Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

In United States v. Stein, the Eleventh Circuit recently decided a novel – but critical – issue for taxpayers.  It held that an affidavit that satisfies Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the summary judgment rule) may create an issue of material fact precluding summary judgment, even if it is self-serving and uncorroborated.  The case centered around an IRS assessment.  IRS assessments are entitled to a presumption of correctness, which can be a difficult burden for taxpayers to overcome.

In 2015, the government sued Estelle Stein for outstanding tax assessments, late penalties, and interest for the 1996 and 1999-2002 tax years.  The government moved for summary judgment and tried to show that Ms. Stein had outstanding tax assessments by submitting her federal tax returns, account transcripts, and an affidavit from an IRS officer.  Ms. Stein responded with her own affidavit, stating that, “to the best of [her] recollection,” she had paid the taxes and penalties at issue.  Her affidavit also explained that she used an accounting firm to file the tax returns, that she remembered paying the taxes and penalties due, but that she did not have bank statements showing these payments.

The district court granted summary judgment for the government because, it explained, Ms. Stein did not produce any evidence documenting payments.  An Eleventh Circuit panel affirmed based on Mays v. United States, 763 F.2d 1295 (11th Cir. 1985).  In Mays, the court affirmed summary judgment for the government, holding that a taxpayer in a refund suit must not only show the government’s assessment is wrong, but also establish the “correct amount of the refund due.”  Mays further held that the taxpayer’s claim “must be substantiated by something other than tax returns, uncorroborated oral testimony, or self-serving statements.”

The Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc in Stein, however, disagreed and overruled Mays “to the extent it holds or suggests that self-serving and uncorroborated statements in a taxpayer’s affidavit cannot create an issue of material fact with respect to the correctness of the government’s assessment.”  Under Rule 56(a), summary judgment may be granted only when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and the moving party is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”  The Eleventh Circuit further held that nothing in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit an affidavit from being self-serving.

Stein is a significant win for taxpayers, and it may make it easier for taxpayers to overcome the presumption of correctness that IRS assessments have enjoyed.

BitcoinThe Internal Revenue Service has assembled a specialized team of criminal investigators to build criminal tax evasion cases involving users of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, according to a Bloomberg article entitled “IRS Cops Are Scouring Crypto Accounts to Build Tax Evasion Cases.” In that article, David Voreacos writes that IRS Special Agents are pivoting from investigating taxpayers with secret offshore bank accounts to taxpayers with cryptocurrency accounts. Don Fort, chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI), is quoted as saying that “It’s possible to use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in the same fashion as foreign bank accounts to facilitate tax evasion.”

Last fall, IRS-CI announced that it was creating a new international tax enforcement group to focus on investigating and building criminal cases involving cross-border activity. According to the Bloomberg article, a newly-assembled team of 10 special agents in that group are now focusing not only on international crimes but also potential tax evasion using cryptocurrency.

As we have previously reported (here, here, and here), other federal agencies are tightening the regulatory framework surrounding cryptocurrencies and are launching vigorous enforcement campaigns to crackdown on fraud. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission have formed specialized enforcement groups to focus on cryptocurrency fraud, and have issued stern warnings to investors and consumers about the risks of cryptocurrency investments.

Last fall, the Internal Revenue Service has prevailed in its long-running dispute with Coinbase, the largest U.S.-based Bitcoin exchange, with a federal judge ordering Coinbase to comply with a “John Doe” summons seeking customer information. In an opinion issued on November 28, 2017, the court in San Francisco found that the government’s narrowed request for information on Coinbase’s customers served the legitimate purpose of investigating whether Bitcoin users properly reported gains or losses on their income tax returns. The Court also found that the customer records sought by the government were relevant because they can be used by the IRS to determine whether a particular Coinbase customer is tax compliant. Coinbase must now hand over to the IRS records for accounts that had at least one transaction of at least $20,000 value during the period 2013 to 2015. According to Coinbase, this will require it to divulge trading records regarding nearly 9 million transactions conducted by over 14,000 customers.

Notwithstanding all of this enforcement activity, early data from federal tax filing season (which began January 29, 2018) suggests that cryptocurrency investors may not be properly reporting gains/losses on their 2017 federal income tax returns. Reuters reported yesterday on preliminary tax filing data from online tax service Credit Karma:

Less than 100 people out of the 250,000 individuals who have already filed federal taxes this year through company Credit Karma reported a cryptocurrency transaction to U.S. tax authorities, the company said on Tuesday.

This is despite nearly 57 percent of the 2000 Americans surveyed by the credit score startup and research firm Qualtrics last month saying they had realized some gains from cryptocurrencies, according to a Credit Karma study.

Roughly the same percentage said they had never reported cryptocurrency gains to the Internal Revenue Service, while nearly half of those polled said they understood how owning cryptocurrencies affected their taxes, the study said.

The IRS considers cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin as property for federal tax purposes, meaning any profits or losses from the sale or exchange of the virtual coins should generally be reported as capital gains or losses.

Trading of cryptocurrencies, digital tokens whose value is not backed by central banks and hard assets, surged in 2017 amid a rally in their price. A single bitcoin is worth more than $8000, compared with $1000 a year ago.

Despite the surge it remains unclear how many Americans hold cryptocurrencies as these are bought and sold on online platforms, sometimes anonymously or using pseudonyms. US-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase says it has 10 million users, although it is unclear how many of these are in the U.S.

Jagjit Chawla, general manager for Credit Karma Tax said the company was not too surprised that few people had reported cryptocurrency gains as Americans with more complex tax situations tend to file closer to the deadline.

“However, given the popularity of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in 2017, we’d expect more people to be reporting,” Chawla said in a statement.

Credit Karma entered the online tax filing market last year, and about 1 million individuals filed their tax returns using Credit Karma’s product.

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A vocal critic of the Internal Revenue Service’s passport revocation program, the National Taxpayer Advocate recently announced that she had issued hundreds of orders prohibiting the IRS from certifying taxpayers for passport denial or revocation. The IRS began implementing its passport denial/revocation program on January 22, 2018 (see prior coverage here, here, and here), pursuant to which the IRS will certify a taxpayer’s seriously delinquent tax debt (greater than $51,000) to the State Department. Upon receipt of such a certification, the State Department must deny any passport application, or renewal, filed by such taxpayer, and may even revoke a previously-issued passport. The passport law provides exceptions for taxpayers with current installment agreements, offers-in-compromise, or pending Collection Due Process hearings. The IRS has created additional administrative exceptions, such as for taxpayers whose debt has been declared “currently not collectible” status or taxpayers with pending applications for installment agreements or offer-in-compromise.

The National Taxpayer Advocate has previously written extensive criticism of the IRS passport program (here and here), focusing primarily on the program’s lack of prior notice to taxpayers and potential for violating constitutional due process rights of taxpayers. In her recent Annual Report to Congress, the National Taxpayer Advocate identified the IRS passport program as one of the “20 Most Serious Problems” encountered by taxpayers.

The National Taxpayer Advocate has repeatedly requested that the IRS exercise its discretion to exclude from the State Department passport certification process taxpayers who have requested assistance from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). When the IRS refused to do so, and rolled out its passport certification program in January without creating any exception for taxpayers with open TAS cases, the National Taxpayer Advocate cried foul:

Certifying taxpayers who are already actively working with TAS to resolve their debts violates the taxpayers’ right to a fair and just tax system and treats TAS taxpayers inconsistently from others who are trying to resolve their issues directly with the IRS. This, in essence, violates Congress’s purpose in establishing the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate.

The National Taxpayer Advocate then took steps to protect taxpayers with open TAS cases from certification. As of January 11, 2018, TAS identified nearly 800 taxpayers with assessed tax debts in excess of $51,000 who have an open TAS case and do not otherwise meet any exclusion from certification. On January 16, the National Taxpayer Advocate issued Taxpayer Assistance Orders (TAOs) for each of these taxpayers, ordering the IRS not to certify their debts to the State Department. By law, the IRS may not certify any of these taxpayers until the TAOs are rescinded or modified by the National Taxpayer Advocate, the IRS Commissioner, or the IRS Deputy Commissioner.

For taxpayers who have already been certified to the State Department prior to seeking assistance from TAS, the National Taxpayer Advocate has issued interim guidance to all TAS employees authorizing TAS to accept passport revocation cases from affected taxpayers even if such cases do not satisfy any TAS Case Criteria. Such cases will be accepted by TAS under Criteria 9, which authorizes TAS to accept cases when the National Taxpayer Advocate determines that a compelling public policy warrants assistance to an individual or group of taxpayers. In doing so, the National Taxpayer Advocate observed:

Given the imminent, irreparable harm that taxpayers may face by the loss of their passports and the right to travel internationally, there is clearly a compelling public policy for assisting any taxpayer subject to passport certification.

The National Taxpayer Advocate also made clear that she would continue to advocate for the IRS to exercise its discretion to exclude from passport certification all taxpayers with open TAS cases, and she committed that TAS would work diligently with already-certified taxpayers to resolve their tax liabilities and become decertified.

As we have previously written, the ability to cause passport revocation or denial provides the IRS with powerful leverage over individuals who are delinquent in their tax debts. Taxpayers who owe the IRS more than $51,000 and are concerned about the possibility of losing their passport must take immediate steps to address their outstanding tax liabilities, by either paying such debt in full or seeking to negotiate a collection alternative such as an installment agreement or offer-in-compromise.  In light of the recent actions undertaken by the National Taxpayer Advocate, affected taxpayers should also consider seeking TAS assistance in order to forestall potential adverse consequences with respect to their passports.

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The Internal Revenue Service said today that it successfully started accepting and processing 2017 federal individual income tax returns. More than 155 million returns are expected to be filed this year.

The filing deadline to submit 2017 tax returns is Tuesday, April 17, 2018, rather than the traditional April 15 date. In 2018, April 15 falls on a Sunday, and this would usually move the filing deadline to the following Monday – April 16. However, Emancipation Day – a legal holiday in the District of Columbia – will be observed on that Monday, which pushes the nation’s filing deadline to Tuesday, April 17, 2017. Under the tax law, legal holidays in the District of Columbia affect the filing deadline across the nation. Taxpayers requesting an extension will have until Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, to file.

The IRS expects more than 70 percent of taxpayers to get tax refunds this year. Last year, nearly 112 million refunds were issued, with an average refund of $2,895.

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The Internal Revenue Service has reopened, following the three-day federal government shutdown that began at midnight on Friday, January 19, 2018.  The following message has been posted on the IRS website instructing all employees to report to work:

This message applies to all IRS employees.

The federal government is now open and IRS employees are expected to report to work no later than four hours after 9 p.m. Eastern on January 22, 2018. If the four hours are after the end of your established tour of duty, you should report to work at the beginning on your next scheduled workday.

If you are not able to return to duty on January 23, during your normal tour of duty, you must contact your manager and tell them when you will report to work. Once you return to work, you must get approval from your manager for any absences from your regular tour of duty.

Last week, the IRS published its contingency plan for a government shutdown during the filing season.  That plan specified that the IRS would continue to process tax returns and collect tax revenue even in the event of a lapse in appropriations.  The IRS has previously announced that it will begin accepting tax returns on January 29, 2018.

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The Internal Revenue Service has announced that the nation’s tax season will begin on Monday, January 29, 2018. As is typically the case, the annual opening of tax season is accompanied by well-publicized enforcement actions intended to warn potential tax cheats of the perils of filing a false tax return. This year is no different, with the announcement that reality television personality Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino and his brother, Marc Sorrentino, pleaded guilty today to violating federal tax laws.

Michael Sorrentino was a reality television personality who gained fame on “The Jersey Shore,” which first appeared on the MTV network.  According to documents and information provided to the court, he and his brother created businesses, such as MPS Entertainment LLC and Situation Nation Inc., to take advantage of Michael’s celebrity status. Michael Sorrentino admitted that in tax year 2011, he earned taxable income, including some that was paid in cash, and that he concealed a portion of his income to evade paying the full amount of taxes he owed.  He also made cash deposits into bank accounts in amounts less than $10,000, in an effort to ensure that these deposits would not come to the attention of the IRS.  Marc Sorrentino admitted that for tax year 2010, he earned taxable income and that he assisted his accountants in preparing his personal tax return by willfully providing them with false information and fraudulently underreporting his income.  Gregg Mark, the accountant for the Sorrentino brothers, previously pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiring to defraud the United States with respect to their tax liabilities.

Sentencing is scheduled for April 25, 2018.

Today’s announcement was replete with the usual warnings to would-be tax evaders from Justice Department and IRS officials:

“Today’s pleas are a reminder to all individuals to comply with the tax laws, file honest and accurate returns and pay their fair share,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Zuckerman. “The Tax Division is committed to continuing to work with the IRS to prosecute those who seek to cheat the system, while honest hardworking taxpayers play by the rules.”

“What the defendants admitted to today, quite simply, is tantamount to stealing money from their fellow taxpayers,” said U.S. Attorney Carpenito. “All of us are required by law to pay our fair share of taxes. Celebrity status does not provide a free pass from this obligation.”

 “As we approach this year’s filing season, today’s guilty pleas should serve as a stark reminder to those who would attempt to defraud our nation’s tax system,” stated Jonathan D. Larsen, Special Agent in Charge, IRS-Criminal Investigation, Newark Field Office.  “No matter what your stature is in our society, everyone is expected to play by the rules, and those who do not will be held accountable and brought to justice.”

It is well-known that the IRS and Justice Department typically increase the frequency of their press releases announcing enforcement activity in the weeks leading up to the tax filing deadline. In fact, academic research confirms that these agencies issue a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases as “Tax Day” approaches:

Every spring, the federal government appears to deliver an abundance of announcements that describe criminal convictions and civil injunctions involving taxpayers who have been accused of committing tax fraud. Commentators have occasionally suggested that the government announces a large number of tax enforcement actions in close proximity to a critical date in the tax compliance landscape: April 15, “Tax Day.” These claims previously were merely speculative, as they lacked any empirical support. This article fills the empirical void by seeking to answer a straightforward question: When does the government publicize tax enforcement? To conduct our study, we analyzed all 782 press releases issued by the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division during the seven-year period of 2003 through 2009 in which the agency announced a civil or criminal tax enforcement action against a specific taxpayer identified by name. Our principal finding is that, during those years, the government issued a disproportionately large number of tax enforcement press releases during the weeks immediately prior to Tax Day compared to the rest of the year and that this difference is highly statistically significant. A convincing explanation for this finding is that government officials deliberately use tax enforcement publicity to influence individual taxpayers’ perceptions and knowledge of audit probability, tax penalties, and the government’s tax enforcement efficacy while taxpayers are preparing their annual individual tax returns.

Joshua D. Blank and Daniel Z. Levin, When Is Tax Enforcement Publicized?, 30 Virginia Tax Review 1 (2010).

As “Tax Day 2018” approaches, we can expect similar — and more frequent — announcements intended to deter would-be tax cheats from filing false tax returns.

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The Internal Revenue Service announced today that the nation’s tax season will begin Monday, January 29, 2018 and reminded taxpayers claiming certain tax credits that refunds won’t be available before late February.  The IRS will begin accepting tax returns on January 29, with nearly 155 million individual tax returns expected to be filed in 2018.  The nation’s tax deadline will be April 17 this year – so taxpayers will have two additional days to file beyond April 15.

Many software companies and tax professionals will be accepting tax returns before January 29 and then will submit the returns when IRS systems open. Although the IRS will begin accepting both electronic and paper tax returns January 29, paper returns will begin processing later in mid-February as system updates continue. The IRS strongly encourages people to file their tax returns electronically for faster refunds.

The IRS set the January 29 opening date to ensure the security and readiness of key tax processing systems in advance of the opening and to assess the potential impact of tax legislation on 2017 tax returns.

The filing deadline to submit 2017 tax returns is Tuesday, April 17, 2018, rather than the traditional April 15 date. In 2018, April 15 falls on a Sunday, and this would usually move the filing deadline to the following Monday – April 16. However, Emancipation Day – a legal holiday in the District of Columbia – will be observed on that Monday, which pushes the nation’s filing deadline to Tuesday, April 17, 2017. Under the tax law, legal holidays in the District of Columbia affect the filing deadline across the nation.

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The Internal Revenue Code requires employers to withhold certain taxes in “a special fund in trust for the United States” (sec. 7501(a)). IRS regulations require employers to pay these trust fund taxes to the IRS quarterly. Employers who fail to pay withheld taxes to the government are personally liable for the taxes under section 6672 of the Code. In general, the government can recover unpaid taxes if (1) the employer is responsible for collecting and paying withholding taxes, and (2) the individual willfully failed to collect and pay the withholding taxes. What is key is that the IRS can recover from any responsible person, not necessarily the most responsible person.

The trust fund recovery penalty is often a trap for the unwary, including for partners and shareholders of law firms, as illustrated by Spizz v. United States, 120 A.F.T.R. 2d 2017-6719 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 4, 2017). Spizz and Todtman were shareholders of the law firm Todtman, Nachamie, Spizz & Johns, P.C., from 2009 through September 2012. The court in Spizz held that the government could hold Spizz and Todtman personally liable for the trust fund taxes the firm failed to pay between 2009 and 2012. Despite the fact that the firm was going through serious financial difficulty, the court held that both shareholders were personally liable for the trust fund taxes.

Responsible Persons

The court first turned to whether Todtman and Spizz were “responsible persons” for the firm’s payment of trust fund taxes. The court stated that the payment issue depended on whether, given the individual’s authority over the company’s financial operations, the individual could have prevented the tax delinquency.

The court found that both Todtman and Spizz were responsible persons. Todtman founded the firm, served as its president while holding one-third ownership during the relevant periods and exercised authority over the firm’s finances. Although Spizz did not make financial decisions to the same extent as Todtman, the court stated that the “inquiry focuses on whether an individual could have exerted influence” to avoid tax delinquency. The court found that Spizz was also a responsible person because he held one-third of the firm’s shares and was its vice president.

Willfulness

The second element of tax payment liability under section 6672 is willfulness. A person willfully fails to pay withholding taxes if payment is made to other creditors while knowing that withholding taxes are due. The court found that Todtman was aware of the firm’s responsibility to pay trust fund taxes, and that the firm was paying other creditors before the IRS. While the trust fund taxes were still due, Todtman signed checks on behalf of the firm to disburse funds for payroll and payments to creditors.

The court also held that Spizz willfully failed to remit trust fund taxes. Although he did not learn of the firm’s tax liability until June 2010, he failed to apply the firm’s unencumbered assets to the firm’s tax liability when he found out about it. The court held that this was sufficient to establish willfulness for the pre-June 2010 period. After June 2010, when Spizz became aware of the firm’s tax liability, the court held that he could no longer maintain a reasonable belief that other members of the firm would timely pay its trust fund taxes. Thus, Spizz could not claim that he did not willfully withhold trust fund taxes.

The Internal Revenue Service advised tax professionals and taxpayers today that pre-paying 2018 state and local real property taxes in 2017 may be tax deductible under certain circumstances.

The IRS has received a number of questions from the tax community concerning the deductibility of prepaid real property taxes. In general, whether a taxpayer is allowed a deduction for the prepayment of state or local real property taxes in 2017 depends on whether the taxpayer makes the payment in 2017 and the real property taxes are assessed prior to 2018.  A prepayment of anticipated real property taxes that have not been assessed prior to 2018 are not deductible in 2017.  State or local law determines whether and when a property tax is assessed, which is generally when the taxpayer becomes liable for the property tax imposed.

The following examples illustrate these points.

Example 1:  Assume County A assesses property tax on July 1, 2017 for the period July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018.  On July 31, 2017, County A sends notices to residents notifying them of the assessment and billing the property tax in two installments with the first installment due Sept. 30, 2017 and the second installment due Jan. 31, 2018.   Assuming taxpayer has paid the first installment in 2017, the taxpayer may choose to pay the second installment on Dec. 31, 2017, and may claim a deduction for this prepayment on the taxpayer’s 2017 return.

Example 2:  County B also assesses and bills its residents for property taxes on July 1, 2017, for the period July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018.  County B intends to make the usual assessment in July 2018 for the period July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019.  However, because county residents wish to prepay their 2018-2019 property taxes in 2017, County B has revised its computer systems to accept prepayment of property taxes for the 2018-2019 property tax year.  Taxpayers who prepay their 2018-2019 property taxes in 2017 will not be allowed to deduct the prepayment on their federal tax returns because the county will not assess the property tax for the 2018-2019 tax year until July 1, 2018.

The IRS reminds taxpayers that a number of provisions remain available this week that could affect 2017 tax bills. Time remains to make charitable donations. See IR-17-191 for more information. The deadline to make contributions for individual retirement accounts – which can be used by some taxpayers on 2017 tax returns – is the April 2018 tax deadline.

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Our colleagues Stanley Barsky, Michael S. Bookbinder, and Eric J. Michaels have published an article about several provisions in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — signed into law by the president today — that significantly affect the federal income tax consequences of structures often used in domestic M&A transactions.  While some are taxpayer-favorable, others are unfavorable, as compared with prior law.  Buyers and sellers should carefully plan any acquisition or disposition of assets or equity interests to maximize the impact of the favorable provisions and mitigate the impact of the unfavorable provisions.  You can read their article by clicking here.

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