Friday, January 29, 2016

A Baseball Player Gets Hit By A Penalty



I have a question for you: let’s say you are a professional athlete. You have hired a financial advisor and an accountant. You give the financial advisor a durable power of attorney, allowing him/her to pay your bills, manage your money and grow your investments. You ask your accountant to prepare tax returns as necessary keep you out of trouble.

These services are not cheap. They cost you an upfront fee of $150,000 and an ongoing $360,000 annually.

            COMMENT: I am available and open to relocation.

You get robbed for millions of dollars. Tax returns do not get filed.

The IRS now wants big penalties from you.

QUESTION: Do you have “reasonable cause” to have the IRS remove those penalties?

We are talking about Mo Vaughn, who played baseball with the Red Sox, the Anaheim Angels and the New York Mets in the nineties and aughts.  He was the American League MVP in 1995.


In 2004 he hired Ra Shonda Kay Marshall to handle his money matters. She wound up leaving her employer, Omni Elite, and set up her own company, RKM Business Services, Inc. He also hired David Krebs with CPA Advisory Group, Inc. for the preparation of his tax returns.

Something happened, and in 2008 he fired both of them. Vaughn was going through his bank statements when he realized that Marshall had been embezzling. He hired forensic accountants, who determined that from 2004 to 2008 she had embezzled more than $2.7 million.

He then learned that his 2006 taxes were not paid.

Even that was better news than 2007, when his taxes were not even filed, much less paid.

He sued Marshall and RKM Business Services.

He hired new CPAs to get him caught up. The IRS – in that show of neighborliness that we have come to expect – hit him with penalties of $1,037,158 for 2006 and $102,106 for 2007. He had filed and/or paid late, and there were penalties for both.

He owed the tax, of course, but he had to contest the penalties. He went the administrative route – meaning appealing and working within the IRS itself. Striking out, he then took his case to court. He went to district court and then to appeals.

His main argument was simple: he was paying people to keep him out of tax problems. There was a lot of money leaving his account, so he had every reason to believe that a good chunk of it was going to the IRS. He was robbed. The IRS was robbed. Surely robbery is reasonable cause.

The IRS and the court pretty much knew his story at this point, and they knew that he was suing to get his millions back. The court however decided the government was due its money. There was no reasonable cause.

How is this possible?

There is a tax case (Boyle) where the Supreme Court addressed the issue of penalties assessed a taxpayer for his/her agent’s failure to file and pay taxes. The Court stated:

“It requires no special training or effort to ascertain a deadline and make sure that it is met. The failure to make a timely filing of a tax return is not excused by the taxpayer’s reliance on an agent, and such reliance is not ‘reasonable cause’ for a late filing under [Section] 6651(a)(1).”

The Court was addressing deadlines, and it set a fairly high standard. The Court distinguished relying on an attorney or accountant for advice from relying on an attorney or accountant to actually file the return itself. Reliance on an agent did not relieve the principal of compliance with statutory deadlines, except in extremely limited circumstances.

Vaughn could not clear this standard. He had delegated too much when he turned over responsibility for both preparing and filing his taxes to Marshall and Krebs.

Vaughn had a backup argument: the malfeasance of his agents rendered him unable to pay. He did not have enough money left to pay taxes by the time Marshall was done with him.

He was referring to a tax case (American Biomaterials Corp) where two corporate officers defrauded their corporation, including failing to file and pay taxes. Those two were the only officers with the responsibility to file returns and make payment. The Court held that the corporation was not vicariously liable for the acts of its officers and therefore was not liable for penalties.

There is a limit on American Biomaterials, though: a corporation is not entitled to relief if – by act or omission – its internal controls are so lax that that there was no reasonable expectation that malfeasance would be detected in the ordinary course of business. In other words, the corporation cannot willfully neglect normal checks and balances and expect to be relieved of penalties.

Vaughn got smacked on his second argument. The Court noted the obvious: in American Biomaterials there was no one left in the company to file and pay the taxes. This was not Vaughn’s situation. While he had delegated responsibility, there was someone left who could and should have stepped in: Mo Vaughn himself. He did not. That was his decision and provided both reason and cause to impose penalties.

And so Vaughn lost both in the district and the appeals courts. He owed the IRS enough penalties to allow either you or me to retire. He lost because he delegated the one thing the tax Code does not allow one to delegate, except in the most extreme cases: the duty to file the return itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nails, REITs And Coffins



I am reading an article that includes the following sentence:

If these deals become widespread, they’d be another nail in the coffin of the corporate income tax.”

That sounds ominous.

It turns out that the author is writing about real estate investment trusts, more commonly known as REITs (pronounced “reets”).


I do not work with REITs. The last time I came near one was around 2000, and that was in a limited context. My background is entrepreneurial wealth and is unlikely to include REIT practice – unless said wealth is selling its real estate to said REIT.    

REITs have become popular as an investment alternative in an era of low interest rates, as they are required to pay dividends. Well, to be more accurate, they are required IF they want to remain REITS.

REITS are corporations, but they have access to a unique Code section – Section 857. Qualify and the corporation has an additional deduction not available to you or me – it can deduct dividends paid its shareholders from taxable income.

This is a big deal.

Regular corporations cannot do this. Say you and I own a corporation and it makes a million dollars. We want the money. How do we get it out of the corporation? We have the corporation pay us a million-dollar dividend, of course.

Let’s walk through the tax tao of this.

The corporation cannot deduct the dividend. This means it has to pay tax first. Let’s say the state tax is $60,000, which the corporation can deduct. It will then pay $320,000 in federal tax, leaving $620,000 it can pay us.

In a rational world, we would not have to pay tax again on the $620,000, as it has already been taxed.

That is not our world. The IRS looks around and say “the two are you are not the corporation, so we will tax you again.” The fact that you and I really are the corporation – and that the corporation would not exist except for you and me – is just a Jedi mind trick.

You and I are taxed again on the $620,000. Depending upon, we are likely to bump from the 15% dividend rate to the 20% rate, then on top of it we will also be subject to the 3.8% “net investment income” surtax. The state is going to want its share, which should be another 6% or so.

Odds are we have parted with another 29.8% (20% plus 3.8% plus 6%), which would be approximately $185,000. We now have $435,000 between us. Not a bad chunk of change, but the winner in this picture is the government.

Think how sweet it would be if we could deduct the million dollars. The corporation would not have any taxable income (because we paid it out in full as dividends). Yes, you and I would be taxable at 29.8%, but that is a whole lot better than a moment ago. We just saved ourselves over $260,000.

Congress did not like this. This is referred to as “erosion” of the corporate income tax base and is the issue our author was lamenting. Yes, you and I keeping our money is being decried as “erosion.” Words are funny like that.

Back to our topic.

Real estate has to represent at least 75% of REIT assets. In a similar vein, rental income must comprise at least 75% of REIT income. Get too cute or aggressive and you will lose REIT status – and with it that sweet dividends-paid deduction. For years and years these entities were stuffed with shopping malls, apartments and office complexes. They were boring.

Someone had to push the envelope. Maybe it was a tax planner pitching the next great idea. Maybe it was a corporate raider looking to make his or her next billion dollars. All one has to do is redefine “real estate” to include things that are not – you know – real estate.

For example, can you lease the rooftop of an office building and consider it real estate? What about pipelines, phone lines, billboards, data centers, boat slips?

In recent years the IRS said all were real estate.

Something that started as a real estate equivalent to mutual funds was getting out of hand. Pretty soon a Kardashian reality TV show was going to qualify as real estate and get stuffed into a REIT.

In the “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015,” Congress put a chill on future REIT deals.

To a tax nerd, getting assets out of a corporation into another entity (say a REIT) is referred to as a “divisive.” These transactions take place under Section 355, and - if properly structured - result in no immediate taxation.

Let’s tweak Section 355 and change that no-immediate-taxation thing:
* Unless both (or neither) the distributing and the distributed are themselves REITs, the divisive will be taxable.
* If neither are REITS, then neither can elect REIT status for 10 years.
This tweak is intended to be a time-out, giving the IRS time. It is, frankly, an issue the IRS brought upon itself The IRS has issued multiple private letter rulings that seem to confound “immoveable” with “real estate.” The technical problem is that there are multiple Sections in the tax Code - Sections 168, 263A, 1031, and 1250 for example – that affect real estate. Each may be addressing different issues, and grafting definitions from one Section onto another can result in unintended consequences.

Again we have the great circle of taxation. Somebody stretches a Code section to the point of snapping. Eventually Congress pays attention and changes the law. There will be another Code section to start the process again. There always is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Does The IRS Want 1099s For Your Contributions?



I have been thinking about a recent IRS notice of proposed rulemaking. The IRS is proposing rules under its own power, arguing that it has the authority to do so under existing law.

This one has to do with charitable contributions.

You already know that one should retain records to back up a tax return, especially for deductions. For most of us that translates into keeping receipts and related cancelled checks.

Contributions are different, however.

In 1993 Congress passed Code section 170(f)(8) requiring you to obtain a letter (termed “contemporaneous written acknowledgement”) from the charity to document any donation over $250.  If you do not have a letter the IRS will disallow your deduction upon examination.


Congress felt that charitable contributions were being abused. How? Here is an example: you make a $5,000 donation to the University of Kentucky and in turn receive season tickets – probably to football, as the basketball tickets are near impossible to get. People were deducting $5,000, when the correct deduction would have been $5,000 less the value of those season tickets. Being unhappy to not receive 100 percent of your income, Congress blamed the “tax gap” and instituted yet more rules and requirements.

So begins our climb on the ladder to inanity.

Soon enough taxpayers were losing their charitable deductions because they failed to obtain a letter or failed to receive one timely. There were even cases where all parties knew that donations had been made, but the charity failed to include the “magic words” required by the tax Code.

Let’s climb on.

In October, 2015 the IRS floated a proposal to allow charities to issue Forms 1099s in lieu of those letters. Mind you, I said “allow.” Charities can continue sending letters and disregard this proposal.

If the charity does issue, then it must also forward a copy of the 1099s to the IRS. This has the benefit of sidestepping the donor’s need to get a timely letter from the charity containing the magic words.

Continue climbing: for the time-being charities have to disregard the proposal, as the IRS has not designed a Form 1099 even if the charity were interested.  Let’s be fair: it is only a proposal. The IRS wanted feedback from the real world before it went down this path.

Next rung: why would you give your social security number to a charity – for any reason? The Office of Personnel Management could not safeguard more than 20 million records from a data hack, but the IRS wants us to believe that the local High School Boosters Club will?

Almost there: the proposal is limited to deductible contributions, meaning that its application is restricted to Section 501(c)(3) organizations. Only (c)(3)s can receive deductible contributions.

But there is another Section 501 organization that has been in the news for several years – the 501(c)(4). This is the one that introduced us to Lois Lerner, the resignation of an IRS Commissioner, the lost e-mails and so on. A significant difference between a (c)(3) and a (c)(4) is the list of donors. A (c)(3) requires disclosure of donors who meet a threshold. A (c)(4) requires no disclosure of donors.    

You can guess how much credibility the IRS has when it says that it has no intention of making the 1099 proposal mandatory for (c)(3)s - or eventually extending it to also include (c)(4)s.

We finally reached the top of the ladder. What started as a way to deal with a problem (one cannot deduct those UK season tickets) morphed into bad tax law (no magic beans means no deduction) and is now well on its way to becoming another government-facilitated opportunity for identity theft.


The IRS Notice concludes with the following:

Given the effectiveness and minimal burden of the CWA process, it is expected that donee reporting will be used in an extremely low percentage of cases.”

Seems a safe bet.
UPDATE: After the writing of this post, the IRS announced that it was withdrawing these proposed Regulations. The agency noted that it had received approximately 38,000 comments, the majority of which strongly opposed the rules. Hey, sometimes the system works.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Vanguard's Whistleblower Tax Case



Can the IRS go after you for not making enough profit?

There is a whistleblower case against Vanguard, the mutual fund giant. Even though there is a tax angle, I had previously sidestepped the matter. Surely it must involve some mind-numbing arcana, and –anyway- why enable some ex-employee with a grudge? 

And then I saw a well-known University of Michigan tax professor supporting the tax issues in the whistleblower case.

Now I had to look into the matter.


My first reaction is that this case represents tax law gone wild. It happens. Sometimes tax law is like the person looking down at his/her cell phone and running into you in the hall. They are too self-absorbed to look up and get a clue.

What sets this up is the management company: Vanguard Group, Inc. (VGI). Take a look at other mutual fund companies and you will see that the management company is separately and independently owned from the mutual funds themselves.  The management company provides investment, financial and other services, and in turn it receives fees from the mutual funds.  

The management company receives fees irrespective of whether the funds are doing well or poorly. In addition, the ownership of the management company is likely different from the ownership of the funds. You can invest in the management company for T. Rowe Price (TROW), for example, even if you do not own any T. Rowe Price funds.

Vanguard however has a unique structure. Its management company – VGI – is owned by the funds themselves. Why? It goes back to Jack Bogle and the founding of Vanguard: he believed there was an inherent conflict of interest when a mutual fund is advised by a manager not motivated by the same financial interests as fund shareholders.  Since the management company and the funds are essentially one-and-the-same, there is little motivation for the management company to maximize its fees. This in turn has allowed Vanguard funds to provide some of the lowest internal costs in the industry

My first thought is that every mutual fund family should be run this way.

VGI and all the funds are C corporations under the tax Code. The funds themselves are more specialized and are “registered investment companies” under Subchapter M. Because the funds own VGI, the “transfer pricing” rules of IRC Section 482 apply.

COMMENT: The intent of Section 482 is to limit the ability of related companies to manipulate the prices they charge each other. Generally speaking, this Code section has not been an issue for practitioners like me, as we primarily serve entrepreneurs and their closely-held companies. This market tends to be heavily domestic and unlikely to include software development, patent or other activity which can easily be moved overseas and trigger transfer pricing concerns. 

Practitioners are however starting to see states pursue transfer pricing issues. Take Iowa, with its 12% corporate tax rate as an example. Let’s presume a multistate client with significant Iowa operations. Be assured that I would be looking to move profitability from Iowa to a lower taxed state. From Iowa’s perspective, this would be a transfer pricing issue. From my perspective it is common sense.

Section 482 wants to be sure that related entities are charging arm’s-length prices to each other. There are selected exceptions for less-than-arm’s-length prices, such as for providing routine, ministerial and administrative services. I suppose one could argue that the maintenance and preparation of investor statements might fit under this exception, but it is doubtful that the provision of investment advisory services would.  Those services involve highly skilled money managers, and are arguably far from routine and ministerial.

So VGI must arguably show a profit, at least for its advisory services. How much profit?

Now starts the nerds running into you in the hall while looking down at their cell phones.

We have to look at what other fund families are doing: Janus, Fidelity, Eaton Vance and so on. We know that Vanguard is unique, so we can anticipate that their management fees are going to be higher, potentially much higher. An analysis of Morningstar data indicates as much as 0.5 percent higher. It doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that Vanguard has approximately $3 trillion under management. Multiply any non-zero number by $3 trillion and you are talking real money.

It is an interesting argument, although it also appears that the IRS was not considering Vanguard’s fact pattern when it issued Regulations. Vanguard has been doing this for 40 years and the IRS has not concerned itself, so one could presume that there is a d├ętente of sorts. Perhaps the IRS realized how absurd it would be to force the management company to charge more to millions of Vanguard investors.

That might attract the attention of Congress, for example, which already is not the biggest fan of the IRS as currently administrated.

Not to mention that since the IRS issued the Regulations, the IRS can change the Regulations.

And all that presumes that we are correctly interpreting an arcane area of tax law.

The whistleblower is a previous tax attorney with Vanguard, and he argues that Vanguard has been underpaying its income taxes by not charging its fund investors enough.

Think about that for a moment. Who is the winner in this Alice-in-Wonderland scenario?

The whistleblower says that he brought his concerns to the attention of his superiors (presumably tax attorneys themselves), arguing that the tax structure was illegal. They disagreed with him. He persisted until he was fired.

He did however attract the attention of the SEC, IRS and state of New York.

I had previously dismissed the whistleblower argument as a fevered interpretation of the transfer pricing rules and the tantrum of an ex-employee bent on retribution.  I must now reevaluate after tax law Professor Reuven S. Avi-Yonah has argued in favor of this case.

I am however reminded of my own experience. There is a trust tax provision that entered the Code in 1986. In the aughts I had a client with that tax issue. The IRS had not issued Regulations, 20 years later. The IRS had informally disclosed its internal position, however, and it was (of course) contrary to what my client wanted. I in turn disagreed with the IRS and believed they would lose if the position were litigated. I advised the client that taking the position was a concurrent decision to litigate and should be addressed as such.

I became extremely unpopular with the client. Even my partner was stressed to defend me. I was basing professional tax advice on chewing gum and candy wrappers, as there was nothing else to go on.

And eventually someone litigated the issue. The case was decided in 2014, twenty eight years after the law was passed. The taxpayer won.

Who is to say that Vanguard’s situation isn’t similar?

What does this tax guy think?

I preface by saying that I respect Professor Avi-Yonah, but I am having a very difficult time accepting the whistleblower argument. Vanguard investors own the Vanguard funds, and the funds in turn own the management company. I may not teach law at the University of Michigan, but I can extrapolate that Vanguard investors own the management company – albeit indirectly – and should be able to charge themselves whatever they want, subject to customary business-purpose principles. Since tax avoidance is not a principal purpose, Section 482 should not be sticking its nose under the tent.

Do you wonder why the IRS would even care? Any income not reported by the management company would be reported by fund investors. The Treasury gets its pound of flesh - except to the extent that the funds belong to retirement plans. Retirement plans do not pay taxes. On the other hand, retirement plan beneficiaries pay taxes when the plan finally distributes.  Treasury is not out any money; it just has to wait. Oh well.

It speaks volumes that someone can parse through the tax Code and arrive at a different conclusion. If fault exists, it lies with the tax Code, not with Vanguard.

Then why bring a whistleblower case? The IRS will pay a whistleblower up to 30% of any recovery, and there are analyses that the Vanguard management company could be on the hook for approximately $30 billion in taxes. Color me cynical, but I suspect that is the real reason.