Saturday, February 18, 2017

What’s Fair Got To Do With It?

I am reading a tax case with an unfortunate result.

It does not seem that difficult to me to have planned for a better outcome.

I have to wonder: why didn’t they?

Let’s set it up.

We have a law firm in New York. There is a “heavy” partner and the other partners, which we will call “everybody else.” The firm faced hard times, and “everyone else” kept-up their bleed rate (the rate at which they withdraw cash), with the result that their capital accounts went negative.
COMMENT: A capital account is increased by the partner’s share of the income and reduced by cash withdrawn by said partner. When income goes down but the cash withdrawn does not, the capital account can (and eventually will) go negative. 
Let’s return to our heavy partner.

He was concerned about the viability of the firm. He was further concerned that New York law imposed on him a fiduciary responsibility to assure that the firm be able to pay its bills. I applaud his sense of responsibility, but I have to point out that any increased uncertainty over the firm’s capacity to pay its bills might have something to do with “everybody else” taking out too much cash.

Just sayin’.

Our partner’s share of firm income was almost $500 grand.

Problem is that the cash did not follow the income. His “share” of the income may have been $500 grand, but he left around $400 grand in the firm to make-up for the slack of his partners.

And you have one of those things about partnership taxation:   

·      The allocation of income does not have to follow the allocation of cash.

There are limits to how far one can push this, of course.

Sometimes the effect is beneficial to the partner:

·      A partner tales out more cash than his/her share of the income because the partnership owns something with big-time depreciation. Depreciation is a non-cash expense, so it doesn’t affect his/her distribution of cash.

Sometimes the effect is deleterious to the partner:

·      Our guy took out considerably less cash than the $500K income.

Our guy did not draw enough cash to even pay the taxes on his share of the income.
OBSERVATION: That’s cra-cra.
What did he do?

He reported $75K of income on his tax return. Seeing how did not receive the cash, he thought the reduction was “fair.”

Remember: his partnership K-1 reported almost half a million.

The number on his personal return did not match what the partnership reported.
COMMENT: By the way, there is yet one more form to your tax return when you do not use a number reported by a partnership. The IRS wants to know. He might as well just have booked the audit.
Sure enough, the IRS sent him a notice for over $140,000 tax and $28,000 in penalties.

Off to Tax Court they went.

And he had … absolutely … no … chance.

Partnerships have incredibly flexible tax law. There is a reason why the notorious tax shelters of days past were structured around partnerships. One could send income here, losses there, money somewhere else and muddy the waters so much that you could not see the bottom.

In response, Congress and the IRS tightened up, then tightened some more. This area is now one of the most horrifying, unintelligible stretches in the tax Code.  It can – with little exaggeration – be said that all the practitioners who truly understand partnership tax law can fit into your family room.

Back to our guy.

The Court did not have to decide about New York law and fiduciary responsibility to one’s law firm or any of that. It just looked at tax law and said:
Your income did not match your cash. You set this scheme up, and – if you did not like it – you could have changed it. Once decided, however, live with your decision.
Those are my words, by the way, and not a quote.

Our law partner owed the tax and penalties.

Ouch and ouch.

I must point out, however, that the law firm’s tax advisors warned our guy that his “fiduciary” theory carried no water and would be disregarded by the IRS, but he decided to proceed nonetheless. He brought much of this upon himself.

What would I have recommended?

For goodness’ sake, people, change the partnership agreement so that the “everybody else” partners reported more income and our guy reported less. It is fairly common in more complex partnerships to “tier” (think steps in a ladder or the cascade of a fountain) the distribution of income, with cash being the second – if not the first – step in the ladder. The IRS is familiar with this structure and less likely to challenge it, as the movement of income would make sense.

Another option of course would be to close down the law firm and allow “everybody else” to fend for themselves.


I would argue that my recommendation is less harsh.


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