Friday, June 28, 2013

Can The IRS Collect From You After 31 Years?

What were you doing 31 years ago? 

Me? I was living in South Florida. I probably had a nice tan. 

Let’s return to tax talk: do you think that the IRS can chase you down after 31 years?

One wouldn’t think so. There is a three-year statute of limitations on assessment, which generally means that the IRS has three years to audit you. If there is tax due, the IRS will then “assess” the tax, which means that they post the tax due to your master account. They have ten years (after assessment) to lien, levy or otherwise collect from you. The ten years is the statute of limitations on collection.  

NOTE: You can see there are two statutes at play: one on assessment and another on collection. The two can – and frequently – overlap, so that many times the effective statute of limitations is ten years.

There are specialized situations where tax representation involves exhausting the ten-year period. I had a client from Florida, for example, who inherited a nasty tax problem from her deceased husband.  Exhausting the collection period was part of our strategy.

Let’s talk about Beeler, which the Tax Court decided last month. 

There used to be a company called Equidyne Management, Inc, which failed to remit payroll taxes thirty-one years ago. That would be 1982.

Skipping out on payroll taxes is a bad idea. Somebody will not only be responsible for the taxes, interest and penalties but also for a 100 percent penalty to boot. This is the “responsible person” penalty, and this is one case where you do not want to be responsible.

NOTE: We have previously called this the “big-boy” penalty. It is one of the most gruesome penalties in the tax Code, as it imposes personal liability for a business debt.

Equidyne had three responsible persons: Beeler, Ross and Liebmann.

Ross filed for bankruptcy almost right away – in 1983. During his bankruptcy, he sent $80,860 as part of a “global settlement” with the IRS. “Global” means that he was paying off various taxes, not just the responsible person penalty.

Per the statute of limitations, the IRS had three years to assess. Right on schedule, in 1985 the IRS assessed the responsible person penalty against the three Equidyne officers. It could not assess against the company, as Equidyne itself had gone out of business.

Beeler lawyers up and contests the penalty. 

OBSERVATION: Litigation will “toll” the statute. This means that the ten-year period is suspended until the toll comes off.

The litigation is not resolved until 1995 - 10 years later. Beeler loses.   

Beeler contacts the IRS in 1997. The IRS fails to list the big boy penalty on his transcript.  

In 2001 the IRS releases liens on Beeler’s properties in New York and Sarasota. 

Even better, the IRS makes entry in Beeler’s master account that the statute of limitations on collections had expired.

Beeler wonders what is going on. More likely, Beeler’s tax CPA wonders what is going on. What the IRS did could be correct. The trust fund penalty is “joint and several.” The IRS could go against any of the three officers, but it does not have to go against the three proportionally. If the IRS had collected from one of the other two officers, then Beeler would be off the hook. The IRS cannot collect the penalty more than once, regardless of the number of responsible persons. 

In 2005 an IRS employee reviewing Beeler’s account notices that a “pending” code had been entered into the master file when Beeler litigated in 1986. This is standard procedure, and it indicates the “tolling” of the account. Problem is that the IRS failed to remove the code when the litigation ended in 1995. 

The IRS corrects the file. The judgment against Beeler is recorded. 

NOTE: One way to override the collection period is for the IRS to obtain a judgment, which requires the IRS to go to Court. Beeler was considerate enough to do this on his own power. 

Beeler is hopping mad. Wouldn’t you be? He sues the IRS - again. He has two arguments:

(1) The lien release discharged his trust fund obligation.

COMMENT: It did not. The lien secures a debt; it does not pay a debt. Relinquishment of a lien has nothing to do with the enforceability of the underlying debt.

(2) The big-boy penalty had been satisfied by payment.

COMMENT: This caught the Appeals Court’s attention, especially since the file went back to when some of the judges were probably entering law school. The Appeals Court sent the case back to the Tax Court to look into this matter.

The Tax Court determined the following:

(1)  Equidyne never paid anything.

(2)  Liebmann never paid anything.

(3)  Beeler never paid anything.

(4)  Ross paid $80,860 as part of a global settlement.

Beeler argues that Ross paid another $64,000. The Court finds record of a $64,000 but it believes that this was a bookkeeping entry reflecting a transfer among bankruptcy trustees and not a payment to the IRS.

But there was an IRS entry for $60,773. There was some dispute as to what it meant, as decades have gone by. The Court concluded that the IRS was correcting a prior entry, that this was not cash received and therefore not the $64,000 payment Beeler wanted.

Since there is no better information, the Court assumes that all of the $80,860 was paid toward the responsible person penalty and reduces Beeler’s liability accordingly. But Beeler is still on the hook for the balance.

Let us speculate. What if Beeler had not litigated the big-boy penalty? There would have been no judgment, and the statute of limitations would have eventually expired. Would the IRS have let that happen? Who knows? Sometimes the IRS will send a 90-day notice (called a “SNOD”) to get the case into Tax Court before the statute expires. You know what the IRS wants, of course: it wants the Court to transmute the assessment into a judgment. The IRS does not always send a SNOD, though. Perhaps it decides the likelihood of payment is low, or the amount due is inconsequential, or maybe the file just gets lost in the system. 

If he could go back, I wonder if Beeler would have litigated the penalty. It is the reason he is still on the hook, thirty- one years later.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

IRS To Review Partial Pay Installment Agreements

I am looking at a TIGTA  (Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration) report on partial pay installment agreements. Let’s talk about what these are, and how the report may matter to you.

If you pay the IRS over time, you are in an “installment agreement.” It may be that you do not have money to pay your 2012 tax in full, but you can pay it over 12 months. This is a vanilla payment plan, and you are paying all the tax – plus interest and penalties.

If you finances are truly pinched, the IRS may agree to a partial payment plan. The “partial” means that you will not – assuming the payments remain constant  – fully pay off your tax, interest and penalties. Say that you have 7 years left on a tax liability of $42,000. The most you can pay is $300 per month. Perhaps there has been a business reversal, a divorce, or a medical misfortune. The most you will repay at $300 per month is $25,200, which is far short of $42,000. The IRS knows going in that you will not be able to pay the liability in full.

How do you get the IRS to agree to this? You have to submit detailed personal financial information. Think bank statements, copies of W-2s, copies of household bills. Then there are tables, which the IRS will use. If your expenses exceed table amounts, the IRS will either disallow the excess or ask you for more detail. A common example is pet expenses. Little Bow-Wow may be your pride and joy, but good luck persuading the IRS for an additional allowance to feed Bow-Wow or take him/her to the veterinarian.

There is one more thing: the IRS is supposed to review your financial information every two years. There is a computerized first sweep against your tax information. If your financial situation shows improvement, then an IRS employee will physically review your file. If things have actually improved, you can expect a love letter asking for more.

TIGTA found that the IRS is not always performing these two-year reviews. It also found cases of insufficient financial information as well as missing manager sign-offs. The IRS agreed with TIGTA and stated its intention to beef-up its two-year review process, as well as its documentation and sign-off policies.

TIGTA also talked about the IRS “uncollectible” status, and recommended that the IRS try to bring some of those people into partial pay status. Also known as “CNC”, this status is supposedly reserved for the most broke of the broke. These are  individuals who cannot pay anything, so the IRS suspends all collection activity for a while. TIGTA recommended that the IRS review its CNC caseload to see if any of the CNC people could be transferred to partial pay. Interestingly, this was the one recommendation with which the IRS disagreed. The IRS felt that it had tried a comparable program, which failed to yield any significant results.

Can we expect more timely IRS reviews of partial-pays and CNC’s? I would normally say yes, but remember that Congress may yet decrease funding for the IRS pursuant to its 501(c)(4), Congressional obstruction and Fifth Amendment scandals. Consider also that the IRS will be hip-deep in ObamaCare starting next year - another explosive political issue. There may just be too many fires for the IRS to put out.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The IRS Is Looking For Hundreds of Thousands of Canadian Trust Returns

The IRS wants us to believe that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have failed to file required U.S. tax returns for their Canadian trusts.


Let’s go over this, as it reflects a relentless demand by Treasury and the IRS for ever-more information on any financial transaction that may have –even remotely - an American connection. 

If an American funds or receives a distribution from a foreign trust, he or she is supposed to file tax Form 3520 with his/her Form 1040. If an American has a continuing interest in the trust (the likely reason is that he/she is a beneficiary), then he/she also has to file Form 3520-A annually. 

If one is so obstinate as to not file the 3520 or 3520-A, the IRS has a penalty of $10,000 they will gladly drop on you. You can get out of the penalty by showing “reasonable cause” for not filing, but the IRS reserves the right to define reasonable cause. 
The issue with reasonable cause is that it presumes both parties are reasonable, a presumption the IRS is near to abrogating. For example, whose brilliant idea was it to impose an automatic $10,000 penalty? The penalty for late filing of your personal tax return is 5% of the tax due per month – not $10,000. Late file a partnership return and the penalty is $195 per K-1 per month – not $10,000.  Why is this penalty different? Does the Treasury suspect that we are all hiding hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars overseas? If so, where is mine?

Am I being heavy-handed? Let me give you three examples of what the IRS considers to be Canadian trusts:

  • registered education savings plans (RESPs)
  • tax free savings accounts (TFSAs)
  • registered disability savings plans (RDSPs)

A RESP is a Canadian Section 529 plan, but with a twist. Like the American 529 plan, you open the account at a bank, broker or other financial institution. You or other family members can contribute. Unlike a 529, however, Canada will match your contribution, up to a certain percentage. Like a 529, there will be taxes when the child withdraws money to attend college.

There is no U.S. equivalent to a tax-free savings account. There is no deduction for the contribution, but there is no tax on withdrawals either. This aspect resembles an American Roth, but the Canadian TFSA is not limited to retirement savings. There are limits on how much one can contribute, of course, and for low-income taxpayers the government will contribute 500 hundred dollars Canadian.

Once again, there is no U.S. equivalent to a registered disability savings plan. The government will match one’s contribution, and for low-income taxpayers it will contribute up to 2 thousand dollars Canadian. Its purpose is self-descriptive.

The issue with the above three is that most people – even financially astute people – would not consider these vehicles to be trusts. We see savings vehicles, perhaps government-subsidized, but we do not see trusts. The problem however is that the IRS sees them as trusts. The IRS has defined a dog as a four-legged animal, and it now doesn’t know how to undefine any four-legged animal from being a dog. We are sitting ducks for that $10,000 penalty. 

What if you decide not to file prior IRS returns and just begin filing for the current year? One could easily come to this decision if there isn’t much money involved. This technique is known as “quiet disclosure.” Many practitioners, including me, have used it. The IRS does not care for it. The IRS has three reservations about quiet disclosures:

(1) Using quiet disclosures undermines the incentive to use government-approved disclosure programs, such as the most recent OVDP with its 27.5% penalty on the account’s highest balance over the last eight years. That is on top of any other applicable IRS penalties.
(2) Taxpayers using quiet disclosures may pay fewer penalties than those using the government-approved programs.
(3) Quiet disclosure is antithetical to general fairness, meaning that some taxpayers receive more favorable treatment than others do.

OBSERVATION: After the 501(c)(4) scandal, one will forgive my extreme cynicism on argument (3). Perhaps I will relent some when IRS bigwigs go to jail. It's only fair.

Reread (1) and (2) and you can see the real reason the IRS does not like quiet disclosures. It is not sufficient merely to bring someone back into compliance.

How is a reasonable person supposed to comply with the tax law, when the law is capricious? Consider that ignorance of the tax law is not defined as “reasonable cause” and you begin to see the box that the IRS is placing you in. They can pass any ludicrous demand – perhaps they want the napkin from your third lunch in the fifth week of alternating quarters – and then, with a straight face, say that your ignorance of their requirements is not an excuse.

It is also how they can say that hundreds of thousands of American citizens have failed to file for their Canadian trusts.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

James Harrison Spends A Fortune To Play In The NFL

In the 2002 NFL draft, he was considered too short (6’ - 0”) to play linebacker and too light (240 lbs) to play defensive line. The Pittsburgh Steelers put him on their practice squad. He was released three times before finally finding a home with Pittsburgh in 2004. In the 2009 Super Bowl, he intercepted Kurt Warner, returning the ball for a 100-yard touchdown. It stood for a while as the longest play in  Super Bowl history.

His on-field behavior has not harmonized with the NFL’s recent penchant for mitigating on-field collisions. He is a ferocious player, drawing fines for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a quarterback (Colt McCoy) and knocking-out two wide receivers on the same team (Mohammed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs of Cleveland).  His estimated NFL fines for 2010 alone are estimated at $120,000.

He has now come to Cincinnati and will play with the Bengals. His name is James Harrison, and he is our strong-side linebacker on Sundays.

He has also been in the news recently talking about his training and conditioning regimen:

My body is what helps me to make money. Whatever there is that I need to do to try and make myself better or get myself healthy, I’m going to do it. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that I spend anywhere between $400,000-$600,000 on body work, as far as taking care of my body, year-in and year-out.

As far as training, I have a hyperbaric chamber. I rent a hyperbaric chamber when I’m in Arizona. I have massages and I bring people in from New York, Arizona to where I’m at…I have a homeopathic doctor and I do a lot of homeopathic things. It’s just a lot, supplements, so on and so forth.”

Can you imagine? This man spends the equivalent of an upper-income bracket on being able to go on game day. It would go along way to easing the pain if some (or all) of the cost could be tax –deductible. 

Let’s walk through it. 

  • Is any of this deductible as medical expense?
The tax rule here is that the expense be for the “diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body.” How do we apply this to an NFL linebacker, whose job is to participate in the equivalent of 50 to 60 car crashes a game, 16 games per year?
There is little question that some expenses will qualify. For example, a massage prescribed by a doctor pursuant to a treatment regimen will qualify as a medical expense. It is the nature of the treatment, not its practitioner, that determines deductibility.
Another requirement is that the treatment would not have been incurred for nonmedical reasons.
The last part gives us pause: can one persuasively argue that a hyperbaric chamber or acupuncture were not incurred for nonmedical reasons? Playing football is not an AMA-recognized medical disorder. We may lose many of Harrison’s expenses through this net.

  •  Is any of this deductible as an employee business deduction? 

An important point to remember is that Harrison is an employee of the Bengals, the same way I am an employee of my firm. There is a requirement that employee business expenses be “ordinary and necessary.” I cannot deduct my gym fees, for example, but can he?

Harrison is in the trade or business of playing football. “Ordinary and necessary” should be defined in relation to his playing football. He has a much closer nexus to gyms and dieticians than I do, for example. I would be hard-pressed to argue that a trainer is “ordinary and necessary” to my trade or business of being a tax CPA. Put me on a pro sports team, however, and one has a completely different argument.

Think about it this way: Harrison signed a $4.4 million dollar deal with the Bengals. NFL contracts are different from NBA and MLB contracts, as those are guaranteed. Only $1.2 million of Harrison’s contract is guaranteed. The balance is contingent on his making the team and reaching certain performance incentives.  Stating this another way, $ 3.2 million of his contract is not guaranteed, which is a lot of motivation to spend $400,000 to $600,000 to stay in shape. Would you spend it? I would, without hesitation. 

This not to say that the IRS may not challenge him.

Do you know Lamar Odom? He is an NBA player for the Los Angeles Clippers,  although many may know him as husband to Khloe Kardashian. The IRS disallowed $172,000 in fitness fees and $12,000 in NBA fines on his 2007 tax return. Odom was then living on a modest $9.3 million salary, so he did what any other financially-pressed American would do – he contested the IRS adjustment.

He argued the following:

(1)  As an NBA player he is obligated to stay fit, healthy and in NBA-level condition. This is not the same as you or me playing weekend pick- up ball. Odom was expected to perform as a professional basketball player throughout the basketball season.

(2)  IRC Section 162(f) disallows deductions for fines and penalties. Odom’s fines were not of the type described in that Code section, because his fines were league-imposed and not government-imposed.  NBA Commissioner David Stern may think of himself as the law, but his authority is not same as a policeman writing a speeding ticket. Odom further argued that league fines are becoming common for professional athletes. Because of this, they have become “ordinary and necessary” expenses.

The case was settled before being decided, and the IRS was prohibited from talking about the matter. There was no written opinion or ruling. We nonetheless learned that the IRS threw in the towel on the fitness fees and fines and contented themselves by assessing some small tax on game tickets that Odom had distributed.

In 1965 Sugar Ray Robinson found himself in a fight with the IRS. There were several items on the docket, three of which attract our interest as we discuss professional athlete expenses. The IRS tried to disallow a deduction for fight tickets which Leonard had given away. The Tax Court disagreed, finding that some number of the tickets could be reasonably connected with Sugar Ray’s trade or business as a professional boxer. The IRS tried to disallow deductions for Ray’s manager, as well as training facilities preparatory to a fight. Once again, the Court decided that the expenses were reasonably connected. The Court would allow the deductions as long as other requirements – such as substantiation – were met.

The Court decided that Leonard had substantiated the expenses for the training facilities and allowed the deduction. Sugar Ray could not substantiate his manager expenses, so the Court disallowed that deduction.

NOTE: I admit that I am curious how Sugar Ray could not document the amount he paid his manager. I suspect there was another entire sub-story buried in there.

The Court’s reasoning in the Sugar Ray case is still tax law, and hopefully Harrison’s tax advisor has apprised him of it. Harrison needs to be meticulous in documenting his expenses. He does not need to give the IRS an easy way to disallow his business deductions simply because he cannot produce the paperwork.

There is another tax technique that comes to mind: incorporating “James Harrison Inc” as a brand. Don’t laugh. The PGA golfers do it. The idea here is to place off-field income, such as endorsements, within the corporation. The corporation now has an income stream, and with it the corporation will issue a W-2 to Harrison. It will also adopt a medical reimbursement plan. To the extent that Harrison incurs medical expenses, he will submit his expenses to the corporation for reimbursement. The corporation will get a deduction and Harrison will get reimbursed. This sidesteps the nasty 7.5%-of-AGI limitation on the individual income tax return. By the way, that limitation goes to 10% next year, as part of the ObamaCare tax increases. Good thing Congress stepped-in there to close that abusive tax shelter of deducting doctor and medical bills.

What are the odds that Harrison will generate enough endorsement income to fund this technique? Do you remember his famous quote about Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who kept fining him for excessive on-field hits?
If that man was on fire and I had to pxxx to put him out, I wouldn’t do it.”

I’m not sure what quotes like that do to Harrison’s endorsement value. Among some of my friends, I suspect they would increase it.

Good luck, James, and welcome to Cincinnati.