Sunday, September 23, 2018

You Receive A Wage Garnishment

I was minding my own business. My partner sweeps into my office and says we have to take care of something right away – hopefully that very afternoon.

Hey, I am a career CPA. Some level of ADD is almost requisite to longevity in this profession.

He drops an IRS Form 668-W on my desk.

There is something I had not seen in a while.

What is a 668-W?

A wage garnishment. The IRS refers to it as a “levy.” If you get to this point, you have almost gone through the belly of the whale. The IRS has sent notice after notice, giving you a chance to contest, request abatement, defer collection or set up a payment plan. You have ignored them all. They got angry. They are now garnishing your paycheck.

This notice goes to your employer, and your employer is charged with notifying you. Your employer is going to garnish your next paycheck. Your employer does not want to go resistance here, as an employer becomes liable should they just blow it off. And then there is a 50% “hi there” penalty on top of that.

The IRS publishes tables telling you how much you get to keep. Say that the you are married, have one kid and receive a weekly net check of $1,017.65. The table indicates that you can keep $541.35. The employer withholds and remits the $476.30 balance ($1,017.65 – 541.35) to the IRS.

On the upside, the IRS is not touching your health insurance or 401(k) withholding. On the down side, it is jonesing the rest of your paycheck.

Can you live on $541.35?

That is not the point.

The point is that the IRS wants you to reenter the grid and establish a payment plan. Once you do so, the IRS will release the levy. As far as they are concerned, you should have done so already. The levy is to slap you into reality.

And you have forfeited some (at this point) important procedural rights.

Say that there is a question whether you actually owe some or all of the tax. Had you paid attention to the increasingly strident string of IRS notices, you would have noticed one titled “Notice of Intent to Levy.”

That one is serious. Not as serious as the 668-W, of course, but serious.

At that time, you had the right to request an IRS appeals hearing, called a Collection Due Process hearing. That puts you in front of an Appeals officer to plead your case, including whether you actually owe some or all of what the IRS wants.

Say you ignored the Notice of Intent.

It is a year or two later and you receive the 668-W.

You bring it to me. You may note that I am not humored.

Guess what important right you forfeited by ignoring the earlier notice?

That’s right: being able to argue whether you actually owe some or all of the tax.

That is dandy if there is no question whether you owe the money.

Not my situation. The friend has a very good case that he does not owe (at least some) of the tax.

But we are past the point where I can force a collection hearing to talk about the matter.

Is it hopeless?

Nope. A proficient tax practitioner still has tricks.


Like an offer in compromise. You know, those middle of the night commercials to settle millions of dollars of tax debt for the change in your pocket.

Is the friend broke?

Not the point.

What is the point then?

There is more than one type of offer. The one I am considering has nothing to do with your ability to pay. It instead has to do with whether you actually owe the money. The first addresses doubt as to collectability. The second addresses doubt as to liability.

It is one way to get the IRS to review the file with an eye as to liability.

Is this what we are going to do?

Doubt it.

Why not?

Because an offer will stay that levy only so long. The IRS can still demand a weekly wage levy WHILE they are considering the offer. Will it happen? Maybe yes, maybe no, but why run the risk?

What is an alternative?

File an appeal.

An appeal shuts down all collections action, meaning that I do not have to bank on the IRS’ better nature to stay that levy. Appeals allows me to introduce evidence that the friend does not owe all the assessment. I am also hoping to get penalties abated, at least some, but that would be a bonus.

Should the friend’s situation have gotten to this point?

I am sympathetic. Those who have followed me know that I am generally pro-taxpayer, but that is not what we have here. There were notices, which were ignored. There was a statutory notice of deficiency, which was ignored. After the statutory notice, taxes and penalties were officially assessed, which was also ignored. There was a chance for reconsideration, which was ignored. 

During all this there was ALWAYS a chance for a payment plan.

As I said, you may note that I am not humored.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Abbott Laboratories 401(k)

Something caught my eye recently about student loans. A 401(k) is involved, so there is a tax angle.

Abbott Laboratories is using their “Freedom 2 Save” program to:

… enable full-time and part-time employees who qualify for the company's 401(k) – and who are also contributing 2 percent of their eligible pay toward student loans – to receive an amount equivalent to the company's traditional 5 percent "match" deposited into their 401(k) plans. Program recipients will receive the match without requiring any 401(k) contribution of their own.”

Abbott will put money into an employee’s 401(k), even if the employee is not himself/herself contributing.

As I understand it, the easiest way to substantiate that one’s student loan is 2% or more of one’s eligible pay is to allow Abbott to withhold and remit the monthly loan amount. For that modest disclosure of personal information, one receives a 5% employer “match” contribution.

I get it. It can be difficult to simultaneously service one’s student loan and save for retirement.

Let’s take this moment to discuss the three main ways to fund a 401(k) account.

(1)  What you contribute. Let’s say that you set aside 6% of your pay.
(2)  What your employer is committed to contributing. In this example, say that the company matches the first 4% and then ½ of the next 2%. This is called the “match,” and in this example it would be 5%.
(3)  A discretionary company contribution. Perhaps your employer had an excellent year and wants to throw a few extra dollars into the kitty. Do not be skeptical: I have seen it happen. Not with my own 401(k), mind you (I am a career CPA, and CPA firms are notorious), but by a client. 

Abbott is not the first, by the way. Prudential Retirement did something similar in 2016.

The reason we are talking about this is that the IRS recently blessed one of these plans in a Private Letter Ruling. A PLR is an IRS opinion requested by, and issued to, a specific taxpayer. One generally has to write a check (the amount varies depending upon the issue), but in return one receives some assurance from the IRS on how a transaction is going to work-out taxwise. Depending upon, a PLR is virtually required tax procedure. Consider certain corporate mergers or reorganizations. There may be billions of dollars and millions of shareholders involved. One gets a PLR – period – as the downside might be career-ending.

Tax and retirement pros were (and are) concerned how plans like Abbott’s will pass the “contingent benefits” prohibition. Under this rule, a company cannot make other employee benefits – say health insurance – contingent on an employee making elective deferrals into the company’s 401(k) plan.

The IRS decided that the prohibition did not apply as the employees were not contributing to the 401(k) plan. The employer was. The employees were just paying their student loans.

By the way, Abbott Laboratories has subsequently confirmed that it was they who requested and received the PLR.

Technically, a PLR is issued to a specific taxpayer and this one is good only for Abbott Laboratories. Not surprisingly there are already calls to codify this tax result. Once in the Code or Regulations, the result would be standardized and a conservative employer would not feel compelled to obtain its own PLR.

I doubt you and I will see this in our 401(k)s.  This strikes me as a “big company” thing, and a big company with a lot of younger employees to boot.

Great recruitment feature, though.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Oh Henry!

It is a classic tax case.

Let’s travel back to the 1950s.

Let us introduce Robert Lee Henry, both an attorney and a CPA.  He was a tax expert, but he did not restrict his practice solely to tax.

He was also an accomplished competitive horse rider. After he returned from military service, the Army discontinued its horse show team. In response, he organized the United States horse show civilian team.

He met the wealthy and influential, benefiting his practice considerably.

Then he had to give up riding. Heart issues, I believe.

But he was quite interested in continuing to meet the to-do’s and well-connected.

He bought a boat.

He traded it in for a bigger boat.

He bought a flag for the boat. It was red, white and blue and had the numbers “1040.”

People would ask. He would present his background as a tax expert. He was meeting and greeting.

His doctor told him to relax and take time off. Robert Lee called his son, and together they took the boat from New York to Florida. They then decided to spend the winter, as they were already there.

Robert Lee deducted 100% of the boat expenses.
QUESTION: Can Robert Lee deduct the expenses?
NERDY DETAIL: The tax law changed after this case was decided, so the decision today would be easier than it was back in the 1950s. Still, could he deduct the boat expenses in the 1950s?
The key issue was whether the boat expenses were “ordinary and necessary.” That standard is fundamental to tax law and has been around since the beginning. Just because a business activity pays for something does not mean that it is deductible. It has to strain through the “ordinary and necessary” colander.

In truth, this is not a difficult standard in most cases. It can however catch one in an oddball or perhaps (overly) aggressive situation.

Robert Lee was an accomplished rider, and he had developed a book of business because of his equestrian accomplishments. He monetized his equestrian contacts. He now saw an opportunity to meet the same crowd of folk by means of a boat.

Problem: Robert Lee did not use the boat to entertain or transport existing clients or prospective contacts.

And there is the hook. Had he used the boat to entertain, he could more easily show an immediate and proximate relationship between the boat, its expenses and his legal and accounting practice.

He instead had to argue that the boat was a promotional scheme, akin to advertising. It was not as concrete as saying that he schmoozed rich people in the Atlantic on his boat.

He had to run the “ordinary and necessary” gauntlet.

Let’s start.

He continued to have a sizeable equestrian clientele after he left competitive riding.


He was however unable to provide the Court a single example of a client who came to him because of the boat, at least until years later. Even then, there still wasn’t much in the way of fees.


So what, argued Robert Lee. How is this different from buying a full-page ad in an upscale magazine?

Quite a bit, said the Court. You gave up riding for health reasons. There is no question that you derived tremendous personal enjoyment from riding. You have now substituted boating for riding. Enjoyment does not mean that there is no business deduction, but it does mean that the Court may look with a more skeptical eye. It would have been an easier decision for us if you had bought a full-page ad. There is no personal joy in advertising.

As a professional, I have to develop and cultivate many contacts – business, social, personal, political – retorted Robert Lee. One never knows who one will meet, and it takes money to meet money. That is my business reason.

Could not agree with you more, replied the Court. Problem is, that does not make every expenditure deductible. What you are doing is not ordinary. Let’s be frank, Robert Lee, the average attorney/CPA does not keep a yacht.

They would if they could, muttered Robert Lee.

Even if we agreed the expenses were “ordinary,” continued the Court, we have to address whether they are “necessary.” This test is heightened when expenses may have been incurred primarily for personal reasons. You did sail from New York to Florida, by the way. With your son. And you deducted 100% of it.

I am meeting rich people, countered Robert Lee.

Perhaps, answered the Court, but there must be a proximate relationship between the expense and the activity. What you are talking about is remote and incidental. It is difficult to clear the “necessary” hurdle with your “someday I’ll” argument.

Robert Lee shot back: my point should be self-evident to any professional person.
COMMENT: Folks, do not say this when you are trying to persuade a Court.
The Court decided that Robert Lee could not prove either “ordinary” or “necessary.”
The conclusion that the expenditures here involved were primarily related to petitioner’s pleasure and only incidentally related to his business seems inescapable.”
The Court denied his boat deductions.

Our case this time for the home-gamers and riders was Henry v Commissioner.