Thursday, August 27, 2015

Phone Call About The Statute Of Limitations

Recently I received a call from another CPA. 

He is representing in a difficult tax audit, and the IRS revenue agent has requested that the client extend the statute of limitations by six months. The statute has already been extended to February, 2016, so this extension is the IRS’ second time to the well. The client was not that thrilled about the first extension, so the conversation about a second should be entertaining.

This however gives us a chance to talk about the statute of limitations.

Did you know that there are two statutes of limitations?

Let’s start with the one commonly known: the 3-year statute on assessment.

You file your personal return on April 15, 2015. The IRS has three years from the date they receive the return to assess you. Assess means they formally record a receivable from you, much like a used-car lot would. Normally – and for most of us – the IRS recording receipt by them of our tax return is the same as being assessed. You file, you pay whatever taxes are due, the IRS records all of the above and the matter is done.    

Let’s introduce some flutter into the system: you are selected for audit.

They audit you in March, 2017. What should have been an uneventful audit turns complicated, and the audit drags on and on. The IRS knows that they have until April, 2018 on the original statute (that is, April 15, 2015 plus 3 years), so they ask you to extend the statute.

Let’s say you extend for six months. The IRS now has until October 15, 2018 to assess (April 15 plus six months). It buys them (and you) time to finish the audit with some normalcy.

The audit concludes and you owe them $10 thousand. They will send you a notice of the audit adjustment and taxes due. If you ignore the first notice, the IRS will keep sending notices of increasing urgency. If you ignore those, the IRS will eventually send a Statutory Notice of Deficiency, also known as a SNOD or 90-day letter.

That SNOD means the IRS is getting ready to assess. You have 90 days to appeal to the Tax Court. If you do not appeal, the IRS formally assesses you the $10 thousand.

And there is the launch for the second statute of limitations: the statute on collections. The IRS will have 10 years from the date of assessment to collect the $10 thousand from you.

So you have two statutes of limitation: one to assess and another to collect. If they both go to the limit, the IRS can be chasing you for longer than your kid will be in grade and high school.

What was I discussing with my CPA friend? 

  • What if his client does not (further) extend the statute?

Well, let’s observe the obvious: his client would provoke the bear. The bear will want to strike back. The way it is done – normally – is for the bear to bill you immediately for the maximum tax and penalty under audit. They will spot you no issues, cut you no slack. They will go through the notice sequence as quickly as possible, as they want to get to that SNOD. Once the IRS issues the SNOD, the statute of limitations is tolled, meaning that it is interrupted. The IRS will then not worry about running out of time - if only it can get to that SNOD.

It is late August as I write this. The statute has already been extended to February. What are the odds the IRS machinery will work in the time remaining?

And there you have a conversation between two CPAs.

I myself would not provoke the bear, especially in a case where more than one tax year is involved. I view it as climbing a tree to get away from a bear. It appears brilliant until the bear begins climbing after you. 

I suspect my friend’s client has a different temperament. I am looking forward to see how this story turns out.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Difference Between An Advance And A Loan

Do you remember when the Washington Redskins and the Miami Dolphins went to the Super Bowl? It was 1983, and I was living in Florida at the time. I am pretty sure I was rooting for the Florida team. The Redskins had a hard-charging fullback named John Riggins. His nickname was “Diesel” and he scored a touchdown on a forty-something yard run. Blocking for him was (among others) George Starke, an offensive tackle. The Washington offensive linemen, the ones who block for the quarterback and running back, were known as The Hogs.

George Starke is second from the left.

George was very much on the backside of his career at that point. He shortly thereafter left football and opened a car dealership in Maryland. He couldn’t help but notice that the dealership had difficulty recruiting service technicians. He helped establish a technical school to educate and train technicians. He also hoped that - by providing a realistic hope for a better life – the school would also help with the poverty and violence in the area.

He eventually sold the dealership and cofounded the Excel Institute, a nonprofit program that provided a two-year reading, writing, arithmetic and technical skills curriculum. The program was free of charge, but one had to commit.

Starke received a salary and housing allowance, as well as a credit card. He would charge business and personal expenses on the card. The personal charges were segregated on the books and records. George discontinued any personal charges in 2006, and from 2007 onward the only activity relating to the credit card was a payroll deduction to repay the balance.

There was a change in the Board, and Starke did not like the new direction of things. He stopped fundraising. He left the Excel Institute altogether in 2010.

Excel put the remaining balance due from George of $83,698 on a Form 1099, sent a copy to George, a second to the IRS and figured that was that.

George did not include the $83 grand on his individual tax return, however.

The IRS noticed and insisted that George do so. George said no.

And off to Tax Court they went.

Before proceeding, tell me: do you think George has a prayer?

As you know, forgiveness of a loan triggers income. The tax issue is whether these monies were ever a loan.

Your first thought is: of course they were! Heck, he was paying it back, wasn’t he?

Let’s walk through this.

Just because someone gives you money does not mean that there exists a loan. A loan implies that both sides anticipate the monies will be repaid. It would also be swell if there were some attention to the basic formalities, like perhaps a loan agreement and repayment terms.

And – just to dream – maybe interest could be charged on the whole affair.

There was no loan agreement. Excel itself gave mixed messages to the Court on whether it thought the monies were a loan. George told the Court that he never had any intention of paying back the money, and that he thought the payroll deductions were for health insurance or something like that.

If not a loan, then what were the monies to George?

They were advances, akin to nonrecoverable draws.

Advances are more easily understood in a draw-against-commission environment. Draws are intended to provide some predictable cash flow to the salesperson. Say that a salesperson receives commissions, and against the commissions is a $5,000 monthly draw. There are two types of draws - recoverable and nonrecoverable. A nonrecoverable draw does not have to be paid back should a saleperson fail to meet quota. A recoverable draw does have to be paid back. Granted, a salesperson who fails on a continuous basis to meet quota would soon be unemployed, but that is a different conversation.  For our purposes, the key is that a nonrecoverable draw represents income upon receipt.

Back to our courtroom drama.

The IRS pulled his 2010 tax year.

George received no advances in the 2010 tax year.

George last received advances in 2006.

There was nothing to tax in 2010 because George received no monies in 2010.

The IRS should have pursued his 2006 tax year. They did not, nor could they under the statute of limitations.

The Court dismissed the case. George won. The IRS got embarrassed.

I am curious why the IRS even bothered. The only thing I can figure is that they were hoping for a miracle play. Maybe like John Riggins running that football for a touchdown in Super Bowl XVII with George Starke blocking for him.

Friday, August 14, 2015

P&G, Coty And A Unicorn Named Morris

You may know that P&G is streamlining, selling off non-core lines of business. It just concluded a deal to sell 43 beauty brands, including Clairol and Max Factor, to Coty, Inc. The deal appears to be good for Coty, as it will double sales and transform Coty into one of the largest cosmetic companies in the world. P&G in turn receives $12.5 billion.

What makes it interesting to the tax planners is the structure of the deal: P&G is using a “reverse-Morris” structure. It combines a carve-out of unwanted assets (unwanted, in this case, by P&G) with a prearranged merger. The carve-out is nontaxable, but if you err with the merger the carve-out becomes taxable. This is a high stakes game, and woe unto you if the IRS determines that the merger was prearranged. The reverse Morris is designed to directly address a prearranged merger.

Let’s walk through it.

First, what is a “regular” Morris?

Let’s say that you own a successful and publicly-traded company (say Jeb). You have a line of business, which we shall call Lindsey. Someone (“Donald”) wants to buy Lindsey. Jeb could flat-out sell Lindsey, but the corporate taxes might be outrageous. Jeb could alternatively spinoff Lindsey to you, and you in turn could sell to Donald. That would probably be preferable.


Front and center is the classic tax issue with C corporations: double taxation. If Jeb sells, then Jeb would have corporate taxes. Granted, Jeb would distribute the after-tax proceeds to you, but then you would have individual taxes. The government might wind up being the biggest winner on the deal.

Forget that. Let’s spinoff Lindsey tax-free to you, and you sell to Donald. There would be one tax hit (yours), which is a big improvement over where we were a moment ago.

But you cannot do that.

You see, under regular corporate tax rules a tax-free merger with Donald within two years of a spinoff would trigger BAD tax consequences. We are talking about the spinoff being retroactively taxable to Jeb. Jeb will have to amend its tax return and write a big check. That is BAD.

I suppose you could tell Donald to take a hike for a couple of years while you reset the clock. Good luck with that.

You talk to your accountant (“Hillary”). She recommends that you have Jeb borrow a lot of money. You then drop Lindsey into a new subsidiary and spinoff new Lindsey to you. You leave the debt in Jeb. You then sell Jeb to Donald. Donald takes over the debt. He doesn’t care. Donald just offsets whatever he was going to pay you by that debt.

This is a Morris deal and Congress did not like it. It looked very much like a payday.

  • The cash is in Lindsey
  • The debt is in Jeb
  • You sell Jeb
  • You keep Lindsey
  • You keep the money that is in Lindsey
  • The government doesn’t get any money from anybody

The government was not getting its vig. Congress in response wrote a new section into the tax Code (Section 355(e)) which triggers gain if more than 50% control of either the parent or subsidiary changes hands. 

Yep, that pretty much will shut down a Morris deal. Donald wants more than 50% control. Donald is like that.

Now, Section 355(e) presented a challenge to the tax attorneys and CPAs. Think of it as an epic confrontation between a chromatic Great Wyrm and your 28th level paladin at the weekly Saturday night D&D game. The players were not backing down. No way.

So someone said “the deal will work if the buyer will accept less than 50% control.”


Let’s take our example above and introduce a different buyer (let’s call him Bernie). Bernie wants to buy Lindsey. Bernie is willing to accept less than 50%, as contrasted to that meanie Donald. Same as before, let’s drop Lindsey into a new subsidiary. New Lindsey borrows a lot of money and ships it to Jeb. New Lindsey, now laden with debt, is sold to Bernie. Bernie takes over the debt as part of the deal. When the dust settles, Bernie will own less than 50% of new Lindsey, which gets us out of the Section 355(e) dilemma.

You in turn keep Jeb and the cash.

And that is the reverse Morris. We sidestep Section 355(e) by not allowing more than 50% of either Jeb or Lindsey to change hands.

Why do we not see reverse Morris deals more often? There are three key reasons:

  1. It requires a buyer that is smaller than the target, but not so small that it cannot do the deal. 
  2. There will be new debt, likely significant. This raises the business risk associated with the deal, as the bank is going to want its money back.
  3. The new company’s management and board may be an issue. After all, the buyer BOUGHT the company. It is not unreasonable that Bernie wants to control what he just bought. I would want to drive the new car I just bought and paid for.
The Reimann family of Germany owns approximately two-thirds of Coty. Even though Coty is acquiring less than 50% of the P&G subsidiary, the Reimann’s will own a large enough block of stock to have effective control. That must have helped make the reverse Morris attractive to Coty.

Reverse Morris deals are not unicorns, but there have been less than 40 of them to-date. That makes them rare enough that the tax specialists look up from their shoes when one trots out. P&G by itself has had three of them over the last ten or so years. Someone at P&G likes this technique.

Friday, August 7, 2015

TomatoCare And The Supreme Court

Let’s play make believe.

Late on a dark and stormy Saturday night, the Congressional Spartans - urged on by Poppa John's and the National Tomato Growers Association – passed a sweeping vegetable care bill by a vote of 220-215.

The bill went to the Senate, where its fate was sadly in doubt. The fearless majority leader Harry Leonidas negotiated agreements with several recalcitrant senators, including the slabjacking of New Orleans, an ongoing automatic bid for the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the college Bowl Championship Series and the relocation of Vermont to somewhere between North Carolina and Florida. After passage, the bill was signed by the president while on the back nine at Porcupine Creek in Rancho Mirage, California.

As a consequence of this visionary act, Americans now had access to affordable tomatoes, thanks to market reforms and consumer protections put into place by this law. The law had also begun to curb rising tomato prices across the system by cracking down on waste and fraud and creating powerful incentives for grocery chains to spend their resources more wisely. Americans were now protected from some of the worst industry abuses like out-of-season shortages that could cut off tomato supply when people needed them the most.

California, Vermont and Massachusetts established state exchanges to provide tomato subsidies to individuals whose household income levels were below the threshold triggering the maximum federal individual income tax rate (presently 39.6 percent). The remaining states had refused to establish their own exchanges, prompting the federal government to intervene. The Tax Exempt Organization Division at the IRS, recognized for their expertise in technology integration, data development and retention, was tasked to oversee the installation of federal exchanges in those backwater baronies. IRS Commissioner Koskinen stated that this would require a reallocation of existing budgetary funding and – as a consequence - the IRS would not be collecting taxes from anyone in the Central time zone during the forthcoming year.

The 54 states that did not establish their own exchanges filed a lawsuit (Bling v Ne’er-Do-Well) challenging a key part of the TomatoCare law, which read as follows:

The premium assistance amount determined under this subsection with respect to any vegetable coverage amount is the amount equal to the lesser of the greater…”

These benighted states pointed out that, botanically, a tomato was a fruit. A fruit was defined as a seed-bearing vessel developed from the ovary of a flowering plant. A vegetable, on the other hand, was any other part of the plant. By this standard, seedy growth such as bananas, apples and, yes, tomatoes, were all fruits.

There was great fear upon the land when the Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

Depending upon how the Supreme Court decided, there might be no tomato subsidies because tomatoes were not vegetables, a result clearly, unambiguously and irretrievably-beyond-dispute not the intent of Congress on that dark, hot, stormy, wintery Saturday night as they debated the merits of quitclaiming California to Mexico.

The case began under great susurration. The plaintiffs (the 54 moon landings) read into evidence definitions of the words “fruit” and “vegetables” from Webster’s Dictionary, Worcester’s Dictionary, the Imperial Dictionary and Snoop Dogg’s album “Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$.”

The Court acknowledged that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” were indeed words in the English language. As such, the Court was bound to take judicial notice, as it did in regard to all words in its own tongue, especially “oocephalus” and “bumfuzzle.” The Court agreed that a dictionary could be admitted in Court only as an aid to the memory and understanding of the Court and not as evidence of the meaning of words.

The Court went on:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine. But in the common language of the 202 area code, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens and, whether eaten cooked, steamed, boiled, roasted or raw, are like potatoes, carrots, turnips and cauliflower, usually served at dinner with, or after, the soup, fish, fowl or beef which constitutes the principal part of the repast.”

The Court decided:

            But it is not served, like fruits generally, as a dessert.”

With that, the Court decided that tomatoes were vegetables and not fruit. The challenge to TomatoCare was courageously halted, and the liberal wing of the Court – in a show of their fierce independence and tenacity of intellect – posed for a selfie and went to Georgetown to get matching tattoos.

Thus ends our make believe.

There was no TomatoCare law, of course, but there WAS an actual Supreme Court decision concerning tomatoes. Oh, you didn’t know?

Back in the 1880s the Port of New York was taxing tomatoes as vegetables. The Nix family, which imported tons of tomatoes, sued. They thought they had the law – and common sense – on their side. After all, science said that tomatoes were fruit. The only party who disagreed was the Collector of the Port of New York, hardly an objective juror.

The tax law in question was The Tariff of 1883, a historical curiosity now long gone, and the case was Nix v Hedden. 

And that is how we came to think of tomatoes as vegetables.

Brilliant legal minds, right?