Lavish Spending is Not Tax Evasion

A recent court decision took up the question of whether lavish spending alone, in the face of a tax debt, should be considered willful tax evasion.  Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, is one of those super wealthy, elite class Americans who fell on hard times — a different sort of “hard times” than most people are familiar with, but hard times nonetheless.  He has IRS and FTB (California Franchise Tax Board) tax debts up to his eyeballs, something like $25 million, which he sought to have discharged in bankruptcy.

The government asked the bankruptcy court to exempt his tax debts from being discharged because he acted in a willful, tax evasive manner.  After acknowledging the tax debt, it was shown that he was spending up to $78,000 more each month than he was earning.  He was maintaining a $3.5 million home and a $2.6 million ocean-view condo.  He was buying $70,000 cars and cruising around in a private jet.  However, the court concluded that this sort of spending behavior, extravagant as it seems to regular folks, was not enough to prove willfulness.

I don’t imagine there are too many people living this lifestyle in valley towns like Modesto, Tracy, Turlock, or Oakdale, and its not simply for lack of ocean-view condos.  However, this issue does tend to crop up here in other contexts and on a much smaller scale.  For example, I have seen the California Board of Equalization (BOE) and FTB draw adverse conclusions on the grounds that a taxpayer was living too lavishly.  In the process of resolving a tax debt, these taxing entities look closely at bank statements to see how taxpayers are spending their money.  I have seen them raise an eyebrow at things like going out to much on weekends, eating out too much, taking too many trips, etc.  While this lifestyle is not going to land somebody in prison for tax evasion, it can sometimes make it more difficult to obtain an accepted installment agreement, or offer in compromise.

I’m not sure I really have to spell it out, but their thinking is “why should this taxpayer be allowed to live like this when he owes taxes; he needs to curb his spending so he can pay off his tax debt.”  This is just something to keep in mind when dealing with California taxing entities.  In my experience, the IRS is concerned with this kind of thing too, but to a lesser degree.

IRS Funding: Seems Adequate to Me

Some say the biggest problem at the IRS is that they are not allocated enough money to be able to administer the tax laws fairly and competently.  Even Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, has bought into this theory:

Today, the IRS is an institution in crisis. In my view, however, the real crisis is not the one generating headlines. The real crisis facing the IRS — and therefore taxpayers — is a radically transformed mission coupled with inadequate funding to accomplish that mission. As a consequence of this crisis, the IRS gives limited consideration to taxpayer rights or fundamental tax administration principles as it struggles to get its job done.

~ Nina Olson, in her mid-year report to Congress

What’s ironic about this quote is it was released today along side juicy headlines about IRS employees using government credit cards to make some highly questionable purchases of alcohol, expensive meals, party supplies, and even porn.  Of course many of these purchases were made on cards that were reported stolen.  I’m sure that’s true because there is no way any IRS employee would abuse his card privileges.

I don’t know Nina, I usually agree with your opinions, but it seems to me that the crisis is fairly well summarized by the headlines.  Why downplay the high-profile mistakes that are so very telling of what’s going on at the IRS?  And how is it that the IRS’ mission has been “radically transformed”?  Regardless of any official mission statements, their mission has always been, and always will be, to collect as much revenue as possible without too much regard to fairness, tax relief, and taxpayer rights.

So if the “real crisis” is inadequate funding, then why should we turn a blind eye to outrageous spending abuse?  There is no way in this world we should increase funding to the IRS until they clean house.