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Monday, February 20, 2017

So Who Should Pay Taxes for Police Protection? 

As explained in this article and others, the governor of Pennsylvania has proposed that Pennsylvania towns relying on the state police for all policing in the town pay a $25 per-person tax for those services. Not surprisingly, the proposal has triggered controversy. Small towns, including some that had their own police forces but disbanded them to save money, argue that they cannot afford to pay for the state police services. Residents of towns with their own police forces, who pay not only local taxes to finance their police departments but also state taxes that finance the state police, explain that they ought not be financing, in effect, police forces for both their own towns and for other towns whose residents are not paying for police services. Among readers of the article, sentiment in favor of the proposed tax runs roughly two-to-one, though the sample size is fairly small.

About half of the state’s municipalities, a number that continues to grow, are given full-time police coverage by the state police. Thus, in effect, the burden of local policing for the entire state falls on roughly half of the state. Advocates of the proposed tax claim that this situation is unfair. They point out that the state police budget has grown by almost 50 percent during the past ten years. Five years ago, the state police determined that it spent more than half of its budget providing local police services to towns without police departments. To accommodate the state police need for funds, money has been taken from the road and highway safety fund to finance to help finance the agency.

The $25 per-person tax is pretty much a token amount. Municipalities with their own police departments calculate that the cost of police protection ranges from $300 in Lancaster and $320 in Pittsburgh to $403 in Philadelphia. Though the proposed tax would be computed based on the number of residents, it would be imposed on the municipality, which presumably would recover it through existing taxes or a new tax, or through reductions in spending.

Some legislators, including Republicans opposed to raising taxes, noted that residents of local towns, preferring to avoid local tax increases, have eliminated police departments as a means of shifting police protection costs to the state, that is, residents of the other municipalities in the state. One of them called the proposal one “whose time has come,” and explained, “We are coming into the reality zone now.”

Legislators also argue that even if the proposed tax is enacted, state police ought not be doing local police work. They should be doing “the things the local municipal police department cannot do.” A township supervisor in a large municipality that has no police department argued that state police help local police departments, with assistance in crime lab work, backup, and SWAT team deployment. What was not mentioned is the fact that residents of municipalities with local police departments pay state taxes that help fund the state police.

Local officials in towns without police departments suggest that “everyone pays for what they use.” That sounds like a user fee. How would it be implemented? Would crime victims be charged for police assistance while those fortunate enough to escape being mugged don’t pay? To what extent is police patrolling of a neighborhood like insurance, and thus, how would a “police patrolling user fee” be computed? Who pays for use of the state crime lab, the victim or the criminal? Or is this another instance of where the benefit of policing accrues to everyone, and thus should the entire policing system in the state, local and state-wide, be financed with a flat per-person user fee?

Friday, February 17, 2017

When the Tax Law Requires an “Unjust” Result 

A recent United States Tax Court decision, Smyth v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2017-29, provides an opportunity to explore the extent to which a tax law, applied to a specific set of facts, can generate an “unjust” result. The facts were undisputed.

During 2012, the taxpayer maintained a household in which her adult son, his wife, and their two children resided. The taxpayer provided all the financial support for the home and those living in it. Her son did not work and dealt drugs, and her daughter-in-law was a stay-at-home mother. When she filed her 2012 federal income tax return, she claimed the two grandchildren as dependents. As filed, her return would generate a refund of the taxes withheld from her pay, plus refundable credits arising from claiming the grandchildren as dependents. The taxpayer claimed the two grandchildren as dependents after her son told her that he and his wife were not going to file an income tax return for 2012. He suggested that she should claim the two grandchildren so that she could “get back some of the money she had spent supporting his family.” The IRS rejected her refund claims because it determined that she was not permitted to claim the grandchildren as dependents. It reached this conclusion because the taxpayer’s unemployed son had already filed a federal income tax return for 2012, on which he claimed his two children as dependents, received a refund check based on refundable credits, and cashed it to spend on drugs. The IRS described this outcome as required by the law, though it did not purport to defend it as a just result.

The IRS determined that the two grandchildren were not the taxpayer’s qualifying children for purposes of the dependency exemption deduction. When the taxpayer received the notice from the IRS, she thought she was an identity theft victim but then realized that someone else had claimed the grandchildren as dependents. Eventually her son admitted that he and his wife had done so. Her son then offered to provide an affidavit in support of her claim and prepared an amended 2012 return that omitted his claim that the children were his dependents, but he did not file the return. A copy of this amended return was given to IRS counsel two weeks before trial.

The basic definition of a qualifying child made the two children qualifying children of both the taxpayer and her son. Why? To be a qualifying child, the child must be a child or grandchild of the taxpayer, share a home with the taxpayer for more than half the year, be less than 19 years old, not provide more than half of his or her own support, and not file a joint return. There was no dispute that the two children were grandchildren of the taxpayer and children of her son, shared a home with the taxpayer and with her son, were less than 19 years old, did not provide more than half of their own support, and did not file joint returns. When, as in this instance, two or more taxpayers “tie” when it comes to an individual being a qualifying child, special tie-breaking rules apply. Section 152(c)(4)(A) provides that if the tie is between the child’s parent and someone not a parent, the parent “wins the tie” and treats the child as a qualifying child, and the others do not, unless the parent does not claim the child as a dependent. In that case, another taxpayer with respect to whom the child is a qualifying child can claim the child as a dependent if that other person has an adjusted gross income higher than that of either of the child’s parents, which was indeed the situation in this case.

The IRS argued that because the son claimed the children as dependents, it did not matter than the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income was higher than that of her son. The taxpayer argued that her son didn’t file an original 2012 return and that, even if he did, he filed an amended return in which he and his wife relinquished any dependency claim with respect to her grandchildren. The court concluded that the taxpayer’s son had filed a 2012 return, that the taxpayer did not prove otherwise, and that her son did not file an amended return. The court explained that hand delivering a return to IRS counsel does not constitute filing a return or amended return because the law requires that it be delivered to “any person assigned the responsibility to receive hand-carried returns in the local Internal Revenue Service office.” IRS counsel is not the service center nor a person assigned by the IRS to receive returns for the local IRS office. The court also noted that even if the son had filed the amended return, it was unclear if this would be sufficient to constitute a relinquishment of the claimed dependency exemption deductions on the original return. Accordingly, the taxpayer was not only barred from a dependency exemption deduction for her grandchildren, she also did not qualify for the earned income credit because her adjusted gross income was too high for someone who had no dependents, she did not qualify for the child credit, and she did not qualify for head of household filing status.

The court admitted that it was “sympathetic to [the taxpayer’s] position.” It explained, “She provided all of the financial support for [the children], had been told by her son that she should claim the children as her dependents, and is now stuck with a hefty tax bill. It is difficult for us to explain to a hardworking taxpayer like [the taxpayer] why this should be so, except to say that we are bound by the law.” The court also noted, “And it is impossible for us to convince ourselves that the result we reach today--that the IRS was right to send money meant to help those who care for small children to someone who spent it on drugs instead--is in any way just.”

Most people would agree that the outcome is unfair. Most people would point to the taxpayer’s son and his behavior as the cause of the taxpayer’s plight. Yet it is the Congress that enacted the dependency exemption rules, the definition of qualifying child, and the tie-breaking rules. What recourse is there for the taxpayer? Even if there were deemed to be a contract between her and her son, it is unlikely that she could recover any damages. So how can taxpayers prevent themselves from falling into the mess that this taxpayer encountered? What sort of safeguards could be applied? Amending the tax law would only make it more complicated, and more than likely would not eliminate most of these unfortunate outcomes. Years ago I proposed replacing the current personal and dependency exemption arrangement with one in which each individual be granted an “exemption amount” to be used on that person’s return, or granted to one or more other taxpayers, or some combination thereof, under an assignment. A child’s exemption amount would be assigned by the child’s parent, custodial parent, or legal guardian. In this case, under this arrangement, the taxpayer’s son and his wife would be required to assign the children’s exemption amounts to someone, or they would be lost. If they assigned them to the grandmother, then that assignment would prevail against any subsequent assignment. If they assigned it to themselves, then they could not assign it to the grandmother. If they attempted to do so, the validity of the assignment could be verified by cross-checking it against an assignment database. Yes, this would be a bit complicated but surely not as complicated as the current law, and it would reduce the number of unfair or unjust outcomes. I doubt the Congress will take this approach, for a variety of reasons, including the fact it is different.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How Not to Draft For Maximum Alimony Tax Benefits 

A recent United States Tax Court case, Quintal v. Comr., T.C. Summ Op. 2017-3, is a lesson in how not to draft marital separation agreements when seeking maximum tax benefits from paying alimony. The taxpayer married his wife in 1992, they had three children, and they separated and divorced in 2010. On October 29, 2009, the taxpayer and his then wife executed a separation agreement which included exhibits A through M. Those exhibits were incorporated in the separation agreement by reference. The separation agreement stated that the taxpayer’s wife would be awarded physical custody of the three children and that the parties intended that the separation agreement resolve all matters between them, including past, present, and future alimony and support and maintenance. The separation agreement further stated that the children “are still principally dependent upon the parties for support and entitled to support” under state law. Before the agreement was executed, the taxpayer and his wife engaged in last-minute negotiations, and several of the exhibits were substantially revised. In some instances, entire paragraphs of an exhibit were lined through and replaced with handwritten statements.

Exhibit A stated in relevant part that the taxpayer would maintain his current health insurance coverage or its equivalent for the benefit of his children as long as each child was “unemancipated as that term is defined herein,” but Exhibit A did not include a definition of the term “unemancipated”. Exhibit B, originally titled “ALIMONY”, was revised to read “Unallocated Support,” stated in part that the taxpayer would “pay to * * * [his future former wife] the sum of $900.00 per week commencing forthwith by implemented wage assignment. (See Exhibit J),” and stated in part that “[a]ny alimony payments shall terminate” upon the earlier of the death of the taxpayer or his former wife or the former wife’s remarriage. Exhibit B further stated that the parties “acknowledge that husband anticipates that the above payment is deductible to him and includable to wife”.

Exhibit J was titled “CUSTODY, SUPPORT, VISITATION”. Although exhibit J originally referred to the taxpayer’s obligation to make child support payments, that statement was lined through and was replaced with the phrase “See Exhibit B implemented wage assignment forthwith.” Exhibit J included a statement acknowledging that, as a result of disabilities, two of the couple’s children might never become self-sufficient or emancipated and defined the term “emancipation” of the minor children generally as occurring on the child’s death, marriage, entering into military service, or graduation from high school or a four-year college program. Exhibit J further stated, “Support as to the child as termed in this agreement shall end upon emancipation. In accordance with Section 71(b)(1)(B) of the Code, the Husband and Wife expressly agree to designate and hereby do designate all payments required in this Exhibit as excludable and non-deductible payments for purposes of Sections 71 and 215 of the Code, respectively. It is expressly agreed and understood that the payments made by the Husband to the Wife for support under this Article shall terminate upon his death and shall not constitute a charge upon his estate in that there are to be life insurance trusts established to provide for the needs of the children.” The remainder of exhibit J established the terms for custody of and visitation with the children.

The state family court entered a Judgment of Divorce Nisi which incorporated the separation agreement and terminated the couple’s marriage effective January 28, 2010. On October 22, 2014, the family court filed a stipulation for judgment in response to the former wife’s complaint for modification and the taxpayer’s counterclaim. The stipulation for judgment, which was incorporated into the final judgment, stated in relevant part, “That the Father pay to the Mother $900 per week as child support for the parties’ three children.”

The taxpayer filed federal income tax returns for the taxable years 2011, 2012, and 2013, and on each return he claimed a deduction of $46,800 for alimony paid to his former wife. She, however, did not report the payments as income on her tax returns.

The IRS argued that although the payments satisfied subparagraphs (A), (C), and (D) of section 71(b)(1), that is, they were made under a divorce or separation instrument, that parties were not members of the same household, that the obligation to make the payments ended at the former wife’s death, and there was no obligation to make payments as a substitute for the payments after the former wife’s death, the payments ran afoul of the requirement that the divorce or separation instrument not designate the payment as non-deductible and non-includable. The IRS pointed to the language in Exhibit J that stated, “In accordance with Section 71(b)(1)(B) of the Code, the Husband and Wife expressly agree to designate and hereby do designate all payments required in this Exhibit as excludable and non-deductible payments for purposes of Sections 71 and 215 of the Code, respectively.” Alternatively, the IRS argued that, because the unallocated support payments are subject to contingencies involving the taxpayer’s children, they are considered payments made for the support of his children in accordance with section 71(c)(2), and thus cannot qualify as deductible alimony.

The taxpayer argued that Exhibit B, expressly provided for “unallocated support” payments rather than alimony or child support. Noting that Exhibit J did not expressly require any form of payment, the taxpayer argued that the statement in Exhibit J on which the IRS relied was not relevant to the question of whether the payments constituted alimony. The taxpayer also argued that the parties’ last-minute negotiations and revisions to the agreement were intended to ensure that the payments would be treated as alimony for purposes of sections 71 and 215.

First, the court rejected the taxpayer’s reliance on the intent of the parties. The court explained that when section 71 was revised, Congress eliminated any consideration of intent in determining whether a payment was deductible. Instead, the objective tests in section 71 are determinative.

Second, the court acknowledged that Exhibit J did not expressly require any payment or otherwise fix an amount to be paid as alimony or child support. The court then noted that the taxpayer’s narrow focus on this aspect of exhibit J gave no effect to the cross-references in Exhibits B and J. The court reasoned that a proper consideration of the
agreement required a construction of the document as a whole, including the Exhibits and the cross-references within the Exhibits. When reading the agreement as a whole, the court concluded that Exhibits B and J must be read in tandem and that the unallocated support payments prescribed in Exhibit B were subject to the provisions of both that Exhibit and Exhibit J. The court observed that “the handwritten revisions to the settlement agreement were poorly conceived.” It added, “Specifically, although Exhibit B was revised to state that the parties ‘acknowledge that husband anticipates that the above [unallocated support] payment is deductible to him and includable to wife’ * * * Exhibit J states more definitively: ‘In accordance with Section 71(b)(1)(B) of the Code, the Husband and Wife expressly agree to designate and hereby do designate all payments required in this Exhibit as excludable and non-deductible payments for purposes of Sections 71 and 215 of the Code, respectively,” and decided that the latter, more definitive statement controlled. Accordingly, the payments did not satisfy the definition of deductible alimony.

One of the challenges in making revisions to a document is the need to reconsider how each provision interacts with every other provision in the document. Though this can be a tedious process, it is absolutely necessary. The challenge increases as the number of changes increase. The need to be careful is exceedingly high when the changes are being made at the last minute, under time pressure, with two or more people providing input at the same time. As I tell my students, “Before writing, think, and help the clients decide, what it is that they want to do. Then write. And be certain to write what was decided, and avoid trying to write language that is murky in an attempt to make each party think that they are getting what the wanted even though what they wanted is different from what the other party wanted.” The advice given to youngsters to “avoid talking out of both sides of your mouth” applies no less forcefully to writing. Aside from enduring the cost and aggravation of an audit and litigation, the taxpayer may have ended up with an outcome he did not think was the outcome he was going to get.

It is unclear whether the parties had assistance from attorneys when drafting the agreement or when making last minute changes to the document. The references in the agreement to specific Internal Revenue Code provisions and state law statutes suggests that attorneys were involved at the outset. It would not be surprising to learn that the last minute changes were made without the help of lawyers. But it also would not be surprising the learn that lawyers were responsible for those changes. Either way, it’s no way to draft a document. And it’s certainly no way to generate the best tax outcomes.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Tax I Did Not Know Existed 

A reader alerted me to this story about a tax that once existed, that I think no longer exists, and that I did not know existed. It was a tax imposed by Montana on bachelors. Curious, I did a bit of research.

A fellow named William Atzinger, age 35, refused to pay the $3 tax that Montana imposed on bachelors. In his protest communicated to the county assessor, he claimed, “Spinsters are responsible for my not being married in their refusals of my wooing in the past.” He then expressed a willingness to pay the tax if the state also imposed it on spinsters. He refused to get married simply to avoid jail and he refused to pay the tax to avoid jail. Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court of Montana held that the tax was unconstitutional. At the same time it also invalidated a poll tax imposed only on men.

Two years ago, in The Single-People Tax Is Not Working, Allison Schrager, writing for Bloomberg, points out the threat posed to economic growth and the ability to pay for social services and pensions when the fertility rate falls below the population replacement rate, as has happened in parts of Europe and recently in the United States. She points out that, throughout history, nations have had a vested interest in “family-making” for the same reason. She notes that the ancient Romans imposed a tax on bachelors, and in the twentieth century, towns in Germany and Italy did the same.

Discussing failed attempts to enact a bachelor tax in Michigan in the early twentieth century, Le Roy Barnett, in The Attempts to Tax Bachelors in Michigan, explains that not only the ancient Romans, but also the ancient Greeks, taxed unmarried men. And in the late seventeenth century, countries in Europe, needing to replace the people killed in the continent’s constant warfare. In addition to population replacement, the tax provided funds for the treasuries of nations and local governments. Another goal was to find husbands for war widows, who otherwise would require public subsidies. The tax on unmarried men also popped up in South Africa and Argentina. Did you know that in 1913 a bill was introduced in Congress to tax unmarried men in order to fund pensions for widows and children? I didn’t, probably because it failed to pass and thus did not make it into the history books or into tax courses. Nor was Montana the only state to tax bachelors. Georgia, Maryland, and Wyoming got in on the action. Michigan tried to enact a bachelor tax, but the proposal never made it past legislative discussion.

Reaction to the tax, at least during the past century or so, was unsurprising. People argued that unmarried women also should be taxed. Others suggested that a tax be imposed on any woman who turned down a marriage proposal. Yet, in Michigan, on several occasions some citizens petitioned the legislature to tax bachelors in order to support poor women, widows, and orphans. As late as the 1910s, pressure persisted in Michigan for a bachelor tax. One police chief claimed that “90 percent of the criminals” in his town were bachelors. One proposal would have exempted widowers and men who had obtained divorces. One version even provided a bonus to be paid to men who married. The effort in Michigan fizzled out in the 1930s, chiefly because of the economic impact of the Great Depression.

Barnett explains that exemptions existed in many of the bachelor taxes in Europe. Men with physical disabilities, men suffering from mental illness, and men in prison were not taxed on account of being unmarried. Exceptions also existed in some laws for men who could prove that their marriage proposal to a woman had been rejected.

Using taxes to encourage or discourage behavior is an inefficient approach to solving problems. The bachelor tax is yet another example. For one thing, it is unadministrable, particularly when there are exceptions. Barnett explains that the exception for rejected suitors created a job for women who were called “professional lady rejectors,” who, for a fee or other compensation, agreed to testify that they had rejected a marriage proposal from a man trying to fit within the exception.

If the principal goal of a bachelor tax is to increase a nation’s or state’s birthrate, would it not be better to find a way to encourage people to have children? Rather than paying people to do so, or charging them a tax for failure to do so, why not create a society and culture in which people want to have children? In the current climate, it is understandable that some people are reluctant to bring new lives into the world. Consider the reasons provided in this article for why people choose not to have children. Whatever the solution to maintaining a population replacement rate might be, it surely isn’t a tax. That’s been tried. It didn’t work.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Infection of Ignorance Becomes a Pandemic 

We live in a post-modern world where facts become optional, reasoning is mocked, intellectual and cerebral efforts are downplayed, and ignorance infects too many brains. I most recently wrote about the danger of ignorance in Ignorance, Tax or Otherwise, Is Dangerous, noting my earlier commentary on the problem in posts such as Tax Ignorance, Is Tax Ignorance Contagious?, Fighting Tax Ignorance, Why the Nation Needs Tax Education, Tax Ignorance: Legislators and Lobbyists, Tax Education is Not Just For Tax Professionals, The Consequences of Tax Education Deficiency, The Value of Tax Education, More Tax Ignorance, With a Gift, Tax Ignorance of the Historical Kind, A Peek at the Production of Tax Ignorance, When Tax Ignorance Meets Political Ignorance, Tax Ignorance and Its Siblings, Looking Again at Tax and Political Ignorance, Tax Ignorance As Persistent as Death and Taxes, Is All Tax Ignorance Avoidable?, and Tax Ignorance in the Comics.

One particular bit of ignorance illustrates how misinformation can go viral in an instant. For more times than I care to remember, I have tried to hold back the ridiculously erroneous claim that there are 74,000 pages in the Internal Revenue Code. I have explained why this claim is wrong in posts such as Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, and continuing with Anyone Want to Count the Words in the Internal Revenue Code?, Tax Commercial’s False Facts Perpetuates Falsehood, How Tax Falsehoods Get Fertilized, How Difficult Is It to Count Tax Words, A Slight Improvement in the Code Length Articulation Problem, and Tax Ignorance Gone Viral, Weighing the Size of the Internal Revenue Code, Reader Weighs In on Weighing the Code, Code-Size Ignorance Knows No Boundaries, Tax Myths: Part XII: The Internal Revenue Code Fills 70,000 Pages, and Not a Surprise: Tax Ignorance Afflicts Presidential Candidates and CNN. Despite my efforts, this false claim is repeated over and over, and accepted as true by millions of people, few if any of whom bother to pick up a copy of the Internal Revenue Code and discover for themselves that it is far from 74,000 pages. So to some extent, the spread of ignorance is in part attributable to laziness, just as it is in part attributable to the malicious motives of those who invent false stories, fake reports, and foolish lies.

During the Super Bowl, H&R Block aired a commercial touting its partnership with IBM’s Watson, and saying to the world, “Imagine being able to understand all 74,000 pages of the U.S. tax code.” Aside from erroneously calling the Internal Revenue Code the U.S. tax code, the writers of the commercial decided to hype their product by exaggerating the size of the Internal Revenue Code. Why is this not only wrong but dangerous? First, it strengthens a falsehood. Second, it makes it easier for people to become comfortable with falsehoods. Third, it changes the attitudes of those who understand the need to reform the tax law, because it misleads people into thinking that the problem is different from, and on a scale much larger than, actual reality. Once people lose their grip on actual reality, they slide into delusion. When people are delusional, they do dangerous, stupid, and often fatal things.

As I wrote in Ignorance, Tax or Otherwise, Is Dangerous, when people are ignorant, they “do things that harm themselves because they are unaware that what they are doing is harmful. That is the price paid for ignorance. It’s only a matter of time, given the current cultural climate, for collective ignorance about something existential to exact an ultimate price.” When attacking a culture of ignorance, every instance of ignorance must be rebutted, because every instance of ignorance, no matter how small, is not unlike every cancer cell, no matter how small. Instances of ignorance, if not stamped out, will grow, and metastasize, destroying everything in its path, including those who created, nurtured, enabled, and tolerated ignorance and its consequences. Unfortunately, too many people are ignorant of this reality.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Does Filing Correct Tax Returns for Thirty Years Earn the Taxpayer a Pass? 

In a recent Tax Court case, Cheves v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2017-22, the taxpayers made early withdrawals from their retirement accounts, and did not report all of the withdrawals as gross income as required. To the IRS contention that they owed income tax and the section 72(t) penalty on the withdrawals, the petitioners replied that they honestly believed the reported amount to be correct and that taxes had been withheld on all of the withdrawals. They agreed that they had withdrawn the funds from their retirement accounts and that they withdrew more than they reported on their federal income tax return. However, they requested “that their tax liability be forgiven in consideration of their many years of proper reporting.” The Tax Court explained that, “While we applaud petitioners’ satisfaction of their obligation to report their income in the past, we are obligated to follow the statute as written and do not have the authority to waive
reporting requirements mandated by law.”

So, in other words, a taxpayer who files correctly year after year does not earn a pass when misreporting one or more items in a subsequent year. A student who has perfect attendance from grades one through eight does not escape the consequences of having unexcused absences in grade nine. Even if Congress decided to reward, in some way, taxpayers who filed correct tax returns for a stretch of some particular number of years, administering this sort of system would be a nightmare. It would require an audit of each of the years in question. It would require some sort of mechanism to prevent the excused error from costing too much revenue. And it would invite the begging of taxpayers who claimed to have been “off” by only a few dollars.

Perhaps a better way to think about the request for relief is to consider traffic rules. Should a driver who has stopped at every red light for thirty years be permitted to run one or more red lights without bearing the responsibility for the consequences of doing so?

Monday, February 06, 2017

Fear of Tax? No, Fear of Tax Thieves 

Throughout this century, fear has been growing, feeding on itself and on basic human limbic reactions. Fear causes people to do dangerous things, or to do nothing at all, or to demand that others do something, anything, to remove the fear. Fear, though, cannot be removed. It’s as ubiquitous as every other emotion. What can be removed is the source of the fear, which can be an externality, or which can be a flawed limbic process that assigns fear where there is no danger. Worse, in some instances fear does not exist when there should be fear, causing a person to do dangerous things.

The word fear, as well as its companion word afraid, often pops up in the context of taxes. Some students entering the basic tax course claim that they are afraid of the course. Many people claim to be afraid of taxes. Most people fear being the subject of a tax audit. There are people who are afraid of doing tax returns, though doing a tax return is more a matter of tedium and frustration, conditions that generally don’t trigger fear though they can trigger other emotions. Perhaps what people fear is the ultimate bottom line of the amount of tax still owing.

One antidote to fear is to prevent situations that can trigger fear. People who are afraid of heights tend to avoid standing on the edge of a cliff. People who are afraid of loud noises and darkness turn down opportunities to see an action movie in a theater.

Yet something about tax that has made some people fearful and that should frighten everyone is the new twist in the tax theft game. For some time, scam artists used a person’s name, address, and social security number to file tax returns on which, by using fake income amounts, these wrongdoers would generate refunds for themselves based on false earned income tax credit claims. Eventually the IRS engineered ways to identify at least some of these false returns, by comparing information to the previous years’ returns and looking for inconsistencies. For example, if the person whose social security number was being used improperly had been filing returns showing income in the $100,000 range and claiming five children as dependents and suddenly files a return showing a much lower income and only one child, the odds were very high that the latest return wasn’t really from that person.

So the scam artists stepped up to a more sophisticated approach. To circumvent the IRS safeguards, they needed to make their fake returns look like they came from the person whose social security number they were inappropriately using. To do that, they needed to know the person’s income. What better way to do that than to get their hands on the person’s W-2? So the scammers started sending fake emails to corporate employees, pretending to be a high level executive, asking for the W-2 forms for all employees. They also have targeted businesses that prepare income tax returns, both through hacking and phishing.

In an important security report from Brian Krebs, this W-2 information, which could include YOUR W-2 information, is now showing up on what he calls cybercriminal shops. These are web sites where people can purchase stolen credit card data, usernames and passwords for accounts at financial web sites, and similar data. When once it was the case that a scammer had to find a way to get the information using hacking or phishing, the less energetic but no less greedy scammers can now purchase the information they need. Why? For one thing, a hacker who gets a hold of 10,000 W-2 forms doesn’t need that many, so they sell most of them. This dark market is going to increase exponentially the number of fraudulent tax returns sent to the IRS, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how many are blocked.

In his report, Krebs explains the economics of this dark market, explains where some of the stolen W-2 forms were obtained, and how they were obtained. Every American ought to read this report. The principal reason is to understand how to block scammers from getting information. Smaller businesses are more at risk, because they are less likely to have a sufficiently sized IT department to guard the store, so to speak. Krebs also provides guidance on what to do after one’s information has been used to file a tax return using the person’s name, something that is discovered when the person tries to file their actual, genuine return. He also provides tips on how to reduce the chances of a scammer filing a fake tax return using another person’s name. Most involve common sense practices that have been the subject of advice for the past two decades. Sadly, some people end up afraid because they neglected to let themselves learn. And, by the way, that’s not a problem just in the tax world.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Knowing a Tax Filing Deadline and Meeting It Require Different Skills 

On Monday, in Taxpayer Wins Tax Case But Attorney is Criticized, I discussed a case involving an attorney who had filed a Tax Court petition at the deadline, using self-printed postage. I included the court’s unflattering comments about waiting to file “until the last possible day.” I included comments I had made more than two years earlier, in How Not to File a Tax Court Petition, in which I discussed a similar instance of last minute filing using self-printed postage. I suggested that the best way to avoid deadline errors is to pretend that the deadline is sooner than it actually is.

Later that day, a reader contacted me, providing a link to a deadline calculator website, and asking, “Would this website help the lawyers in your article today?” My answer is, “Generally, no.” It would help lawyers and anyone else dealing with a deadline compute a deadline when it is a particular number of days after a specific date. That, however, is rarely the problem. The problem is that people know that something must be done by a specific date, and for a variety of reasons, wait until the last minute to deal with the matter. Sometimes it is a matter of being too busy. Sometimes it is a matter of priorities. Sometimes it is oversight. And often, it is simply a pattern, reaching back into childhood, of letting things go as long as possible. A calculator that tells someone when something is due is of no help to someone who already knows when something is due.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Tax Clients Who Aren’t Stars But Who Look to the Stars 

Last week, in Tax Advice That Tax Professionals Probably Don’t Want to Share, after describing a web site brought to my attention by a reader in which advice on the disposition of a tax refund is based on astrological interpretations, I asked, “Are there people who make financial decisions based on astrological guidance?” And I added, “If so, what’s their track record compared to those whose decisions reflect other approaches?” I explained that a few minutes of research did not provide me with an answer.

A different reader contacted me to share his experience with this question. Here is what he wrote:
“Are there people who make financial decisions based on astrological guidance?”

Answer: Yes.

They aren't common, but I've had at least three of them as clients. One in a litigation case, one in a probate matter, and one in an estate planning case.

In the litigation case, every setting of a hearing, trial date or deadline demanded intense client involvement as it was evaluated astrologically. It was a real pain and the ultimate outcome of the case was nothing special.

In the estate planning matter, the client would draw elaborate drawings that looked like magical runic circles full of symbols out of some witch's spell book, or the Masonic symbolism on a dollar bill, which he consulted during office conferences as we presented choices to him for estate planning document options. He basically wanted to us to translate these diagrams into Wills and Trusts as sincerely as possible, and we made a half-hearted attempt to do so. The resulting choices, filtered through our experience as estate planners, were a bit quirky and unconventional, but not horribly bad ones.

The clients in the probate matter talked a lot of about their views in small talk, but it didn't have much apparent influence on their decision making in a short lived case that resulted in a swift total victory via settlement in a few days, in a case that could have turned into a long, protracted, uncertain and expensive litigation. (Honestly, it was one of the most successful negotiations of my career.)

While I don't have direct evidence of the outcome of their methods on their financial success, all three clients (like most of my clients) were comfortably upper middle class, and at least a couple had risen from merely middle middle class means.

One virtue of any method other than the predominant strategies in the marketplace is that if you buy and sell at arbitrary times, rather than falling into the group think that drives a majority of the players in the market. When your timing is either due to necessity like a major unexpected expense that requires you to sell a market position when you hadn't planned on doing so, or due to astrology, your timing is effectively random. This avoids the bad but common instinct to sell low and buy high, or to read more into market trends than they deserve. It may not be optimal or a good way to beat the market, but like index funds, it prevents you from doing worse than average by overthinking the problem in a way that adds negative value. So, while it is a nutty way to make decisions, it may be better than some of the seemingly more rational approaches. This may partially explain why their reliance on astrology, at a minimum, did not leave them worse off.
I learned several things. First, there are people who seriously consider astrological, or similar, guidance to be valuable, and use it. Second, nothing in law school prepares lawyers for how to interact with clients who bring this sort of advice into their discussions, though it seems to me that the reader sharing these experiences handled them deftly. Third, there may be, at least in the investment world, advantages to approaching decisions from a different and not-so-common perspective. Fourth, every client is different and we learn something new from each one.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Taxpayer Wins Tax Case But Attorney is Criticized 

Sometimes the simplest things get complicated, and often unnecessarily so. An example is found in the story provided by the opinion in Tilden v. Comr., No. 15-3838 (7th Cir. 1/13/2017). The IRS issued a notice of deficiency to the taxpayer. The due date for filing a petition with the Tax Court was April 21, 2015. When the petition arrived at the Tax Court on April 29, 2015, the Tax Court dismissed it as untimely. The taxpayer explained that on April 21, 2015, his attorney’s staff put the petition in an envelope, purchased first class and certified delivery postage from Stamps.com, printed the postage, affixed it to the envelope, and delivered the envelope to the post office on that same date. The post office did not put a postmark on the envelope. The taxpayer argued that because timely mailing is treated as timely filing, the Tax Court should not have dismissed the petition. Initially, though conceding that the envelope had been delivered to the post office on April 21, the IRS argued that under section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(2) of the regulations, applicable because the postmark was not made by the postal service, the petition was not timely filed because it arrived at the Tax Court after a period of time longer than the period of time an envelope postmarked by the postal service would have arrived. The Tax Court, however, applied section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(3) of the regulations, which provides that if the envelope has both a postal service postmark and a postmark not made by the postal service, the latter is disregarded, and the determination of whether the mailing was timely is made under section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iiii)(A) of the regulations. Recognizing that the postal service had not placed a postmark on the envelope, the Tax Court noted that the postal service had entered the envelope into its tracking system on April 23, and treated that action as equivalent to a postmark. Accordingly, it treated April 23 as the date of filing, which made the petition late, and so the Tax Court dismissed the taxpayer’s petition.

The taxpayer sought reconsideration, arguing that the parties had not raised the issue of whether tracking data is equivalent to a postmark made by the postal service. The IRS agreed, abandoned its argument based on section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(B)(2) of the regulations, requested that the Tax Court apply section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(B)(1) of the regulations, and conclude that it had been satisfied. The Tax Court denied the motion, explaining that the 90-day limitation for filing petitions is jurisdictional, and thus cannot be altered by agreement between the parties.

The taxpayer appealed to the Seventh Circuit. At oral argument, the court and counsel for the parties focused on whether sections 6213 and 7502 of the Internal Revenue Code and section 301.7502-1 of the regulations create a rule that is jurisdictional. The Seventh Circuit requested supplemental memoranda on the issue. The Seventh Circuit then concluded that the provisions are jurisdictional. However, it concluded that although litigants cannot stipulate to jurisdiction, they can agree on the facts that determine jurisdiction. The court provided as an example the requirements under federal diversity jurisdiction, which require that the litigants be domiciled in different states. Though the parties cannot simply stipulate that diversity exists, they can stipulate that one party is domiciled in one state and the other party in another, and that agreement is binding unless the parties are colluding. Because the Tax Court did not suspect the taxpayer and the IRS of colluding, because the IRS conceded that the envelope was delivered to the postal service on April 21, and because there is nothing to establish that the postal service treats entry of an item into its tracking system as a postmark, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the petition was timely filed, and reversed the Tax Court.

The Seventh Circuit then shared its thoughts on what had happened:
Although the taxpayer thus prevails on this appeal, we have to express astonishment that a law firm (Stoel Rives, LLP, of Salt Lake City) would wait until the last possible day and then mail an envelope without an official postmark. A petition for review is not a complicated document; it could have been mailed with time to spare. And if the last day turned out to be the only possible day (perhaps the firm was not engaged by the client until the time had almost run), why use a private postmark when an official one would have prevented any controversy? A member of the firm’s staff could have walked the envelope to a post office and asked for hand cancellation. The regulation gives taxpayers another foolproof option by providing that the time stamp of a private delivery service, such as FedEx or UPS, is conclusive. 26 C.F.R. §301.7502–1(c)(3). Stoel Rives was taking an unnecessary risk with Tilden’s money (and its own, in the malpractice claim sure to follow if we had agreed with the Tax Court) by waiting until the last day and then not getting an official postmark or using a delivery service.
That paragraph should be included in whatever materials are used in tax procedure courses in every tax law program in the country. It also should find its way into every professional responsibility course in the nation’s law schools. Does it surprise me? Not at all. In How Not to File a Tax Court Petition, I commented on a case involving a taxpayer who, after receiving a notice of deficiency, relied on a third party to mail the petition which was due by March 3, 2014. The third party printed postage from Stamps.com, added extra postage for making the mailing certified, took the petition to the post office, noticed there were long lines, and dropped the envelope in the outgoing mail slot without getting a postal service employee to stamp certified on, and postmark, the envelope. Because the petition arrived at the Tax Court on March 10, 2014, bearing a postmark of March 4, 2014, the Tax Court granted the IRS motion to dismiss for failure to file the petition in a timely manner. The postal service postmark superseded the Stamps.com postmark. Foreshadowing what the Seventh Circuit would write, I reacted with these words:
There are two major lessons to be learned from this case. First, stand in line and get that hand-stamped postmark. Second, avoid the need to learn the first lesson by treating the petition as due EIGHTY days after it is mailed. That provides a cushion of time, an allowance for unforeseen circumstances, and contingency insurance. The inability of most people to deceive themselves in this manner has its roots in childhood, when too many missed deadlines are tolerated, and lessons in timeliness aren’t taught and when taught, aren’t absorbed. More than a few law students have encountered serious academic difficulties because a variety of circumstances, some unpredicted and some to be expected, caused them to miss deadlines. People complain that law schools should be teaching time management, but, seriously, why are people arriving at law school lacking time management skills? The answer is, for the same reason people not going to law school have the same issues. Better to learn the consequences when what’s at stake is something minor and not a taxpayer’s Tax Court petition.
To that commentary, I must add another lesson. “Third, at some point missing deadlines or handling a deadline in a fashion that requires one or more courts to sift through evidence and consumes the time and resources of litigants and lawyers will cause much embarrassment and consternation when an amazed, or annoyed, court takes time to use an opinion to reprimand those mishandling deadlines.”

Friday, January 27, 2017

Credit? Deduction? Federal? State? Precision Matters 

One of the core principles that students need to learn in a basic federal income tax course is the difference between a deduction and a credit. Deductions are subtracting in computing taxable income. Credits are subtracted in computing tax. A one-dollar credit reduces tax by one dollar. A one-dollar deduction reduces taxable income by one dollar, ignoring limitations, floors, ceilings, and other complexities, and a one-dollar reduction in taxable income reduces tax by something between a penny and perhaps 40 cents. In other words, in most cases, credits are more valuable than deductions.

Some American taxpayers can list at least a few of the widely applicable deductions. One or more of items such as state income taxes, local real property taxes, mortgage interest, medical expense, and charitable contributions are mentioned by a some taxpayers when asked to name deductions. When it comes to credits, some taxpayers will mention the earned income credit, the credit for taxes withheld or paid as estimates, and perhaps the investment credit.

A student in the basic federal income tax course should not describe charitable contributions as something that generates a credit. Charitable contributions generate deductions. There probably are a good number of Americans who would not recognize the difference and might mention a “charitable contributions credit.”

So one of this blog’s readers was surprised to discover, on the New Orleans Saints ticket web site, a suggestion that ticket holders can “Offer your unused tickets to charity through the Saints so that others who are not able to go to games can enjoy the Saints' experience. And remember, you'll receive tax credit on these donations.

A bit of research determined that some states provide a state income tax credits for charitable contributions. Louisiana is one of those states; two others are Arizona and Missouri, though I did not attempt to survey all the states. The Louisiana credit, however, is based on the amount, if any, by which total charitable contributions and some other deductions exceed the amount permitted for federal income tax purposes. In other words, to the extent that federal limitations eliminate a portion of the taxpayer’s deduction, a credit against Louisiana state income tax liability is permitted.

As written, the advice on the web site is confusing and ambiguous. The words “And remember, you’ll receive tax credit on these donations” should be replaced with “And remember, it is possible that making these donations will generate a Louisiana state income tax credit for you, but it is best to consult with a tax professional.” To state that a tax credit is guaranteed is ambiguous. Federal income tax credit? Louisiana state income tax credit? And even if a proper reference had been made to Louisiana state income tax credit, there is no guarantee that the computation of the excess on which it is based would generate a credit. On top of that, it is best to provide a warning of some sort that tax advice is not being offered and to suggest that a tax professional be consulted.

The reader suggested that “It is obvious that the person who wrote this would have failed your tax course by not understanding the difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction.” Fortunately for a student, failing to understand one core principle is not a guarantee of failure in the course. Failure occurs when too many core principles are misunderstood or overlooked. In addition, failure to be precise in writing something also contributes to a lower grade but one error in and of itself does not generate a failing grade.

Precision matters. Lack of precision causes misunderstandings in communication, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes engineering defects, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes medical misdiagnoses, which can lead to all sorts of problems. In other words, to the chagrin of those who detest details and want to live in the world of sound bites and 140-character tweets, lack of precision leads to all sorts of problems. Not all of those problems involve the risk of failing a tax course, but too many of those problems involve the risk of existential catastrophe.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Court Case in Which All of Them Miss The Tax Point 

When I get the chance, I watch television court shows. Why? Among the reasons is the opportunity to see how the judge and the parties deal with tax issues when they happen to be in play during the case. Over the years, these shows have provided the materials for posts such as Judge Judy and Tax Law, Judge Judy and Tax Law Part II, TV Judge Gets Tax Observation Correct, The (Tax) Fraud Epidemic, Tax Re-Visits Judge Judy, Foolish Tax Filing Decisions Disclosed to Judge Judy, So Does Anyone Pay Taxes?, Learning About Tax from the Judge. Judy, That Is, Tax Fraud in the People’s Court, More Tax Fraud, This Time in Judge Judy’s Court, You Mean That Tax Refund Isn’t for Me? Really?, Law and Genealogy Meeting In An Interesting Way, and How Is This Not Tax Fraud?. A few days ago I encountered another episode of Judge Judy, which illustrated wonderfully the sort of confusion that can ensue when the facts are not clearly established.

In this episode, the defendant was a truck driver. He was described as working for the plaintiff. He also was described as having been employed by the plaintiff. While driving the plaintiff’s truck, the defendant had an accident. The insurance company covered the repair costs except for a deductible. The plaintiff sued the defendant to recover the deductible, and also to recover loans allegedly made to the defendant. When asked, the plaintiff said that the defendant was his business partner, but added, “but then we treat him as an independent contractor and provide a 1099.” Judge Judy then asked, “So he’s not a partner.” “No,” said the plaintiff, “He is a partner but gets a 1099.” One of the documents introduced as evidence describes the defendant as the plaintiff’s business partner. Judge Judy explained that either he is a partner and does not get a 1099 or he is not a partner. She added, “He worked for you, you gave him a 1099 instead of a partnership return.” Ultimately the case was dismissed because the plaintiff failed to prove other elements of his claim.

Any tax professional who has dealt with these business relationship issues should immediately spot the problem. It’s not just a question of whether the defendant was a partner or an independent contractor. There’s a third option. The defendant was described as working for the plaintiff and as having been employed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff owned the truck. If there was a partnership, would not the partnership own the truck? Probably, though perhaps the plaintiff was renting the truck to the partnership, but I didn’t get that impression. How can the defendant be an independent contractor if the plaintiff owns the truck and specifies the deliveries to be made and routes to be taken? Ought not both the 1099 and partnership return be set aside in favor of a Form W-2?

Because the plaintiff failed to prove other elements of his case, it ultimately did not matter whether the defendant was a partner, employee, or independent contractor. But had the plaintiff succeeded with the other elements of his case, the question would have been pivotal, both to liability and damages. There is no way that the question could be answered before additional facts were provided. Those facts, however, were not established in the case.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Tax Advice That Tax Professionals Probably Don’t Want to Share 

Tax professionals are peppered with requests for tax advice throughout their working days. The questions are unsurprising, and run the gamut from income to deductions, from exclusions to credits. “Should I report this?” “Can I deduct what I spent on the party?” “Do I get a credit for replacing my refrigerator?” Tax professionals take these questions in stride, provide the answers, sometimes after doing research, and counsel their clients to follow their advice.

When it comes to tax refunds, the questions also tend to be unsurprising. “Am I getting a refund?” “How much is my refund?” “How long until I get my refund?” “Can my ex-spouse get any of my refund?” “Can the credit card companies grab my refund check?” But rarely is a tax professional asked, “Should I spend my refund or invest it” or “How should I spend my refund?” Financial advisors surely get the first question, and perhaps get the second. But tax professionals who are not in the business of giving investment and spending advice don’t expect, and probably don’t want to provide, advice on what to do with a tax refund.

Taxpayers who, for whatever reason, are unsure of what they should do with their refund ought not despair that their tax return preparer has no advice or doesn’t care to provide any. There is another source. A reader of this blog turned my attention to a web site that provides advice on what to do with tax refunds based on the taxpayer’s astrological sun sign. Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Astrologists claim to have the answer. Years ago, a friend of mine who was deeply into astrology and studied with one of the world’s most celebrated astrologists explained to me that astrology requires much more than the sun sign, which is based on date of birth, but on a wide range of planetary signs that depend on a person’s precise date, time, and place of birth. Though I understood the gist of it, I’ve never explored these nuances in any detail. Nor would I base financial decisions on astrological predictions, whether based on sun signs or the full array of determinants.

All of this leaves me wondering, “Are there people who make financial decisions based on astrological guidance?” If so, what’s their track record compared to those whose decisions reflect other approaches? A few minutes of research did not provide me with an answer.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Casting Spells to Chase Away Tax Problems? 

A reader sent me a link, and asked, “Is this tax ignorance or tax craziness?” After looking through what was posted on the web site, my response is, “Neither. There’s some good advice, and there’s some advice that probably cannot hurt even though few people would invest time or money following it.”

The link to which the reader sent me begins with a posting that is almost seven years old, and ends with one that is almost three years old. Though the discussion apparently has run its course, I doubt that the practices being described have fallen into disuse.

The initial post was a question. The person asked, “Has anyone out there had any success with getting rid of a tax issue? The state where I reside is assessing more penalties and fees than the actual tax liability was over 8 years ago. I would appreciate any assistance with getting this matter resolved.” One response suggested getting “a reading to see what is involved in getting this situation under control,” and provided a link to a list of “psychic readers and conjure doctors.” Another response suggested that if legal proceedings were in the offing, the person should “start a court case honey jar. I would do a separate honey jar for the tax collectors--get their seal and names of the specific people you are dealing if possible and burn brown candle's on the honey jar anointed with LMC's Law Keep Away oil.” The person who asked the question replied that there would not be any legal proceedings, that they were faced with interest and penalties far in excess of the tax due from five to nine years ago, and that they would be negotiating to get the payments down or have the debt cancelled. The person then asked, “Would a bend over, commanding, or law stay away ritual would work best? I did a freezer spell over a year ago when I received the first assessment. I had the name of an auditor, and I put the whole thing in the freezer. I did not hear anything until last week since that freezer spell. I just need this to go away.” Someone else then asked how to remove a lien that had been placed on a parent’s business by the IRS. Someone suggested using “LM court case products” and praying to St. Jude. But this person also recommended getting legal advice, especially from a tax attorney, and using the “Lucky Mojo products” as a backup to the legal advice.

The focus of the thread then shifted. Someone asked, “the state of maryland has been taking my taxes for yrs now, i have never received any tax money from them at all, this year i need help and my money, is there a saint or spell i could use to make sure i get all my money an what they have stolen from me from all the yrs past.” Another person recommended, “Seek the help of an Accountant or a Tax Attorney,” and also recommended using a “pay me” product and trying some tips from a “Hoodoo and Herb and Root Magic” book.

Another person noted, “Well we all have to pay taxes. It isn't wise to avoid that. If you have an issue with your tax return hire a tax attorney, or even an accountant to look over your books and find out what is going wrong here.” This person added a suggestion to use “Law Keep Away to keep them from coming after you, Compelling to compel them to give you a tax return, and Money Stay with Me so they can't take too much money from you.”

Another person asking for help with a “a mistake the IRS has made” was told to “Get a Court Case honey jar. If you know the name of the IRS agent, put his or her name in the jar. You can also use the notice they sent you. Make a copy for your records and use the original in your work. You can also get a Court Case vigil candle, or dress a brown candle with Court Case oil. Lucky Mojo also has a Court Case Spell Kit.” The person then added, “You may need an attorney to help you. Use Court Case and Attraction to find the right one.”

Several people who had requested assistance in dealing with their tax problems reported that they eventually had success. Was it because of the spells, the oils, the powders, the candles? Was it because of the assistance of tax professionals? From the posts, it would seem that they attributed the success to the spells, oils, powders, candles, and other materials. In another post, someone noted, “This Forum is not a substitute for any legal or tax advice. Seek the advice of an accountant or an attorney.” Another contributor advised, “And when you have found your attorney, bless his work with King Solomon Wisdom and Court Case supplies.”

I’ve known and do know people who do tarot readings, who claim to have successfully cast spells, and who pray to saints. The believers are convinced these practices work. Others figure that there’s no harm in trying. What was news to me was the use of these approaches in dealing with taxes, finding lawyers and other tax professionals, and helping lawyers win cases. Those who have described to me the use of tarot cards and spells almost always spoke in terms of fixing or finding relationships or dealing with health problems. So I learned something.

The reader who shared the link with me also wondered, “Maybe a new tax course Introduction to Federal Taxes and Magic Spells?” I doubt it. Aside from trying to picture the law faculty being presented with a course proposal of this sort and reacting favorably, I also doubt that even if such a course were approved, there would be much of an enrollment. Law students are swamped with courses, internships, externships, seminars, and other academic demands. But perhaps another department in a university would include tax issues in an undergraduate course devoted to spells, magic, wizardry, or voodoo. However, I’m unaware of any such courses at Villanova.

When the car breaks down, see a mechanic. When the house catches fire, call the fire department. When the dog gets sick, visit the veterinarian. When the IRS or a state revenue department comes calling, find a tax professional. At that point, if you believe, pray, cast spells, go to a reading. But relying solely on the latter and ignoring the professional is dangerous and ill-advised.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Oops! Even The Best Can Slip Into Tax Errors 

A reader sent me a web link, and asked, “Is this tax ignorance?” So I took a look at this Turbo Tax FAQ. The title of the FAQ is a question: “Is a parsonage or housing allowance deductible?” It’s unclear whether this is an actual question from a customer, or one “invented” by the author of the FAQ. The question is misleading, almost a trick question. Even if the question came from a customer confused about tax terminology, the correct response would be, “No, parsonage allowance, however called, is not deductible. However, if certain conditions are satisfied, some or all of the allowance can be excluded from gross income.” The Turbo Tax response begins, “As a licensed, commissioned, or ordained minister, you may be able to deduct the fair market value of a home, a parsonage (in-kind housing), or a housing allowance.”

Though to some it may appear to be hyper-technical, there is a big difference between exclusions and deductions. An exclusion reduces gross income, and thus adjusted gross income, which is used as the starting point in computing a variety of limitations on deductions and in computing how much of certain types of income can be excluded from gross income. The exclusion also has the effect of reducing taxable income. Some deductions cause adjusted gross income to be reduced, but most deductions do not, though they can reduce taxable income. They don’t necessarily do so, because many of these deductions are in turn limited, and often end up being irrelevant. Generally speaking, given the choice between an exclusion and a deduction, a taxpayer would prefer a tax break to be an exclusion.

When I taught the basic federal income tax course, the difference between an exclusion and a deduction was one of the dozen or so principles that were on the list of concepts students needed to master if they were to earn a grade of C or above in the course. Someone who conflated exclusions with deductions and deductions with credits, who did not understand the difference between a ceiling limitation and a floor limitation, who did not understand the difference between income and gross income and the difference between gross income and taxable income, among other things, pretty much would fail the course or perhaps escape with a D.

Thus my surprise at seeing Turbo Tax describe the parsonage allowance exclusion as something that is deductible. Interestingly, though the response to the FAQ initially refers to deducting the allowance, and uses that verb yet again, in the last sentence, the response refers to “the excludable portion” of the allowance. There definitely is a lack of consistency in the response.

I’ve not yet loaded this year’s Turbo Tax program. Because I do not receive a parsonage allowance, I’m not in a position to determine if the software treats it as an exclusion or as a deduction. My guess is that it is treated as an exclusion and that the problem is with the FAQ documentation, almost surely written by someone other than those coding the software.

So is the FAQ tax ignorance? I don’t think so. I think it is a mistake, probably the result of carelessness, especially in light of the correct use of “excludable” in part of the response. I have made those sorts of mistakes, generally as a consequence of being distracted by some externality.

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