Congrats! You’re a Partner with the IRS

On March 19, 2015 IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, brought together representatives from the IRS, the states, and the private sector tax industry in what he called the Security Summit Group to discuss ways to combat identity theft and, specifically, identity theft that results in tax fraud. Private sector representatives included the likes of CEOs of leading tax prep firms, software developers, and payroll processors. For the first two months, the SSG met “continuously” to collaborate and brainstorm. One of the ideas that has come out of these meetings is that there is no silver bullet for putting an end to identity theft and that we need to adopt a “multi-layered and coordinated approach.” Another big idea, announced by Koskinen in a statement yesterday, is that there is a key Security Summit partner that, until now, has been left out of the equation: YOU.

We’ve made a great deal of progress for the upcoming tax season, and it shows just how much we can accomplish working together. But to keep making progress, there is another partner we need to bring on board, and that’s the taxpaying public. In fact, that’s why we’re announcing this new effort, called “Taxes-Security-Together.” We all have a part to play in fighting identity theft.

Koskinen says that now is the best time to begin this new initiative. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically says that there will be a bunch of new electronic devices bought over the next couple months (ok, Christmas time, I follow), and people will be doing their taxes and making other transactions on these devices (um, people do their taxes on phones? really?) and a significant number of these potential ID theft portals will fall into the hands of people who don’t know how to use them, and it behooves us to help them to use them safely. This seems like a really tenuous “slippery slope” kind of thought process here, but ok. Now I’m interested to know if identity theft typically spikes in December or something.

But, needless to say, it feels pretty awesome to be a member of the Security Summit Group. I’m waiting eagerly by the mailbox for my badge and lanyard. As a member in good standing of the SSG, I would like to commend the Commissioner on his Taxes-Security-Together initiative. It sounds like fun. However, I also would like him to tell me how he plans on getting these messages out to those who really need to hear them. I will prepare now for what promises to be a barrage of public service announcements via YouTube, Facebook, and wherever else the IRS has a presence. But if you’re not connected with the IRS online somehow, either by “liking” or “following” or subscribing to their emails, just how are you going to catch wind of these tips and announcements? And between a tax professional and the general public, who do you think would benefit most from hearing them? There is no one silver bullet, but at least some bullets should hit some targets for this initiative to be successful.

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How Much Help is your Tax Preparer?

Can your tax preparer help you if you run into trouble with the IRS? It depends on what kind of trouble, but generally your everyday, average tax preparer cannot do everything necessary to resolve your tax issues.

If your tax preparer is either an enrolled agent, certified public accountant, or tax attorney, then you will likely have all the authority you need in your corner to address whatever the problem might be. Although attorneys are often better suited for assisting with collection, litigation, and tax court matters. The IRS sees these three categories of tax professionals as having “unlimited representation rights.”

But if your tax preparer does not possess one of these three credentials, then the amount of help he can provide is very limited. Tax preparers who are not EAs, CPAs, or attorneys (also known as “unenrolled preparers”) may only represent taxpayers on issues having to do with returns that they personally prepared. And even then, if the issues escalate to the level of the IRS Collections Department, IRS Appeals, or beyond, they must turn it over to an EA, CPA, or attorney (or the taxpayer may try to handle it on his own). If the dispute cannot be resolved administratively and makes its way up to US Tax Court, then it should certainly be handled by an experienced tax attorney, but it can also be handled by an EA or CPA who has been admitted to practice before the Tax Court. And, of course, the taxpayer still has the option to go at it alone as a “pro se” litigant in Tax Court.

It is one thing to say that someone has the authority to help you, but it is quite another thing to say that they have the skills, experience, and desire to help you. I have met a number of Enrolled Agents that are qualified to represent their clients in audits and IRS disputes, but who simply do not choose to do that as part of their business.  And those who make the decision to pass on those types of cases, never gain the necessary experience and skills to represent a taxpayer competently in such matters. Unenrolled preparers are even less likely to include IRS representation as part of their repertoire.

Although nobody anticipates getting into trouble with the IRS, and it can’t really be predicted, these are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a tax preparer. And according to the IRS, November is a good time to make that decision.

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GOP Wants Hillary Audited

What’s the worst threat you can think of? The answer to this question probably depends on who you ask. My teenage daughter might say taking away her phone or the threat of somebody unfollowing her on Instagram. If you ask any normal adult person, it might be the threat of physical harm. But if you ask somebody in my circle of friends, it would definitely be the threat of an IRS audit.  There are few things more agonizing than the dreaded audit.

The Republican Party is threatening Hillary Clinton and her family’s charity, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), not with legal action, but with an IRS audit. Of course, they can’t audit her themselves; they filed a formal complaint asking the IRS to audit the charity. CHAI staved off an investigation back in May by agreeing to file amended returns and fix the problem. But now they are taking the position that the income was correctly stated and amendments are not necessary. As the Democratic front runner, Hillary will undoubtedly attract plenty of scrutiny, and the Republicans will do their best to portray her as a tax cheat.

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House Republicans Seek Impeachment of IRS Commish

Two days ago the Justice Department formally closed its investigation of alleged targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. DOJ found that Lois Lerner and other top IRS managers were guilty of “mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia,” but had done nothing criminal. This scandal began in 2013 and has been a hot topic in tax professional circles and among anyone interested in government & politics. Over the course of these past two and a half years, the IRS has been investigated by TIGTA, the Justice Department, and even the FBI. Some IRS officials involved in the scandal have resigned under the pressure. Even so, the DOJ stated that there was no evidence that any IRS official obstructed justice or attempted to obstruct justice. Big win for the IRS.

But GOP lawmakers don’t want to put this scandal to rest until justice has been served. Their target is IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, and they’re not interested in settling with contempt or obstruction charges; they want to impeach him. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and 18 other republicans have initiated the seldom-used impeachment process against Commissioner John Koskinen, which will go through the House Judiciary Committee next. Those who support impeachment of Koskinen claim that he has violated the public trust by lying about the existence of emails, or deleting emails, or allowing emails to be deleted on his watch, or any combination of these things. The IRS, of course, insists that it has fully cooperated with any and all investigations, spending upwards of $20 million and 160,000 employee hours in the process.

Interesting footnote: pursuing impeachment against an agency official is rare. Back in 1876 Congress tried to impeach War Secretary, William Belknap, but he resigned before conclusion of the process. Belknap, known as a man of virtues and flaws, was secretary to President Grant, and an attorney by trade. He went back to that trade after it was discovered that he had been involved in bribes and in selling weapons to France.

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FTB Penalties at Every Turn

Can anyone keep track of all the different California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) fees and penalties? If you owe taxes, you’ve got to keep an eye on them, or your tax liability can quickly get out of hand. At a minimum, you should know that they exist.

The most obvious penalties are the “late filing penalty” and the “late payment penalty.” The late filing penalty is imposed for filing after April 15th, or after the extended due date, as the case may be. The amount of this penalty is 25 percent of the amount due. The late payment penalty is assessed if the full tax on the return is not paid by the original due date. The penalty is 5 percent of the amount that was not paid, plus .5 percent monthly, until it is paid (subject to a 25 percent maximum).

Other common penalties include the “estimated tax penalty” and the “demand to file penalty.” Obviously if you are required to make estimated tax payments and you either don’t pay in full or pay late, you’ll be subject to the estimated tax penalty. The demand to file penalty is almost what you’d think. If FTB sends you a letter demanding that you file a certain tax return, or provide certain information, and you disregard it, they will impose a 25 percent penalty. The catch is that they figure the penalty based on the FTB’s assessment before applying any payments or credits (not your own return), which sometimes has seemingly unfair results. Where else might you owe penalties and interest even if your tax return shows that a refund is due? Not with the IRS, that’s for sure.  The IRS does not typically care if you file a return if that return is going to result in a refund.

I do understand the rationale of requiring a return, even if reported income and withholding information suggests that no tax would be due. The reasoning is that the FTB simply wants the taxpayer to certify (by filing a return) that there is no additional income or taxable events that may have not been reported by third parties.

There are also a number of “cost recovery fees” that could be imposed by FTB that drive up the balance of a tax bill. FTB charges a fee if your account is assigned to filing enforcement or to collections. There are also fees associated with filing a tax lien or seizing and selling property. You can read all about FTB collection procedures in publication 1140.

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The Taxonomy of IRS letters

Science has documented and named something like 900,000 different insect species. Interestingly, most authorities agree that the number of insect species that have not been named far exceeds the number that have been named. We can only estimate what this number might be: anywhere between 2 million and 30 million.

And this is where I draw a strange comparison between insects and IRS correspondence. It won’t seem all that strange if you have ever received IRS mail over an extended period of time. The comparison certainly isn’t that tenuous from the perspective of a tax attorney who sees an endless stream of every type of IRS correspondence show up in the office. Based on a recent TIGTA audit report, the IRS sent out over 141 million notices and 37 million letters during fiscal year 2014. That’s a lot of mail, but knowing how many people that they have to reach, these numbers seem reasonable. However, the variety of IRS letters and notices (like the variety of bug species) is apparently too large for the IRS to wrap its brain around. There are 2,749 types of letters and 195 types of notices currently in circulation.

TIGTA conducted this audit in order to follow up on a project that was initiated years ago wherein the IRS was supposed to remove social security numbers from forms, letters, and notices (due to identity theft concerns) except in cases where the SSN is absolutely necessary. The project was supposed to be completed in 2009, but the IRS put it off due to budget cuts and the need to focus efforts elsewhere. TIGTA found that the IRS has fixed only 2 percent of its letters and 48 percent of notices. Not only does the IRS not have a plan for completing this project and removing social security numbers, it does not even have a process or procedure for identifying correspondence with unnecessary SSNs. IRS management is apparently overwhelmed by the variety of correspondence; they are on record saying that compiling a list of all correspondence is more costly an endeavor than it appears. So what is the best way to describe the relationship between IRS correspondence and the world’s insect population? They’re everywhere and we don’t even know what most of them are.

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Trump’s “I Win” Tax Form

Presidential hopeful and real estate mogul, Donald Trump, is known for his informal and crude style.  If you ask him, he just says it like it is and leaves out the fluff.  If elected to be the next president, he will apparently be leaving out the fluff on IRS tax forms as well.  In describing his tax plan, he suggested that there will be relaxed filing requirements for individual taxpayers who earn less than $25,000 and married taxpayers who earn less than $50,000. Those who fall into this group would not pay taxes under Trump’s tax plan. Not only would they be exempt from paying taxes, but it appears that they would enjoy some kind of exemption from filing taxes as well. Instead of the regular Form 1040 income tax return, these economically disadvantaged households would simply send in their one-page form to the IRS stating “I win.”

I realize that Trump was speaking figuratively in referring to this “I win” form, but part of me would love to see something like that.  Would it come with instructions like most other IRS forms? The instructions might read something like this: “If you earn less than $25,000 (individual) or $50,000 (couples) then you win.  If you win, sign and date the form.” How refreshing it would be to see something so simple and straightforward in the IRS’ document library. Would the font be huge in an attempt to fill the page? Or would they use a standard size font so as to allow room for some cute graphics or a head shot of the Donald? The new “I win” form would certainly pose some new kinds of challenges and questions for the IRS.

All joking aside, doesn’t this comment show that Trump is way out of touch with reality — at least on a subconscious level? To him the biggest win he can imagine is avoiding taxes and keeping a bigger share of his earnings. But ask some of those trying to survive on $25,000 per year if they think they are winning. I’m not sure they would agree.

Trump’s tax plan would also include capping the tax rate for businesses at 15 percent. And the highest effective tax rate would be reduced from nearly 40 percent to 25 percent for individuals. By limiting the number of exemptions wealthy taxpayers can claim, Trump says they (he) will pay higher taxes. But some experts believe that will not be the result given the tax rate reductions he is proposing.

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Coca-Cola’s $3.3 Billion Tax Bill

It’s official, nobody has any right to complain about the taxes they owe.  Oh you owe $10k? $20k?  You think you’re in dire straits with your $50k or $100k tax debt?  That’s small beans.  The Coca-Cola company owes $3.3 billion!  The additional assessments came after a 5-year long audit associated with tax years 2007-2009.

Many of the tax disputes between the IRS and multinational corporations have to do with these companies trying to shift reportable income away from the US to avoid high domestic tax rates.  I say “avoid” and not “evade” because they all do this and they all claim that it is completely legal. However, I can’t imagine there is much legal precedent due to the fact that the vast majority of these cases settle, never making it to trial.

There are good reasons for settling, and they are all the standard reasons why parties in a lawsuit often choose to settle. One reason is to avoid the “hazards of litigation.” You never know with 100% certainty which way the judge and/or jury will go.  You can weigh the relative strengths on both sides, you can compare the evidence, and you can apply the law to the facts as done in similar cases. But surprises are common in litigation, and you can never predict for sure what will happen. Another good reason for settling is to avoid the high costs of litigation. Hundreds of thousands of dollars can be saved when parties agree to settle complex litigation cases. Of course the key is to settle early enough, before too much has been spent and before huge investments of time and emotion. Coca-Cola will need to decide whether it can justify the legal fees and risk the hazards of litigation.

Coca-Cola insists that it has been doing its taxes the same way for 30 years without any problems from the IRS.

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IRS Discontinues Appeals Arbitration Program

The Appeals Arbitration program will no longer exist as of September 21, 2015. The availability of arbitration following an adverse decision at the appeals stage of a case has been around in one form or another since the year 2000. I say “in one form or another” because it began as a pilot program intended to last only two years. In 2002 the pilot program was extended for another year. Then on October 30, 2006, the IRS published Rev. Proc. 2006-44, 2006-2 C.B. 800, formally establishing the Appeals Arbitration Program. The program underwent further expansion in 2008 when it was opened up to collection cases in select cities, meaning that taxpayers were permitted to request arbitration for resolution of Trust Fund Recover Penalties and rejected Offers in Compromise.

So why is the IRS scrapping appeals arbitration? It might have something to do with the fact that only two cases were settled using arbitration during the 14 years it existed. It has everything to do with that, so good move IRS. But what options are left besides going to US Tax Court? MEDIATION. The main difference between arbitration and mediation is that an arbitrator hands down a decision (sometimes binding) which more closely resembles an actual trial, and a mediator basically just helps the parties look at the issues and talk it out. Per the IRS:

Given the general lack of demand for arbitration and the fact that its use as a tool to settle disputes without litigation has not proven successful, the IRS is eliminating the arbitration program. Although Appeals arbitration is being eliminated, taxpayers may be eligible to request mediation for unresolved issues that remain after completion of settlement discussions in Appeals.

The IRS has a nifty online tool to help you decide if mediation is right for you.

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TIGTA Reviews IRS Asset Seizure Procedures

Asset seizure is that one thing many of my clients worry about, but few have had to experience first hand, thankfully. In my work as a tax attorney, I have noticed that the IRS does not like to use asset seizure as their “go to” collection tool. They will typically try everything else first, including letters, phone calls, field visits, liens, wage garnishments, and bank levies. However, after other efforts have been exhausted, if they are still unable to get the taxpayer to address their tax balance, the IRS has authority to seize any variety of assets, including vehicles, real property, and valuable personal property. These days property seizures are orchestrated by specially trained “PALS” employees (Property Appraisal and Liquidation Specialists) who coordinate with the revenue officer throughout each phase of the seizure and sale.

According to a recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the IRS needs to work out a few kinks in their asset seizure procedures. One of the problems that TIGTA identified occurs when a taxpayers’ personal property subsequently turns up inside or attached to the seized property. The IRS is supposed to use form 668-E to document these found items and they are to be released back to the taxpayer.  But the form is not consistently used and the items are not consistently returned, according to TIGTA. Although, to be fair, the IRS audited 44 seizure cases around the country and the only item that TIGTA identified as being unreturned to the taxpayer was the license plate in six of the eight vehicle seizures (because in those six states the license is issued to the owner of the vehicle, not the vehicle itself). Kind of a non-issue if you ask me. Yes, its important to follow procedures, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting their license plate back to forever remind them of the car that the IRS took from them.

Another procedural problem is that there is no IRM guidance for how to handle removal of taxpayer data from installed equipment in vehicles. Two examples of this would be factory installed garage door openers and GPS units. If taxpayer is not permitted to retrieve the personal data or ensure that the device has been scrubbed, this poses potential privacy concerns where a third party purchaser would have access to the taxpayer’s home address and maybe even access to the garage.

Very few taxpayers would ever even consider these seemingly minor concerns, until you find yourself at the mercy of PALS and an overzealous revenue officer. Still, I think it is useful to ponder some of the minute details of what goes on inside the IRS, even if only to give us some perspective and understanding. I like to imagine my revenue officer tied up in a complex asset seizure when I don’t get a call back for a couple weeks. It makes me feel like they’re not just ignoring me, and it makes me feel better knowing that my client’s situation could be much worse.

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