Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Olsen v Commissioner

You may recall that there is a”super” penalty that the IRS can assess if one understates his/her tax by too much. This penalty is not trivial: it is 20% and is called the accuracy-related penalty. In many cases the IRS assesses the penalty as a mathematical exercise. You can however request that the penalty be abated by providing a reasonable cause for doing so. A long illness or the death of a close family member, for example, has long been considered as reasonable cause.
We now have a new reasonable cause. I suspect that it will enter the tax lexicon as the “Geithner” defense, for the secretary of the Treasury under President Obama.
Here is what happened.
Kurt Olsen (KO)’s wife received interest income for 2007 from her mother’s estate. This means that she received a Schedule K-1, an unfamiliar form to the Olsens. KO normally prepared the tax returns, and he liked to use TurboTax. Upon receipt of the K-1, he upgraded his version of TurboTax as a precaution in handling this unfamiliar tax form.
TurboTax uses an interview process to obtain information. Using this process, KO entered the name and identification number of the estate. He also took a swing at entering the interest income, but something went wrong. The interest income did not show up on the return. KO was quite responsible and used the verification features in his upgraded software, but he did not discover the error.
The IRS did, though. They sent him a notice requesting an additional $9,297 in tax. The change in tax was large enough to trigger the “super” penalty of $1,859 ($9,297 times 20 percent).
KO knew he owed the tax, but he felt that the penalty was unfair. He felt strongly enough about the penalty that he pursued the issue all the way to the Tax Court. He represented himself under a special forum for small cases.
                Note: The tax term for representing yourself is “pro se.”
Now, the Tax Court has not been forthcoming in considering “tax software” as a reasonable cause. The Court has long expected one to use the software properly. In fact, a famous case (Bunney v Commissioner) has the Court stating that “tax preparation software is only as good as the information one inputs into it.”

The Court however took pains to distinguish KO, commenting that…

·         “We found petitioner to be forthright and credible.”
·         “It is clear that his mistake was isolated as he correctly reported the source of the income.”
·         “He did not repeat any similar error in preparing his tax return.”
·         “Petitioner acted reasonably in upgrading his tax preparation software to a more sophisticated version.”

The Court found reasonable cause to abate the penalty.

The key thing is that the taxpayer had an unusual source of income. He did not know where to look to check that the income had been properly included on his return. He did however meticulously follow the verification features in the software, and he relied – not unreasonably – on the software to report this transaction correctly.

This type of case unfortunately cannot be used as precedent. Tax Court Judge Armen also took care to cite the “unique facts and circumstances of this case.” Nonetheless, as more and more taxpayers use software to prepare their returns, it is expected that we will see more and more instances of the “Olsen” defense. 

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