Updated Guidance from the IRS on Innocent Spouse Relief

When married taxpayers file a return, they may elect to file that return jointly with their spouse.  Sometimes that is a mistake – a big one!  When filing a joint return, the Internal Revenue Code provides that both spouses will be jointly and severally liable for the tax, penalties and interest.  This blog has reviewed the various options available to spouses requesting that they be relieved from liability on the return. Just click on “Innocent Spouse Relief” under “Posts by Category” for a general  review.  Lately, we are seeing the IRS take action to update their analysis of Innocent Spouse Applications.

General guidelines provide that understatements of tax may qualify for relief under so-called “innocent spouse” or “separation of liability” provisions, while underpayments may only qualify under “equitable relief” provisions.  All three of these are under the umbrella of “innocent spouse relief” provided by the Internal Revenue Code.

Of note, earlier this year, the IRS updated internal guidance. One change made to internal guidelines earlier this year was to clarify provisions relating to actual or constructive knowledge of the understatement of tax.  Basically, in order to qualify under this particular type of Innocent Spouse relief, it is necessary to show that the requesting taxpayer did not know about the understatement and had no reason to know of the understatement.  If this requirement isn’t met, then the requesting spouse doesn’t qualify.  However, if the requesting spouse can establish that he or she was the victim of domestic abuse prior to the time that the return was signed, but did not sign the return under duress, and as a result of the prior abuse, did not challenge any of the items on the return for fear of retaliation, then the IRS will not review the requirement of showing that the requesting spouse did not know or did not have reason to know of the understatement.

Normally, the IRS will review the following factors to determine if the requesting spouse knew or had reason to know of the understatement, absent a showing of abuse: 1) the nature of the erroneous item and the amount of the erroneous item relative to the other items, 2) the couple’s financial situation, 3) the requesting spouse’s educational background and business experience, 4) the extent of the requesting spouse’s participation in the activity that resulted in the erroneous item, 5) whether the requesting spouse failed to inquire, at or before the time the return was filed, about items on the return or omitted from the return that a reasonable person would questions, and 6) whether the erroneous item represented a departure from a recurring pattern reflected in prior year’s returns.

The IRS has pending the finalization of procedures that weigh abuse in a spousal relationship more heavily in the analysis of relief under Innocent Spouse provisions.  Some of the changes mentioned here are based in internal guidelines associated with working applications for relief and acknowledge the proposed official guidance.  Should you have questions about Innocent Spouse relief, don’t hesitate to contact our office.

Failure to File Returns

I.R.C. section 6651

The United States Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment in favor of the IRS to sustain penalties in the case of Shih-Fu Peng and Roisin Heneghan v. The United States, No 16-1263T, Filed October 24, 2018. The plaintiffs were assessed late filing penalties in relation to their 2012 tax return. They allege that their return was filed late due to four reasons: 1) The father of one of the taxpayers died in July 2012, 2) their child was born in January 2013, 3) The grandmother of one of the taxpayers died in October 2013, and 4) their accountant was at times unresponsive while trying to prepare their 2012 return. Of course the Court applied the standard of I.R.C . 6651(a)(1)-(2) in determining if relief was appropriate – was the failure to file due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect? Their argument relating to the accountant failed as they only argued that he was the reason they did not file their extension. Ultimately, their return was filed after the extension due date. As such, even if they were correct, their return was still filed late. As for the other events that delayed the taxpayers’ filing, the Court indicated that it has recognized personal hardship as reasonable cause for failure to timely fund under some circumstances – such as an illness or debilitation that, because of its severity or timing, make it virtually impossible for the taxpayer to comply. The Court also explained that a taxpayer could supply evidence of incapacity caused by mental or emotional circumstances. Unfortunately for these taxpayers, it was not clear that their life events made it “virtually impossible,” for them to comply with the filing deadline. As such, no relief was granted.

Notice of Deficiency

I.R.C. section 6213

The United States Tax Court in Jeffrey D. Gregory v. Comm’r, Docket No. 1090-16L, filed November 20, 2018, held that a “reprint” of a notice of deficiency is evidence of the creation of the notice before assessment, even though the reprint was prepared more than two years after the alleged mailing of the original notice and omitted or misstated information that would have appeared on any notice actually mailed. Further, the Court ruled, that the omission from a notice of deficiency of the last day to timely file a petition for re-determination does not invalidate the notice. This case was before the Tax Court for review of a determination by IRS Appeals Office to sustain the filing of a notice of Federal Tax Lien for unpaid income tax liabilities. The Petitioner conceded all aspects of the case except the validity of the notice of deficiency issued by the IRS. The IRS asserted that they issued the petitioner a notice of deficiency for the relevant tax period but admitted there was no copy of the original notice that could be reproduced. The Court ultimately ruled that it did not see why the reprints couldn’t serve as evidence that the IRS prepared the notice of deficiency, even if they were not deemed duplicates. The Court inferred from the inclusion in the IRS database of the information about the taxpayer on the reprint that it had created the notice of deficiency in accordance with its “customary practice.” As for the lack of a date to file the Petition in Tax Court, the reprint would not reflect that information as the IRS had explained this information is entered by hand when the original is issued.

Trust Fund Recover Penalty

I.R.C. section 6672

This is a hard fought case on a narrow issue that ultimately went in favor of the IRS. The Tax Court in Scott T. Blackburn v. Comm’r, 150 T.C. No. 9, filed April 9, 2018, was asked to review the verification of compliance rule of I.R.C. section 6751(b), as required by sections 6330(c)(1) and (3)(A). The Appeals officer must “obtain verification from the Secretary that the requirements of any applicable law or administrative procedure have been met.” Sec. 6330(c)(1). The Petitioner did not argue or contest the liability issue relating to assessment of the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty against him. The Revenue Officer in this instance has recommended assessment and said assessment was approved by the Revenue Officer’s manager using Form 4183. The name of the manager was listed on the form, but no signature was present. The taxpayer argued that in creating section 6751(b), Congress could not have meant to require a meaningless, supervisory “rubber stamped” signature. Petitioner asked the IRS many times to provide some evidence that the supervisor’s review was meaningful. Petitioner relies on the Internal Revenue Manual to suggest an argument that the signature of a supervisor in support of a penalty is not in itself a sufficient showing to comply with section 6751(b). The Court indicated that caselaw review applying these code sections has only required the officer to review the administrative steps taken before assessment of the underlying liability. To impose the requirement of a substantive review on the officer would allow the taxpayer to avoid the limitations of pursuing the underlying liability in a review under section 6330 and apply a level of detail in the verification process that has never been previously required, the Court explained.

Increased collection activity against federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plans (TSP)

The National Taxpayer Advocate has reported in its Fiscal Year 2016 Objectives report to Congress that a proposal by the IRS to expand collection efforts against retirement plans of federal employees “infringes on taxpayers’ rights to a fair and just tax system.” Federal employees have the ability to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which is similar to a private sector 401(k) plan in that employee savings are tax deferred and qualify for some level of employer, (in this case the federal government), matching.

Taxpayers, including federal government employees, who owe taxes are subject to IRS levy on their property and rights to property.  This power extends to retirement accounts, including the TSP.  However, given the importance of retirement savings to an individual’s welfare during old age, the IRS has historically regarded a levy on retirement funds as a special case that requires additional scrutiny and a manager’s approval. 

Essentially, before a field Revenue Officer can levy a retirement benefit, the agent would determine what property is available to levy – both retirement and non-retirement, determine if the taxpayer has acted in a flagrant manner, and finally determine if the retirement funds are required for necessary living expenses. There are distinct problems with these factors, but that has been partially mitigated by other requirements prior to issuance of the levy.  The field Revenue Officer must either secure the signature of the Area Director of Field collections, or secure a manager’s approval.

In order to obtain a collection manager’s approval in this instance, the field Revenue Officer is required to draft a detailed memo that sets out a summary of all information provided to the agent by the taxpayer, whether the taxpayer has exhibited any flagrant behavior, and more importantly, other collection alternatives that have been considered and rejected.  In other words, the retirement account falls into a secondary level of collection after the field Revenue Officer reviews other property or income to levy. 

Recent activity at the IRS has created a pilot program to levy TSP accounts.  Most importantly, and of greatest concern, this program will be administered by ACS employees.  ACS is the Automated Collection System unit.  When a taxpayer’s account is in ACS, it is not assigned to a single employee for collection, rather, there are various employees in functions and units that work on similar matters.  These employees do not receive the same level of financial analysis training as a field Revenue Officer. 

In addition to the reduced training received by ACS employees, the pilot program calls for ACS employees to document any information that a retirement is impending and that the taxpayer will be relying on funds from the TSP for necessary living expenses.  This lacks any analysis regarding other property the taxpayer may have that would be available to collect from, or if the taxpayer acted in a flagrant manner, all requirements of a field Revenue Officer. 

Finally, the pilot program requires managerial approval prior to levy on retirement accounts – but that is a requirement of many collection actions by ACS employees – hardly elevating these situation to a special case status.  What is not referenced is the required memo to the manager detailing information provided by the taxpayer and collection alternatives considered and rejected before proposing levy to the retirement account – all requirements of the field Revenue Officer.

In summary, the IRS is targeting one type of retirement account, the TSP, for increased collection activity, over all others. ACS does not have the ability to levy any other retirement accounts at this time.  The National Taxpayer Advocate believes that this pilot program undermines both taxpayer rights and retirement security policy.  As such, the National Taxpayer Advocate is going to continue to push the IRS to abandon the Thrift Savings Plan levy pilot program  If the IRS adopts the program, the National Taxpayer Advocate is prepared to accept all TSP levy cases coming from ACS.  Taxpayers should take advantage of this opportunity to protect their retirement income.  Additionally, where possible, taxpayers should seek assistance from the Appeals division in order to entertain collection alternatives through Appeals’ Collection Due Process hearing procedures.  Feel free to contact Caraker Law Firm, P.C. with any questions you may have. 

IRS institutes Early Interaction Initiative for Employment Tax matters

IRS institutes Early Interaction Initiative for Employment Tax matters

  It is expected that the IRS will be instituting swifter action against employers that are falling behind on their Federal Tax Deposits (FTD’s) for employment taxes.  Those taxpayers who have had interaction with a field Revenue Officer are likely hearing from those Revenue Officers more quickly if they fall behind on their required deposits.  However, the IRS announced in December 2015 that it is instituting efforts to identify employers who appear to be falling behind on their tax payments – apparently even before their employment tax return is being filed. 

            The IRS has indicated that their identification efforts will result in letters, automated phone messages, and other communications which could include a visit from a field Revenue Officer.  The IRS has indicated that this effort will reduce the likelihood of the problem becoming uncontrollable.  Many taxpayers simply do not realize how steep the penalties can be for failure to properly make tax deposits, pay employment taxes timely, or failure to file timely returns.  Further, it is unlikely that most taxpayers understand the personal liability that can be assessed from unpaid employment taxes.  A liability that is not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

            While the education efforts are beneficial, certainly there is an enforcement aspect of this activity by the IRS.  The IRS readily admits that two-thirds of federal taxes are collected through the payroll tax system.  With a reduced budget, this activity makes good sense for the IRS.  However, it is most likely going to be most burdensome for small businesses. 

            No doubt early action is best.  If you know you have been falling behind on your payroll tax obligations and need assistance planning before you hear from the taxing authorities, feel free to call. 

Court Affects Payments from Conservation Reserve Program

8th Circuit Ruling Affects Characterization of Payments from Conservation Reserve Program:

The US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit recently handed down a decision in Morehouse v. C.I.R, (8th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014), which decided whether or not payments received under the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) should be included as income from self-employment on a taxpayer’s return.

In this case, the taxpayer inherited 1223 acres of land in 1994, located on three different properties in South Dakota (503 acres in Grant County, 320 acres in Roberts County, and 400 acres in Day County). All of the land was tillable cropland with exception of a gravel pit on the Grant County property and 129 acres on the Roberts County property that the taxpayer’s father placed under the CRP program. The taxpayer never farmed any of the land.

In 1997, the taxpayer enrolled the remaining acreage of the Roberts County property and the tillable land in Grant County in the CRP program. The primary purpose of the CRP program is to reduce soil erosion and improve soil conditions on highly erodible cropland by limiting the taxpayer’s use of the property. Therefore, by enrolling in the program, the taxpayer entered into a contractual obligation with the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) requiring him to implement conservation plans for the properties in the program. These plans required the taxpayer to establish and maintain certain types of grass or vegetative cover on the land and engage in periodic weed and pest control. As compensation for implementing the conservation plans, the taxpayer was reimbursed for a portion of his costs and was paid an “annual rental payment.”

In both 2006 and 2007, the taxpayer received CRP payments of $37,872. The taxpayer included the CRP payments on his return in both years as a rental payment received from real estate. As a result, on October 14, 2010 the IRS sent the taxpayer a notice of deficiency stating that the CRP payments should have been reported as self-employment income on a Schedule F, Profit or Loss from Farming. The taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court for review of this determination, claiming that the CRP payments were rentals from real estate under 26 U.S.C. §1402(a)(1), and therefore should be excluded from his net earnings from self-employment. However, the Tax Court sustained the service’s conclusion that the CRP payments constituted self-employment income reasoning that because the payments were proceeds from the taxpayer’s own use of the land they did not constitute rental payments.

On appeal, the primary issue centered on whether or not CRP payments should be categorized as “net earnings from self-employment.” In deciding this question, the Appeals Court first looked at types of payments that would generally be classified as self-employment income. The Court explained that self-employment income consists of the gross income derived from the taxpayer’s trade or business. Or in other words, the trade or business must give rise to the income before it can be included as self-employment income.

Contrary to the Tax Court’s opinion, the Appeals Court found that the CRP payments did not derive from the taxpayer’s activities on the land because the only reason the taxpayer engaged in any activities such as tilling and seeding on the land was because it was required by the CRP contracts. The Appeals Court further determined that because the contracts reserved a right of entry for the government onto the CRP property for purposes of inspection, that the government was “using” the land as much as if not more than the taxpayer. Therefore, the CRP payments were given to the taxpayer in consideration for this right to use and occupy the taxpayer’s property.

Next the Court looked at how similar payments to taxpayers have been categorized in the past. In doing so, the Court looked to Rev. Ruling 60-32, 1960-1 C.B. 23 (1960) concerning the CRP’s predecessor, the Soil Bank Act. In this ruling the IRS concluded that soil bank payments to people who did not operate or materially participate in a farming operation were to be viewed as rental income, not self-employment income. However, the ruling further stated that soil bank payments made to farmers were self-employment income.  Although this precedent was not controlling, the Court decided that given the significant overlap in the CRP and Soil Bank programs, and because it reflects a longstanding and reasonable interpretation of the Agency’s regulations, the revenue ruling was persuasive. Therefore, the Court decided to follow the Soil Bank Program distinction between payments to farmers and non-farmers in concluding that CRP payments to the taxpayer in this case were rental income because he was not engaged in farming operations. Looking forward it appears that at least in the 8th Circuit, taxpayers who receive payments from the CRP program will be able to include the income as rental income rather than self-employment income on their tax return, if they are not operating farming activities on the land.

If you have any questions about how this ruling might affect the characterization of your CRP payments, please feel free to contact our office.