Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Do You Have to Disclose That?

I was recently talking with another CPA. He had an issue with an estate income tax return, and he was wondering if a certain deduction was a dead loser. I looked into the issue as much as I could (that busy season thing), and it was not clear to me that the deduction was a loser, much less a dead loser.

He then asked: does he need to disclose if he takes the deduction?

Let’s take a small look into professional tax practice.

There are many areas and times when a tax advisor is not dealing with clear-cut tax law.

Depending upon the particular issue, I as a practitioner have varying levels of responsibility. For some I can take a position if I have a one-in-five (approximately) chance of winning an IRS challenge; for others it is closer to one-in-three.

There are also issues where one has to disclose to the IRS that one took a given position on a return. The concept of one-in-whatever doesn’t apply to these issues. It doesn’t have to be nefarious, however. It may just be a badly drafted Regulation and a taxpayer with enough dollars on the line.

Then there are “those” transactions.

They used to be called tax shelters, but the new term for them is “listed transactions.” There is even a subset of listed transactions that the IRS frowns upon, but not as frowny as listed transactions. Those are called “reportable transactions.”

This is an area of practice that I try to stay away from. I am willing to play aggressive ball, but the game stays within the chalk lines. Making tax law is for the big players – think Apple’s tax department – not for a small CPA firm in Cincinnati.

Staying up on this area is difficult, too. The IRS periodically revises a list of transactions that it is scrutinizing. The IRS then updates its website, and I – as a practitioner – am expected to repeatedly visit said website patiently awaiting said update. Fail to do so and the IRS automatically shifts blame to the practitioner.

No thanks.

I am looking at a case involving a guy who sells onions. His company is an S corporation, which means that he puts the business numbers on his personal return and pays tax on the conglomeration.

His name is Vee.

He got himself into a certain type of employee benefit plan.

A benefit plan provides benefits other than retirement. It could be health, for example, or disability or severance. The tax Code allows a business to prefund (and deduct) these benefits, as long as it follows certain rules. A general concept underlying the rules is risk-taking and cost-sharing – that is, there should be a feel of insurance to the thing.

This is relatively easy to do when you are Toyota or General Mills. Being large certainly makes it easier to work with the law of large numbers.

The rules however are problematic as the business gets smaller. Congress realized this and passed Code Section 419A(f)(6), allowing small employers to join with other small employers – in a minimum group of ten – and obtain tax advantages  otherwise limited to the bigger players.

Then came the promoters peddling these smaller plans. You could offer death and disability benefits to your employees, for example, and shift the risk to an insurance company. A reasonable employer would question the use of life insurance. If the employer needed money to pay benefits, wouldn’t a mutual fund make more sense than an illiquid life insurance policy? Ah, but the life insurance policy allows for inside buildup. You could overfund the policy and have all kinds of cash value. You would just borrow from the cash value – a nontaxable transaction, by the way – to pay the benefits. Isn’t that more efficient than a messy portfolio?

Then there were the games the promoters played to diminish the risk of joining a group with nine others.

Vee got himself into one of these plans.

He funded the thing with life insurance. He later cancelled the plan, keeping the life insurance policy for himself.

The twist on his plan was the use of experience-rated life insurance.

Experience-rated does not pay well with the idea of cost-and-risk sharing. If I am experience rated, then my insurance cost is based on my experience. My insurance company does not look at you or any of the other eight employers in our group. I am not feeling the insurance on this one.

Some of these plans were outrageous. The employer would keep the plan going for a few years, overpay for the insurance, then shut down the plan and pay “value” for the underlying insurance policy. The insurance company would keep the “value” artificially low, so it did not cost the employer much to buy the policy on the way out. Then a year or two later, the cash value would multiply ten, twenty, fifty, who-knows-how-many-fold. This technique was called “springing,” and it was like finding the proverbial pot of gold.

The IRS had previously said that plans similar to Vee’s were listed transactions.

This meant that Vee had to disclose his plan on his tax return.

He did not.

That is an automatic $10,000 penalty. No excuses.

He did it four times, so he was in for $40,000.

He went to Court. His argument was simple: the IRS had not said that his specific plan was one of those abusive plans. The IRS had said “plans similar to,” but what do those words really mean? Do you know what you have forgotten? What is the point of a spice rack? Does anybody really know what time it is?

Yea, the Court felt the same way. The plan was “similar to.” They were having none of it.

He owed $40,000.

He should have disclosed.

Even better, he should have left the whole thing alone.

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