We have all heard the old proverb “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.” In the tax world, this proverb might as well be referred to as the economic substance doctrine. Generally, taxpayers are free to structure their business transactions in a manner of their choosing. However, the economic substance doctrine permits a court to disregard a transaction for Federal income tax purposes if the transaction has no effect other than generating an income tax loss. In the case of Smith v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-218, the taxpayers violated this doctrine by trying to transform cash and securities into a loss through a series of transfers involving an S corporation and a limited partnership.
In Smith v. Commissioner, Mr. Smith retired from National Coupling in 2009. Upon retirement, he received a bonus and total employee compensation of approximately $664,000. Mr. Smith’s financial adviser referred him to a tax and estate planning attorney (who was also a CPA) for tax planning services. With the intention of offsetting the compensation income Mr. Smith received from National Coupling, the attorney recommended the following tax planning structure:
- In 2009, Mr. Smith and his wife (the “taxpayers”) would create an S corporation (wholly owned by the taxpayers) and a family limited partnership.
- The S corporation (along with a management company) would own the family limited partnership.
- The taxpayers would transfer cash and marketable securities to the S corporation. The S corporation, in turn, would immediately transfer the cash and marketable securities to the family limited partnership.
- The S corporation would dissolve in 2009 (the same year it was created). Upon dissolution, the S corporation would distribute limited partnership interests in the family limited partnership to the taxpayers.
- The fair market value of the distributed partnership interests would be discounted for lack of marketability and lack of control, generating a tax loss equal to the difference between the fair market value of the discounted partnership interests that were distributed over the cash and marketable securities the S corporation transferred to the family limited partnership.
The taxpayers agreed to the structure, and in 2009 they transferred a total of approximately $1.8 million in cash and marketable securities to a newly formed S corporation. The S corporation transferred an approximately equal amount to the newly created family limited partnership. At the end of 2009, the taxpayers and the attorney dissolved the S corporation. In the dissolution, the S corporation transferred a 49% limited partnership interest to each Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The attorney determined that the fair market value of the distributed partnership interests were approximately $1.1 million after discounting the value for lack of marketability and lack of control. The S corporation reported a loss of approximately $700,000 ($1.1 million in gross receipts (equal to the discounted value of the distributed partnership interests) less $1.8 million cost of goods sold (equal to the cash and marketable securities transferred to the family limited partnership)).
The S corporation did not have any business activity whatsoever. It did not have a bank account, did not issue stock certificates, did not keep minutes of meetings, and did not follow corporate formalities. The S corporation existed solely to generate an artificial tax loss to offset Mr. Smith’s income. Consequently, the Court determined that the economic substance doctrine prevented the taxpayers from claiming the loss.
The IRS also asserted that the taxpayers were liable for a $125,000 accuracy-related penalty for a substantial understatement of tax. Taxpayers have a defense to accuracy-related penalties for reasonable reliance on the advice of a tax professional if they can prove three elements: (1) the taxpayer reasonably believed that the professional was a competent adviser with sufficient expertise to justify reliance, (2) the taxpayer provided necessary and accurate information to the adviser, and (3) the taxpayer actually relied in good faith on the adviser’s judgment. Further, due care does not require that the taxpayer challenge his or her attorney’s advice or independently investigate its propriety. Surely, the taxpayers would be able to establish that they reasonably relied on the faulty advice of their attorney, right? The Court determined that the taxpayers proved the first two elements of the defense, but not the third. What was the taxpayers’ fatal flaw? The Court thought they lied during trial. In the Court’s own words:
“They understood, early in the process, that [the S corporation] would be organized and dissolved in 2009 but continued to represent, even at trial, that [the S corporation] had a business purpose. This is not acting in good faith. They knew from the beginning that [the S corporation] would not last past 2009, it did not have a genuine business purpose, and its sole purpose was tax avoidance. That knowledge alone negates a reliance defense.”
Consequently, the Court determined that the taxpayers were liable for the accuracy-related penalty.
We highly recommend that taxpayers understand every aspect of transactions they enter into, especially when targeted to tax planning. If a proposal seems too complicated or if you can’t make sense of something, get a second opinion, or…RUN!