Friday, November 24, 2017

When The IRS Says Loan Repayments Are Taxable Wages

Here is a common-enough fact pattern:

(1) You have a company.
(2) You loan the company money.
(3) The company has an unprofitable stretch.
(4) Your accountant tells you to reduce or stop your paycheck.
(5) You still have bills to pay. The company pays them for you, reporting them as repayments of your loan.

What could go wrong?

Let’s look at the Singer Installations, Inc v Commissioner case.

Mr. Singer started Singer Installations in 1981. It was primarily involved with servicing, repairing and modifying recreational vehicles, although it also sold cabinets used in the home construction.

After a rough start, the business started to grow. The company was short of working capital, so Mr. Singer borrowed personally and relent the money to the company. All in all, he put in around two-thirds of a million dollars.
PROBLEM: Forget about the formalities of debt: there was no written note, no interest, no repayment schedule, nothing. All that existed was a bookkeeping entry.
The business was growing. Singer had problems, but they were good problems.

Let’s fast-forward to 2008 and the Great Recession. No one was modifying recreational vehicles, and construction was drying up. Business went south. Singer had tapped-out his banks, and he was now borrowing from family.

He lost over $330 grand in 2010 and 2011 alone. The company stopped paying him a salary. The company paid approximately $180,000 in personal expenses, which were reported as loan repayments.

The IRS disagreed. They said the $180 grand was wages. He was drawing money before and after. And – anyway – that note did not walk or quack like a real note, so it could not be a loan repayment. It had to be wages. What else could it be?

Would his failure to observe the niceties of a loan cost him?

Here is the Court:
We recognize that Mr. Singer’s advances have some of the characteristics of equity – the lack of a promissory note, the lack of a definitive maturity date, and the lack of a repayment schedule …”
This is going to end poorly.
 … but we do not believe those factors outweigh the evidence of intent.”
Wait, is he going to pull this out …?
 … because intent of parties to create [a] loan was overwhelming and outweighed other factors.”
He won …!
However, we cannot find that all of the advances were loans.”
Then what would they be?
While we believe that Mr. Singer had a reasonable expectation of repayment for advances made between 2006 and 2008, we do not find that a similarly reasonable expectation of repayment existed for later advances.”
Why not, Sheldon?
 After 2008 the only source of capital was from Mr. Singer’s family and Mr. Singer’s personal credit cards.”
And …?
No reasonable creditor would lend to petitioner.”

The Court decided that advances in 2008 and earlier were bona fide loans. Business fortunes changed drastically, and advances made after 2008 were not loans but instead were capital contributions.

This “no reasonable creditor would lend” can be a difficult standard to work with. I have known multimillionaires who became such because they did not know when to give up. I remember one who became worth over $30 million – on his third try.

Still, the Court is not saying to fold the company. It is just saying that – past a certain point – you have injected capital rather than made a loan. That point is when an independent third party would refuse to lend money, no matter how sweet the deal.

Why would the IRS care?

The real-world difference is that it is more difficult tax-wise to withdraw capital from a business than it is to repay a loan. Repay a loan and you – with the exception of interest – have no tax consequence.

Withdraw capital – assuming state law even allows it – and the weight of the tax Code will grind you to dust trying to make it taxable – as a dividend, as a capital gain, as glitter from the tax fairy.

It was a mixed win for Singer, but at least he did not have to pay taxes on those phantom wages.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

When The IRS Does Not Believe You Filed An Extension

I have a certain amount of concern whenever we approach a major due date. Let’s use your personal tax return as an example. It is due on April 15; an extension stretches that out to October 15. 

What is the big deal?

Penalties. Fail to extend the return, for example.

How does this happen?

A client moves to another city. A client was unhappy with your fees last year, and you are uncertain if the client is staying with you. A client’s kid starts working, prompting a tax return for the first time. A client gets involved with some business, and the first time you hear about it is when his/her information comes in. A client does business in a new state.

Or – let’s be frank here – you just miss it.

There are two common penalties; think of them as the salt and pepper of penalties:

·      Failure to file
·      Failure to pay

We associate the IRS with taking our money, so one would easily assume that the more onerous penalty is failure to pay. It is not. Owe money past April 15 and the IRS will charge a penalty of ½% per month.

Fail to file, however, and the penalty is 5% per month.

Yep, 10 times as much.

And when does the penalty start?

Miss that extension and it starts April 16.

Huh? Don’t you have until October 15 to file that thing?

Yes, IF you file an extension.

You do not want to miss that extension.

I was reading a case about the Laidlaw brothers. They sold Harley Davidson motorcycles, and they got pulled into Court for a welfare benefit plan that went awry.

There was one issue left: did their accountant file extensions for the two brothers by April 15? If not, those penalties included 5 zeroes. We are talking enough-to-buy-a-house money.

To add to the stress, the trial occurred about a decade after the tax year in question.

The accountant’s name was Morgan, and he presented extensions showing zero tax due for each brother. The IRS said it never received any extensions. Morgan did not send the extensions certified mail, but he recalled sending both extensions in the same envelope. He remembered taking the envelope to the post office and checking for proper postage. He took pride that the Post Office had never returned an extension request for insufficient postage.

He pointed out that there was no question about an extension for the year before, and the year before that, and so forth. The brothers were significant clients to his firm, and he went the extra mile.

The IRS was having none of it. They pointed out that Morgan had many clients, and the likelihood that he could remember something that specific from a decade ago was dubious. Additionally, any memory was suspect as self-serving.

Sounds like Morgan needed to present well in front of the Court.

And there is the rub. The Laidlaw case went Rule 122, meaning that depositions were submitted to the Court, but there was no opportunity for face-to-face questioning.

Here is the Court:
… we had no opportunity to observe Mr. Morgan’s credibility as a witness. The reliability of a witness’ testimony hinges on his credibility. We were not provided a full opportunity – so critical to our being able to find the witness reliable – to evaluate Mr. Morgan’s credibility on the issue of timely filing because petitioners never offered his live testimony in a trial setting. While we can learn much from reading the testimony, it is not the same as a firsthand observation of the witness’ demeanor and sincerity, both essential aspects of credibility and reliability.
The brothers lost, and the IRS collected a sizeable penalty amount.

Back in the day, we used to log all extensions going to the IRS. We would certify each envelope and then attach the receipt to a log detailing each envelope’s contents. Granted, that log could not prove that a given envelope contained a given extension, but it did show our attention to policies and procedures. I recall getting out of at least one sizeable penalty by arguing that point to the IRS.

Those were different times, and many (including me) would say that today’s IRS is less forgiving of basic human error

And, to some extent, we are talking ancient history with extension procedure. Today’s practices, our included, has moved to electronic filing. Our software tracks and records our extensions and returns and their receipt by the IRS. I do not need to keep a mail log as my software does it for me.

Morgan needed something like a log. It would have given the Court confidence in and support for his recollection of acts occurring a decade earlier, even without him being present to testify in person.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Can You Depreciate a Battle Axe?

Mr. and Mrs. Eotvos (Eotvos) ran a day care out of their house.

There are special tax rules for a day care provider.

(1) For example, how would you depreciate your personal house for the day care activity?

The first rule that comes to mind is the office-in-home, but that rule doesn’t work for a provider. The office-in-home requires “exclusive” use in order to claim a deduction. By that standard a provider wouldn’t be able to claim any depreciation, unless one had a room used only for the day care.

In response, the IRS loosened that rule from “exclusive” to “regular” use. For example, a provider would use the kitchen, dining room and bathrooms regularly, making them eligible for depreciation.

Can you claim 100% of the cost of your house?

You already know the answer is “no.” That is what the shift from “exclusive use” to “regular use” means.

But what percentage do you use?

You probably use hours.

Let’s say you have kids in your house 45 hours a week.

You still spend time cleaning, lesson planning, preparing meals and so on. Say that it comes to another 14 hours per week.

There are 168 hours in a week. You spend 59 hours on daycare activities. Seems to me that 35% (59/168) would be reasonable.

(2) If you travel, you likely know about the per diem rate. This is something the IRS publishes annually, and – in general – you can deduct this rate for each day you are away-from-home for business purposes. You do not have to. You can claim actual expenses if you wish, but you will need to step-up your document retention procedures if you go that route.

Did you know that there are per diem rates for a day care provider? Yep, there is a rate for breakfast, lunch and snack. You can claim the per diem and skip the hassle of segregating how much of your grocery bill was for the day care and how much was personal.

The IRS looked at Eotvos’ 2012 through 2014 tax returns. They claimed depreciation on their house. The Court wanted to see the calculation.

Eotvos photographed numerous pieces of furniture and furnishings and estimated what they were worth.

COMMENT: We will not get into Accounting 101 here, but this is not the way it is done.

The furnishings they were depreciating – best the Court could tell - included a battle axe and jewelry.

Folks, there has to be some connection to a business activity to even start this conversation. You cannot bring home a pair of Nike sneakers and claim that 35% of the cost is deductible because you brought them inside the house.

Here is the Court:
Battle axes were not used as children’s playthings, and their acquisition and maintenance was not in furtherance of the day care business.”

What happens when you tell the Court silly stuff?
And a witness who can testify with a straight face about the nexus between a battle axe and a day care business earns no credibility.”
This is going south.

The IRS had calculated some depreciation, as there was no question that there was a day care there. Eotvos very much disagreed with the calculation, arguing – among other things – that the allowable business-use percentage should be 100%.
This blanket assertion, like the battle axe, strains credulity.”
They hit south and just kept going.

The Court allowed the IRS-calculated depreciation. The Court however slapped an accuracy-related penalty on the excess of their depreciation over the IRS number.

They sort of brought that upon themselves.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Owing A Million Dollar Penalty

What caught my attention was the size of the penalty.

The story involves Letantia Russell, a dermatologist from California who has been in the professional literature way too much over too many years. The story started with her attorneys reorganizing her medical practice into a three-tiered structure and concealing ownership through use of nominees. Then there was the offshore bank account.

Let’s talk about that offshore account.

Back when I came out of school, one had to report foreign accounts above a certain dollar balance. The form was called the “TD 90-22.1.” I remember accountants who had never heard of it. It just wasn’t a thing.

The requirement hasn’t changed, but the times have.

If you have an overseas bank account, you are supposed to disclose it. The IRS has a question on Schedule B (where you report interest and dividends) whether you have a foreign bank account. If you answer yes, you are required to file that TD 90-22.1. The form does not go to the IRS; it instead goes to the Treasury Department. Mind you, the IRS is part of Treasury, but there are arcane rules about information sharing between government agencies and whatnot. Send to Treasury: good. Send to IRS: bad.

The rules were fairly straightforward: bank account, balance over $10 grand, own or able to sign on the account, required to file. There was no rocket science here.

Don’t play games with account types, either. A checking account is the same as a savings account which is the same as a money market and so on. Leave that hair-splitting stuff to the lawyers.

About a decade or so ago, the government decided to pursue people who were hiding money overseas. Think the traditional Swiss bank account, where the banker would risk jail rather than provide information on the ownership of an account. That Swiss quirk developed before the Second World War and was in response to the unstable Third Republic of France and Weimar government of Germany. Monies were moving fast and furious to Switzerland, and Swiss bankers made it a criminal offense to break a strict confidentiality requirement.

Thurston Howell III joked about it on Gilligan’s Island.

Travel forward to the aughts and the UBS scandal and the U.S. government was not laughing.

Swiss banks eventually agreed to disclose.

The IRS thundered that those who had … ahem, “underreported” … their foreign income in the past might want to clean-up their affairs.

The government dusted-off that old 90-22.1 and gave it a new name: FinCen 114 Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts.

The IRS was still miffed about that government-agency-sharing thing, so it came up with its own form: Form 8938 Statement of Foreign Financial Assets.

So you had to report that bank account to Treasury on the FinCen and to the IRS on Form 8938.  Trust me, even the accountants were trying to understand that curveball.

Resistance is futile, roared the IRS.

Many practitioners, me included, believed then and now that the IRS went fishing with dynamite. The IRS seemed unwilling to distinguish someone who inherited his/her mom’s bank account in India from a gazillionaire hedge-fund manager who knew exactly what he/she was doing when hiding the money overseas.

And you always have … those people.

Letantia Russell is one of those people.

The penalties can hurt. Fail to fail by mistake and the penalty begins at $10,000. Willfully fail to file and the penalty can be the greater of

·      $100,000 or
·      ½ the balance in the account

Letantia dew a $1.2 million penalty on her 2006 tax return. I normally sympathize with the taxpayer, but I do not here. One has to be a taxpayer before we can have that conversation.

It went to District Court. It then went to Appeals, where her attorneys lobbed every possible objection, including the unfortunate trade of Jimmy Garappolo from the New England Patriots to the San Francisco 49ers.

It was to no avail. She gets to pay a penalty that would make a nice retirement account for many of us.