Monday, March 7, 2016

Getting ROBbed

I was skimming a Tax Court decision that leads with:

“… respondent issued a notice of deficiency … of $249,263.62, additions to tax … of $20,228.76 and $22,476.41, respectively and an enhanced accuracy-related penalty … of $63,918.33”

It was Roth IRA decision.

We have spoken before about putting a business in an IRA, and a Roth is just a type of IRA. This tax structure is sometimes referred to as a “ROBS” – roll-over as business start-up. 

Odds are the only one who is going to get robbed is you. I had earlier looked into and decided that I did not like the ROBS structure. There are too many ways that it can detonate. I do not practice high-wire tax.  

I have also noticed the IRS pursuing this area more aggressively. There often is complacency when a “new” tax idea takes, as the IRS may not respond immediately. That lag is not an imprimatur by the IRS, although self-interested parties may present it as such. I have been in practice long enough to have heard that sales pitch more than once.

Let’s discuss Polowniak v Commissioner.

Polowniak had over 35 years of marketing experience with Fortune 500 companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly Services. In 1997 he formed his own company – Solution Strategies, Inc. (Strategies). He was the sole shareholder and its only consultant.

In 2001 he received a nice contract - $680,000 – from Delphi Automotive Systems – which had him travel extensively to Europe, Asia and South America. 

Now the turn. His financial advisor recommended an attorney who pitched the idea of “privately owned Roth IRA corporations,” also known as PIRACs. These things are not rocket science. In most cases an individual already has an existing company, likely profitable or soon to be. Said individual sets up a Roth IRA. Said Roth purchases the stock of a new corporation (NewCo), which amazingly does exactly the same thing that the existing corporation did, and likely with the same customers, vendors, employee, office space and so on.

The idea of course is that NewCo is going to be very profitable, which allows the opportunity to stuff a lot of money into the Roth in a very short period of time.

So Polowniak sets up a NewCo, which he names Bevco Investments, Inc. (Bevco). There is a little flutter in the story as Bevco selects a January year-end, meaning that a sharp tax advisor may have the opportunity to move things back-and-forth between a calendar-year taxpayer and an entity that doesn’t file its tax return until a year later.

This is fairly routine tax work.

Polowniak owned 98 percent and his administrative assistant owned 2 percent.  His wife later purchased 6% of Bevco.

Strategies and Bevco entered into an agreement whereby it would receive 75% of Strategies revenues for 2002.

By the way, Delphi was never informed of Bevco. Neither was the administrative assistant.

The years passed. Polowniak let the subcontract with Bevco lapse.

And he started depositing all the Strategies revenue from Delphi into Bevco. There was no more pretense of 75 percent.

Bevco was finally dissolved in 2006.

And then came the IRS.

It went after Solutions, which did not report the $680,000 from Delhi. You remember, the same amount it was to share 75% with Bevco.


It also came after Polowniak personally. The IRS wanted penalties for excess funding into a Roth.


There are limits for funding a Roth. For example, the 2015 limit for someone age-50-and-over (ahem) is $6,500. If you go over, then there is a 6% penalty. Mind you, the 6% doesn’t sound like much, but it becomes pernicious, as it compounds on itself every year. Tax practitioners refer to this as “cascading,” and the math can be surprising.

How did he overfund?

Simple. He took existing money from Solutions and put it into Bevco. It is the equivalent of you depositing money at Key Bank rather than Fifth Third.

Polowniak’s job right now was to convince the Court that was a substantive reason for the Solutions –Bevco structure. If Bevco was just an alter ego, he was going to lose and lose big.

He trotted put Hellweg, a tax case featuring Roth IRAs and Domestic International Sales Corporations (DISCs). Whereas the taxpayer won that case, there was some arcane tax reasoning behind it, likely exacerbated by those DISCs.

The Court did not think Hellweg was on point. It thought that Repetto was much more applicable, pointing out:

·        All the services performed by Bevco had previously been performed by Polowniak through Strategies
·        Polowniak performed all the services under the contract with Delphi
·        Since he was the only person performing services, the transfer of payments between Strategies and Bevco had no substantive effect on the Delphi contract
·        Delphi did not know of the contract with Bevco; in fact, neither did the administrative assistant
·        The business dealing between Strategies and Bevco were not business-normative. For example, Bevco never kept time or accounting records of its services, nor did it ever invoice Strategies.

The Court decided against Polowniak. It did not respect the PIRAC, and as far as it was concerned all the Delphi money put into Bevco was an overfunding.

And that is how you blow through a third of a million dollars.

Is there something Polowniak could have done?

He could of course have respected business norms and treated both as separate companies with their own accounting systems, phone numbers, contracts and so forth. It would have helped had Strategies not been depositing and withdrawing monies from Bevco’s bank account.

Still, I do not think that would have been enough.

There are two major problems that I see:

(1) There was an existing contract in place with Delphi. This is not the same as starting Bevco and pounding the streets for work. There is a very strong assignment of income feel, and I suspect just about any Court would have been disquieted by it.
(2) There were not enough players on the field. If I own a company with 75 employees, I may be able to take a slice of its various activities and place it inside a PIRAC or ROBS or whatever, without the thing being seen as my alter ego. Polowniak however was a one-man show. This made it much easier for the IRS to argue substance over form, which the IRS successfully argued here.

My advice? Leave these things alone. There are a hundred ways that these IRA-owned companies can blow up, and the IRS has sounded the trumpet that it is pursuing them.

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