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.

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.

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.

IRS Hesitates to Enforce Erroneous Refund/Credit Penalty

If you file a tax return and claim a refund, but it turns out that you should not have claimed a refund (or if you claimed an excessive refund), you could be liable for payment of penalties.  Similarly, if you made an erroneous or excessive claim for a tax credit, the IRS has authority to assess penalties.  The penalty could be as much as 20 percent of the erroneous refund or credit claim, and it may be assessed without regard to the taxpayer’s good intentions.  Innocent mistakes are equally subject to penalty.

The IRS hasn’t been very diligent in enforcing this penalty in the past several years, but the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) hopes that will change.  In a recent audit report, TIGTA discovered that the IRS had initially misinterpreted the law allowing assessment of penalties, and then even after modifying their official interpretation, still failed to adequately enforce it.

It seems hard to believe that there would be a tax penalty statute on the books that the IRS wasn’t interested in enforcing, but it’s true.  Between May 2007 and May 2012, the IRS assessed only 84 erroneous refund penalties totaling $19 million.  That’s only about 17 per year, although the average assessment was upwards of a quarter million each.  It looks like the IRS had been targeting only the most egregious high-dollar cases.

In May 2012 the IRS admitted the tax law interpretation error and published an updated memorandum, but still has not put into place processes and procedures to guide front-line IRS personnel who make the day-to-day decisions of whether or not to pull the trigger on penalties.  Consequently, between June 2012 and May 2013, the IRS had allowed over 700,000 erroneous tax credits to slide by un-penalized to the tune of $1.5 billion in lost revenue.  And it is not just about lost revenue; it is about training the American taxpayer to be careful with the claims made on tax returns, because errors and false claims impose a big burden on the IRS in terms of both time and money.

More on the Individual Mandate

With the individual mandate element of ObamaCare going into effect in 2014, some people who are currently without health insurance may be wondering if they should begin looking into joining the ranks of the insured. We now know what the penalty will be for failure to secure insurance, so there will certainly be those who do a little cost/benefit analysis. As the deadline creeps up on us, perhaps some are also wondering why. Why is there a penalty at all?

I found a succinct and informative article on the PBS website that answers many of the common questions that pop up in relation to the individual mandate: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/09/how-will-the-obamacare-mandate-impact-you.html

If you aren’t already aware, Americans will be required to obtain health insurance beginning in 2014 or else pay a tax penalty of up to $95 per adult and half that for each child, or 1 percent of the household income, whichever is greater. And if you still don’t have coverage by 2016, you’ll pay as much as $695 per adult and $347 per child pursuant to the individual mandate.

What I really like about the PBS article is the plain-language explanation of the “why.”  For the health care overhaul to work, there has to be a broad base of participants. If everybody participates, including the young and the healthy, then the rates will (ideally) remain low. If coverage were not mandatory, then there would be an inordinate number of sick, high-cost participants which would drive the price of insurance through the roof.

However, opponents of the individual mandate believe that the penalty isn’t severe enough to ensure anything near 100% participation. Some people will certainly weigh their options and risk a penalty that will be lower than a health insurance premium, especially if the IRS is not going to do too much to enforce the individual mandate.

Extension for Farmers & Fishermen

This year the IRS was not ready to begin receiving and processing 2012 tax returns when they normally do so.  In fact, they’re still not ready.  The IRS has been making last minute changes stemming from the American Taxpayer Relief Act which, by the way, has such a nifty name.  Where exactly is the tax relief in this legislation?

The IRS doesn’t appear to be ready for forms commonly filed by fishermen and farmers either.  Form 4562 and the processing systems involved need “extensive programming and testing” according to the IRS.  Another unintended consequence of the American Taxpayer Relief Act.

And the estimated tax normally required by March 1st can be paid up until April 15th without incurring a penalty this year.  It does not look like merit-based penalty relief; all you have to do is “ask.”  However, it is important for farmers and fishermen to know that this penalty relief does not come automatically.  They will need to submit a penalty waiver (Form 2210-F) with their tax return.

Obamacare and the Individual Mandate

The health care coverage mandates under the Affordable Care Act are scheduled for January 1, 2014.  So what will it mean for individuals? There are penalties and “carrots” associated with the looming health care changes.

Starting in 2014 if your employer doesn’t offer insurance, you will be able to buy it directly from an affordable insurance exchange. An “exchange” is a supposedly transparent and competitive insurance marketplace where individuals and small businesses can buy affordable and qualified health benefit plans. Exchanges will offer a choice of health plans that meet certain benefit and cost standards.

As an individual who needs health care, in addition to the incentives offered by your employer if you are employed, there are incentives for you to obtain adequate health insurance.  Beginning in January 2014, insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing to sell coverage or renew policies based pre-existing conditions or from charging higher rates based on gender or health status. Additionally, depending on your income, advanceable tax credits will be available on qualified insurance coverage. The advanceable tax credit will lower your monthly premium payments so that you will not have to wait for the tax season to arrive to realize the benefit. This is the carrot.

Here’s the penalty: unless you meet the criteria for an exemption, you’re going to pay Uncle Sam if you don’t have health insurance. This is the “individual mandate.” The imposed fee is intended to help offset the costs of caring for uninsured Americans. Exemptions from the individual mandate for obtaining health insurance include religious reasons or where the least expensive health insurance policy available exceeds 8% of income. Unpaid fees may result in IRS tax problems since the IRS will be charged with collection.

If you don’t meet the criteria for an exemption, and you choose to not obtain health insurance, you will pay Uncle Sam nonetheless. The amount is tiered year to year beginning in tax year 2014. For year 2014, if you don’t have qualified health coverage, the minimum fee will be the greater of 1% of your annual income or a flat amount of $95. In tax year 2016, this penalty will increase to the greater of 2.5% of your annual income or a flat amount ranging from $695 to $2,085, depending on your household size. After year 2016, the penalty will be increased annually by the cost-of-living adjustment.

Supreme Court Expands Congressional Tax Power

image via lawprofessors.typepad.com

Tax relief for people who buy certain things? — sure (like real property).  A tax imposed on people who buy certain items? — sure (like cigarettes).  But a tax imposed on people who do not buying something?  That’s definitely new!  Apparently penalizing citizens for not purchasing health insurance now passes constitutional muster as a “tax,” or so says the Supreme Court.

Roberts recast the [health care] mandate as a tax, a rationale that was not in the law or the government’s case. He rewrote the administration’s position, baptized it, and then blessed it. Roberts’ defenders argue that he did so to avoid a constitutional crisis, but he may have created another by judicially re-legislating policy, a policy paid for and enforced by what could be essentially the largest tax increase in American history.

~William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor

 I guess it’s true what they say about the government’s taxing power.  It’s sort of a “catch-all” for federal programs that seem unconstitutional in all other respects.

“Fresh Start”: Penalty Relief

Today the IRS announced it will be offering additional tax relief to struggling taxpayers under its Fresh Start initiative. One of the ways the IRS plans to help out taxpayers is by granting penalty relief for the unemployed.  Another way is by expanding the Streamlined Installment Agreement (SIA) program.  Today I will describe the penalty relief provisions and tomorrow I will discuss the changes to the SIA criteria.

Taxpayers who meet the criteria for Fresh Start penalty relief will be given a 6-month grace period on the failure-to-pay penalties for 2011 taxes.  So, what are the criteria?  There are several:

  • You must have been unemployed at least 30 consecutive days sometime during the period January 1, 2011 to April 17, 2012.
  • Self-employed taxpayers must have experienced a 25% or greater reduction in income compared to 2010 due to the economic downturn
  • Your adjusted gross income must be less than $100,000 (or less than $200,000 if married filing jointly)
  • The balance due on your 2011 tax return must be $50,000 or less.
  • You must pay the entire tax debt (including any tax, interest, and other applicable penalties) by the end of the grace period, which is October 15, 2012, otherwise a failure-to-pay penalty will be imposed and calculated from the original payment due date, April 15, 2012
  • You must complete a Form 1127A to request this type of penalty relief

See article in the IRS Newsroom for more details.

As I read through the terms and conditions of the new Form 1127A, I couldn’t help but notice that struggling self-employeds are held to a slightly different standard than the unemployed. What’s worse, earning 25% less for an entire year, or being completely unemployed for 30 days or more?  Clearly if its only 30 or 60 days of unemployment, then its worse to earn 25% less; therefore, the self-employed standard would appear to be higher.  Furthermore, the 25% reduction must be due to the economic downturn, but there is no similar requirement that the 30+ day period of unemployment also be due to the economy.  It appears that it may be easier for the unemployed to obtain 1127A penalty relief than for the self-employed, even though a self-employed who experiences a 25% reduction in income might find himself in worse shape financially.