In 2015, the U.S. Tax Court issued its ruling in the case of David W. Laudon v. Commissioner, TC Summary Option 2015-54 (2015). The case may not raise or even resolve any novel tax issues, but it reminds us of what is hopefully the obvious relative to the deductibility of business expenses. The Court’s opinion and its recitation of the underlying facts, however, make for an extremely interesting and entertaining read.
In March 2014, I reported on the all-out battle that was ensuing in the U.S. Tax Court between the IRS and the Estate of Michael Jackson over the value of the late pop singer’s estate. It began in 2013, when the estate petitioned the court, alleging that the Service’s assessment, based upon the assertion that the estate underreported its estate tax obligation by more than $500 million, was incorrect. In addition, the estate challenged the IRS’s additional assessment of almost $200 million in penalties. Keep in mind that although these numbers are staggering, they do not include the estate’s potential state of California estate tax obligations.
On May 11, 2015, after serving as Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”) for approximately six (6) years, Ms. Karen Hawkins announced her intention to step-down and retire, effective July 11, 2015.
The OPR is responsible for interpreting and applying the Treasury Regulations governing practice before the Internal Revenue Service (commonly known as “Circular 230”). It has exclusive responsibility for overseeing practitioner conduct and implementing discipline. For this purpose, practitioners include attorneys, certified public accountants, enrolled agents, enrolled actuaries, appraisers, and all other persons representing taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.
In accordance with ORS § 314.402, the Oregon Department of Revenue (“DOR”) shall impose a penalty on a taxpayer when it determines the taxpayer “substantially” understated taxable income for any taxable year. The penalty is 20% of the amount of tax resulting from the understated taxable income. ORS § 314.402(1). For this purpose, a “substantial” understatement of taxable income for any taxable year exists if it equals or exceeds $15,000. ORS § 314.402(2)(a). In the case of a corporation (excepting S corporations and personal holding companies), the threshold is increased to $25,000. ORS § 314.402(2)(b). As perplexing as it may be, these thresholds (established in 1987) are not indexed for inflation.
HOUSE BILL 2488
House Bill 2488 changes the penalty terrain in Oregon. It was unanimously passed by the Oregon House of Representatives on March 2, 2015. The bill made its way to the Oregon Senate where it was unanimously passed on April 8, 2015. The Governor signed House Bill 2488 into law on April 16, 2015. Although it becomes law on the 91st day following the end of the current legislative session, taxpayers and practitioners need to be aware, the new law applies to tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2015.
Thomas v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2013-60 (February 26, 2013)
The saga of Michael and Julie Thomas started in the early part of this decade. Michael was the head of real estate acquisition for DBSI in Idaho. There, he met fellow DBSI employee Don Steeves, who was a CPA with seven (7) years of experience, primarily working in the real estate investment industry. When Michael started two real estate businesses, TIC Capital ("TIC") and TICC Property Management ("TICC"), he hired Steeves as an independent contractor to serve as CFO of TIC and as the managing partner of TICC. His compensation was incentive based—he received compensation which was based on the financial success of the two businesses. In good years, Steeves’ compensation was off the charts. In addition to acting as CFO for the two businesses, Steeves prepared Michael’s and Julie’s income tax returns. They relied upon him to oversee all aspects of accounting and tax compliance for both of the businesses and their personal affairs. They let him take total control of these functions.
IRC § 6656(a) provides, in the case of any failure to timely deposit employment taxes, unless the failure is due to “reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect,” a penalty shall be imposed. The penalty is a percentage of the amount of underpayment.
- 2% for failures of five (5) days or less;
- 5% for failures of more than five (5) days, but less than 15 days;
- 10% for failures of more than 15 days; and
- 15% for failures beyond the earlier of: (i) 10 days after receipt of the first delinquency notice under IRC § 6303; or (ii) the day on which notice and demand is made under IRC §§ 6861, 6862 or 6331(a)(last sentence)(jeopardy assessment).
In addition to the “reasonable cause” exception contained in IRC § 6656(a), there are two other means by which taxpayers may avoid the imposition of the penalty.
1. Secretary has authority under IRC § 6656(c) to waive the penalty if:
- The failure is inadvertent;
- The return was timely filed;
- The failure was the taxpayer’s first deposit obligation or the first deposit obligation after it was require to change the frequency of deposits; and
- The taxpayer meets the requirements of IRC § 7430(c)(4)(A)(ii) [submits a request within 30 days and comes within certain net worth parameters].
2. The Secretary has authority under IRC § 6656(d) to waive the penalty if:
- The taxpayer is a first time depositor; and
- The amount required to be deposited was inadvertently sent to the Secretary instead of the appropriate government depository.
As the exceptions are limited in application, most taxpayers seeking abatement of the penalty are required to pursue the “reasonable cause” exception.
The Estate of Michael Jackson is battling it out with the IRS in a dispute over the value of the late pop star’s estate. To borrow the titles from two of Michael Jackson’s hit songs, the Service is alleging the estate is “Bad” in that it substantially understated the value of the decedent’s assets, while the estate is telling the Service that it is wrong and it should simply “Beat It.”
What is the battle about? The answer is simple: Lots of money! The Service asserts the understatement results in the estate owing taxes of over $500 million more than actually reported on the estate’s tax return, plus almost $200 million in penalties. If the Service is correct, the State of California will likely have its hand out, asking the estate for a significant amount of additional taxes, plus penalties.
According to the petition filed by the estate in the United States Tax Court, representatives of the estate placed a date of death value on the decedent’s property at a little over $7 million. The IRS, on the other hand, asserts the value was closer to $1.125 billion dollars. If the Service is correct, the estate was undervalued by more than 160 times.
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder and the Chair of the Tax & Benefits practice group at Foster Garvey, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York, Spokane, Washington; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant practices in the Portland office. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long-term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.