Sunday, January 12, 2020

Can You Have Reasonable Cause For Filing Late?

I am looking a reasonable cause case.

For the non-tax-nerds, the IRS can abate penalties for reasonable cause. The concept makes sense: real life is not a tidy classroom exercise. If you have followed me for a while, you know I strongly believe that the IRS has become unreasonable with allowing reasonable cause. I have had this very conversation with multiple IRS representatives, many of whom agree with me.

I am looking at one where the penalty was $450,959.

To put that in perspective, a January 29, 2019 MarketWatch article stated that the median 65-year-old American’s net worth is approximately $224,000.

Surely the IRS would not be assessing a penalty of that size without good reason – right?

Let’s go through the case.

Someone died. That someone was Agnes Skeba, and she passed away on June 10, 2013.

Agnes had an estate of approximately $14 million, the bulk of which was land (including farmland) and farm machinery. What the estate did not have was a lot of cash.

On March 6, 2014 the attorney sent an extension form and payment of $725,000 to the IRS.         
COMMENT: An estate return is due within 9 months of death, if the estate is large enough to require a return. Seems within 9 months to me.

The attorney included the following letter with the payment:

Our office is representing Stanley L. Skeba, Jr. as the Executor of the Estate of Agnes Skeba. Enclosed herewith is a completed “Form 4768 — Application for Extension of Time to File a Return and/or Pay U.S. Estate Taxes” along with estimated payment in the amount of $725,000 made payable to “The United States Treasury” for the above referenced Estate Tax.
Additionally, we are requesting a six (6) month extension of time to make full payment of the amount due. Despite the best efforts of this office and the Executor, the Estate had limited liquid assets at the time of the decedent’s death. Accordingly, we have been working to secure a mortgage on a substantial commercial property owned by the Estate in order to make timely payment of the balance of the Estate Tax anticipated to be due.

Currently, we have liquid assets in the amount of $1.475 million and the estimated value of the total estate is $14.7 million. Accordingly, we have submitted payments in the amount of $575,000 to the State of New Jersey, Division of Revenue, for State estate taxes payable and in the amount of $250,000 to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue for State inheritance taxes payable. We are hereby submitting the balance of available funds to you, in the amount of $725,000, as partial payment of the expected U.S. Estate Taxes for the Estate.

We are in the process of securing a mortgage, which was supposed to close prior to the taxes being due, in the amount of $3.5 million that would have permitted us to make full payment of the taxes timely. Due to circumstances previously unknown and unavoidable by the Executor, the lender has not been able to comply with the closing deadline of March 7, 2014. It is anticipated that the lender will be clear to close within fourteen (14) days and then we will remit the balance of the estimated U.S. Estate Taxes payable.

Additionally, there has been delays in securing all of the necessary valuations and appraisals due to administrative delays caused by contested estate litigation currently pending in Middlesex County, New Jersey.

I would say he did a great job.

But the estate did not pay-in all of its estimated tax ….

A few days later the estate was able to refinance. The estate made a second payment of $2,745,000 on March 18, 2014. This brought total taxes paid the IRS to $3,470,000.

COMMENT: Mrs. Skeba died on June 10th. Add 9 months and we get to March 10th. OK, the second payment was a smidgeon late.

Now life intervened. It took a while to get the properties appraised. The executor had health issues severe enough to postpone the court proceedings several times. The estate’s attorney was diagnosed with cancer, delaying the case. Eventually the law firm replaced him as lead attorney altogether, which caused further delay.

As we said: life.

The estate asked for an extension for the federal estate tax return. The filing date was pushed out to September 10, 2014.

The estate was finally filed on or around June 30, 2015.

          COMMENT: Nine-plus months later.

The tax came in at $2,528,838, with estimated taxes of $3,470,000 paid-in. The estate had a refund of $941,162.

Until the IRS slapped a $450,959 penalty.


The IRS calculated the penalty as follows: 
$2,528,838 – 725,000 = 1,803,838 times 25% = $450,959

The reason? Late filing said the IRS.

On first pass, it seems to me that the worst the IRS could do is assess penalties for 8 days (from March 10 to March 18). Generally speaking, penalties are calculated on tax due, meaning the IRS has to spot taxes you already paid-in.

In addition, need we mention that the estate was OVERPAID?

The attorney asked for abatement. Here is part of the request:

Beyond September 10, 2014, the Estate continued to have delays in filing due to the pending and anticipated completion of the litigation over the validity of the decedent’s Will, which would impact the Estate’s ability to complete the filing and the executor’s capacity to proceed. Initially, it, was anticipated that the trial of this matter would be heard before Judge Frank M. Ciuffani in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, Chancery Division-Probate Part in July of 2014. Due to health concerns on behalf of the Plaintiff, Joseph M. Skeba, the Judge delayed these proceedings multiple times through the end of 2014, each time giving us a new anticipation of the completion of the trial to permit the estate tax return to be filed. Upon the Plaintiffs improved health, the Judge finally scheduled a trial for July 7, 2015, which was expected to allow our completion in filing the return.
Accordingly, this litigation, which was causing us reason to delay in the filing, gave rise to the estate’s inability to file the return.

Finally, in May of 2015 we were notified of the Estate’s litigation attorney, Thomas Walsh of the law firm of Hoagland Longo Moran Dunst & Doukas, LLP, that he was diagnosed with cancer that would possibly cause him to delay this matter from proceeding as scheduled. In early June, we were notified by Mr. Walsh’s office that his prognosis had worsened and he would be prevented from further handling the litigation of this matter, so new counsel within his firm would be assisting in carrying this matter through trial. Due to the change in counsel, it was deemed that the anticipated trial was no longer predictable in scheduling, so the Estate chose to file the return as it stood at such time.

Displaying the compassion and goodwill toward man of deceased General Soleimani, on or around November 5, 2015 the IRS responded to the attorney’s letter and stated that the reasons in the letter did not “establish reasonable cause or show due diligence.”


The accountant got involved next. He included an additional reason for penalty abatement:

I do not believe the IRS had knowledge of the extension in place at the time the penalty was assessed, nor did they have a record of the additional payment of $2,745,000. The IRS listed the unpaid tax as $1,803,838 and charged the maximum 25% to arrive at the penalty of $450,959.50. The estate not only paid the entire tax the estate owed by the due date to pay but also had an overpayment. Section 6651(b) bars a penalty for late filing when estimated taxes are paid.
The IRS did not respond to the accountant.

The accountant tried again.

Here is the Court:

                To date, IRS Appeals has not responded to either letter.

I know the feeling, brother.

You know this is going to Court. It has to.

The estate’s argument was two-fold:
  1.  The estate was fully paid-in. In fact, it was more than fully paid-in.
  2.  There was reasonable cause: an illiquid estate, health issues with the executor, issues with obtaining appraisals, an estate attorney diagnosed with cancer, on and on.

The IRS came in with hyper-technical wordsmithing.

Based on § 6151, the Government cleverly reasons that the last day for payment was nine months after the death of Agnes Skeba—March 10, 2014; because no return was filed by that date a penalty may be assessed. Applying the rationale to the facts, the Government contends only $750,000 was paid on or before March 10, 2014, when $2,528,838 was due on that date. Referring back to § 6651(a)(1), a 25% penalty on the difference may therefore be assessed because it was not paid by March 10, 2014. As such, the full payment of the estate tax on March 18, 2014 is of no avail because the “last date fixed” was March 10, 2014. Accordingly, the Government argues that the imposition of a penalty in the amount of $450,959.00 is appropriate.

The Court brought out its razor:

The Government puts forth a valid point that there is an administrative need to complete and close tax matters. Here, the Estate had nine months to file the return, the extension added six months, and Defendant unilaterally added another nine months to file the return. Although there was the timely payment of the estate taxes, the matter, in the Government’s view, lingered and the administrative objective to timely close the file was not met. See generally Boyle, 469 U.S. at 251. There may be a need for some other penalty for failure to timely file a return, but Congress must enact same.

Slam on the wordsmithing.

COMMENT: Boyle is the club the IRS trots out every time there is a penalty and a late return. The premise behind Boyle is that even an idiot can Google when a return is due. The IRS repetitively denies penalty abatement requests – with a straight face, mind you – snorting that there is no reasonable cause for failure to rise to the level of a common idiot.

That said: did the estate have reasonable cause?

Finally, another issue in this case is whether Plaintiff demonstrated reasonable cause and not willful neglect in allegedly failing to timely file its estate tax return. Although the Court has already determined that the penalty at issue was not properly imposed pursuant to the Government’s flawed statutory rationale, it will review this issue for completeness.

In the tax world, folks, that is drawing blood.

In this case, Mr. White submitted his August 17, 2015 letter explaining the rationale for not filing. (See supra at pp. 5-6). For example, in Mr. White’s letter, he indicated that certain estate litigation was delayed due to health conditions suffered by the executor. (Id.). Additionally, Mr. White refers to the Hoagland law firm and one of the attorneys assigned to the case as having been diagnosed with cancer. (Id.). The Hoagland firm is a very prestigious and professional firm and based on same, Mr. White’s letter shows a reasonable cause for delay.

In addition, Mr. White’s prior letter of March 6, 2014 notes that there was difficulty in “securing all of the necessary valuations and appraisals. . . caused by the contested litigation.” (Hayes Cert., Ex. C). Drawing from my professional experience, such appraisals often require months to prepare because a farm located in Monroe, New Jersey will often sit in residential, retail, and manufacturing zones. To appraise such a farm requires extensive knowledge of zoning considerations. Thus, this also constitutes a reasonable cause for delay.

I hope this represents some whittling away of the Boyle case. That said, I wonder whether the IRS will appeal – so it can protect that Boyle case.

I would say the Court had little patience with the IRS clogging up the pipes with what ten-out-of-ten people with common sense would see as reasonable cause.

Our case this time for the home gamers was Estate of Agnes R. Skeba vs U.S..

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