter went on to other pursuits. The father transferred shares to his daughters using special trusts: first a QSST (Qualified Subchapter S Trust), followed by an ESBT (Electing Small Business Trust). Trusts are normally disallowed as eligible S corporation shareholders, but the tax Code makes an exception for a QSST or an ESBT. Dad settled the trusts and acted as their trustee. He was of course also the majority shareholder and CEO of the underlying company.

The company was impressively profitable, but in 2004 it had a loss. It happens.

The company had been profitable. Its shareholders, including the trusts, had previously paid taxes on that profit. Now there was a business loss. Could the shareholders – more specifically, the trusts – use that loss to any tax advantage?

And we walked right into IRS Regulation 1.469-8. As a heads up, there is no Regulation 1.469-8. The IRS reserved that slot to provide its position on material participation by a trust. However the IRS never wrote the Regulation. Practitioners were required to divine whether their client trusts would be “materially participating” in an activity or whether the trust would be “passive” in an activity.

You may remember the “passive activity” rules in the Code. These were passed in 1986 as another effort to limit tax shelters, a task which they accomplished to an admirable degree. It did so by dividing business activities into material participation and passive activities. Generally speaking, losses from passive activities could not offset income from material participation activities.  There were problems, of course, one of which was Congress’ decision to label most real estate activities as “passive.” That may be the case for many, but there are people out there who make their living in real estate. For them real estate is about as passive as my involvement with my CPA firm.

Seven years later Congress corrected this error by enacting Section 469(c)(7), which said that the passive loss rules did not apply to someone who worked at least 750 hours a year in real estate, provided that his/her real estate activities were more than one-half of his/her hours worked for the year.

Now, our client company had nothing to do with real estate but had a lot to do with plastics. Section 469(c)(7) did not apply to them. I was aware that the IRS had informally intimated that a trust could not materially participate because a trust was not a person, and only a person could materially participate. I guess their reasoning made sense if material participation was like breaking a sweat.

The law was relatively new, and no one had yet challenged the IRS. The IRS was in no hurry to publish a Regulation. Why? I thought both then and now that the IRS suspected they had a losing hand, but they were not going to back off until they were forced. The IRS could ride roughshod until someone brought suit.

And I am looking at that someone. The case is Aragona v Commissioner, and it was a Tax Court case decided March 27.

Frank Aragona settled the trust in 1979. He died in 1981, at which time the trust went irrevocable. The trust had several trustees, the majority of which were family members. The trust owned a real estate LLC, which employed several people: family, leasing agents, maintenance workers, clerks, a controller and so on. Three of the trustees worked there and received a paycheck from the LLC. It was clear the LLC was materially participating in a business activity.

During 2005 and 2006 the LLC incurred losses. The trust treated the losses as “material participation” and carried the losses back to the 2003 and 2004 tax years for tax refunds.

The IRS said these were passive losses. No passive losses were allowed, much less operating losses that the trust could carryback for tax refunds. The IRS wanted back almost $600,000 of taxes. In addition, they asserted penalties.

Here was the IRS argument before the Court: a trust is incapable of performing “personal services” because Regulations define “personal services” to mean “any work performed by an individual in connection with a trade or business.” Obviously a trust is not an individual.

The Court immediately spotted the obvious: a trust is a fiduciary vehicle whereby a trustee agrees to act in the best interest of a beneficiary. The trustee may be a “person.” If that “person” in turn performs personal services in his/her role as trustee, then why cannot those personal services be attributed back to the trust?  How else could a trust possibly do anything? The trust would have performed personal services in the only way it can: through its trustees. The same concept applies for example to a corporation. As an artificial entity, a corporation can only act through its officers. It does not have arms and legs and cannot join a softball league. Its officers can, however.

The IRS continued that a trust cannot perform personal services because of words that Congress used in committee reports and selected Code sections. Funny, said the Court. When Congress intended that a Code section disallow trusts, it used the term “natural person.” A trust, not being a natural person, cannot take advantage of that Code section. Congress did not use that term in the Code section addressing material participation. Why-oh-why would that be, asked the Court.

The IRS lost and the Aragona trust won.

Let us say a word about the penalties the IRS wanted. Obviously they became moot when the Aragona trust won, but how could the IRS possibly defend asserting penalties in the first place? It refused to publish Regulations for 28 years, and when someone had the audacity to challenge them it responded by asserting penalties?

Here is an observation from a tax pro: the IRS is all but automatically asserting penalties these days. If there is an adjustment, the IRS clicks through its quiver of available penalties and lobs a few your way. It does not care whether you had authority for your position or whether you were just being zany. The government is going broke and the IRS is chasing money under every seat cushion. However, is this good tax policy? Shouldn’t penalties be reserved for those claiming unsubstantiated deductions, masking transactions or just making up their own tax law?

Here is an idea: if the IRS asserts a penalty and loses the issue, the IRS has to pay you the penalty amount. Force them to risk a losing hand. Maybe that will prompt them to back-off a bit.

Congratulations to the Aragona trust for taking this on. 

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