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.
If Michael Jackson could instruct his estate lawyers about case strategy, I am sure he would be recounting the lyrics from his 1982 smash hit Beat It:
Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it
No one wants to be defeated
Showin’ how funky and strong is your fight
It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right
Just beat it, beat it
Unfortunately, the case is not going the way Michael Jackson would have wanted it to go. Rather, victory appears to be nowhere in sight for either the taxpayer or the government.
It is now well over two years after the battle started. It continues to rage. Neither the IRS nor the estate is taking the tack from the title of the late pop singer’s 1991 hit song, Give In to Me.
In July 2014, the IRS added a little more pain to the estate’s already existing misery. It took a deeper look at the value of the estate’s ownership rights to the Jackson Five master recordings and the accrued royalties. As a result, the IRS increased the assessment by almost $29 million. Ouch! I am confident Michael Jackson would have responded to the IRS, quoting from his smash hit Leave Me Alone that appeared on the 1987 album Bad:
Leave me alone, stop it!
The IRS either isn’t hip enough to remember the late pop singer’s hit, Leave Me Alone, or it simply isn’t listening! Last week, it asked the court to add another $53 million in value to the estate.
The battle continues roaring strong. The IRS, in its quest to collect more taxes and penalties, appears to be leaving no stone unturned. I apologize in advance to my readers, but I have to quote Michael Jackson one more time; this time from his hit song Scream that appears on the 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I:
Tired of injustice
Tired of the schemes
The lies are disgusting
So what does it mean
Kicking me down
I got to get up
As jacked as it sounds
The whole system sucks
Trial in this case is currently scheduled for February 2017. It continues to be interesting. Stay tuned! I will follow up if the case resolves or takes another interesting turn.
Earlier this week, United States Tax Court Judge Richard T. Morrison ruled, in the case of Emmanuel A. Santos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2016-100 (May 17, 2016), that the government will not pay the cost of a taxpayer obtaining a law degree.
This is a pro se case. While the record was not very clear, the taxpayer, Emmanuel A. Santos, claimed he earned a degree in accounting from Indiana University in 1988. Thereafter, he began a career as a tax return preparer. In 1996, he obtained a master’s degree in taxation. Eventually, Mr. Santos expanded his tax return preparer practice to include accounting and financial planning services.
Mr. Santos attended a law school in California, graduating in 2011. He was admitted to the California Bar Association and the United States Tax Court in 2014. In 2015, Mr. Santos and his father started Santos & Santos Law Offices LLP, a law firm offering attorney, tax planning, accounting and financial planning services.
On his 2010 federal income tax return, Mr. Santos deducted, in addition to various expenses, including laundry costs, $20,275 for law school tuition and fees. On audit, many of these deductions were denied.
After likely losing at the IRS Office of Appeals, Mr. Santos headed to the United States Tax Court. The sole issue in dispute was whether the deduction of $20,275 for law school tuition and fees was allowable under Code § 162 as an ordinary and necessary business expense.
When Educational Expenses Are Considered Deductible (and When They Are Nondeductible)
Treas. Reg. § 1.162-5(a) is clear—educational expenses that either: (i) maintain or improve skills required by the taxpayer in his or her current employment; or (ii) are required by the taxpayer’s employer (or applicable law) as a condition to continued employment or rate of compensation, are deductible. On the other hand, certain types of educational expenses are expressly nondeductible, including expenses for education that qualify the taxpayer for a new trade or business. Treas. Reg. § 1.162-5(b)(1) provides examples of these nondeductible educational expenses. One of the examples set forth in the regulations specifically references a taxpayer practicing accounting who pursues a law degree. The costs of attending law school are nondeductible because the course of study qualifies the taxpayer for a new trade or business. The law degree is not required to continue practicing accounting.
Previous Tax Court Holdings
Judge Morrison cited numerous cases where the courts have held, consistent with the Treasury Regulations, a law degree qualifies a taxpayer for a new trade or business, and thus the cost of the degree is a nondeductible educational expense. This is true, even if the degree improves the taxpayer’s accounting and tax skills, and the taxpayer remains practicing accounting (i.e., never practices law). See e.g., Taubman v. Commissioner, 60 T.C. 814 (1973).
Despite the clear language of the Treasury Regulations and the numerous cases supporting the government’s position, Mr. Santos brought his case to the United States Tax Court. He appears to have argued that the holdings in the cases where the court relied upon the Treasury Regulations are incorrect because the regulations are invalid. Mr. Santos’s argument, at first blush, appeared intriguing to me. By gosh, I recently won an Oregon Tax Court case invalidating a long-existing administrative rule (which is akin to Treasury Regulations).
Shortly after Treasury promulgated Treasury Regulation § 1.162-5, the United States Tax Court ruled that it was valid. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the tax court’s conclusion. See Weiszmann v. Commissioner, 52 T.C. 1106 (1969), aff’d 443 F.2d 29 (9th Cir. 1971).
Giving It the Old College Try
Mr. Santos argued that the court in Weiszmann employed the wrong standard to examine the validity of the regulation at issue. Unfortunately for him, the tax court quickly dismissed the argument without much discussion. Then, Mr. Santos asserted that Treasury failed to adequately respond to public comments before finalizing the regulations at issue, thus making the regulations invalid. Unfortunately, Mr. Santos did not raise that issue until after the trial had concluded. Consequently, the trial court record contained no evidence upon which the tax court could even evaluate his assertion. While his argument was creative and certainly intriguing, it never gained any traction. If he had offered evidence on the issue at trial, the tax court’s opinion would have been a much more interesting read. Who knows if any evidence exists to support his assertion of invalidity – Mr. Santos lost!
The clear take-away from this case is that: educational expenses are generally only deductible if they are incurred to maintain or improve the skills required for current employment or to retain current employment or current compensation. The costs of education required to prepare for a new trade or business are generally nondeductible.
The outcome of these cases is generally dependent upon the facts and circumstances. For example, if Mr. Santos had been a practicing tax lawyer (i.e., had already obtained his J.D. degree, had already passed the bar examination and was practicing as a tax lawyer), the costs of obtaining his LL.M. (taxation) may have been deductible.
Many nuances exist in this area of tax law. Consequently, careful analysis is required.
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.
Estates are not often subjected to a substantial valuation understatement penalty. The reason is obvious. The Code is very generous in this regard. The understatement of value must be significant for a penalty to apply. First, a penalty cannot be triggered unless the underpayment of tax exceeds $5,000. Next, there must be a “substantial understatement of value” for a penalty to apply. IRC § 6662(g)(1) provides a substantial estate tax valuation understatement occurs if the value of property on the return is 65% or less of the correct value. Pursuant to IRC § 6662(a), the resulting penalty is 20% of the tax underpayment. If, however, the value of the property on the return is 40% or less of the correct value, the penalty is increased to 40% of the tax underpayment. IRC § 6662(h)(2)(C).
So, the threshold for a penalty of this nature is high. The resulting tax must exceed $5,000 and the understatement of value itself must be more than 35%. In cases where the understatement of value is more than 60%, the penalty doubles. Consequently, in this case, if the Service’s values are correct, the 40% penalty is applicable.
The bulk of the Service’s fight with Michael Jackson’s estate appears to center around the value of Michael Jackson’s image, the estate’s intellectual property rights to certain songs, including some of the Beatles song catalog which Michael Jackson acquired prior to his death, and an interest in a trust. The estate valued the image at a little over two thousand dollars, while the Service’s experts put the value at over $434 million. The estate valued the estate’s interest in the musical collection at zero. The IRS, on the other hand, valued this asset at around $469 million. Last, the estate valued its interest in the trust at around $2 million, but the Service asserts its actual value is closer to $61 million.
Other items in dispute include: (a) stocks and bonds which the Service values at $64.4 million more than the estate reported on the return; (b) Jackson 5 master recordings which the Service values at over $34 million more than the estate reported on the return; and (c) three Rolls Royces and a Bentley which the Service values at about $160,000 more than the estate reported on the return.
This will be an interesting case for at least two reasons: (1) the valuation issues, including valuation of a person’s likeness, are interesting and will result in a battle of the experts; and (2) application of the 40% valuation understatement penalty is not terribly common.
Stay tuned! The decision of the U.S. Tax Court will likely be an interesting read.
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder in 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.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements
- "The Oregon Corporate Activity Tax," Oregon Society of Certified Public Accountants (OSCPA) 2020 OSCPA State & Local Tax ConferencePortland, OR, 1.6.20
- "The Road Between Subchapter C and Subchapter S – It May Be A Well-Traveled Two-Way Thoroughfare, But It Isn’t Free of Potholes and Obstacles," The J. Nelson Young Tax InstituteChapel Hill, NC, 4.23.2020-4.24.2020