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.

The first step in taxing space starts tomorrow in Sacramento

Have you ever thought about space travel? Or even being one of the first human colonists to Mars? If you have, you should also be prepared to pay a tax. Seriously. That’s right, with the developments in space exploration, the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) is preparing to develop a tax strategy for space travel and commerce.

Taxation strategy of the final frontier begins tomorrow in Sacramento during an interested parties meeting at the FTB’s mother ship. If you didn’t book your tax space voyage in time, you can still attend by phone by calling (877) 923-3149 at 10:00 a.m. Enter the participant pass code 2233420, followed by the # sign.

The official captain’s log for the meeting is to discuss possible regulatory efforts for the apportionment and allocation of income derived from space transportation activities, including the transportation of people or cargo into and from Space. I didn’t think it would be possible, but even the FTB can make this meeting sound boring.

According the news release issued by the FTB, during the upcoming initial meeting, FTB staff members will solicit input from industry and practitioners on issues that may arise in the application of a regulation on such space activities, including, but not limited to:

– How should space transportation activities be defined in a regulation?

– At what point should aircraft or space vehicles be considered as traveling into space?

– How should unsuccessful missions be treated?

– What apportionment factors should be used to apportion and allocate income from space transportation activities? How many apportionment factors should there be, and how should they be weighted? Launch factor, recovery factor, mileage factor, or some other factor?

– Should a regulatory effort address the potential for “nowhere income,” and if so, how should it be addressed?

– What issues might be encountered with combining space transportation activities with a taxpayer’s other trade or business activities?

– Should a regulatory effort distinguish between transporting cargo and people?

– Any other issues that industry believes FTB staff should consider.

Isn’t this exciting!? I do wonder however if a Foreign Bank and Financial Account Report (FBAR) will be required if life is found on Mars, and a human opens a bank account there? I suppose that’s a federal question and the July meeting, I further suppose, is limited California state tax matters.

How to Get Fired if you Work for the IRS

As far as I know, an IRS employee can’t be fired just for leaving you on hold for 3 hours, or for giving you bad information that contradicts what the previous IRS employee told you, or for rejecting your Offer in Compromise (as long as procedures are followed). Of course, there could be additional actions and circumstances that might warrant termination, but generally speaking, these are not adequate grounds.

But according to rules established during the 1998 tax code reform, an IRS employee is supposed to be fired for the following actions unless the Commish determines that the employee should be given a second chance due to the presence of mitigating factors:

  • Purposely failing to obtain signatures required prior to certain asset seizures;
  • Lying under oath relevant to matters involving a taxpayer account;
  • destroying or falsifying evidence relevant to matters involving a taxpayer account;
  • Assault or battery of a taxpayer or fellow employee (that’s comforting, knowing that an IRS employee will likely get fired for cold-cocking a taxpayer) — but only if there is a conviction;
  • Purposely violating a provision in the IRC, Regs, IRM, or internal policies for the purpose of retaliating against or harassing a taxpayer or fellow employee;
  • Willful failure to file a tax return or underreporting income on a tax return…

There are others, but this list is getting tedious.  It’s funny to me that some of these prohibitions are related to actions against other IRS employees.  Don’t they get along over at the IRS, or what?

A House Committee has introduced a bill that would add another bullet point to this list above. H.R. 709, the Prevent Targeting at the IRS Act, would require the firing of IRS employees who act in their official capacity to target entities or individuals for personal or political reasons.  And presumably any offending employee would have to be fired regardless of how merciful the Commissioner wants to be.  Thank you Robert Wood for the info on H.R. 709.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for the Prevent Stupidity at the IRS Act.

800,000 Obamacare Enrollees Received Incorrect Tax Forms

Here’s a suggestion for the IRS’ next Tax Tips article: “What you should know about the incompetence of the IRS.” Or maybe this one: “10 reasons why you should not renounce your citizenship and move to Brazil.”  Their latest screw up came on Friday — or at least it was announced on Friday — that 800,000 Obamacare enrollees were sent the wrong tax forms and will need to wait until sometime in March to file their taxes.  Yet another reason to not be so eager about filing early.  And what about those conscientious tax return filers who already pulled the trigger?  Well, the Obama administration hasn’t quite figured out what to do with them yet.

Just keep checking in with the IRS on their website.  That’s where the IRS likes to funnel all inquiries these days.  They don’t have enough employees in their call centers to answer the phones usually; I would definitely not recommend you try calling.  I’m sure there will be some sort of extension for those who already filed using the wrong forms.  The Obama administration is great about accommodating people with extensions.  It will be all over the internet, just be sure you are looking to reputable news sources for you info.

There are always ways to describe Obamacare (or IRS) blunders so that it highlights the administration’s incompetence:

The White House tells us in a classic Friday news dump that nearly one million Americans could see their tax refunds delayed because of this president’s inability to implement his own law.

~ Diane Black, Rep Tenn

Not a full-blown “spin” though, in my opinion, because they very well could see their tax refunds delayed.  Years from now we will be able to look back, with experience and time giving us a better perspective, and determine if this is one of several innocent mistakes or if the government really did fail in the administration of Obamacare.  I know a lot of people believe we can make that call now, and would say that it has been a complete flop, not only the administration of the new law, but the whole idea of it in the first place.

2014 National Taxpayer Advocate Report

It’s a little bit (ok, a lot bit) frustrating reading the National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report to congress that was released today.  Of course my frustration is with the IRS, not the Taxpayer Advocate.  It’s pretty much the same report year after year.  The IRS is severely understaffed and underfunded, and its employees are less than qualified.  The level of service is reaching abysmal levels and still dropping.

This year the Taxpayer Advocate applauded the IRS for adopting a Taxpayer Bill or Rights administratively, but is still pushing for it to be enacted legislatively so that it really has some “teeth” and so that it becomes a permanent fixture that encourages voluntary compliance.

One point that evokes an abundance of frustration for me is the “absence of studies to determine whether existing penalties promote voluntary compliance.”  What this means in plain English is that the IRS has been punishing Americans with penalties as long as anyone now alive can remember, but the IRS has done relatively little to determine if these penalties actually work.  This is the functional equivalent of building a castle on sand or on an active volcano.  And if you think this is a minor problem, you’ve probably never had a tax debt that has tripled in size due to penalties and interest.  Furthermore, you’re probably unaware of this little factoid:

The number of provisions in the Internal Revenue Code that either authorize or require the IRS to impose penalties has ballooned from 14 in 1955 to over 170 today.

A penalty is considered effective if it promotes voluntary compliance.  In other words, a penalty (or all the tax penalties combined) should cause taxpayers who are on the fence about paying to decide that they will pay voluntarily rather than expose themselves to IRS enforced collections.  And the IRS needs to strike the right balance: not too severe and not too light.  That’s not an easy task, but the IRS does not appear to be taking it very seriously, according to the Taxpayer Advocate.  Ever heard of the IRS Office of Service-wide Penalties?  Of course you haven’t because it’s a 6-man operation tucked neatly out of sight that hasn’t answered to Congress in over 20 years.

On a positive note, I am very happy with my own direct experiences with the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) recently.  I had previously been told that the TAS would not provide assistance to taxpayers without the presence of an IRS levy or threat of levy (or other adverse action).  And even then, I was under the impression that TAS may not take a case without the presence of some sort of delay.  However, I have noticed that the TAS intake department has become quite a bit more liberal.  In fact, I have a couple cases that the TAS gladly accepted where there was no financial hardship whatsoever, only delay.

2015 Filing Season Won't be Pretty

Those who would know best are saying that we need to be prepared for one of the worst filing seasons on record during the first quarter of 2015. What makes one filing season worse than another?  It has to do with the level of service that the IRS can provide to taxpayers.  How fast can they answer the phone when taxpayers call?  How fast and accurately can the IRS respond to taxpayer correspondence?  How efficiently will the IRS be able to process tax returns and refunds?

The IRS had a goal of answering 80% of incoming calls last season, but only managed to answer 72%.  This filing season it is predicted that the IRS may only be able to pick up 53% of the time with a 34 minute average hold time.

The IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen has identified a few main reasons why things look so bleak:

  1. The IRS doesn’t have enough money to operate the way it should.  Funding levels are lower than they have been in years.
  2. The IRS has been tasked with administering new programs such as the Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act with no additional funding from Congress.
  3. Implementation of a new voluntary return preparer oversight program will also increase work load for IRS employees.
  4. There are 50 or so “tax extenders” — laws that Congress needs to vote on and determine if they will be extended or not.  The uncertainty could delay the start of the 2014 tax season.

National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, has a way of stating things in the plainest terms.  She has generated some great sound bites over the years.  Here’s her take on the upcoming tax season:

The filing season is going to be the worst filing season since I’ve been the National Taxpayer Advocate {in 2001}; I’d love to be proved wrong, but I think it will rival the 1985 filing season when returns disappeared.

I think these viewpoints have been colored by a recent TIGTA report that highlights “unfavorable trends” with the Automated Collection System (ACS).  Because the IRS does not have the resources to work cases properly, they have been “punting” many of them into Currently Not Collectible status or into the “queue” where cases can sit idle for months or years.  Consider yourself fortunate if you don’t have to interact with the IRS this tax season other than to file your return and wait for a refund check.

IRS Doctors & Nurses

Have you seen the comments from former IRS territory manager, Michael Gregory, in a recent “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit?  Many readers have felt dissatisfied with his answers because he seemed to be overly concerned with defending the IRS, defending Lois Lerner, and griping about underfunding.  I talk with the IRS every day and I must say that this guy is definitely “one of them.”  As a 28-year veteran, admittedly it would be difficult to remove oneself from that role and the IRS lingo, even after retirement.  But this guy went a little too far.  As one Reddit user pointed out, he almost sounded like an IRS lobbyist.  I totally agree, but let’s move on to something more substantive in his comments.

At one point Gregory compared IRS specialists to medical specialists:

The IRS has 13,200 revenue agents and about 2,000 specialists. I managed 1/4 of the country’s specialists in engineering and valuation issues, with specialization comes an added degree of due diligence and accuracy. It’s like if you go to a doctor you get referred to a specialist – the same thing is true at the IRS.

I do not disagree with this comparison.  But the problem should be obvious: there aren’t near enough specialists to go around.  Think of the ratio of 2,000 specialists to how many million taxpayers?!  Same with revenue agents (the tax doctors); 13,200 isn’t nearly enough.  So what happens is a vast majority of taxpayer accounts are handled by (to complete the analogy) the nurses of the IRS — the customer service reps.  There are too many inexperienced, undertrained, underqualified employees.  It can be very frustrating for taxpayers who reach out for help, and they just want to be able to resolve their tax issues and move on.  In many cases, if they could just get in touch with a doctor, the issue could be resolved the same day.  But in reality they often get bounced around from nurse to nurse and nothing gets accomplished.

The IRS (IRS insiders) would have you believe that Congress can throw money at this problem and make it go away, but money alone will not change it if all they do is increase the number of nurses.

Audit Resistant Partnerships on the Rise

The IRS generally can include returns filed within the last three years in a tax audit.  There are exceptions, but the IRS normally does not go back further than three years.  What you may not know is that the IRS has the same amount of time to audit large partnerships.  According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it takes the IRS about 18 months of preparation and fact finding before they can even begin this type of audit.  GAO considers a partnership large if it has more than 100 partners and $100 million or more in assets.

The GAO report underscores the necessity of tax reform.  There are some 20-year old provisions, such as this one, that don’t make sense anymore.  Large partnerships can be very complex, with multiple tiers of partners, making it very difficult to determine where to start.  Many of today’s large partnerships are finance and insurance firms, and it’s great for them, but the IRS really hasn’t been able to effectively audit them.

This problem has become more acute in the past 10 years or so since the number of pass-through entities such as partnerships has been on the rise and the number of corporations has been declining.  Very interesting statistics from GAO:

The number of large partnerships has more than tripled to 10,099 from tax year 2002 to 2011. Almost two-thirds of large partnerships had more than 1,000 direct and indirect partners, had six or more tiers and/or self reported being in the finance and insurance sector, with many being investment funds.

Will the IRS Bring Back Private Debt Collections?

Somebody has sneaked some terrible legislation into a provision of the EXPIRE Act which, if approved, would require the IRS to hire outside private debt collection (PDC) firms to collect past due taxes.  If this sounds familiar it is because the IRS has already tried this a couple times with very little success.  These are just some of the problems that tax practitioners have identified with hiring private debt collectors to collect income taxes:

  • The IRS must hand over sensitive taxpayer information (like social security numbers) which raises concerns about privacy and identity theft.  Just like a juicy bit of gossip, the more people you tell, the greater the risk of the information spreading to the wrong people or groups.  No amount of training can ensure this won’t happen.
  • If private collection agencies are hired on a contingency basis, their motivation to collect may be higher than your average IRS employee who is paid the same regardless of how much revenue is collected.
  • Although private collection agencies would be given access to some key pieces of information, not all tax account information would be available.  This means that the taxpayer would be required to go back to the IRS anyway, to confirm what the PDC firm has done and tie up any loose ends.

I definitely saw this in my practice during the second trial run of this program 6-7 years ago.  The PDC firms were not given authority to enter into certain installment agreements, so we would have to get cases transferred back to the IRS in most cases.  Using private collection firms only complicates things at the IRS and creates bottlenecks at an agency that is already known for being a little slow.  The good thing is that many, if not most, stakeholders and authorities oppose this legislation, including the National Conference of CPA Practitioners (NCCPAP), the Taxpayer Advocate, the IRS Oversight Board, and the Commissioner himself.

Only federal employees, who have been screened and vetted through the Internal Revenue Service, should be permitted to represent the federal government in matters pertaining to individual taxes.

~ Steven Mankowski, NCCPAP Tax Policy Committee chair

First-time Penalty Abatement in California

What kills people when they have an IRS tax debt is the interest and penalties.  If you don’t file and pay your taxes when they become due, you can eventually find yourself owing much more than the original tax assessment.  It is possible to negotiate an abatement of penalties, but it isn’t always easy, especially for “repeat offenders.”

By “repeat offender” I mean those who have a history of non-compliance, (i.e., failure to file on time and/or failure to pay on time).  The IRS treats repeat offenders differently.  If you have no missing returns and no prior penalties for the preceding three (3) years, then you may qualify for “first-time abatement penalty relief.”  First-time abatement may be granted without consideration of individual circumstances and excuses.  However, if you do not meet the criteria for first-time abatement, then your only recourse would “reasonable cause penalty relief,” which can be very difficult to prove.  Chances are, what you consider a reasonable excuse for not filing on time or not paying on time will not be considered reasonable by the IRS.

The California Legislature is currently considering adoption of a bill that would provide a first-time abatement option for California taxpayers.  Under AB 1777, the Franchise Tax Board would give preference to non-repeat offenders like the IRS.  The requirements would be as follows:

  1. No prior timeliness penalties imposed for current year and four (4) prior years;
  2. The taxpayer has paid all current tax due, or is in a valid installment agreement;
  3. The taxpayer is otherwise compliant with FTB filing requirements

As you can see, the first-time California late-filing penalty abatement, as proposed, would be more restrictive than the Federal version, as it requires a slightly longer history of compliance.  It seems like California looks to the IRS for guidance in administration of its tax laws, and then tries to figure out how it can make things just a little bit tougher for California taxpayer.