Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Public Official Doesn’t Answer Question, “Why Are You Delinquent on Your Tax Payments?”
According to the story, Memphis, Tennessee, City Councilman Martavius Jones supports a property tax increase, but is delinquent in paying at least $5,500 in property taxes to Memphis and Shelby County. The tax increase was voted down by the city council. Before the meeting at which the vote was taken, a reporter from WREG asked Jones if he was “up to date” on his tax payments, and Jones replied, “No, I’m not.” The reporter then asked, “Ok, so how can you ask people to pay more money if you’re not up to date?” Jones replied, “Because I’m paying interest on that so at the end of the day, they will receive more money from me than what was originally allocated to me.” When asked why he is behind on his tax payments, Jones would not answer. Instead he admitted he was delinquent, promised to write a check the upcoming Friday, and repeated, “But it will be more money that I’m paying to the city based on what’s expected of me.” According to the story, This was the third time WREG questioned Jones about being delinquent, the other two occurring in 2016 and 2018. Jones is a financial advisor who said “he would advise his clients to be behind on their taxes so they’re paying interest, [b]ecause it can be a tax write off for individuals.”
So why has Jones been late paying property taxes? My guess is that he thinks it is financially advantageous to delay paying the tax, and then pay even more money in the form of interest. Why would he think that? The interest rate, according to the City of Memphis web site is 1.5 percent per month, or 18 per cent annually. So someone thinking that it makes sense to delay paying the taxes seems to be concluding that it makes less sense to pay $100 today and more sense to pay $106 four months in the future. That conclusion is logical if the person can earn more than $6 on the $100 during the four-month period. That is almost impossible to do without gambling, either in a casino or in the stock market.
Perhaps Jones thinks his delay advice works because of his claim that the interest paid by his clients is a “tax write off.” So let’s take a look at section 163 of the Internal Revenue Code. Subsection (a) tells us “General rule -- There shall be allowed as a deduction all interest paid or accrued within the taxable year on indebtedness.” But wait! Subsection (h), paragraph (1) tells us, “(h) Disallowance of deduction for personal interest -- (1) In general -- In the case of a taxpayer other than a corporation, no deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for personal interest paid or accrued during the taxable year.” What (a) gives, (h)(1) takes away. But paragraph (2) of subsection (h) gives back the deduction for six types of interest: trade or business interest, investment interest, interest taken into account in computing section 469 passive income or loss, qualified residence interest, interest payable on delayed federal estate tax payments, and education loan interest. Does the interest that Jones and his clients are paying on delinquent real property taxes fit within any of these six exceptions? Clearly the interest is not trade or business interest, it’s not taken into account in computing section 469 passive income or loss, it’s not interest on delayed federal estate tax payments, and it’s not education loan interest. That leaves two possibilities. Is it qualified residence interest? A careful reading of paragraph (3) of subsection (h) makes it clear that the tax debt is not qualified residence interest. Is it investment interest? A careful reading of paragraph (3) of subsection (d) makes it clear that the interest on the tax debt might be investment interest if the property is investment property, which a personal residence is not. But even if the interest on the tax debt qualified as investment interest, under section (d) it is deductible only to the extent of investment income. So it’s a wash.
So, sure, if someone thinks they can earn more than 18 percent on the money that they would otherwise use to pay their property taxes on time, they can take that risk. But in most instances, that gamble will fail. Wait long enough, and the taxpayer then needs to bear the cost of the ensuing administrative procedures and even litigation triggered by the delinquency, including foreclosure sale of the property.
In the end, we don’t know why Jones delays paying his property taxes. Perhaps he has a cash flow problem. Perhaps he forgot. Perhaps he thinks there is a financial advantage. Perhaps he advises clients to delay payment. Perhaps not. We just don’t know.
Monday, June 28, 2021
Revenue Department Employee Fraud: A Conundrum?
Though tax collectors and revenue secretaries who succumb to the temptation to commit tax fraud, embezzlement, and similar crimes get big headline attention, the problem is a much deeper one. For example, last week, according to this report, a retired compliance supervisor for the Virginia Department of Taxation has been arrested and charged with embezzling almost $1.3 million and with computer trespass. Officials of the state’s Inspector General’s office spent a year looking into information provided by the Department of Taxation after it had done an internal investigation. Allegedly, two employees of the department gave the supervisor “access to the department’s computer systems and ‘confidential taxpayer accounts.’” The Inspector General did not reveal how that embezzlement was implemented, probably to avoid giving a blueprint to others thinking about engaging in the same sort of behavior. According to the report, the retired supervisor repaid about $250,000 of the embezzled funds. Attempts to determine how long the supervisor had worked for the department were thwarted by restrictions on the disclosure of personnel information other than name, position, job classification, and salary.
This case is troubling. Though diligent investigation, both by the department and then by the Inspector General, uncovered the theft, one wonders how many other incidents, in Virginia and elsewhere, go undetected. The key is prevention, and yet it seems that steps can be taken to prevent one person from single-handedly doing something wrong, when two or more employees are in cahoots, the protection schemes break down. For example, designing a safe so that two individuals with two different keys rather than one individual can open it prevents unauthorized entry by one individual, the protection arrangement breaks down if the two individuals decide to collaborate. Though a two-person requirement reduces the chances of mistake, it relies on the assumption that at least one of the duo is a safeguard against malicious behavior by the other. Yet history teaches that conspiracies often extend far beyond two individuals. The problem extends far beyond taxation and revenue department embezzlement, and poses a challenge that has yet to be successfully and pervasively answered.
Friday, June 25, 2021
When Language Describing the Impact of Tax Fraud Matters
What caught my eye in the latest tax return preparer sentencing story to come my way wasn’t the fact that the preparer was caught, charged, convicted, and sentenced, nor the details of what the preparer did, because those were pretty much similar to what most other convicted preparers had done, but a sentence in the story. The sentence stated, “In total, Santa Ana caused a tax loss of at least $2.9 million to the IRS.” Curious, I tried to find the Department of Justice press release for the sentencing, but failed. What I did find was the Department of Justice press release describing the preparer’s guilty plea. That press release turned out to be the source of the words in the sentencing story. The press release stated, “In total, Santa Ana caused a tax loss of at least $2.9 million to the IRS.” I’m not sure why I hadn’t noticed this language in earlier Department of Justice press releases. But this time I did.
So why did this catch my eye? For me, describing the loss as a loss to the IRS fails to make clear to all taxpayers that the loss is a loss to all taxpayers, and to the nation. The IRS is simply a funnel that collects tax revenue and transmits it to the Treasury for disbursement. The Department of Justice news release hinted at this when it quoted Acting U.S. Attorney Christopher Chiou, who stated, ““Our office is committed to working closely with the IRS Criminal Investigation team to investigate and prosecute unscrupulous tax preparers who take advantage of law-abiding taxpayers and cause tax losses to the IRS.” Indeed, tax return preparers who commit fraud, along with taxpayers who commit fraud and tax advisors who help plan fraud, are doing more than taking advantage of compliant taxpayers. They are harming compliant taxpayers, and themselves, by reducing planned expenditures for defense, road repair, disease control, air safety, and a long list of additional services funded with taxes.
In an earlier Department of Justice press release reminding taxpayers of their reporting obligations, explaining why tax return preparers should be chosen carefully, and listing some cases in which taxpayers and preparers had been successfully prosecuted, the same Christopher Chiou explained, “Tax offenses are neither victimless nor without consequence, as taxes are how governments provide essential services.” To some extent, that relieved my concern that there is an institutional sense that it is the IRS that loses when there is tax fraud. But I think that if the boilerplate language in press releases was changed from “[defendant] caused a tax loss of at least [dollar amount] to the IRS” to “[defendant] caused a reduction of at least [dollar amount] in essential services provided by the federal government,” the news outlets publishing reports about the charge, conviction, guilty plea, or sentencing would likely pick up this proposed revised language just as they pick up the existing language. This, in turn, would reach the public, who might not be very concerned, and might even be happy, to read that the IRS lost money, but who might be more motivated to engage in compliance and refrain from engaging in, or helping others engage in, activities that harm the common good. Changing that language is an easy fix, costs little to nothing, but would have a significant impact on taxpayer attitudes and reactions.
Update: Reader Morris found an IRS news release describing the sentencing. Interestingly, the news release quoted Special Agent in Charge Albert Childress of IRS Criminal Investigation as stating, "Santa Ana defrauded the U.S. of at least $2.9 million dollars when she knowingly prepared fraudulent tax returns on behalf of her clients. She harmed both her clients — who remain responsible for paying the correct amount due and owing for each of these tax years — and the people of the United States as a whole." That language best describes the impact of tax fraud, specifically, that it is not a matter of an IRS loss but a harm to the nation and the people of the nation as a whole. Incorporating that language into the press releases dealing with individuals pleading guilty to, or convicted of, tax fraud would be very helpful in letting Americans know why tax fraud is dangerous.
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Fighting Fraud Even More Difficult When Tax Leadership Succumbs
That is why I have written at least 20 posts about tax return preparers involved in fraudulent tax return preparation, false tax return filings, and other tax noncompliance activities. These posts include Tax Fraud Is Not Sacred, More Tax Return Preparation Gone Bad, Another Tax Return Preparation Enterprise Gone Bad, Are They Turning Up the Heat on Tax Return Preparers?, Surely There Is More to This Tax Fraud Indictment, Need a Tax Return Preparer? Don’t Use a Current IRS Employee, Is This How Tax Return Preparation Fraud Can Proliferate?, When Tax Return Preparers Go Bad, Their Customers Can Pay the Price, Tax Return Preparer Fails to Evade the IRS, Fraudulent Tax Return Preparation for Clients and the Preparer, Prison for Tax Return Preparer Who Does Almost Everything Wrong, Tax Return Preparation Indictment: From 44 To Three, When Fraudulent Tax Return Filing Is Part of A Bigger Fraudulent Scheme, Preparers Preparing Fraudulent Returns Need Prepare Not Only for Fines and Prison But Also Injunctions, Sins of the Tax Return Preparer Father Passed on to the Tax Return Preparer Son, Tax Return Preparer Fraud Extends Beyond Tax Returns, When A Tax Return Preparer’s Bad Behavior Extends Beyond Fraud, More Thoughts About Avoiding Tax Return Preparers Gone Bad, Another Tax Return Preparer Fraudulent Loan Application Indictment, Yet Another Way Tax Return Preparers Can Harm Their Clients (and Employees), When Unscrupulous Tax Return Preparers Make It Easy for the IRS and DOJ to Find Them, and Tax Return Preparers Putting Red Flags on Clients’ Returns.
That also is why I have given attention to charges brought against some of those serving in yet another line of defense against tax fraud, specifically tax collectors. I have described the woes of several in posts such as A Reason Not to Run for Tax Collector (or Any Other Office)?, Perhaps Yet Another Reason Not to Run for Tax Collector, Running for Tax Collector (or Any Other Office)? Don’t Do These Things, When Behaving Badly as a Tax Collector Gets Even Worse, Tax Collector Behaving Badly: From Even Worse to Even More Than Even Worse, Bribing the Tax Collector: Bad Outcomes on Both Sides of the Deals, When Tax Collectors Do Too Many Things, So Who’s the Worse Tax Collector? , So Is There Now a “Worst Tax Collector” Contest?, and Can Long-Term Tax Collector Embezzlement Be Prevented?.
Now comes a report that the former New Mexico Secretary of Taxation and Revenue, Demesia Padilla, has been convicted of embezzling more than $25,000 from a client of a separate business she was operating while she served in the governor’s cabinet. She also was convicted of computer access with intent to defraud or embezzle. She managed to shift the money from her client’s bank account by linking her credit card to that account. She claimed that the company ceased to be her client when she was appointed to the cabinet, but her husband signed off on the client’s tax returns for several years thereafter. It is unclear if the company became the client of the husband or if he was a tax return preparer.
According to another story, in 2016 state prosecutors initiated an investigation into allegations that Padilla ordered department employees to terminate an audit of one of her former clients. Though what happened to that investigation is unclear, it appears that charges related to the allegation were either dropped or dismissed.
When taxpayers see officials treating the law with disdain, they face even greater temptation to follow the “if they can do it, so can I” philosophy of dealing with obligations. It’s bad enough that tax return preparers assure taxpayers that what is happening on a fraudulent return is not a problem, but when public officials responsible for the appropriate administration of the tax laws, whether they be tax collectors or a cabinet secretary overseeing the entire state revenue department, public confidence in government is further eroded. It makes it even more difficult to teach noncompliance and to shape a culture that treats tax fraud as unacceptable. As a nation, we can do better, and if we don’t, we might end up with a nation in even more dire straits.
Monday, June 21, 2021
Philadelphia Parking Tax Decrease Proposal Fails: Pick a Reason
Now comes news that the proposal to reduce the parking tax has been withdrawn by the City Council member who had submitted it. The goal of the proposed legislation was to encourage parking facility owners to increase their employees’ wages, though it is unclear how reducing the amount of tax funneled from drivers to the city would encourage wage increases. Nor can City Council legally mandate increased wages for those employees. Reportedly two parking facility companies had agreed to some sort of promise to increase wages but writing that into tax decrease legislation was not possible. The abandonment of the Council bill was in response to opposition from “progressives, who said the companies shouldn’t need a tax break to pay living wages, and from urbanists who favor dense neighborhoods and oppose car-centric infrastructure.” Other reports allege that the proposal was abandoned when other parking facility owners would not agree to the wage increases.
Does it matter why the proposal failed? Perhaps. The reaction of various constituencies to the proposal can inform anyone who crafts a future proposal designed to reduce taxes, or increase wages, or otherwise regulate parking in the city. For the moment, though, the issue now sits on a back burner, a very far back burner.
Friday, June 18, 2021
Is a Tax the Best Way to Fund Rural Broadband Access?
To deal with this issue, about twenty years ago, Congress imposed a percentage fee on the revenues derived by telecommunications companies from their users for interstate and international calls. This fee is passed on by the companies to their customers. Verizon tags this portion of its bills as the “Federal Universal Service Fund charge.” Some states also have enacted similar fees. As a practical matter, the fee is being passed on mostly to low-income customers who cannot afford to drop landline service and shift to more expensive alternatives.
Because the fee is imposed on telecommunications companies but not on internet-based communications, as landline usage dropped and internet-based messaging increased, the telecommunications revenues subject to the fee have dropped from roughly $72 billion in 2010 to about $47 billion in 2019. To maintain revenue from the fee, the fee increased from 6.8 percent of revenue to 31.8 percent. It isn’t difficult to predict that the revenues subject to the fee will continue to drop and the percentage will need to increase. This, however, is an untenable situation. Though Congress enacted an emergency broadband program that provides $50 monthly subsidies to several million households, that program will run out of funds in a few months.
There are many reasons that it is in the national interest, including national security, that broadband access needs to be available to everyone. The cost per person to bring broadband access into rural and tribal areas is far higher than it is in urban and suburban areas. If the private sector relied solely on the market, broadband access would not reach rural and tribal areas because the cost would be prohibitive for most residents of those areas. Thus the implementation of the universal service fund and its fees.
Why did Congress choose to impose a fee on telecommunications companies to provide broadband access? After all, as one member of the FCC, which administers the fund, stated, “That’s like taxing horseshoes to pay for highways.” True, it’s technically not a tax, but even if he had said, “That’s like imposing a fee on horseshoes to pay for highways,” the point would be well taken.
Some have proposed that a tax should be enacted that would be paid by “companies such as Amazon, Google and Netflix.” The justification is that these businesses benefit from the internet and pay almost nothing. But are they the only businesses that benefit from the internet? More specifically, are they the only companies that benefit, or would benefit, from an expansion of internet access in rural and tribal areas? Of course, the trade group that includes the big online companies consider this proposal to be a punishment of “innovative, high-quality streaming services.” Proponents argue that bringing these companies within the scope of the fee would reduce the percentage to less than 5 percent.
Others have suggested that Congress should simply appropriate funds from general revenues. Opponents point out that this would probably subject the subsidy to the vagaries of budget approvals and funding disputes.
The solution isn’t easy to find. As Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, noted, “Really almost any proposed source of funding is going to be controversial.”
A possible workable solution is for Congress to appropriate funds to bring broadband service to rural and tribal areas, and then to require companies that derive revenue from rural and tribal customers to pay a percentage of that revenue to replenish the funding. That percentage would be very low, probably even lower than the 5 percent projected by proponents of taxing internet companies. That’s because it also would include companies that would be able to reach, and sell to, customers in rural and tribal areas. Of course, all of these companies would then pass the fee along to their customers. If they were required to pass the fee along to all customers, and not merely to the rural and tribal area customers because that would shift the cost to those unable to fund the full cost of broadband expansion, the arrangement would be very similar to a tax. In other words, broadband users everywhere who do business with companies collecting revenue from rural and tribal areas would be paying a fee for something they might think they are not using. This was one of the principal objections raised when the universal service fund was implemented. The answer to this objection is that everyone benefits if everyone has broadband access and, similarly, everyone loses if there are people without broadband access. In an era when information dominates the marketplace, and rapid distribution of information is essential, letting everyone know of impending severe weather, other emergencies, and national security related alerts is essential.
So, no, a tax is not the answer to the broadband access funding question. The answer is a fee, a fee imposed not only on the rural and tribal individuals and businesses who use rural and tribal broadband infrastructure, but also on all other broadband users, who benefit from the fact that rural and tribal individuals are brought into the broadband network.
Wednesday, June 16, 2021
Of Course, Tax is Not “Just Numbers”
Reader Morris then commented to me that, “I believe you have mentioned in your blog and in your emails that Taxes Aren’t ‘Just Numbers’.” He is correct. I have written about the “non-numerical” aspects of taxation multiple times. I have done so to dispel the absurd notion that “tax is just numbers” and to share how I tried to allay the fears of law students who, at the beginning of the basic federal income tax course, expressed fear because they claimed that they were “mathphobic,” “math deficient,” or “not good with numbers.” I share here some of the examples I have provided as proof that tax is much more than numbers:
In Don’t Tax My Chocolate!!!, I examined whether large marshmallows are food exempt from the Pennsylvania sales tax or candy to which the sales tax applies. In Halloween and Tax: Scared Yet?), I focused on the dilemma of whether candy bars made with flour are candy subject to the sales tax or baked goods exempt from that tax. In Halloween Brings Out the Lunacy, I addressed whether pumpkins are food exempt from the sales tax. In Why Tax Practitioners Must Be Good With Words, and Not Just Numbers, I discussed a case in which the issue was whether aircraft hangars were exempt from property taxation under a provision that exempted any “building used primarily for . . . aircraft equipment storage.” In Pets and the Section 119 Meals Exclusion I shared the challenges of deciding whether the section 119 exclusion for meals applied to food purchases by the taxpayer for a pet. In Who Is a Farmer? A Taxing Question?, I discussed the issue of who qualifies for a New Jersey real estate property tax limitation applicable to land actively devoted to agricultural or horticultural use.” In Tax Meets the Chicken and the Egg, I explained how a property tax exemption for “all poultry” and a property tax exemption for “raw materials of a manufacturer” required a court to determine whether chicken eggs constitute poultry and whether hatching and raising chickens constitutes manufacturing. In When Tax Isn’t About Numbers: What is a Bank?, I explained the challenges of determining whether a particular entity qualifies as a bank. In Taxes, Strip Clubs, and Creativity, I commented on the attempt by a New York strip club to avoid sales taxes by arguing that its dancers were providing therapy to its customers, and thus the amounts it charged customer fit within the sales tax exception applicable to amounts paid for massage therapy or sex therapy. In Tax Question: What Is a Salad?, I described how the Australian Taxation Office gave up trying to define “salad” for purposes of the goods and services tax exemption for fresh salads, sharing the comments of a representative of that office who noted, “It depends on what you define a salad as. Some may define it as a bowl of lettuce, some may define it as a BBQ chicken shredded up with three grains of rice on it. I'm not trying to be facetious... there [are] a range of products that are very, very different that are marketed as salads." In Another One of Those Non-Arithmetic Tax Questions: What Is a Sport?, I shared the challenges faced by the English Bridge Union when it took the position that for purposes of applying the value-added tax on competition entry fees, which exempted fees paid to enter sports competitions, bridge is a sport. In Getting Exercised About A Sales Tax Exercise Exception, I pondered whether yoga constituted exercise for purposes of the New York City sales tax that applies to sales of services by weight control salons, health salons, gymnasiums, Turkish and sauna bath and similar establishment. In Not That More Proof Is Needed, But Here’s Another Example That Taxes Aren’t “Just Numbers”, I described how the resolution of a tax dispute turned on whether a youth hostel was a hotel for purposes of the Philadelphia hotel tax.Anyone who knows anything about taxation knows that tax involves much more than numbers. Thus, when reader Morris then asked, “Is the general manager's description of the tax business accurate?” the answer is a resounding “No.”
What reader Morris did not ask was whether Chawla’s claim that the “rules for that [tax computation] are calculated and defined by the IRS.” That’s another error. The rules for defining what is subject to taxation and for computing the amount of tax are provided by the Congress. Again, anyone who knows anything about taxation knows this. I have written about this misperception, which originates in deliberate lies, in posts such as Is Public Truly Getting IRS-Congress Distinction?, If Congress Says So, Don’t Blame the IRS, Taxes and Anger, and It’s Not the IRS, It’s the Congress.
So how does a manager of a large company’s tax division manage to goof on two major core principles of taxation? Curious, I did a bit of research, and found his education and work experience on several sites. The one that I found with the most information was this profile on SignalHire. According to this profile, Chawla recently left Credit Karma to join Facebook. His education is listed as a Bachelor of Engineering at Punjab Engineering College, a Master of Business Administration at HEC Paris, and a Master of Business Administration at Indian School of Business. Surely tax is not in the curriculum of an engineering college. At HEC-Paris, tax is not listed as one of the core courses, nor does it appear in this list of its electives. Nor could I find any tax courses in this list of courses at the Indian School of Business. As for experience, his list of positions consists of software engineer at Infosys Technologies in Bangalore, India, software engineer at Adobe Systems in San Jose, California, product manager at Google in Mountain View, California, director of product management, then senior director of product and general manager of tax, and then vice president and general manager of tax and savings at Credit Karma in San Francisco, California, and now director of product management at Facebook in Menlo Park, California.
So I wonder how the question of whether a transfer of money from one person to another is a loan, a gift, or compensation would be reduced to numbers by a software engineer and product manager. I wonder how the question of whether chicken eggs constitute poultry would be reduced to numbers by a software engineer and product manager. I wonder how many people read the quote in Barron’s or its republication in SeekingAlpha and came away thinking that tax is just numbers and the IRS makes the tax rules.
Monday, June 14, 2021
Words Matter: The Tax Treatment of Legal Malpractice Awards
So in October 2013, the petitioner filed a malpractice lawsuit against Beverly, claiming that his representation constituted negligence and gross negligence and that he breached the duty of fair dealing and his fiduciary duties “by influencing * * * [her] to mediate and enter into a transaction that was not fair to * * * [her] under the circumstances” and by not pursuing an appeal. Later, she amended the malpractice petition to add claims for deceptive trade practices, treble damages, and attorney’s fees. She sought damages for “pecuniary and compensatory losses”, including “damages for past and future mental anguish, suffering, stress, anxiety, humiliation, and loss of ability to enjoy life”, as well as punitive damages and disgorgement of the attorney’s fees she paid in the divorce proceeding, resulting from the malpractice defendants’ conduct. In October 2014 Beverly and the taxpayer entered into a settlement agreement that stated, “while there remain significant disagreements as to the merit of the claims and allegations asserted by the Parties to this lawsuit, the Parties have agreed to compromise and settle such claims and allegations, without any admission of fault or liability on the part of any party.” Beverly and his firm agreed to pay $175,000 to the taxpayer “[i]n consideration for the mutual promises and obligations set forth in this Release”. The parties released each other from all claims related to the malpractice lawsuit “in exchange for the * * * [settlement proceeds]”. All claims included those “of whatever kind or character, known or unknown * * * which * * * [petitioner] may have against * * * [malpractice defendants] arising out of or related to the * * * [malpractice lawsuit].” Beverly and his firm did not admit liability or fault in the settlement agreement, and the parties did not allocate any of the settlement proceeds toward any particular claim or type of damages. The taxpayer received the settlement proceeds of $175,000, from which she paid her malpractice attorney’s $73,500 fee through direct payment to the attorney by the defendants so that she received a check for $101,500.
On her 2014 Form 1040, the taxpayer reported other income of zero, and she acknowledged the receipt of $101,500 through an attached Form 1099-MISC Summary and a “Line 21 Statement” on which she reported “Other Income from Box 3 of 1099-Misc” of $101,500. The Line 21 Statement also subtracted $101,500 with the description “Misclassification of Lawsuit recovery of marital assets”, resulting in total other income of zero. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency, determining that the $101,500 should be included in gross income. After the taxpayer filed her petition in the Tax Court, the IRS reviewed the settlement agreement and amended its answer to also include in the taxpayer’s gross income the $73,500 of her settlement proceeds that were paid to her malpractice attorney.
The taxpayer argued that the settlement proceeds were a nontaxable return of capital because they compensated her for the portion of her marital estate that she “was rightfully and legally entitled to, but did not receive, due to the legal malpractice of * * * [her divorce attorney].” The IRS argued that the settlement proceeds are taxable income because they compensated the taxpayer for the alleged failings of her divorce attorney and are not excluded from gross income. The taxpayer did not make any arguments based on section 104(a), dealing with compensation for personal injury, or section 1041, dealing with transfers of property between spouses incident to divorce.
The court first noted that settled case law provides that “when a litigant’s recovery constitutes income, the litigant’s income includes the portion of the recovery paid to the attorney as a contingent fee.” It also noted that under settled case law “recovery of capital is not income.” It then explained that whether a payment received in settlement of a claim represents a recovery of capital depends on the nature of the claims that were the basis for the settlement. The question to be decided is, “[I]n lieu of what was the . . . settlement awarded?” The answer is a question of fact, and finding the answer requires looking at the language of he agreement for indicia of purpose, focusing on the origin and characteristics of the claims settled in the agreement. Turning to the agreement in question, the court determined that it made clear that the settlement proceeds were in lieu of damages for legal malpractice. The text of the agreement stated that its purpose was “to compromise and settle * * * [taxpayer’s] claims and allegations” against malpractice defendants and that payment “in exchange for” release of claims related to the taxpayer’s lawsuit against the malpractice defendants.
The court rejected the taxpayer’s argument that the settlement proceeds were only for those claims that involved the marital estate and that they represented compensation for lost value or capital because they “are based on her recovery of the property interest that * * * [she] rightfully should have received from her divorce as her share of the marital estate.” The court rejected this argument because the settlement agreement stated that the settlement proceeds were for the release of “all claims * * * of whatever kind or character, known or unknown * * * which * * * [the taxpayer] may have against * * * [malpractice defendants] arising out of or related to the * * * [malpractice lawsuit].” The court treated the taxpayer asking the court “to look through the settlement agreement and consider only her claims related to recovery of marital property,” but the court refused to look past “the plain terms of the settlement agreement,” instead concluding that the settlement proceeds were to compensate the taxpayer for her attorney’s malpractice. Accordingly, the settlement proceeds must be included in gross income.
The court pointed out that it had “recently rejected a similar attempt to recharacterize the settlement of a legal malpractice claim arising from a personal injury lawsuit,” citing Blum v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2021-18. In that case, the taxpayer filed a malpractice claim against her personal injury attorney, resulting in a settlement payment from the personal injury attorney. She asserted that the settlement payment represented a return of capital “in that it compensated her for a loss that she suffered because of the erroneous advice of her lawyers, viz, the nontaxable amount she would have received had she prevailed in her personal injury lawsuit.” The court in Blum focused on the language of the settlement agreement, which specified that it was entered into “for the purpose of compromising and settling the disputes”, and concluded that the settlement payment was not a return of capital to the taxpayer but rather to compensate her “for distinct failings by her former lawyers.”
The court also noted that even if the taxpayer had convinced it that some of the settlement proceeds were meant to replace her purported loss of marital property and that the loss was a nontaxable recovery of capital, she failed to provide a basis on which the settlement proceeds could be allocated between that hypothetically nontaxable recovery and other taxable amounts. The settlement agreement did not allocate any of the settlement proceeds toward any of the various claims or types of damages. According to the court, to the extent the proceeds included amounts representing interest, that portion could not be excluded from gross income in any event.
Though as Robert Wood pointed out earlier this year in Does IRS Tax Legal Malpractice Settlements? that there is “surprisingly little authority” to help drafters of settlement agreements “predict the tax treatment of legal malpractice recoveries,” the Holliday case and the Blum case that it cites teach and reinforce the lesson that the language of the settlement agreement is critical to the tax treatment of the settlement proceeds. I have written about the necessity for careful drafting, and the adverse impact of imprecise drafting, in posts such as Taxing Damages, In Tax, As in Much Else, Precision Matters, Contracting a Tax Outcome, and Looking for an Exclusion That’s Not in the Documentation.
It is understandable why the defendants in the litigation want the settlement agreement to cover all claims including those “of whatever kind or character, known or unknown * * * which * * * [petitioner] may have against * * * [malpractice defendants] arising out of or related to the * * * [malpractice lawsuit].” But that language in and of itself is not the problem. It’s the lack of additional language that allocates a specific portion of the settlement proceeds in this case to the taxpayer’s recovery of the amount that she would have received for her share of marital property had the divorce settlement agreement been drafted differently. It is the lack of that language that forced the Tax Court to conclude that no part of the settlement proceeds had been proven to be for return of capital and that, even if that had been proven, no part of the agreement provided sufficient specificity for allocating a specific dollar amount to what would have been excluded from gross income. As so often is the case, words, or the lack of them, matter.
Friday, June 11, 2021
When Tax Return Preparers Are Not the Source of the Tax Fraud
Though there are tax return preparers whose antics contribute to tax noncompliance and thus the tax gap, most do not behave in that manner and most tax noncompliance occurs beyond the reach of tax return preparers. Sometimes, even if a tax return preparer prepared the return, the fraud cannot be attributed to the preparer. An example of this sort of situation is presented in a recent Department of Justice news release. According to that news release, the owner of a physical therapy and acupuncture business, who also co-owned a similar business, with the help of co-conspirators reduced taxable income by shifting funds to other entities that they controlled and that they deducted as business expenses. They also took checks made payable to those businesses and cashed them at a check cashing business. Though the checks represented income to the business, the owner and the co-conspirators did not disclose theses receipts to their tax return preparers. That had the effect of causing their tax returns to be fraudulent.
In this instance, there is no indication that the tax return preparers did anything wrong. A preparer asks a client to disclose transactions that affect gross income, deductions, credits, refunds, and tax payments. The preparer is not required, and rarely is in a position, to audit the client’s books or to do forensic analysis. Granted, if the information provided by the client is itself inconsistent, the preparer needs to ask more questions. But, as one of my former students in practice since the late 1980s, sometimes asks me, “Do you tell your students that some of their clients will lie?” Yes, I do. But figuring out if a client is lying is not easy. True, some people have that sixth sense and some learn to evaluate body language, eye movement, and other supposed clues, but it’s much easier to deceive some or most tax return preparers because they do not have the tools, the opportunity, or the right to dig into a client’s information the way, for example, the IRS and the Department of Justice can. My guess is that at least some preparers find a way to identify taxpayers who have previously been convicted of tax fraud and either decline to represent them or exercise extreme caution if they do accept them as clients.
Wednesday, June 09, 2021
Calling It a 15 Percent Minimum Corporate Tax Can Be Misleading
The Hill report explains that Biden “has long railed against the low amount of taxes some profitable corporations have paid, vowing to close loopholes.” The White House press secretary described the proposal as a “book tax,” explaining that the tax should be “based on” corporate “bottom lines.”
According to the White House Fact Sheet on the American Jobs Plan, the so-called 15 percent minimum tax on corporations would be something other than a minimum 15 percent rate on corporate taxable income. Instead, it would be a 15 percent tax rate on “the income corporations use to report their profits to investors,” which most financial analysts, accountants, and investors described as “book income.” The fact sheet states that it would “apply only to the very largest corporations.” According to the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the plan, it would apply to corporations with more than $2 billion in net income. According to the General Explanations of the Administration's Fiscal Year 2022 Revenue Proposals, the tax would apply to corporations with more than $2 billion of “worldwide pre-tax book income,” reduced by the corporation’s regular tax liability.
It is misleading to refer to the proposal as a “15 percent minimum corporate tax rate” because that phrase suggests that the proposal is to impose a 15 percent tax rate on taxable income. As anyone who understands tax law realizes, tax rates mean nothing when taxable income is zero. The problem is bigger than the rate. That is why the proposal focuses on a different base on which to compute the tax, specifically, income as reported for financial purposes. Since the income tax was enacted, corporations have tried to convince the Treasury that they have little or no income to be taxed while telling their shareholders and creditors that they are raking in the profits. Of course, individuals also play this game, trying to show low income to tax authorities and divorcing spouses while upping their claims when applying for loans or trying to impress others at the country club. Some of this nonsense can be attributed to the existence of foolish deductions for tax purposes, such as the allowance of a reduction for depreciation on real property that is increasing in value. Some of the nonsense is attributable to fraud and other tax evasion techniques. For corporations subject to supervision by regulatory agencies, some of the nonsense is attributable to the strange accounting rules used by many of those agencies. And yet another cause of the “high profit, no or low tax” game is the inconsistency in tax policy, taxable income computation, and tax rates among nations, a problem that the G7 appears willing to tackle, though whether its constituent members, and those belonging to the G20, where the proposal next goes, remains to be seen.
Yet it seems to me that it would make sense simply to require all businesses to report as taxable income the amount of income that they tell their owners, creditors, investors, and regulatory agencies that they are generating. By computing taxable income as equal to book income, the need for multiple computations of a tax base would be eliminated. Otherwise, as pointed out in this Tax Foundation commentary, corporations would need to add another computation layer to their tax reporting, though it is not as big a deal as the commentary suggests, because book income already is being computed by corporations.
Of course, taxation based on book income would require mechanisms to tax avoidance, such as a means to prevent corporations from computing a book income that reflects high salaries paid to top officers who are domiciled or reside in countries with no individual income tax, with low individual income tax rates, or with deductions and credits to reduce or eliminate the officers’ tax liabilities. And, of course, other reforms are necessary to deal with the tax avoidance opportunities presented by the flaws in, and abuse of, partnership taxation rules as I described in Partnerships: A Contributing Factor to the Tax Noncompliance Surge, a problem that requires more than a simple increase in the number of returns being audited.
Whenever attempts are made to reduce or eliminate tax abuse or tax avoidance techniques, those who benefit from the abuses or avoidance techniques rise up in opposition. Often, those who oppose the reform are the same interests who lobbied successfully for adding to the tax law the provisions that permit those abuses and avoidance techniques. Too often, those provisions are so complex or obscure that the typical taxpayer can easily be misled by the opponents of reform. The key to getting these reforms enacted is top-notch education of the public by those who are pressing for these reforms, in ways help typical taxpayers understand why the many will benefit from reforms that put an end to tax abuses and avoidance techniques the benefit the few.
Monday, June 07, 2021
When It Comes to Tax, What Does Age Have to Do With It?
Another example are tax breaks related to children who have not yet attained a specified age. That age varies depending on the provision, but regardless of the inconsistency, a reference to age is necessary because in a general sense, all taxpayers are children, and remain children for all of their lives. Ask any parent.
Yet there are age-related provisions that make little sense. For example, the standard deduction increases when a taxpayer attains the age of 65, presumably because of some notion that people who reach the age of 65 are somehow in need of reduced tax liability. But does it make sense to base a reduced tax liability on need for tax relief and yet ignore income? No, because the assumption that people who have attained the age of 65 need tax relief totally disregards the fact that income, whether gross, adjusted gross, or taxable, is a far better indicator of ability-to-pay than is age standing alone.
And that brings me to a proposal that reader Morris brought to my attention. According to this Northwestern University press release, two economics professors, one at Northwestern and one at the University of Kent, have proposed that because workers become more productive over their working life, they should pay a higher rate of tax as they become older. Specifically, they claim that workers between the ages of 45 and 65 should pay at a rate 5 percent higher than the rate paid by workers between the ages of 20 and 44. Whether they mean 5 percentage points, for example, a 15 percent instead of a 10 percent rate, or 5 percent, for example, a 10.5 percent rate instead of a 10 percent rate, is unclear.
The two researchers claim that their proposal “could bring welfare gains to each taxpayer equivalent to those brought in by a 4% increase in annual consumption throughout their entire work life” and that these “gains are significant to warrant the consideration of policymakers and shape the debate on how to best reform existing tax codes in the U.S. and other developed economies.” They explain, “This is because age-dependent taxes permit the government to generate tax revenues more efficiently by reducing the distortions in labor supply of those workers, the young, whose investments in human capital count the most. Furthermore, by incentivizing the young to work more to boost their productivity, the government can take advantage of a more productive population when the young turn old, collecting taxes from them in a less distortionary manner, which also brings non-negligible welfare gains.”
Reader Morris asked me for my reaction. I pointed out several aspects of reality ignored by the researchers. First, the premise that workers are more productive as they get older holds only if they are in the same job or career. Present-day reality is that workers hop not only from employer to employer within the same field, but also change from occupation to occupation. It is possible for a 37-year-old working at the same job for 15 years to be far more productive than a 47-year-old who entered that job 6 years earlier after working for 20 years in some other occupation. Second, as workers become more efficient, they might receive wage increases or, if functioning as sole proprietors or partners, experience increased net profit increases. Or, as is happening to many workers, their wages might stagnate despite productivity increases. In the former situation, as wages or net profits increase, their tax liabilities will increase, and in some instances, they will be propelled into higher tax brackets. In the latter situation, absent tax law changes, their tax liabilities also will stagnate, and it would be absurd to jack up a worker’s tax rate when the worker attains the age of 45 even though their income is unchanged. Third, changing tax rates based on age is an unwarranted discrimination. Why should a 30-year-old making $600,000 a year pay less income tax than a 57-year-old making $600,000 a year (assuming other factors are the same)? Fourth, plenty of people between the ages of 20 and 44 are raking in substantial incomes while there are people between the ages of 45 and 65 are barely making ends meet. A tax system that favors high-income younger workers to the detriment of low-income older workers makes no sense. Put another way, ability-to-pay, a key concept underlying progressive income tax rates, has nothing to do with age and everything to do with income.
Friday, June 04, 2021
Who Benefits from a Philadelphia Parking Tax Reduction?
Though one can quibble whether a reduction in the rate from 25 percent to 17 percent is a slashing, and though one can wonder whether the introduction of a bill by one member of the Council translates into a majority of the Council wanting to reduce the rate, the big problem is the conclusion that a reduction in the parking tax is “a handout to wealthy parking garage magnates.” According to the city’s explanation of the tax, the parking tax is paid by every person “who pays to park or store a motor vehicle in or on a parking facility in Philadelphia.” Thus, the tax is paid by parking lot customers “directly to the parking facility.” In turn, the operator of “the parking facility is responsible for issuing the claim check, collecting the tax, and paying it to the City.”
First, the reduction in the parking tax itself does not directly benefit the owners and operators of parking lots and garages. If the tax is reduced, the owners and operators collect less from the customer and remit less to the city. Second, the writer might be thinking that the reduction in the parking tax will bring more vehicles into the city and into parking lots and parking garages, thus increasing revenue for the owners and operators of those facilities. That is a questionable conclusion. Based on current parking rates, an 8-percentage-point reduction in the tax would reduce a customer’s bill by roughly $2 for a 12-hour stay, and by roughly $25 for a one-month fee. It highly unlikely that someone otherwise not planning to drive into the city would change their mind because of a $2 difference, or that a $25 reduction in a monthly parking fee would deter the person from driving into the city on a regular basis. At best, the reduction might bring a few more vehicles into the city, but that revenue, even if monopolized by one owner or operator, would be too insignificant to be considered a handout to the wealthy.
My point isn’t that the parking tax should be reduced, or should not be reduced, or should be increased. My point is that when arguments for and against changes in the parking tax are lined up, “handouts to the wealthy” should not be on the list. Coming from someone who opposes tax breaks for the wealthy, that might seem surprising, but my point is that reducing the parking tax paid by vehicle owners, very few of whom are wealthy, is not a tax break for the wealthy. It’s a tax break for drivers of all economic groups.
Wednesday, June 02, 2021
Tax Woes for Former Philadelphia Officials
The first story involves Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia politician who served in the Pennsylvania Senate for about 30 years, and who was convicted on 137 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, filing a false tax return, using state workers to repair his residence and to work on his farm, misusing state funds, misusing funds from his charity, and using government property for personal travel. I have previously written about some of Fumo’s tax problems in posts such as How to Fix a Broken Tax System: Speed It Up?, and Not the Sort of Tax Loss Taxpayers Prefer, addressing questions about property tax assessments on his Philadelphia residence.
This recent news involves Fumo’s connection with the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, the charity referenced in the list of charges mentioned in the preceding paragraph. The misuse of the funds generated tax problems because the tax law is used to regulate aspects of transactions between tax-exempt organizations and people affiliated with them. In addition to misusing the funds, Fumo also was convicted of using his political power to compel PECO and the Delaware River Port Authority into making contributions to the charity. That, too, generates tax problems. The IRS contends that Fumo owes $354,000 in excise taxes on account of violating prohibitions against using tax-exempt organization funds for private purposes. When the case reached the United States Tax Court, Fumo argued, in response to an IRS motion for partial summary judgment, that “his role with the nonprofit was too insignificant for him to be subjected to the excise tax.” Fumo argued that he was not the founder of the charity nor was he an officer. The judge disagreed, pointing out not only that Fumo’s staff set up the charity at his direction and that he “exercised substantial influence over its activities,” but also that during his criminal trial, Fumo testified, “I viewed it as my nonprofit. I viewed it as my entity, my baby. I created it. I helped it. I guided it. I gave it strategy. I gave it my time and effort. I raised money for it. If it weren’t for me, it wouldn’t exist.” Accordingly, the Court granted the IRS motion for summary judgment in part – because other issues also are involved – and the case will proceed on the question of whether Fumo violated the prohibitions on dealing with a tax-exempt organization. From a legal perspective, the Court’s conclusion reflects the provision in the applicable Treasury regulations that a person can be within the scope of the prohibitions even if the person is not an officer, director, or high-level employee of a charity. For the Court’s opinion, go to the docket page for the case, scroll down to item 163, and click on the link, as the link for the opinion itself is too long to insert into an html URL llnk.
In addition to the excise tax, the IRS also claims that Fumo owes more than $2 million in unpaid income taxes because of his failure to report as income the value of the services he received from the crimes for which he was convicted. If that is not enough, the IRS also claims that he owes more than half a million dollars in unpaid gift taxes on account of a large cash gift to his son. Those cases are pending.
The second story, published on the same day as the first one, involves former Philadelphia Treasurer Christian Dunbar. Dunbar had been removed by the mayor after he was indicted for obtaining U.S. citizenship through a sham marriage and embezzling money from clients while working for Wells Fargo Bank. The new charges include failure to file tax returns for 2015, 2016, and 2019, and claiming false business losses on returns that he did file.
Politicians and government officials have always been under a spotlight. Modern technology has widened the scoped of that spotlight and has intensified its brightness. Though many people think being a public figure or celebrity is fun and wonderful, it comes with a price. That price is public scrutiny. For the well-behaved, that scrutiny is bad enough, but any sort of misbehavior or even simply inappropriate words or actions will go viral on social media, and often in mainstream media, in the blink of an eye.
Yes, there is corruption in Philadelphia. There also is corruption in many other big cities, small cities, suburban towns, and rural communities. Yes, there are localities where corruption is absent or perhaps a rare occurrence, but the problem is widespread. It’s just that the dollar amounts involved in big cities causes investigators to focus in those places rather than in other localities. And, true, corruption in large cities affects many more people than corruption in a small town, but every citizen, in every place, is entitled to live under governments free of corrupt politicians and corrupt officials. The corruption, unfortunately, is not so much a problem in and of itself, which it is, but a symptom of a deeper rot in present-day culture. And that is a something far beyond the world of tax and surely not manageable by using the tax law to clean things up.