Wednesday, November 09, 2016
In a Letter to the Editor of the Seattle Times, Ellen Taft suggests that it would be more effective to repeal the pet license law and replace it with a sales tax surcharge on pet food. The revenue would be dedicated to animal control enforcement. It would also be used to provide free spay and neuter clinics, and thus in the long run save money and reduce the rate of pet euthanasia. Taft does not mention any impact on the number of animals in shelters.
Would this work? In terms of revenue, perhaps. Perhaps pet owners in Seattle would purchase pet food outside the city. Perhaps they would order pet food online from vendors not subject to use tax collection requirements.
But the practical problem presented by the proposal is the loss of pet identification. Pet licenses permit animal control employees, police officers, and people trying to find the owners of lost pets to identify the pet and thus the owner. In the case of an animal bite, the identification is crucial in deciding whether the victim needs rabies treatment. Microchips are a solution, but relying on voluntary microchip implantation isn’t going to reach anywhere near all of the animals.
This is an instance in which a special tax doesn’t solve the problem. What is required is effective enforcement of the licensing laws, in order to protect people. The revenue from issuing pet licenses can be supplemented by the imposition of fines and penalties on pet owners who fail to comply.
Monday, November 07, 2016
The taxpayer was incorporated in California on July 21, 2005, and was assigned a taxpayer identification number by the California Franchise Tax Board. On August 1, 2008, the Board suspended the taxpayer’s corporate charter under section 23301 of the Suspension and Revivor article of the California Revenue and Taxation Code. On July 26, 2016, the California secretary of state certified as follows: “The records of this office indicate that the . . . [Board] suspended . . . [taxpayer’s] powers, rights and privileges on August 1, 2008 . . . and that . . . [petitioner’s] powers, rights and privileges remain suspended.”
The taxpayer filed income and employment tax returns for 2009 through 2013 but enclosed no payments. It did not file other returns, and so the IRS prepared substitutes for returns that met the requirements of section 6020(b). The IRS assessed all of the taxes in question plus a penalty under section 6721 for failing to file Forms W-2. In January 2015, the IRS sent the taxpayer a Final Notice of Intent to Levy and Notice of Your Right to a Hearing. The taxpayer timely requested a collection due process hearing, and a settlement officer was assigned to the case. In June 2015 the settlement officer informed the taxpayer’s representative that the case history indicated that the taxpayer was no longer in business, that the revenue officer had been told the business was being operated as a sole proprietorship, and that the settlement officer was requesting copies of documents confirming the dissolution of the taxpayer. The taxpayer’s representative provided a copy of Form 966, Corporate Dissolution or Liquidation, and a certificate of dissolution of the taxpayer.
On June 26, 2015, a telephone collection due process hearing was held, and the settlement officer requested additional documents by August 3, 2015. On August 18, 2015, having received none of the requested documents, the settlement officer closed the case. On August 28, 2015, the IRS issued to the taxpayer a notice of determination sustaining the proposed levy. On September 28, 2015, the taxpayer timely sought review in the Tax Court. On July 28, 2016, the IRS moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, contending that the petition was not filed by a party with capacity to sue under Rule 60(c). On August 4, 2016, the court ordered the taxpayer to respond to the motion on or before September 2, 2016. No response was filed.
Under Rule 60(c) of the Tax Court, the capacity of a corporation to litigate in the court “shall be determined by the law under which it was organized.” Under applicable California law, the Board may suspend the powers, rights, and privileges of a California corporation for failure to pay tax, penalty, or interest. Once a corporation’s powers are suspended, it may not prosecute nor defend an action. The taxpayer’s powers were suspended in August 2008, and the taxpayer provided no proof that its powers had been revived or that it was current on its California tax liabilities. In fact, the California secretary of state confirmed that as of July 2016 the taxpayer’s powers continued to be suspended. Documents provided to the settlement officer by the taxpayer’s representative indicated that the taxpayer had been formally dissolved, and that its business was being conducted by a sole proprietorship. Accordingly, the Tax Court held that the taxpayer lacked the capacity to litigate when it filed the petition, and thus the IRS motion to dismiss was granted.
As logical as that appears to be, several questions arise. If the taxpayer does not exist for purposes of litigating in the Tax Court, does it exist for purposes of being the recipient of a notice of deficiency? Apparently it does. Does it matter that the IRS, which considers the taxpayer to exist for purposes of the notice of deficiency, is the party that moves for dismissal because the taxpayer no longer exists? Not really, because the dismissal in the Tax Court is under a rule of the court, not an overriding provision that denies the taxpayer’s existence for all purposes.
So what is the taxpayer to do? The classic answer when access to the Tax Court is blocked for any reason when the taxpayer receives a notice of deficiency is to “pay the tax and file a claim for a refund, and then commence a refund suit in district court if the refund claim is, as expected, denied.” But if the taxpayer does not exist, how does it pay the tax? It can’t. Is there transferee liability on the former shareholder who is apparently running the taxpayer’s former business? What happens if no one is operating the business after the taxpayer is dissolved? With the dismissal of the petition, where does the IRS turn to collect the taxes that are due? There are insufficient facts provided in the opinion to answer these questions. The outcome will be revealed, if at all, in a follow-up proceeding.
Friday, November 04, 2016
Despite all the attention I have paid to the soda tax issues, I discovered a few days ago that it is even worse than I had realized. In a Letter to the Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Michelle Pauls alerted readers to a startling development. Apparently the “soda” tax will be imposed on sales of almond milk, rice milk, and cashew milk. These “milks,” though not from a cow, goat, or other mammal, are derived from plants and are consumed not only by people who prefer them, but also by individuals who cannot digest, or who are otherwise adversely affecting from drinking, cow or other mammal milk. Pauls notes that the “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine cite research that ‘approximately 70 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 53 percent of Mexican Americans, and 74 percent of Native Americans were lactose intolerant.’” Lactose intolerance also affects substantial numbers of people with Italian, Greek, Jewish, and other ancestry from Mediterranean areas.
So what would be the justification for taxing plant-based milk but not mammal-based milk? It’s not the sugar content, because all these milks contain sugar. It’s not for health promotion purposes, despite the alleged justification for the soda tax, because all these milks are healthy. It’s not that they are beverages, because there are beverages not subject to the tax. So what is it? Could it be ignorance of what these milks are? Could it simply be revenue maximization? If it’s the former, it’s not all that difficult to become informed. If revenue maximization is the concern, then why not tax all sugar-containing products? Why let donuts, cookies, pies, and cakes off the hook?
It remains to be seen what will happen. I hope that wisdom and common sense prevail.
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
A recent case, Jackson v. Comr., T.C. Summ. Op. 2016-69, provides a helpful illustration of why facts matter. In 2012, the taxpayer was the pastor, a director, and the registered agent for a church. His wife also was a church director. The church had approximately 25 to 30 active members and as many as seven ministers, and offered services three days each week. The taxpayer had informed the church’s board of directors that he did not want to be paid a salary for his pastoral services but that he would not be opposed to receiving “love offerings,” gifts, or loans from the church. The taxpayer and his wife managed the church’s checking account, and apparently they jointly signed all of the church’s checks. During 2012, they signed numerous checks payable to the taxpayer, with handwritten notations such as “Love Offering” or “Love Gift” on the memo line.
From 1993 until 2015, one person served as the church’s bookkeeper. In 2012, the bookkeeper prepared and sent to the taxpayer a Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income, reporting nonemployee compensation of $4,815 from the church. When this bookkeeper left the church in late 2015, the taxpayer’s daughter became the church’s bookkeeper. When the taxpayer and his wife filed a joint federal income tax return for 2012, they did not include the $4,815 in gross income. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency based on the Form 1099, and the taxpayer and his wife filed a petition with the Tax Court.
The taxpayer did not deny receiving the $4,815. Instead, he claimed that it was improperly reported as nonemployee compensation. The taxpayer testified that he contacted the bookkeeper and asked her to retract the Form 1099 or issue a corrected one, but that did not happen. The bookkeeper was not called as a witness. The taxpayer claimed that the $4,815 represented nontaxable “love offerings,” gifts, or loans. Though the taxpayer’s daughter testified that some of that amount constituted a loan that the taxpayer could repay at his discretion, the taxpayer did not provide any documentation or records to support the assertion that the church made loans to the taxpayer.
The Tax Court explained that under existing case law, the key to identifying a gift is the intention of the transferor. This requires an examination of objective facts and circumstances rather than the recipient’s subjective characterization of the transfers. According to the court, the transfers were made to compensate the taxpayer for his services as pastor. The taxpayer had told the board of directors that he would accept “love offerings” and gifts a substitutes for a salary. The bookkeeper at the time considered the payments to be compensation, and reported them on the Form 1099. The frequency of the transfers and the fact they were made on behalf of the congregation strengthen the conclusion that they constituted compensation. The taxpayer failed to provide testimony by the board of directors or other evidence that would support a conclusion that the intent of the board of directors was to make gifts to the taxpayer.
So what is the answer to the question, “Do ‘Love Offerings’ and ‘Love Gifts’ Constitute Gross Income?” The answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the facts and circumstances. There certainly can be instances where a pastor, especially if receiving a full and adequate salary, is the recipient of transfers that are gifts from or on behalf of the congregation. Thus, it is inappropriate to conclude, from this case, that “love offerings do not constitute gifts excluded from gross income.” The desire for short sentences, 140-character tweets, and sound bites misleads people into thinking that simple rules provide all the answers all of the time. Occasionally they do, but often they do not.
What can be learned from this case is the need to document transactions before or as they occur. Documentation matters. Even when memories are keen, testimony too often is self-serving and twisted. Writing “love offering” on a check does not, in and of itself, make the transfer a gift. Nor does omission of that phrase, or any other words or phrases, prevent a conclusion that the transfer is a gift. Yes, it depends. It depends on facts and circumstances, and the best way to make certain the full set of facts and circumstances is considered is to maintain appropriate records.
Monday, October 31, 2016
This year, I’ve noticed people that among the costume suggestions being floated about are several that are tax related. At first I was amused, but then I figured that in light of present-day tax issues, someone answering the door and seeing one of these costumes might be frightened into total bewilderment.
Someone came up with a costume that consists of a t-shirt, sweatshirt, or hoodie, on which is emblazoned, “THIS IS MY SCARY TAX ACCOUNTANT COSTUME.” Here is a photo of the t-shirt version.
Someone at Hallowwen Costumes suggests dressing up as an IRS agent. Instructions are provided for “a drab outfit of the Internal Revenue Service reminded to put on a staff. Hit the resale shop for a pair of polyester pants and a short-sleeved shirt; add some horn-rimmed glasses, an oversized calculator and a great support purse with play money overcrowded.” It’s been quite a while, I fear, since that sort of outfit set someone apart as an IRS employee.
Someone at Quartz has a different idea. The suggestion is to put on a “tax inversion” costume. The instructions? “Dress in over-the-top American garb (maybe even a full Uncle Sam outfit) but insist that you are actually Irish and speak in a thick Dublin brogue.” I fear very few people, if any, would figure that one out.
You won’t find me wearing any of these costumes. If I had to create a tax-related costume, I’d get a sweatshirt and put the language of Internal Revenue Code section 509(a)(4) on it. While people were reading it and reeling in horror, I could shovel candy into my sack. No, seriously, I’d never do that. Take the candy, that is. I make no promises about the section 509(a)(4) costume. For those who don’t know what it says, dig in: “For purposes of paragraph (3), an organization described in paragraph (2) shall be deemed to include an organization described in section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6) which would be described in paragraph (2) if it were an organization described in section 501(c)(3).”
Friday, October 28, 2016
To the list of bad outcomes can be added a disadvantageous tax consequence. A case in point is demonstrated by the United States Tax Courtorder in Swartz v. Comr., Docket No. 3583-10. Swartz, a CPA who left his accounting firm to become an assistant comptroller for Tyco International Ltd., eventually was promoted to Chief Financial Officer. Swartz participated in a loan program, and in 1999 a journal entry reduced his outstanding loan balance by $12.5 million even though Swartz had not made any payments on this loan during 1999. Swartz did not include the $12.5 million on the tax return he filed with his wife, nor was it included on the Form W-2 that Tyco provided to Swartz.
Two years later, Swartz became a member of Tyco’s board of directors. Shortly thereafter, the board learned the vice president to whom Swartz reported was the target of a criminal investigation for state sales tax violations. That vice president was indicted and resigned, and his successor initiated an audit by an outside law firm to examine Tyco’s business, including compensation paid to, and transactions with, its officers and directors. This process opened up a discussion about the $12.5 million loan reduction entry made in 1999, and that led to Swartz repaying the $12.5 million with interest. Two months later, Swartz, along with the former vice president, was indicted for multiple counts of grand larceny, falsifying business records, conspiracy, and other violations. Though the first trial ended up with a hung jury, the second jury convicted Swartz on all but one count. One of the counts on which he was convicted alleged that “in or about August 1999 and thereafter, [Swartz] stole property, to wit, money, having a value in excess of $1 million, to wit, $12,500,000 from Tyco International Ltd.” Another count on which he was convicted alleged that Swartz, during 1999, “with intent that conduct constituting the felonies of Grand Larceny in the First Degree, Grand Larceny in the Second Degree, Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the First Degree and Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree be performed, agreed with each other and with others known and unknown to the Grand Jury to engage in and cause the performance of such conduct . . . .” Swartz argued that he thought the $12.5 million loan reduction was part of his bonus, but the jury found that it was not authorized by Tyco and that Swartz knew that. Swartz was sentenced to serve between 8 1/3 years and 25 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $35 million plus restitution. His appeals were rejected and the conviction is final.
The IRS issued a notice of deficiency, concluding that the $12.5 million loan reduction in 1999 constituted gross income to Swartz. After Swartz filed a petition with the Tax Court, the IRS moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that the criminal conviction estops Swartz from denying that the $12.5 million constituted gross income.
The Tax Court grants summary judgment if there is no genuine dispute of any material fact and the party moving for summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The other party must present specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. The party moving for summary judgment continues to bear the burden of proving there is no genuine dispute of material fact. In analyzing the arguments, the Tax Court reads factual inferences in a manner most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Swartz claimed that the issues in the Tax Court were different from those arising during the criminal trial because in 2002 Tyco adjusted its records to show a $12.5 million repayment obligation on Swartz, and because Swartz repaid the $12.5 million. He also claimed that the adjustment shows that the 1999 journal entry reduction the loan amount was null and void from the outset, and that he did not raise this issue during the criminal trial. He argued that erasing and then restoring the record of a debt in corporate books has no tax consequences because, in effect, the two actions offset each other.
The collateral estoppel sought by the IRS applies when an issue of law or fact in the second case is the same as one in the first case, there has been a final judgment in the first case, the party to be precluded is the same or in privity with a party in the first case, the issue that is precluded was actually litigated in the first case, and the controlling facts and legal principles are unchanged. If the parties in the second case are not identical, federal law requires the court to examine state law to determine if nonmutual collateral estoppel exists. The Tax Court determined that under New York law, nonmutual collateral estoppel does exist, and concluded, “that's good enough for us.”
Though conceding that the IRS showed several of the requirements for collateral estoppel existed, he argued that issue identity and actual litigation had not been shown because he never presented his "null and void" theory in the criminal case. The Tax Court explained that one problem with this argument is that a party's failure to make an argument about an issue in the first case doesn't mean that he is entitled to try again in the second, quoting the Restatement (Second) of Judgments, sec. 27 comment c, which elaborates, “if the party against whom preclusion is sought did in fact litigate an issue of ultimate fact and suffered an adverse determination, new evidentiary facts may not be brought forward to obtain a different determination of that ultimate fact. . . . And similarly if the issue was one of law, new arguments may not be presented to obtain a different determination of that issue.”
The Tax Court suggested that perhaps Swartz was arguing a subtler point, that, although his distinction between a void theft and a voidable one might not have mattered as a matter of New York criminal law, it should matter under federal income tax law. This distinction, though, according to the court, fails as a matter of law because gross income arises regardless of whether the thief does not obtain title or obtains voidable title. In other words, gross income includes ill-gotten income, whether obtained through embezzlement, larceny, false pretenses, extortion, or any other type of theft. Though the court has “entertained” an exception to this principle if the thief makes repayment in the same year in which the theft occurs, that did not happen in this instance.
Thus, the conviction estopped Swartz from denying that he embezzled $12.5 million in 1999. Nor, therefore, could he argue that the $12.5 million did not constitute gross income. Though the order does not disclose the impact of the inclusion on Swartz’s tax liability, presumably the inclusion causes it to increase by somewhere on the order of $4 million. The court specifically noted that the tax consequences of the 2002 repayment was not before it. Even if it causes a reduction in Swartz’s 2002 federal income tax liability, the time value of money and possible rate differences makes it very likely that a 2002 tax liability reduction does not fully make up for the 1999 increase, and it is also quite possible that the statute of limitations for 2002 has expired.
During the many years I taught basic federal income tax, some students would explain why they did not take the course or were reluctant to do so. Their arguments followed a general pattern. “I’m not going to be a tax lawyer, and although I understand that lawyers who focus on areas like corporate law, domestic relations law, and wills and trusts, I’m going to be a criminal defense lawyer (or prosecutor), and I’ll pay someone to do my tax returns. So studying basic tax law doesn’t matter to me.” My reply usually began, “Oh, yes, it does.” Indeed it does. Crime simply doesn’t pay.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
In Germany, the VAT is imposed at different rates depending on the transaction. The basic rate of 19 percent is reduced to 7 percent if the transaction is the purchase of a ticket to an event of high culture. That is why people attending a classical concert pay the reduced VAT on the ticket price. But what about tickets to attend events at a nightclub? Does the ticket to the nightclub qualify for the reduced rate?
According to this story, a German court concluded that tickets to the Berghain nightclub qualified for the reduced rate. The court focused on the events most often hosted at the club, specifically, “marathon techno sets.” It didn’t matter much that the club also made space available for book readings, photograph exhibitions, and fashion shows. The club’s attorney made his case by comparing techno sets with classical music concerts. Both the club and concert halls have stages. The music in both venues has a recognizable beginning and end. In both instances, people in attendance have the opportunity to applaud between pieces. The attorney also noted that both club goers and concert attendees could achieve a “trance-like ‘intoxication’ ” by listening to “a Mahler symphony or a Planetary Assault Systems DJ set.”
I’m confident that, given the choice between doing research on insects and trees, and research on music, I’d choose the latter. The challenge, though, for tax practitioners, is that they rarely get a choice. They must deal with what the client brings to them.
Somewhere, some people are shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering how anyone could consider a nightclub to be a bastion of “high culture.” All jokes aside – yes, I know what you’re thinking, and so am I – no one has a monopoly on defining culture, high or otherwise.
As I also told my students, the practice of tax law is fun. It’s far from boring, no matter what one thinks of rules and numbers.
Monday, October 24, 2016
The point of this anecdote is that too often, when we set out to accomplish a project, the task grows to include far more than we had planned to do. There is a parallel phenomenon when it comes to tax, or any other, legislation. Proposed bills grow, making the successful enactment of the original proposal much more difficult.
Earlier this month, in Getting a Tax Statute Right the First Time is Much Easier Than the Alternative, I discussed a decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to strike down the state’s slots tax because it, in effect, subjected casinos to varying rates of taxation in violation of the uniformity clause of the state’s constitution. The court gave the legislature 120 days to fix the statute, by staying its order for that length of time. One reaction, from almost every direction, was a prediction that fixing the statute would be difficult, because, among other things, the legislature would be tempted to do more than simply redraft the slots tax provisions. For example, the emergence of video-gaming terminals and online gambling during the years since the statute was originally enacted most likely will entice legislators to offer provisions dealing with those activities.
Now comes news that competing interests will cause the legislature to “be pulled in multiple directions as it tries to fix” the slots tax. Aside from video-gaming terminals and online gambling, the distribution of the revenue raised by the tax is now getting attention. Many legislators on the House Gaming Oversight Committee want to change the formula used to distribute the tax proceeds. Under existing law, the revenue is shared by the state and the localities in which the casinos are located. They point to instances in which casinos in one county or municipality is very close to, but not in, another county or municipality, and thus receive services from police, fire fighters, and others who are funded by the locality in which the casino is not located. These legislators hint that getting votes for fixing the rate issue will require agreement on changing the distribution rules.
Although the Supreme Court stayed its decision for 120 days, the localities in which the casinos are located have less time to put together their budgets for next year. Without assurances of what will happen with the tax, people subject to taxation by these localities, especially those who pay real property taxes, face the prospect of significant tax increases to offset the anticipated loss or delay of slots revenues. In one locality, the tax provides 40 percent of its budget.
Even if the legislature could accomplish its task within 120 days, localities face serious financial planning problems. Yet the odds are high that the legislature, encumbered by additional items placed on the to-do list, will not produce a revised statute within 120 days. My bet is that I will finish the laundry room project before the Pennsylvania legislature fixes the slots revenue statute.
Friday, October 21, 2016
In A Tax Policy Turn-Around?, I explained how the Kansas income tax cuts for the wealthy backfired, causing the rich to get richer, the economy to stagnate, public services to falter, and the majority of Kansans to end up worse than they had been. In A New Play in the Make-the-Rich-Richer Game Plan, I described how Kansas politicians have been struggling to find a way to undo the damage caused by those ill-advised tax cuts for the wealthy. In When a Tax Theory Fails: Own Up or Make Excuses?, I pointed out that the Kansas experienced removed all doubt that the theory is shameful. In Do Tax Cuts for the Wealthy Create Jobs?, I described recent data showing that the rate of job creation in Kansas was one-fifth the rate in Missouri, a state that did not subscribe to the outlandish tax cuts for the wealthy that Kansas legislators had embraced. In Kansas Trickle-Down Failures Continue to Flood the State, I highlighted some of the additional disadvantages faced by ordinary Kansas citizens as a consequence of the trickle-down tax cuts for the economic elites of Kansas. Several days later, in The Kansas Trickle-Down Tax Theory Failure Has Consequences, I shared the political fallout from the failed trickle-down policies, as Kansas voters woke up and voted out many of the legislators who had supported the tax cuts.
Now comes news that Kansas governor Sam Brownback, architect of the Kansas trickle-down tax cuts, facing another budget crisis compounded by those tax cuts, refused to take a definite stand against tax increases. He prefers not to raise taxes, arguing that taxpayers in the agricultural and energy sectors are struggling with what he calls a “rural recession.” Brownback is term limited, so there’s not much that Grover Norquist and the anti-tax crowd can do to retaliate if Brownback ends up supporting a tax increase.
Yet Brownback has a way out, one that does not inflict tax increases on Kansas taxpayers whose incomes have dropped because of the difficulties faced by the agricultural and energy industries. Brownback can simply explain that the tax cuts were predicated on the promise of a robust economy with high job creation, that the promise was not fulfilled, and that the only suitable, and fair, remedy is to undo those tax cuts. In other words, the tax increase should be placed on the shoulders of the folks who walked away with the tax cut windfall in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps next time a governor or president proposes, and a legislature decides, to cut taxes on the wealthy because doing so will generate advantageous economic outcomes, the legislation should be in the form of a contract, with tax increase penalties for breach by those making the promises.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
I find tax ignorance in articles, in comments, in arguments, on television shows, and even public service announcements. And now, thanks to a reader, it shows up in a comic strip. Granted, this is more than a year old, and somehow I missed it when it first appeared. In this particular comic, the dialogue goes as follows:
Woman in a restaurant booth: “Hey, we’re getting a tax refund.”The refund is not taxable income. It might be gross income, if it is a state or local income tax refund, and it was deducted in the year it was paid, and that deduction generated a tax benefit. And even if it is gross income, it might not generate taxable income, depending on what other deductions are available. If it is a federal income tax refund, it’s not gross income, period.
Man sitting with her: “Woo-hoo! Free money!”
Man sitting in the adjacent booth: “Sigh. Sounds like a job for . . . OBVIOUSMAN”
He continues: “You didn’t win a prize there . . . Your refund only means you gave the government an interest-free loan! Now it’s taxable income for this year!”
Man: “Wait. . . . What?”
Woman: “You mean we would’ve been better off NOT getting a refund?”
Obviousman: “Right. . . . My work is done here!”
Woman: “Thanks for keeping our moment of joy so brief, Obviousman.”
Obviousman: “You’re welco. . . oh . . . sarcasm, right?”
Woman: “Ah, nothing gets past you, sir. . . .”
If the point that the comic author was trying to make was the disadvantages of overpaying income taxes and getting a refund in a subsequent year, because of the lack of interest on the amount in question, then that point could have been made without getting into the question of whether a refund causes an increase in gross or taxable income. If the author was also trying to make the point that all income tax refunds generate taxable income, it’s way off the mark.
So I wonder how many people will think that because they saw this comic, in the newspapers or on the internet, that the claims made by its Obviousman character are correct. Surely those who understand some basic tax law principles would know it’s not so. But only a small proportion of the population has experienced education on that issue. Sad, isn’t it?
Monday, October 17, 2016
In the meantime, New Jersey has been dishing out tax breaks to companies that it has enticed to move to New Jersey. Though the claim that handing out tax reductions ultimately raises tax revenue is offered as justification for these deals, the reality is that these sorts of tax breaks are as effective as trickle-down tax cuts, that is, they’re not. I have written about these giveaways many times, most recently in The Tax Break Parade Continues and We’re Not Invited, and previously in When the Poor Need Help, Give Tax Dollars to the Rich, Fighting Over Pie or Baking Pie?, Why Do Those Who Dislike Government Spending Continue to Support Government Spenders?, When Those Who Hate Takers Take Tax Revenue, and Where Do the Poor and Middle Class Line Up for This Tax Break Parade?.
So perhaps it was a surprise to read, in this news story, that executives from at least three of the companies who were the beneficiaries of those relocation tax breaks are “furious” with the governor’s decision. One described his reactions as feeling “blindsided” and “very disappointed.” In fact, he explains that the company is “reevaluating” its move, and that, “Had we known about this, before our construction of headquarters and our national training center, we may have reached a different conclusion. It would have factored into whether we moved.” Of course it would. It’s this sort of political decision making that leaves businesses grappling with uncertainty, because today’s promise becomes tomorrow’s breach.
Having no access to the negotiations that preceded the individual tax break handouts, I do not know if these companies even tried to negotiate promises that the overall tax and economic landscape would not be altered. I doubt that they tried, and I am confident that even if they did, no such promises were forthcoming. Otherwise they would be preparing to sue the state for breach of contract.
The entire situation demonstrates the dangers of trying to work out private deals to obtain tax and economic benefits superior to those available to the average citizen. When Americans who are angry about the tax and economic condition of the nation take the time to examine who is responsible, and to look beyond the headline-grabbing federal tax system to the state and local tax scene, they might discover who really is responsible for the mess, and vote accordingly. This story, and the larger drama in which it plays out, is far from over.
Friday, October 14, 2016
Now it appears that those who cannot decide whether they favor or disfavor a proposed tax increase can vote for both. According to this report, the choices on a Broward County ballot question includes a yes/no choice. The question is whether the sales tax should be increased by one-half of one percent to fund transportation improvements. The intent was to provide two choices, yes and no. The intent also was to provide the choices in three languages, English, Spanish, and Creole. The intent was to have the first choice read “YES/SI/WI” and “NO/NO/NON.” What appears on the ballot question? “YES/SI/NO” and “NO/NO/NON.”
It seems funny, but it’s not. What happens when someone wanting to vote “no” sees the “NO” in the first choice and selects that choice because it appears to be what should be selected for a NO vote? What happens is that the vote is counted as a YES.
Because ballots have already been mailed and people have already voted, officials claim there is no way to fix the problem. The practical solution would be to reprint the ballots on a different colored form, and start over. My guess is that there is some sort of deadline set by law that makes this impossible absent a legislative change. Ballots that have not yet been mailed will include an insert explaining the error.
One official expressed hope that voters would not be confused. Because one line begins with yes and the other with no, voters presumably would figure out what each line means. But that presumes voters would be looking at, and understanding, the first word in each line. Most probably do, but there’s no guarantee.
How did the error occur? No one knows. Multiple proofreaders review the ballot. The proofreaders include individuals who speak one or more of the three languages. It’s easy for this sort of mistake to happen when only one person looks at the document. The chances of an error should go down as more people examine the language. Yet, sometimes, ever once in a while, a mistake gets through even though multiple pairs of eyes have looked at the language.
The ballot was not intended to include “unsure” as a third choice. But now, for those who are undecided, apparently it does.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
As described in this report, the Chicago tax has been challenged. Though one of the grounds is procedural, focusing on which Chicago officials have the power to impose the tax, the challengers also claim that the video streaming tax violates the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which prohibits states and cities from enacting taxes that apply only to the internet. The Chicago tax rate on video streaming is higher than the rate imposed on DVD sales and on live entertainment.
Opponents of the California proposals claim that taxing video streaming would be double taxation. Their reasoning is that the user pays local taxes for internet access provided by internet service providers and for smart phone connections.
Is there double taxation? Travel back in time to the days when movies were rented from brick-and-mortar retail stores. In most states, the sales and use tax applied to the rental charge. Was that the only tax? Any person using a vehicle to obtain access to the retail store also paid tax on the fuel used to power the vehicle. If the person used a bicycle, the person had paid a sales and use tax on the bicycle. In other words, is taxing access the same as taxing the item being procured through the access? If the tax on the amount paid on the service provided to access the internet is comparable to the tax paid on the fuel used to access the retail store, and the tax on the rental of the movie is comparable to the tax paid on the downloaded video stream, then knocking down the video streaming tax on the double taxation claim will be difficult.
But that does not end the analysis. To the extent that the tax is imposed on video downloaded through the internet and not on video obtained through other channels, then the attempt to overturn the tax has a higher chance of success. The same is true if the rate of tax on streamed video is higher than the rate imposed on other types of video and, in the case of amusement taxes, on other types of amusement.
Monday, October 10, 2016
The case involved collection actions for employment tax liabilities. The resolution required identifying the tax status of the employer. Though the amount of the tax liabilities was undisputed, the issue required identification of the responsible taxpayer.
In 1989, the taxpayer’s father incorporated Heber E. Costello, Inc. (HECI). The taxpayer’s father was the sole shareholder of HECI. HECI filed Form 1120 for each of its taxable years. At some point before 2004, the taxpayer’s father died and the taxpayer became the sole owner of HECI.
On December 31, 2003, the taxpayer formed an LLC. He was the sole member. The LLC never filed Form 8832, Entity Classification Election. On December 31, 2003, HECI and LLC merged – though the better word would be “combined” – and HECI ceased to exist. After the combination, the LLC filed Forms 1120 using HECI’s employer identification number. The taxpayer filed Forms 940 and 941 on behalf of the LLC but did not make sufficient tax deposits or pay the tax due for its employment tax liabilities for the first three quarters of tax years 2007 and 2008 or pay the tax due for its employment tax liabilities for the periods ending December 31, 2006 and 2008. The IRS issued a notice of intent to levy (NOIL) on June 1, 2011, for all of those periods and a notice of Federal tax lien (NFTL) filing on December 13, 2011, for all those periods other than 2006. The taxpayer timely submitted Forms 12153, Request for a Collection Due Process or Equivalent Hearing (CDP hearing), on June 26, 2011, and January 6, 2012, in response to the NOIL and the NFTL filing, respectively. The taxpayer indicated he could not pay the liabilities and wanted either an installment agreement or an offer-in-compromise (OIC). Though it was unclear if an OIC was submitted, it appears that any OIC would have been based on his argument that he was not individually liable for the LLC’s employment tax liabilities, which is the same argument he made before the Court. The taxpayer’s CDP hearing requests indicated he wanted Appeals to consider the abatement of taxes. Though asked to do so, the taxpayer did not submit a Form 433-A or any collection alternatives before the hearing. When an Appeals official met with the taxpayer’s representative, the taxpayer did not submit an OIC or any other collection alternatives to Appeals, nor did he present any argument with respect to the abatement of taxes. Instead, the taxpayer argued that the LLC, and not the taxpayer personally, is liable for the LLC’s employment taxes. The IRS issued the notices of determination upholding the proposed lien and levy actions on November 28 and December 3, 2012, respectively. Petitioner timely filed a petition for review of the determination.
After dealing with procedural issues, the Tax Court turned to the substantive question of whether the LLC or the taxpayer was liable for the employment taxes. The court explained that a single-member LLC is disregarded as a separate entity for federal tax purposes unless it elects to be treated as a corporation. The LLC did not file the election. Therefore, it was a disregarded entity.
The taxpayer, however, advanced three arguments in support of his position that the LLC should be treated as a corporation. The Tax Court rejected all three.
First, the taxpayer argued that the combination of HECI and the LLC was a valid F reorganization, and that the resulting entity was a corporation. The court concluded that regardless of whether the combination qualified as a F reorganization, the failure of the LLC to file Form 8832 electing to be a corporation kept it from being a corporation. Though the court did not directly answer the question, is it possible for a disregarded entity to enter into an F reorganization? Logically, the conclusion would appear to be no, because an F reorganization requires a mere change in identity, form, or place of incorporation, and in this case HECI disappeared, and the LLC did not change its identity or form, nor did it have a place of incorporation to change.
Second, the taxpayer argued that by filing Form 1120 for the first taxable year after the combining of HECI and the LLC was a valid election by the LLC to be treated as a corporation. The Tax Court concluded that the election to be treated as a corporation must be made on Form 8832 and is not made simply by filing a Form 1120.
Third, the taxpayer argued that the doctrine of equitable estoppel prevented the IRS from arguing that the LLC is not a corporation because of its “tacit acquiescence” to the filings of Forms 1120 for the year of the combination and subsequent years. The Tax Court concluded that equitable estoppel did not apply, because it requires proof that the IRS made a false representation or wrongful misleading silence, proof that the error was in a statement of fact and not in an opinion or a statement of law, proof that the taxpayer was ignorant of the true facts, and proof that the taxpayer was adversely affected by the
acts or statements of the person against whom estoppel is claimed. The court explained that the IRS made no false statements to the taxpayer, and its failure to reject the LLC’s Forms 1120 was not a wrongful misleading silence. The court also explained that the taxpayer knew that the LLC had never filed a Form 8832 to be treated as a corporation.
For wages paid in the years in question, the activities of a disregarded entity are treated in the same manner as those of a sole proprietorship, branch, or division of the owner. Thus, the sole member of an LLC and the LLC itself are a single taxpayer or person personally liable for purposes of employment tax reporting and wages paid before January 1, 2009. That left the taxpayer liable for the LLC’s unpaid employment tax liabilities.
The lesson is clear. If the member or members of an LLC want the LLC to be treated as a corporation, file Form 8832. There is no alternative. As complicated as tax law is, the filing of Form 8832 is one of the easier tasks to undertake. Though deciding whether to treat the LLC as a corporation requires somewhat more sophisticated judgments, projections, and planning, once the decision is made, the filing of the form is not difficult.
Thursday, October 06, 2016
If the 55 percent claim was intended to describe the percentage of the Connecticut family’s income paid in federal income taxes, it’s erroneous on its face. If it was intended to describe the percentage of the Connecticut family’s income paid in all income taxes, it’s no less erroneous on its face. If it’s intended to include all taxes paid by that family, it is erroneous. A computation using this calculator, with the unrealistic assumption that the family has no deductions other than personal exemptions, shows that the family pays $49,131 in federal income taxes. That’s an effective rate of 19.65 percent. The family pays FICA taxes of $10,972. That’s an effective rate of 4.39 percent. The family pays state income taxes of $13,100. That’s an effective rate of 5.24 percent. Overall, that’s $73,203 in income and FICA taxes. That’s an effective rate of 29.2 percent. That’s not even close to 55 percent.
Even if the comment was intended to include other taxes, tossing in sales, fuel, and property taxes, based on the average Connecticut taxpayer, adds another $9,414 to the family’s tax bill. That’s a total effective tax rate of 33 percent. That’s still not close to 55 percent.
If the family’s probable income tax deductions, such as the property taxes, the state income tax, and mortgage interest are taken into account, the federal income tax decreases to $40,957. That’s an effective tax rate of 16.4 percent. The state income tax drops to $12,380. That’s an effective tax rate of 4.95 percent. That brings the effective overall income tax rate down, from 29.2 percent to 25.7 percent. That’s less than half of 55 percent.
It’s difficult to figure out where the commentator, whose name I did not notice as I was watching the television at the gym on closed captioning, obtained 55 percent. It’s probably some meme circulating on social media. Even the often-made error of using the top applicable marginal rate – in this case, 28 percent for the federal income tax and 6 percent for the state income tax doesn’t generate 55 percent.
The phrase “tax rate” is ambiguous. Without an adjective modifying it, there is no way of knowing with certainty what is being described. There are nominal tax rates, marginal tax rates, average tax rates, effective tax rates, and others. Using the phrase “tax rate” indiscriminately generates confusion and bad decisions based on misunderstanding, misinformation, and mistakes.