Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

The Internal Revenue Service announced today that it will waive the estimated tax penalty for many taxpayers whose 2018 federal income tax withholding and estimated tax payments fell short of their total tax liability for the year. The IRS is generally waiving the penalty for any taxpayer who paid at least 85 percent of their total tax liability during the year through federal income tax withholding, quarterly estimated tax payments, or a combination of the two. The usual percentage threshold is 90 percent to avoid a penalty.

The penalty relief announced today is designed to help taxpayers who were unable to properly adjust their withholding and estimated tax payments to reflect an array of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the tax reform law enacted in December 2017. “We realize there were many changes that affected people last year, and this penalty waiver will help taxpayers who inadvertently didn’t have enough tax withheld,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “We urge people to check their withholding again this year to make sure they are having the right amount of tax withheld for 2019.”

The updated federal tax withholding tables, released in early 2018, largely reflected the lower tax rates and the increased standard deduction brought about by the new law. This generally meant taxpayers had less tax withheld in 2018 and saw more in their paychecks. However, the withholding tables could not fully factor in other changes, such as the suspension of dependency exemptions and reduced itemized deductions. As a result, some taxpayers could have paid too little tax during the year if they did not submit a revised Form W-4 withholding form to their employer or increase their estimated tax payments. The IRS and partner groups conducted an extensive outreach and education campaign throughout 2018 to encourage taxpayers to do a “Paycheck Checkup” to avoid a situation where they had too much or too little tax withheld when they file their tax returns.

An estimated tax penalty typically applies when the tax return is filed if too little is paid during the year. Normally, the penalty would not apply for 2018 if tax payments during the year met one of the following tests:

  • The person’s tax payments were at least 90 percent of the tax liability for 2018; or
  • The person’s tax payments were at least 100 percent of the prior year’s tax liability, in this case from 2017. However, the 100 percent threshold is increased to 110 percent if a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income is more than $150,000, or $75,000 if married and filing a separate return.

The penalty relief announced today lowers the 90 percent threshold to 85 percent. This means that a taxpayer will not owe a penalty if they paid at least 85 percent of their total 2018 tax liability. If the taxpayer paid less than 85 percent, then they are not eligible for the waiver and the penalty will be calculated as it normally would be, using the 90 percent threshold. For further details, see Notice 2019-11, posted today on IRS.gov.

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As the federal government shutdown approaches its fourth week, the Internal Revenue Service today unveiled its contingency plan for the upcoming tax filing season. Most IRS operations have been closed since funding for the agency ran out on December 22, 2018, and most IRS employees have been furloughed since that date.

Notwithstanding the shutdown, the IRS has announced that tax filing season will begin on January 28, 2019, for individual taxpayers. In today’s announcement, the IRS noted that taxpayers should be mindful of the following points during what it called “this challenging period”:

  • File electronically. The IRS will accept paper and electronic tax returns, but taxpayers are urged to file electronically to speed processing and refunds.
  • Tax refunds. Refunds will be paid, but the IRS cautions that returns will continue to be subject to refund fraud, identity theft and other internal reviews as in prior years.
  • Tax filing. Taxpayers can start working on their returns in advance of the January 28 opening. Both tax software and tax professionals will be available and working in advance of IRS systems opening. Software companies and tax professionals will then submit the returns when the IRS systems open. The IRS strongly encourages people to file their tax returns electronically to minimize errors and for faster refunds.

The IRS also warned taxpayers that the agency will continue to offer only limited operations during the shutdown, as follows:

  • Automated applications. IRS.gov and many automated applications remain available, including such things as Where’s My Refund, the IRS2go phone app and online payment agreements.
  • Telephones. No live telephone customer service assistance is currently available, although the IRS will be adding staff to answer some of the telephone lines in the coming days. Due to the heavier call volume, taxpayers should be prepared for longer wait times. Most automated toll-free telephone applications will remain operational. The IRS encourages people to use IRS.gov for information.
  • In-person service. IRS walk-in taxpayer assistance centers (TACs) are closed. That means those offices are unable to handle large cash payments or assist identity theft victims required to visit an IRS office to establish their identity. In-person assistance will not be available for taxpayers experiencing a hardship.
  • Taxpayer appointments. While the government is closed, people with appointments related to audits, collection, Appeals, or Taxpayer Advocate cases should assume their meetings are cancelled. IRS personnel will reschedule those meetings at a later date, when the IRS reopens.
  • Taxpayer correspondence. While able to receive mail, the IRS will be responding to paper correspondence to only a very limited degree during this lapse period. Taxpayers who mail in correspondence to the IRS during this period should expect a lengthy delay for a response after the IRS reopens due to a growing correspondence backlog.
  • Tax-exempt groups. The IRS will not be processing applications or determinations for tax-exempt status or pension plans.
  • Enforcement activity. During this period, the IRS will not be conducting audits, but automated initial contact letters will continue to be mailed. No collection activity will generally occur except for automated collection activity. For example, automated IRS collection notices will continue to be mailed. Criminal Investigation work, however, continues during this period.
  • Passports. The IRS will not be certifying for the State Department any individuals for passport eligibility.

For tax professionals and others interested in a more detailed view of IRS operations during the shutdown, there is an extensive listing available in the filing season lapse plan.

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Despite the government shutdown, the Internal Revenue Service has announced that it will process tax returns beginning January 28, 2019, and will provide refunds to taxpayers as scheduled.

“We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers receive their refunds notwithstanding the government shutdown. I appreciate the hard work of the employees and their commitment to the taxpayers during this period,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.

Congress directed the payment of all tax refunds through a permanent, indefinite appropriation (codified at 31 U.S.C. § 1324), and the IRS takes the view that it has authority to pay refunds despite a lapse in annual appropriations. Although in 2011 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed the IRS not to pay refunds during a lapse, according to the IRS, OMB has reviewed the relevant law and concluded that IRS may in fact pay tax refunds during a lapse.

The IRS will be recalling a significant portion of its workforce, currently furloughed as part of the government shutdown, back to work. Additional details for the IRS filing season will be included in an updated FY2019 Lapsed Appropriations Contingency Plan to be released publicly in the coming days.

The IRS will begin accepting and processing individual tax returns once the filing season begins. For taxpayers who usually file early in the year and have all of the needed documentation, there is no need to wait to file. They should file when they are ready to submit a complete and accurate tax return.

The filing deadline to submit 2018 tax returns is Monday, April 15, 2019, for most taxpayers. Because of the Patriots’ Day holiday on April 15 in Maine and Massachusetts and the Emancipation Day holiday on April 16 in the District of Columbia, taxpayers who live in Maine or Massachusetts have until April 17, 2019, to file their returns. The IRS strongly encourages people to file their tax returns electronically to minimize errors and for faster refunds.

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The IRS has been cracking down on conservation easement transactions for over ten years. Nevertheless, taxpayers have continued to claim charitable contribution deductions attributable to the donation of conservation easements and promoters have continued to assemble investments utilizing conservation easement charitable deductions. The IRS began focusing on syndicated conservation easement transactions when it issued Notice 2017-10, designating syndicated conservation easement transactions as listed transactions. These syndicated investments involve the use of partnerships to raise funds from investors, who are allocated a share of a charitable contribution deduction attributable to conservation easements donated on land owned by the partnership. In fall of 2018, the IRS doubled down on its attacks of these investments when syndicated conservation easements were added to the list of LB&I compliance campaigns. While the IRS continues to crack down on these arrangements, taxpayers have continued litigating the finer points of these transactions. On the flipside, DOJ has begun cracking down on promoters who market these transactions. Below are details on the most recent developments.

Pine Mountain Preserve v. Comm’r

This case involves three conservation easements covering various portions of an assemblage of over 2,000 acres of land. The land was located in what sounds like a beautiful location in Alabama for development of recreational and horse properties. Over three years, three different easements were granted on various portions of 1,300 of the 2,000 acres. The first two easements reserved the right to allow for small parcels of development, in a location to be agreed upon between the property owner and the charity holding the easement.

Relying on its prior rulings in Belk v. Comm’r, 140 T.C. 1 (2013), supplemented by T.C. Memo. 2013-154, aff’d 774 F.3d 221 (4th Cir. 2014) and Bosque Canyon Ranch v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2015-130, vacated and remanded sub nom. 867 F.3d 547 (5th Cir. 2017), the court determined that the first two easements did not a qualified real property interest due to the uncertainty created by the reservation to create pockets of development on the property subject to the conservation easement. [We note that the Tax Court was not persuaded by the Fifth Circuit opinion in Bosque Canyon and declined to follow it since this case is not appealable to the Fifth Circuit.] However, while the third easement contained a reservation for installing a water tower, it did not allow for the parties to choose after the easement areas for development within the easement area. Thus, the third easement was determined to be a qualified real property interest.

Valuation of the third easement was discussed in a Memorandum opinion issued simultaneously with the full Tax Court opinion addressing the validity of the easement. The court found the taxpayer’s expert overvalued the potential development of the property in determining the value of the easement but that the IRS expert undervalued the easement by ignoring the development potential of the property. The court went to great lengths to discuss in detail the misgivings of both valuation expert’s opinions but the result for the taxpayer was not horrible. In the end, the court valued the easement based on 50% of the value determined by both experts. Considering this meant a $4.8 million charitable contribution deduction was allowed, this was not a total loss for the taxpayer.

Wendell Falls v. Comm’r

Sometimes developers want open space or a park included in a master plan for a residential community as a way to make the community more desirable. In that instance, because the developer expects to benefit as a result of the easement, the law does not allow a charitable contribution deduction, essentially because the contribution lacks donative intent or because the donation lacks value when weighed against the value of the expected benefit. This is exactly what happened in Wendell Falls. Here, a developer chose to place an easement on a parcel of land after it had already designed the parcel as a park in the master plan. In April of 2018, the court determined that because the highest and best use of the eased parcel was as a park, as outlined in the developer’s master plan, the easement requiring it to be preserved as a park did not diminish its value, therefore the easement had no value. However, the court did determine that the taxpayer was not subject to penalties.

The taxpayer asked the court to reconsider several of its findings, arguing that the court should have considered the value of the easement and separately considered the value of the enhancement to the donor’s property separately. The taxpayer also asserted that the receipt of a substantial benefits did not alone result in denial of a deduction and that the highest and best use of the parcel was for development rather than a park, attempting to get the court to reconsider values. On November 20, 2018, the court issued its opinion that the value of the substantial benefit expected was in excess of the value of the easement, and that parkland was the highest and best use of the property based on the proposed development. Unfortunately, the taxpayer lost all of its $1.8 million charitable contribution deduction.

Lawsuits against Promoters

The government had has enlisted another tactic for shutting down conservation easements by bringing actions against the organizers of conservation easement syndication schemes. On December 28, 2018, the Department of Justice filed a compliant in the Northern District of Georgia asserting that a group of defendants assembled partnership which were “nothing more than a thinly veiled sale of grossly overvalued federal tax deductions under the guise of investing in a partnership.” The complaint asserts that the defendants’ conservation easement syndicates have generated $2 billion in conservation easement charitable contribution deductions. The complaint seeks to enjoin the defendants from continuing to promote such schemes, and asks the court to order the defendants to disgorge all profits received as a result of the conservation easement syndicates.

The defendants include a conservation manager/broker dealer, an appraiser, and various professionals associated with EcoVest Capital, Inc., an entity that sponsors real estate investments focused on conservation. The promotional materials mentioned in the compliant set forth an example where in exchange for a $750,000 investment, an investor would receive $2 million of deductions, generating tax savings of $1 million. The syndicates were sold as securities exempt from registration through broker-dealers. The easement syndicates involved properties located in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Caroline, Tennessee, and Texas.

Any taxpayer who may have invested in a syndicated conservation easement through Ecovest or any other investment advisor should carefully review Notice 2017-10 and related the disclosure requirements for listed transactions. Those taxpayers should also consult with a tax attorney to consider strategies for mitigating any damages.

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In the latest Tax Court opinion addressing the application of Section 280E to cannabis businesses there is no good news.  However, there is some new guidance.  In Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp. v. Comm’r, 151 T.C. No. 11, the taxpayer made a litany of arguments to convince the court that their business, or a portion of their business was not subject to Section 280E.  These include arguments we have seen before, including (1) that the business was not trafficking in controlled substances, here, because the government had abandoned a civil forfeiture action, and (2) that because a portion of the business involved branding and the sales of non-marijuana products, deductions related to these operations should not be subject to Section 280E.  These arguments failed and only make it clear that similar arguments are likely to be unavailing.  In fact, the Court spends ten pages discussing why the entire business is integrated and subject to Section 280E.  Taxpayers hoping to establish a separate trade or business that is not subject to Section 280E now have clarity, but also an extremely high bar.

New Holdings:  Inventory Accounting Rules

The new developments addressed in this case involve the application of inventory rules to cannabis businesses.  Previous cases focused primarily on the previously discussed arguments and failed to give any detailed guidance on how to apply the inventory rules.  The Court clearly and strongly concluded that the more expansive Section 263A  inventory cost rules do not apply to businesses subject to Section 280E.  The Court reasoned that “if something wasn’t deductible before Congress enacted section 263A, taxpayers cannot use that section to capitalize it..Section 263A makes taxpayers defer the benefit of what used to be deductions-it doesn’t shower that as grace on those previously damned.”  Slip Op. at 53.

The Court’s conclusion is based on the notion that we go back in time to 1982 to determine what is includible in inventory costs.  The Court refers to Treas. Reg. section 1.263A-1(c)(2) which states:

Any cost which (but for section 263A and the regulations thereunder) may not be taken into account in computing taxable income for any taxable year is not treated as a cost properly allocable to property produced or acquired for resale under section 263A and the regulations thereunder. Thus, for example, if a business meal deduction is limited by section 274(n) to 80 percent of the cost of the meal, the amount properly allocable to property produced or acquired for resale under section 263A is also limited to 80 percent of the cost of the meal.

While this reasoning is understandable, if we turn the question on its head, we could also ask whether the section 280E disallowance is determined before or after inventory costs are calculated.  For example, even if there is a meals and entertainment expense that is clearly includible in inventory costs, no one is going to argue that 100% of meals and entertainment is includible in inventory costs.  In this case, you are determining inventory costs and deductions, and then applying Section 274.   So, it is easy to see how those provisions overlap.  However, if inventory costs are determined based on the applicable inventory rules and then Section 280E is applied, then you have a different result because Section 263A expands what can be included in inventory costs, and the remaining deductions are subject to Section 280E.  That result is not inconsistent with the notion that items such as meals and entertainment and penalties are not deducted in determining taxable income regardless of whether they are a deduction under Section 162 or an inventory cost under Section 471 or 263A.

The Harsh Result

It is important to note that the Court analyzed and concluded that the taxpayer was a reseller and not a producer.  Because the taxpayer did not itself grow marijuana, this is not surprising.  The Section 471 rules that apply to resellers do not allow for extensive indirect costs to be included in inventory.  Thus, for businesses that do not produce or manufacture, they will continue to face significant challenges by the IRS if they are including indirect costs in inventory costs.  For cultivators and producers, careful consideration should be given to how the 471 rules apply, depending on the activities of the business.

Still to Come

The Court reserved its analysis of whether penalties apply for a opinion to be issued at a later date.  However, the Court hints that there might be some relief when it states that the overlap between Section 280E and 263A created a “confusing legal environment.”  One can hope that given the lack of guidance addressing the specifics of how the inventory rules apply to cannabis businesses, the IRS and the court will give taxpayers  doing their best to apply Section 280E the benefit of reprieve from penalties.

Other Notes

If you are entertained by Judge Holmes’ opinions, be sure you read the footnotes.  Footnotes 3 and 6 are my favorites.

Today the Internal Revenue Service released its long-awaited updated procedures for voluntary disclosures now that the much-heralded Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) closed on September 28, 2018. The updated procedures apply to all voluntary disclosures (both domestic and offshore) received by the IRS after the closing of the OVDP. IRS-Criminal Investigation will continue to screen all voluntary disclosures through the preclearance process, with the IRS LB&I office in Austin, Texas, continuing to process, and examine, tax returns. Most importantly, the updated procedures contain a new “Civil Resolution Framework” which addresses the scope of future voluntary disclosures and a new penalty structure. In subsequent posts we will provide detailed analysis of these newly-updated voluntary disclosure guidelines.

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The IRS recently reminded taxpayers that like-kind exchanges are now generally only available for exchanges of real property.  This change was enacted as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December of last year.  Now, exchanges of personal or intangible property do not qualify for nonrecognition of gain or loss as like-kind exchanges.  Personal or intangible property effected by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act includes machinery, equipment, vehicles, artwork, collectibles, patents, as well as other intellectual property.

To be eligible for like-kind exchange treatment, real property must be held for use in a trade or business or investment.  Thus, real property held primarily for sale is ineligible for like-kind exchange treatment.  Real property includes land and generally anything built on the land or attached to it.

There is a transition rule that provides like-kind exchange treatment for some exchanges of personal or intangible property that would otherwise be ineligible for like-kind exchange treatment under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  This transition rule may apply if a taxpayer disposed of personal or intangible property, or received replacement property, on or before December 31, 2017.

Today the Internal Revenue Service’s Large Business and International division (LB&I) announced the approval of five additional compliance campaigns. LB&I announced on January 31, 2017, the rollout of its first 13 campaigns, followed by 11 campaigns on November 3, 2017, five campaigns on March 13, 2018, six campaigns on May 21, 2018, five more on July 2, 2018, and five more on September 11, 2018. In addition, LB&I continues to review the tax reform legislation enacted on December 22, 2017, to determine which existing campaigns, if any, could be impacted as a result of a change in the law.

LB&I is moving toward issue-based examinations and a compliance campaign process in which the organization decides which compliance issues that present risk require a response in the form of one or multiple treatment streams to achieve compliance objectives. This approach makes use of IRS knowledge and deploys the right resources to address those issues. The campaigns are the culmination of an extensive effort to redefine large business compliance work and build a supportive infrastructure inside LB&I. Campaign development requires strategic planning and deployment of resources, training and tools, metrics and feedback. LB&I is investing the time and resources necessary to build well-run and well-planned compliance campaigns.

These five additional campaigns were identified through LB&I data analysis and suggestions from IRS employees. LB&I’s goal is to improve return selection, identify issues representing a risk of non-compliance, and make the greatest use of limited resources.

The five campaigns included in this rollout are:

  • Individual Foreign Tax Credit Phase II

Section 901 of the Internal Revenue Code alleviates double taxation through a dollar-for-dollar credit against U.S. tax on foreign-sourced income in the amount of foreign taxes paid on that income.

Individuals who meet certain requirements may qualify for the foreign tax credit. This campaign addresses taxpayers who have claimed the credit but do not meet the requirements. The IRS will address noncompliance through a variety of treatment streams, including examination.

  • Offshore Service Providers

The focus of this campaign is to address U.S. taxpayers who engaged Offshore Service Providers that facilitated the creation of foreign entities and tiered structures to conceal the beneficial ownership of foreign financial accounts and assets, generally, for the purpose of tax avoidance or evasion. The treatment stream for this campaign will be issue-based examinations.

  • FATCA Filing Accuracy

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) was enacted in 2010 as part of the HIRE Act. The overall purpose is to detect, deter and discourage offshore tax abuses through increased transparency, enhanced reporting and strong sanctions. Foreign Financial Institutions and certain Non-Financial Foreign Entities are generally required to report the foreign assets held by their U.S. account holders and substantial U.S. owners under the FATCA. This campaign addresses those entities that have FATCA reporting obligations but do not meet all their compliance responsibilities. The Service will address noncompliance through a variety of treatment streams, including termination of the FATCA status.

  • 1120-F Delinquent Returns Campaign

The objective of the Delinquent Returns Campaign is to encourage foreign entities to timely file Form 1120-F returns and address the compliance risk for delinquent 1120-F returns. This is accomplished by field examinations of compliance risk delinquent returns and external education outreach programs. The campaign addresses delinquent-filed returns, Form 1120-F U.S. Income Tax Return of a Foreign Corporation.

Form 1120-F must be filed on a timely basis and in a true and accurate manner for a foreign corporation to claim deductions and credits against its effectively connected income. For these purposes, Form 1120-F is generally considered to be timely filed if it is filed no later than 18 months after the due date of the current year’s return. The filing deadline may be waived, in situations based on the facts and circumstances, where the foreign corporation establishes to the satisfaction of the commissioner that the foreign corporation acted reasonably and in good faith in failing to file Form 1120-F per Treas. Reg. Section 1.882-4(a)(3)(ii). LB&I Industry Guidance 04-0118-007 dated 2/1/2018 established procedures to ensure waiver requests are applied in a fair, consistent and timely manner under the regulations.

  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit

The IRS has agreed to accept the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) year of credit eligibility issue into the Industry Issue Resolution (IIR) program (pursuant to Rev. Proc. 2016-19). This campaign addresses the consequences of WOTC certification delays and the burden of amended return filings. The campaign’s objective is to collaborate with industry stakeholders, Chief Counsel, and Treasury to develop an LB&I directive for taxpayers experiencing late certifications and to promote consistency in the examinations of WOTC claims.

Due to delays associated with the WOTC certification process, taxpayers are often faced with the burdensome requirement of amending multiple years of federal and state returns to claim the WOTC in the year qualified WOTC wages were paid. This requirement, coupled with any resulting examinations of this issue, is an inefficient use of both taxpayer and IRS resources. The IIR is intended to provide remedies to reduce taxpayer burden, promote consistency, and decrease examination time to most effectively use IRS resources.

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Our colleague James W. Minorchio has written a client alert about recent Internal Revenue Service guidance that clarifies when meals or drinks will be allowed as a deductible business expenses following the changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The TCJA generally disallowed any deduction for expenses related to entertainment, amusement or recreation. But the law did not specifically address the deductibility of business meals or the food and beverage expenses incurred in connection with a sporting event, recreation or other entertainment. Now the IRS has issued transitional guidance in Notice 2018-76 that sets forth a clear test for determining whether a business expense for food and beverages is deductible. You can read the client alert here.

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