Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Talking Expatriation (And A Little Latin)

A friend contacted me recently. He was calling to discuss the tax issues of expatriating. As background, there are two types of expatriation. The first is renouncing citizenship, which he is not considering. The second is simply living outside the United States. One remains an American, but one lives elsewhere.

It is not as easy as it used to be. 

I have, for example, been quite critical of Treasury and IRS behavior when it comes to Americans with foreign bank accounts. If you or I moved overseas, one of the first things we would do is open a bank account. As soon as we did, we would immediately be subject to the same regime as the U.S. government applies to the uber-wealthy suspected of stashing money overseas.  

Some aspects of the regime include:

(1) Having to answer questions on your tax return about the existence of foreign accounts. By the way, lying is a criminal offense, although filing taxes is generally a civic matter.
(2) Having to complete a schedule to your tax return listing your foreign financial and other assets. Move here from a society that has communal family ownership of assets and you have a nightmare on your hands. What constitutes wealthy for purposes of this schedule? Let’s start at $50,000, the price of a (very) nice pickup truck.
(3) Having to file a separate report with the Department of Treasury should you have a foreign bank account with funds in excess of $10,000. The reporting also applies if it is not your account but you nonetheless have authority to sign: think about a foreign employer bank account. It should be fun when you explain to your foreign employer that you are required to provide information on their account to the IRS.
(4) Requiring foreign banks to both obtain and forward to the IRS information about your accounts. Technically the foreign banks have a choice, but fail to make the “correct” decision and the IRS will simply keep 30% of monies otherwise going to them.

To add further insult, all this reporting has some of the harshest penalties in the tax Code. Fail to file a given tax form, for example, and take a $10,000 automatic penalty. Fail to file that report with the Treasury Department and forfeit half of your account to the government.

Now, some of this might be palatable if the government limited its application solely to the bigwigs. You know the kind: owners of companies and hedge fund managers and inherited wealth. But they don’t. There cannot be ten thousand people in the country who have enough money overseas to justify this behavior, so one is left wondering why the need for overreach. It would be less intrusive (at least, to the rest of us 320 million Americans) to just audit these ten thousand people every year. There is precedence: the IRS already does this with the largest of the corporations.

Did you know that – if you fail to provide the above information – the IRS will deem your tax return to be “frivolous?” You will be lumped in there with tax protestors who believe that income tax is voluntary and, if not, it only applies to residents of the District of Columbia.

There is yet another penalty for filing a frivolous return: $5,000. That would be on top of all the other penalties, of course. It’s like a party.

Many practitioners, including me, believe this is one of the reasons why record numbers of Americans overseas are turning-in their citizenship. There are millions of American expats. Perhaps they were in the military or foreign service. Perhaps they travelled, studied, married a foreign national and remained overseas. Perhaps they are “accidental” Americans – born to an American parent but have never themselves been to the United States. Can you imagine them having a bank close their account, or perhaps having a bank refuse to open an account, because it would be too burdensome to provide endless reams of information to a never-sated IRS? Why wouldn’t the banks just ban Americans from opening an account? Unfortunately, that is what is happening.

So I am glad to see the IRS lose a case in this area.

The taxpayer timely filed his 2011 tax return. All parties agreed that he correctly reported his interest and dividend income. What he did not do was list every interest and dividend account in detail and answer the questions on Schedule B (that is, Interest and Dividends) Part III. He invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and he wrote that answering those questions might lead to incriminating evidence against him.

Not good enough. The IRS assessed the penalty. The taxpayer in response requested a Collections Due Process Hearing.

Taxpayer said he had an issue: a valid Fifth Amendment claim. The IRS Appeals officer did not care and upheld the penalty.

Off to Tax Court they went.

And the Court reviewed what constitutes “frivolous” for purpose of the Section 6702 penalty:

(1) The document must purport to be a tax return.
(2) The return must either (i) omit enough information to prevent the IRS from judging it as substantially correct or (ii) it must clearly appear to be substantially incorrect.
(3) Taxpayer’s position must demonstrate a desire to impede IRS administration of the tax Code.

The first test is easy: taxpayer filed a return and intended it to be construed as a tax return.

On to the second.

Taxpayer failed to provide the name of only one payer. All parties agreed that the total was correct, however. The IRS argued that it needed this information so that it may defend the homeland, repair roads and bridges and present an entertaining Super Bowl halftime show. The Court asked one question: why? The IRS was unable to give a cogent reply, so the Court considered the return as filed to be substantially correct.

The IRS was feeling froggy on the third test. You see, the IRS had previously issued a Notice declaring that even mentioning the Fifth Amendment on a tax return was de facto evidence of frivolousness. Faciemus quod volumus [*], thundered the IRS. The return was frivolous.

The Court however went back and read that IRS notice. It brought to the IRS’ attention that it had not said that omitting some information for fear of self-incrimination was frivolous. Rather it had said that omitting “all” financial information was frivolous. You cannot file a return with zeros on every line, for example, and be taken seriously. That however is not what happened here.

The IRS could not make a blanket declaration about mentioning the Fifth Amendment because there was judicial precedence it had to observe.  Previous Courts had determined that a return was non-frivolous if the taxpayer had disclosed enough information (while simultaneously not disclosing so much as to incriminate himself/herself) to allow a Court to conclude that there was a reasonable risk of self-incrimination.

The Court pointed out the following:

(1) The taxpayer provided enough information to constitute an accurate return; and
(2) The taxpayer provided enough information (while holding back enough information) that the Court was able to conclude that he was concerned about filing an FBAR. The questions on Schedule B Part III could easily be cross-checked to an FBAR. Given that willful failure to file a complete and accurate FBAR is a crime, the Court concluded that the taxpayer had a reasonable risk of self-incrimination.

The Court dismissed the penalty.

The case is Youssefzadeh v Commissioner, for the at-home players.

I am of course curious why the taxpayer felt that disclosure would be self-incrimination. Why not just file a complete and accurate FBAR and be done with it? Fair enough, but that is not the issue. One would expect that an agency named the Internal “Revenue” Service would task itself with collecting revenue. In this instance, all revenue was correctly reported and collected. With that backdrop, why did the IRS pursue the matter? That is the issue that concerns me. 

[*] Latin for “we do what we want”

Monday, December 21, 2015

Can The IRS Use A Private Debt Collector Against You?

On December 4, 2015 the President signed into law a five- year $305 billion highway bill.

One of the contentious issues was the 18.4 cents per gallon gasoline tax. You know the politics: one side wanted to increase it and the other did not.  Unable to come to agreement, Congress looked elsewhere for the money.

One place they looked was the use of private debt collectors for IRS debt.

Ohio routinely farms out its tax collection to private agencies. Does it work? Well, let me answer the question this way: I usually request the file be returned to the Ohio Department of Taxation. Why? Because the collection agency could not care less whether the debt is accurate or not, whether the penalties are correctly calculated, or whether there is even a tax case to be collected. I have, for example, seen Ohio farm out collection on cases where the appeal period was still open. Although Ohio is not especially friendly to work with, they are better than dealing with a debt collector. You would be pressed to find too many Ohio tax CPAs that have positive opinions about this arrangement.

Congress has gone down this path before. The most recent collection program started in 2006 and ended in 2009. The program was widely considered a failure, as was its predecessor in 1996-1997. After accounting for commissions paid as well as internal IRS costs to administer, both programs actually caused losses for the Treasury.  

The National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olsen, expressed her feelings clearly to Congress:

Based on what I saw, I concluded the program undermined effective tax administration, jeopardized taxpayer rights protections, and did not accomplish its intended objective of raising revenue. Indeed, despite projections by the Treasury Department and the Joint Committee on Taxation that the program would raise more than $1 billion in revenue, the program wound up losing money. We have no reason to believe the result would be any different this time.”

The Federal Trade Commission routinely reports more complaints about debt collectors than any other industry. FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez stated that over 280,000 federal complaints were filed in 2014 alone.

You know that Congress would not care.

Section 6306 of the highway bill requires the IRS to enter into collection contracts for the collection of certain inactive tax receivables, defined as:

·        A receivable removed from active inventory for lack of resources or because the taxpayer cannot be located;
·         A receivable where at least one-half of the statute of limitations period has expired and no IRS employee has been assigned; or
·        A receivable assigned for collection but at least one year has passed since taxpayer contact

Did you catch the use of the word “requires?” That is quite the departure from pre-existing law, which “authorizes” the IRS to use private debt collection agencies.

There are some exceptions, such as:

·        Pending or active offers in compromise or installment agreements
·        Innocent spouse
·        Deceased taxpayers
·        Minors
·        Taxpayers in designated combat zones
·        Taxpayers in examination or appeal
·        Victims of identity theft

The last one is disconcerting, especially after the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2014 that it received over 90,000 complaints about scam telephone calls demanding payment from impostors claiming to be the IRS.  IRS Commissioner Koskinen cited the TIGTA report and reminded taxpayers that:

Taxpayers should remember their first contact with the IRS will not be a call from out of the blue, but through official correspondence sent through the mail.”

Well, that used to be true.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

1000% Political Sales Tax

Let’s return to the topic of state tax lunacy.

Our destination? California, a frequent contestant (if not winner) of the popular gameshow “Five Short of a Nickel.”

A citizen initiative posted on the California Attorney General’s website provides the following:

This initiative amends the California Constitution, Article 13, Section 35,(b).
It adds a section 3 as follows:
"For the privilege of influencing public elections and political issues, a sales tax of 1,000% (one thousand percent) is hereby imposed upon Political Advertisements. The proceeds of which shall solely benefit California public education. There shall be no further exemptions to this tax except as federally required or as passed by a California ballot initiative.
Political Advertisements shall mean any political advertising delivered within the state of California. This is applicable to both cash and barter transactions. This includes but is not limited to all media spending by political parties, political action committees or candidates.
This sales tax will not apply to the first $1,000,000 (one million dollars) of spending within a calendar year by any tax entity. However, if a group of tax entities are controlled or coordinated then this first one million dollar of sales tax relief shall only apply to the group of entities and not to the individual entities.
If a Federal District Court or Supreme Court of the United States find this tax to be too high, then this law shall immediately ratchet down to the highest acceptable level and remain in place.”
Well then.

And it perfectly typifies much of what has contaminated tax law in recent years:

(1) The insistence on wielding tax law to accomplish a social program, whether by granting a boon (such as the new markets tax credit) or striking a blow (such as the ACA penalty). 

(2) The delegation of actual tax writing to a non-electable bureaucracy. For example, what in the world does “Political Advertisements” mean? He or she who gets to define this term will rank among the most powerful of California politicos.

(3)  An ignorance if not contempt for tax doctrines, precedent or potential litigation. To begin with, the California Franchise Tax Board would have to defend a 1000% tax against a free speech challenge under the First Amendment. One also wonders whether the "takings" clause of the Constitution could be invoked. Is this really a tax issue or just the overheated opinion of a grievance dispenser?

Citizen initiatives are peculiar to California politics. They began as a way to limit the outsized influence of special interests but have devolved into a means to sidestep Sacramento, assuming one can recruit a deep-heeled supporter willing to fund the initiative. I trust there is little chance that this one will pass.

Nonetheless, let’s give a round of applause as we present the award to this week’s winner.

Friday, December 11, 2015

When A Good Cause Is Not Enough

Let’s talk about the tax issues of tax-exempt entities. It sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

It actually is its own area of practice. Several years ago I was elbow-deep working with nonprofits, and I attended a seminar presented by a specialist from Washington, D.C. All he did was nonprofits. At least he was in the right town for it.

There are the big-picture tax-exempt issues. For example, a 501(c)(3) has to be publicly-supported. You know there is a tractor-trailer load of rules as to what “publicly supported” means.

Then there are more specialized issues. One of them is the unrelated business income tax. The concept here is that a nonprofit cannot conduct an ongoing business and avoid tax because of its exemption. A museum may be a great charitable cause, for example, but one cannot avoid tax on a chain of chili restaurants by having the museum own them.

That is not what museums do. It is unrelated to “museum-ness,” and as such the chili restaurants will be taxed as unrelated business income.

Sometimes it can get tricky. Say that you have a culinary program at a community college. As part of the program, culinary students prepare meals, which are in turn sold on premises to the students, faculty and visitors. A very good argument can be made that this activity should not be taxed.  

What is the difference? In the community college’s case, the activity represents an expansion of the underlying (and exempt) culinary education program. The museum cannot make this argument with its chili restaurants.

However, what if the museum charges admission to view its collection of blue baby boots from Botswana? We are now closer to the example of culinary students preparing meals for sale. Exhibiting collections is what museums do.

I am looking a technical advice memorandum (TAM) on unrelated business income. This is internal IRS paperwork, and it means that an IRS high-level presented an issue to the National Office for review.

Let’s set it up.

There is a community college.

The community college has an alumni association. The association has one voting member, which is a political subdivision of the state.

The alumni association has a weekly farmers market, with arts and crafts and music and food vendors. It sounds like quite the event. It uses the parking areas of the community college, as well as campus rest rooms and utilities. Sometimes the college charges the alumni association; sometimes it does not.

The alumni association in turn rents parking lot space to vendors at the market.

All the money from the event goes to the college. Monies are used to fund scholarships and maintain facilities, such as purchasing a computer room for the library and maintaining the football field.

OBSERVATION: The tax Code does not care that any monies raised are to be used for a charitable purpose. The Code instead focuses on the activity itself. Get too close to a day-in-and-day-out business and you will be taxed as a business. Granted, you may get a charitable deduction for giving it away, but that is a different issue.

From surveys, the majority of visitors to the farmers market are age 55 and above.

There was an IRS audit. The revenue agent thought he spotted an unrelated business activity. The file moved up a notch or two at the IRS and a bigwig requested a TAM.

The association immediately conceded that the event was a trade or business regularly carried on. It had to: it was a highly-organized weekly activity.

The association argued instead that the event was its version of “museum-ness,” meaning the event furthered the association’s exempt purpose. It presented three arguments:

(1) The farmers market contributed to the exempt purpose of the college by drawing potential students and donors to campus, helping to develop civic support.
(2) The farmers market lessened the burden of government (that is, the college).
(3) The farmers market relieved the distress of the elderly.

The IRS saw these arguments differently:

(1) Can you provide any evidence to back that up? A mere assertion is neither persuasive nor dispositive.

COMMENT: The association should have taken active steps – year-after-year – to obtain and accumulate supporting data. It may have been worth hiring someone who does these things. Not doing so made it easy for the IRS to dismiss the argument as self-serving.

(2) At no time did the community college take on the responsibility for a farmers market, and the college is the closest thing to a government in this conversation. Granted, the college benefited from the proceeds, but that is not the test. The test is whether the association is (1) taking on a governmental burden and (2) actually lessening the burden on the government thereby.  As the government (that is, the college) never took on the burden, there can be no lessening of said burden.

COMMENT: This argument is interesting, as perhaps – with planning – something could have been arranged. For example, what if the college sponsored the weekly event, but contracted out event planning, organization and execution to the alumni association? 

(3) While the market did provide a venue for the elderly to gather and socialize, that is not the same as showing that the market was organized and worked with the intent of addressing the special needs of the elderly. 

COMMENT: Perhaps if the association had done things specifically for the elderly – transportation to/from retirement homes or free drink or meal tickets, for example – there would have been an argument. As it was, the high percentage of elderly was a happenstance and not a goal of the event.

There was no “museum-ness” there.

And then the association presented what I consider to be its best argument:

(4) We charged rent. Rent is specifically excluded as unrelated business income, unless special circumstances are present – which are not.

Generally speaking, rent is not taxable as unrelated business income unless there is debt on the property. The question is whether the payments the association received were rent or were something else.

What do I mean?

We would probably agree that leasing space at a strip mall is a textbook definition of rent. Let’s move the needle a bit. What would you call payment received for a hospital room? That doesn’t feel like rent, does it? What has changed? Your principal objective while in a hospital is medical attention; provision of the room is ancillary. The provision of space went from being the principal purpose of the transaction to being incidental.

The IRS saw the farmers’ market/arts and craft/et cetera as something more than a parking lot. The vendors were not so much interested in renting space as they were in participating (and profiting) from a well-organized destination and entertainment event. Landlords provide space. Landlords do not provide events. 

The IRS decided this was not rent.  

You ask why I thought this was the association’s best argument? Be fair, I did not say it was a winning argument, only that it was the best available.

The alumni association still has alternatives. Examination requested the TAM, so there will be no mercy there. That leaves Appeals and then possibly going to Court. A Court may view things differently.

And I am unhappy with the alumni association. I suspect that the farmers’ market went from humble origins to a well-organized, varied and profitable event. As a practitioner, however, I have to question whether they ever sought professional advice when this thing started generating pallet-loads of cash. Granted, the activity may have evolved to the point that no tax planning could save it, but we do not know that. What we do know is that little – if any – planning occurred.