Lien Withdrawal and Collection Due Process Hearing

I.R.C. 6323(j)

The United States Tax Court in Martin Washington Brown v. Comm’r, Docket No. 8999-17L, filed December 9, 2019, held that the IRS Appeals Settlement Officers had not abused their discretion in declining to withdraw a Notice of Federal Tax Lien (NFTL), and sustained the collection action in this matter.  Taxpayer owed multiple years of 1040 income tax liabilities that totaled $35,436.  In September 2016, the IRS established a Partial Payment Installment Agreement (PPIA) for the sum of $300 per month. The IRS determined that the filing of an NFTL was necessary because the unpaid balances exceeded $10,000. Taxpayer timely sought a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing after the filing of the NFTL.  He alleged that he would lose his job if the NFTL was not withdrawn.  The settlement officer advised that the taxpayer could meet the standards for lien withdrawal if he converted the PPIA to a Direct Debit Installment Agreement (DDIA) paying the debt in less than 60 months.  He would then have to apply for lien withdrawal on Form 12277 after three months of successful auto debits.  The taxpayer would not alter the terms of his PPIA to comply and so Appeals sustained the NFTL filing.  The taxpayer filed a Petition in Tax Court for review. The Tax Court remanded to a new Settlement Officer to address whether a lump sum payment made to bring down the balance had been accounted for in the initial conference. The Settlement Officer found that the payments calculated by the first Settlement Officer were correct and requested documentation that his employment was in jeopardy.  The taxpayer declined and decided to continue in Court.  Ultimately, the Taxpayer failed to substantiate any information regarding possible loss of employment.  The Court ruled that the Settlement Officer had not abused his discretion in sustaining the lien.  Furthermore, even if the taxpayer had established the DDIA, the Officer would not have abused his discretion by refusing to withdraw the lien as there is no requirement under the law to withdraw the lien because of an installment agreement.  This is a voluntary procedure of the Service, not a mandatory one.  Taxpayer again presented no evidence in Court regarding possibly loss of employment. The Court entered judgment for the government.

ID Theft Protection

Faxing of Transcripts Eliminated by IRS

On June 4, 2019 the IRS announced that it would stop its tax transcript faxing service on June 28, 2019.  The IRS will not fax to taxpayers, or third parties, including tax professionals.  This will apply to both individuals and businesses.  Tax professionals may ask the IRS to mail transcripts, use e-Services Transcript Delivery Services, or ask the IRS to place a transcript in the practitioner’s e-Services secure mailbox. Additionally, effective July 1, 2019, the IRS will no longer provide transcripts to third parties via Form 4506, Form 4506-T or 4506T-EZ.  Third parties will have to rely on transcripts submitted by taxpayers, or utilize the IRS Income Verification Express Service (IVES).

IRS Office of Appeals

Constitutionally challenged

In Fonticiella v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2019-74, filed June 13, 2019, the Tax Court ruled that IRS Appeals is not a statutorily created independent agency and the separation of powers doctrine doesn’t apply.  The court further held that Appeals is merely a part of the IRS and an Appeals officer is not an Officer of the United States because the position wasn’t established by law to which the Appointments Clause applies.  It is not entirely clear what the taxpayer’s goal in seeking this declaration is.  The taxpayer was alleging that his personal liabilities to the government were the result of embezzlement by the comptroller of his medical practice.  Ultimately, his matter came before IRS appeals and these motions were the subject of his case.  It is assumed his loss will result in further collection action against him.  IRS Appeals seems to have withstood this constitutional challenge.

Dissipation of Assets

Offer in Compromise

In John F. Campbell v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2019-4, Filed February 4, 2019, the Tax Court ruled that an IRS Appeals officer, in the context of reviewing an Offer in Compromise during a Collection Due Process hearing, abused his discretion when including certain dissipated assets in the calculate of Reasonable Collection Potential (RCP). The Court explained that the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) sets forth when dissipated assets should be included in RCP.  Per IRM 5.8.5.18(1), dissipated assets are only included in RCP where “it can be shown that the taxpayer has sold, transferred, encumbered or otherwise disposed of assets in an attempt to avoid the payment of the tax liability,” or otherwise used the assets “for other than the payment of items necessary for the production of income or the health and welfare of the taxpayer or their family, after the tax has been assessed or during a period up to six months prior to or after the tax assessment.”  The IRM instructs that the Appeals officers should use a three-year look-back period, from the date the offer is made, to determine whether it is appropriate to include dissipated assets in the RCP calculation.  The officer may look beyond this period if there is a transfer of assets within six months before or after the assessment of the tax liability.  The Court deemed it an abuse by the Appeals officer to include assets transferred 6 years before the assessment and 10 years before the Offer was submitted.  The Court was further disturbed by additional IRS allegations that the taxpayer sought to “waste his wealth,” rather than pay his tax liabilities. There was no evidence on the record, or otherwise, supporting this contention.   

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.