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.

Stopping Interest on Proposed Liabilities

You may not know this unless you’ve been through it, but when the IRS makes proposed adjustments to your taxes, interest begins to accrue beginning on the tax return due date.  And it is an even lesser known fact that one can completely stop interest from accruing on proposed tax balances by making what is called a “remittance.”  There’s a special term for it because we’re talking about proposed liabilities (before anything has officially been assessed).  After taxes are assessed, it is simply called a payment.

Why would anyone want to make a remittance?  The primary reason for making a remittance is that the taxpayer plans on disputing the adjustment, which could take a long time (especially if taken through the appeals process), and the taxpayer could potentially be on the hook for quite a bit of interest.  Paying a remittance sufficient to cover the total tax, penalties, and accrued interest will stop interest from running on the date it is received.  And if the taxpayer is successful in getting the liability reduced, the IRS will either return the excess or apply it to other tax liabilities.

There are two types of remittances: a deposit and an advance payment.  If you clearly designate your payment as a deposit, the IRS must return it to you, upon request, unless the IRS has already applied it against an assessed liability.  You may even qualify for interest being paid to you for the time that the IRS held your funds.  To qualify, you must provide a written statement that includes the tax type, tax year, and a copy of the 30-day letter.  An advance payment, on the other hand, is treated just like a regular tax payment and will only be refunded to you if you make a valid claim for a refund.

This is all fully explained in IRS Notice 1016 (Feb. 2006) which is often included as an insert in various IRS correspondence.  Be careful not to confuse this process with the cessation of interest on assessed tax liabilities.  The procedures above apply to proposed liabilities only.  Who knows how many of my clients have received this insert and read the title only (“How to Stop Interest on Your Account”) and assumed there is a way to stop interest on their assessed liabilities without paying in full.  The IRS should probably modify the title of this insert so that it is absolutely clear.

 

FTB Dishes out Penalties in Droves

If you’re familiar with the way the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) operates in the process of collecting delinquent taxes, then you know that they impose a bunch of different penalties.  There are some common sense penalties, like the penalty for filing late and the penalty for paying late. But there are some other more obscure FTB penalties that may surprise you:

1. Cost Recovery Fees

If the FTB has to do anything to collect the tax due (besides sending you a bill), then they are likely going to charge some sort of collection fee.  And when I say “anything,” I mean anything, such as filing a tax lien, seizing and selling property, intercepting a federal tax refund, filing enforcement, and even simply assigning your case to the collections department.  The fee is supposed to cover the theoretical costs of these revenue collection efforts and I’m sure are rarely commensurate with the actual collection costs.

2. Dishonored Payment Penalty

If your check bounces, or your FTB payment is otherwise rejected due to insufficient funds, then FTB will impose a $25 penalty.  If your payment is $1,250 or more, then the penalty is 2 percent of the payment amount.

3. Mandatory e-Pay Penalty

Certain large payments over $20,000, or payments made where the total tax liability exceeds $80,000, must be made electronically according to California law.  The California tax underpayment penalty imposed by the FTB is 1 percent penalty for failure to comply.

4. Demand to File Penalty

If you don’t file your tax return by the filing deadline, then FTB charges a 25 percent late filing penalty.  If you still do not file after FTB demands that you file, then they will impose a 25 percent penalty on top of the initial failure to file penalty.  This is particularly brutal because they can actually impose penalties and interest even if your tax return shows that a refund is due!

5. Estimated Tax Penalty

This is the penalty imposed  for failure to pay an estimated tax installment.  It also applies when you pay late or underpay.

6. Post-Amnesty Penalty

Taxpayers who have been granted amnesty for any particular tax year must not subsequently owe any new or additional tax, otherwise… you guessed it, another penalty.

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.

Do You have Reasonable Cause?

image via gerdleonhard.typepad.com

Sticking your head in the sand and trying to ignore your IRS tax debt can be costly. The most obvious problem is penalties and interest, which causes the debt to increase with every passing day.

And it is not as easy as you might think to get the IRS to disregard (or “abate”) the penalties. The IRS will consider penalty abatements if the taxpayer is able to show reasonable cause; however, this is a pretty high standard when it comes to tax obligations. Reasonable cause exists when the taxpayer exercised ordinary business care, but still failed to comply with their tax obligation (i.e., usually filing and/or paying late).

In its analysis of “ordinary business care” the IRS is supposed to weigh all applicable facts and circumstances, including the following:

  • taxpayer’s reason for non-compliance
  • compliance history
  • length of time
  • circumstances beyond taxpayer’s control

Death, serious illness, and natural disasters are typically some of the strongest “excuses” for building a penalty abatement case. Forgetfulness is almost always a losing argument. Most of the time it makes more sense to seek tax relief through other channels because penalty abatement is often a dead end road.