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Sep 05

There is a saying among tax pros: “do not let the tax tail wag the dog.” The point is to not let taxes so influence the decision that the final decision is not in your best interest. An example is failing to sell a profitable stock position for the sake of not paying taxes. Seems a good idea until the stock market – and your stock – takes a dive.

This past week I was reading about the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Did you know that her estate was the third highest-earning estate in 2011?  Her estate earned $27 million and came in behind the estates of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. What is driving this earning power?

What is driving it is “rights of publicity.” For example, the website reports that Marilyn Monroe posters remain one of the top-sellers for students decorating their dorm rooms. A “right of publicity” exists at the whim of state statute. There is no federal law equivalent. Indiana is considered to have one of the most far-reaching statutes, recognizing rights to publicity for 100 years after death.

Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio in October, 1954. She then left California for New York. In 1956 she married Arthur Miller, and the couple lived In Manhattan’s Sutton Place. Marilyn still considered this her home when she died in Brentwood, California in August, 1962.

The executors of her estate had a tax decision to make: was her estate taxable to California (where she died) or New York (where she maintained the apartment and staff). They decided it would be New York, primarily because California’s estate taxes would have been expensive. By treating her as a New York resident, they were able to limit California to less than $800 in taxes.

Let’s go forward three or four decades, and states like California and Indiana now permit celebrities’ estates to earn large revenues, in large part by liberalizing property interests such as publicity rights. Some states have not been so liberal – states such as New York.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

Let’s continue. In 2001 The New York County Surrogate’s Court permitted the estate to close, transferring the assets to a Delaware corporation known as Marilyn Monroe LLC (MMLLC). The licensing agent for MMLLC is CMG Worldwide, an Indiana company that also manages the estate of James Dean. Is the selection of Indiana coincidental? I doubt it, given what we discussed above.

Marilyn is an iconoclastic image, and her photographs – and the rights to those photographs – are worth a mint. Enter Sam Shaw, who took many photographs of Marilyn, including the famous photo of her standing over a subway grate with her skirt billowing. The Shaw Family Archives (SFA) got into it with MMLLC, with MMLLC arguing that it exclusively owned the Monroe publicity rights.  SFA sued MMLLC in New York, and the court granted SFA summary judgment. The court noted that Marilyn Monroe was not a domiciliary of Indiana at her time of death, so her estate could not transfer assets to Indiana and obtain legal rights that did not exist when she died. She was either a resident of New York or California, and neither state recognized a posthumous right of publicity at her time of death.

MMLLC had no intention of rolling over. It called a few people who knew a few people.

In 2007 Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill creating a posthumous right of publicity, so long as the decedent was a resident of California at the time of death. Even better, the law was made retroactive. The law could reach back to the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Wow! How is that for tax planning!

Now the estate of Marilyn Monroe started singing a different tune: of course Marilyn was a resident of California at her time of death. That entire issue of making her a New York resident was a misunderstanding. She had been living in California. She loved California and had every intention of making it her home, especially now that California retroactively changed its law 45 years after her death.

You know this had to go to court. MMLLC did not help by aggressively suing left and right to protect the publicity rights.

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (that is, California’s circuit) ruled that The Milton Greene Archives can continue selling photographs of Marilyn Monroe without paying MMLLC for publicity rights. The court noted that the estate claimed Monroe was a New York resident to avoid paying California taxes. The estate (through MMLLC) cannot now claim Monroe was a California resident to take advantage of a state law it desires.

NOTE: This is called “judicial estoppel,” and it bars a party from asserting a position different from one asserted in the past.

The appeals judge was not impressed with MMLLC and wrote the following:

“This is a textbook case for applying judicial estoppel. Monroe’s representatives took one position on Monroe’s domicile at death for forty years, and then changed their position when it was to their great financial advantage; an advantage they secured years after Monroe’s death by convincing the California legislature to create rights that did not exist when Monroe died. Marilyn Monroe is often quoted as saying, ‘If you’re going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty.’”

What becomes now of MMLLC’s rights to publicity? Frankly, I do not know. It is hard to believe they will pick up their tent and leave the campground, however.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the estate and MMLLC’s situation. It was not as though the estate made its decision knowing that property rights were at stake.  At the time there were no property rights. It made what should have been a straightforward tax decision. Who could anticipate how this would turn out?

On a related note, guess whose case will also soon come before the Ninth Circuit on the issue of post-mortem publicity rights?  Here is a clue: he was from Seattle, had a four-year career and died a music legend. Give up?

It’s the estate of Jimi Hendrix.

Aug 29

Let’s talk about IRAs – Individual Retirement Accounts.

Why? By mid-October the IRS is to report to Treasury its plans to increase enforcement of IRA contribution and withdrawal errors. TIGTA projects that there could be between $250 million and $500 million in unreported and uncollected IRA annual penalties.  This is low-hanging fruit for a Congress and IRS looking for every last tax dollar.

So what are the tax ropes with IRAs? Let’s talk first about putting money into an IRA.


For 2012 you can put up to $5,000 into an IRA. That amount increases to $6,000 if you are age 50 or over. You can put monies into a regular IRA, a Roth IRA or a combination of the two, but the TOTAL you put in cannot exceed the $5,000/$6,000 limit. That $5,000/$6,000 limit decreases as your income increases IF you are covered by a plan at work. If you have a 401(k)/SIMPLE/SEP/whatever at work, you have to pay attention to the income limitation.

What errors happen with contributions? Let me give you a few examples:

(1)   Someone is over the income limit but still funds an IRA.

(2)   Someone funds their (say 2011) IRA after April 15 (2012) of the following year. An IRA for a year HAS to be funded by the following April 15th. There is no extension for an IRA contribution, even if the underlying tax return is extended. If you make an IRA contribution on April 20, 2012, that is a 2012 IRA contribution. It is not and cannot be for 2011, because you are beyond the maximum funding period for 2011. Say that you fund your 2012 IRA again by April 1, 2013. Congratulations, you have just overfunded your 2012 IRA. The IRS will soon be looking for you.

(3)   You have no earned income but still fund an IRA. What is earned income? An easy definition is income subject to social security. If you have income subject to social security (say a W-2), you may qualify for an IRA. If you don’t, then you do not. If I am looking at a return with a pension, interest, dividends and an IRA deduction, I know that there is a tax problem.

What happens if you over-fund an IRA? Well, there is a penalty. You also have to take the excess funding out of the IRA. The penalty is not bad – it is 6%. This is not too bad if it is just one year, but it can add-up if you go for several years. Say that you have funded $5,000 for seven years, but you actually were unable to make any contribution for any year. What happens?

Let’s take the first year of overfunding and explain the penalty. You overfunded $5,000 in 2005. The first penalty year for 2005 would be 2006. Here is the math:

            2005 IRA of $5,000

                        2006                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2007                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2008                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2009                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2010                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2011                $5,000 times 6% = $300

                        2012                $5,000 times 6% = $300

So the penalty on your 2005 IRA of $5,000 is $2,100.

Are we done? Of course not. Go through the same exercise for the 2006 contribution. Then the 2007 contribution. And 2008. And so on. Can you see how this can get expensive?

As bad as the penalty may be on excess IRA funding, it is nothing compared to the under-distribution penalty. To better understand the under-distribution penalty, let’s review the rules on taking money out of an IRA.


The first rule is that you have to start taking money out of your IRA by April 1st of the year following the year you turn 70 ½.

From the get-go, this is confusing. What does it mean to turn 70 ½? Let use two examples of a birth month.

            Person 1:         March 11

            Person 2:         September 15

We have two people. Each celebrates his/her 70th birthday in 2012. Person 1 turns 70 ½ in 2012 (March 11 plus 6 months equals September 11), so that person must take a minimum IRA withdrawal by April 1, 2013.

Person 2 turns 70 ½ in 2013 (September 15 plus 6 months equals March 15). Person 2 must take a minimum withdrawal by April 1, 2014.

I am not making this up.

Say you are still working at age 70 ½, and the money we are talking about is in a 401(k). Do you have to start minimum distributions? The answer is NO, as long as you do not control more than 5% of the company where you work. What if you roll the 401(k) to an IRA? The answer is now YES, because the exception for working is a 401(k)-related exception, not an IRA-related exception.

Let’s make this more confusing and talk about withdrawals from inherited IRAs. We are now talking about a field littered with bodies. These are some of the most bewildering rules in the tax code.

Inherited does not necessarily mean going to a younger generation. A wife can inherit, as can a parent. The mathematics can change depending on whether you are the first to inherit (i.e., a “designated” beneficiary) or the second (i.e., a “successor” beneficiary).

There are several things to remember about inherited IRAs. First, the surviving spouse has the most options available to any beneficiary. Second, the IRA beneficiary (usually) wants to do something by December 31st of the year following death. Third, a trust can be the beneficiary of an IRA, but the rules get complex. Fourth, your estate is one of your worst options as your IRA beneficiary.

Did you know that you are supposed to retitle an inherited IRA, being careful to include the original owner’s name and indicating that it is inherited, e.g., Anakin Skywalker, deceased, inherited IRA FBO Luke Skywalker? Did you know that a common tax trap is to leave out the “deceased” and “inherited” language? Without those magic words, the IRS does not consider the IRA to be “inherited.” This can result in immediate tax.

Having gone though that literary effort, it seems understandable that you are not to commingle inherited IRAs with your other IRAs. Heck, you may want to keep the statements in a separate room altogether from your regular IRAs, just to be extra safe.

Forget about a 60-day rollover for an inherited IRA. A rollover is OK for your own IRA but not for an inherited IRA. Mind you, you can transfer an inherited IRA from trustee to trustee, but you do not want to receive a check. You do that – even if you pay it back within 60 days – and you have tax.

Let’s say you inherit an IRA from your mom/dad/grandmom/granddad. Payments are reset over your lifetime.  You must start distributions the year following death. What if you don’t distribute by December 31st of the following year? The IRS presumes you have made an election to distribute the IRA in full within five years of death. So much for your “stretch” IRA.

Confusing enough?

One more example. You have IRA monies at Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Dreyfus and Janus. When you add up all your IRAs to calculate the minimum distribution, you forget to include Dreyfus. What just happened? You have under-distributed.

How bad is the penalty for not taking a minimum distribution, you ask? The penalty is 50% of what you were required to take out but did not. 50 PERCENT!!! It is one of the largest penalties in the tax code.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say that the Dreyfus share of your minimum distribution was $1,650. Your penalty for inadvertently leaving Dreyfus out of the calculation is $825 ($1,650 times 50%).

The IRS has traditionally been lenient with the under-distribution penalty. Perhaps that is because the intent is to save for retirement, and this penalty does not foster that goal. Perhaps it is because a 50% penalty seems outrageous, even to the IRS. However, will a Congress desperate for money see low-hanging fruit when looking at IRAs?


If you are walking into an IRA situation, consider this one of those times in life when you simply have to get professional advice. The rules in this area can bend even a tax pro into knots. I am not talking about necessarily using a tax pro for the rest of your life. I am talking about seeing a pro when you inherit that IRA, or when you close in on age 70 ½. Be sure you are handling this correctly.

Aug 21

I was glad to see that Senator Sherrod Brown (D – OH) introduced the Mobile Workforce State Income Tax Simplification Act on August 2, 2012.  The bill is being promoted by the American Institute of CPAs, and a version of the bill passed the House on voice vote May 15th.

The bill would establish a uniform standard for the withholding of state income taxes on nonresident employees.  It would lessen the burden the current system places on employers and traveling employees. 

Both bills would require nonresidents to work in a state for more than thirty days before becoming subject to a state‘s income tax withholding. 

Why is this an issue? Let’s say that you start a consulting firm. Business takes off. You develop a national client base and hire employees. You send your employees throughout the country, sometimes for 4 or 5 days and other times for longer. You meet with me to discuss your tax filing requirements, especially your payroll. You tell me that you have engagements coming up in the following states and ask me how to handle the employee withholding.

               State                                      Exempt from Employer Withholding if …

Arizona                                               60 days or less

California                                            exempt if less than $1,500

Delaware                                             no exception

Georgia                                               23 days or less

Hawaii                                                 60 days or less

Idaho                                                   exempt if less than $1,000

Maine                                                  10 days or less

Maryland                                             exempt if less than $5,000

Massachusetts                                     no exception

Ohio                                                    less than $300 in any quarter

Virginia                                               exempt if less than $7,000

Now seriously, how are we to work with this? Remember that payroll may have some very nasty penalties for just minor errors. Do we simply withhold from day one on all employees in all states? That is the safest way to go, but now you are going to have monthly or quarterly reporting to almost every state in the nation. Perhaps the report says “zero”, but it will still take time to prepare and file. You may have additional end of year considerations, such as submitting W-2s to the state. Why not just shut down the account every time, you ask? That likely will save little to no time overall and may create more problems whenever you try to reactivate an account.

This all takes time. It may be my time, it may be your employee’s time, but you will be paying for this time. You can now see the issue. If you ship an employee into Delaware for 1 1/2 days, do they really expect you to withhold, remit and keep reporting to Delaware until the cows come home? Perhaps this made sense years ago when our parents worked at the factory down the street, but it makes no sense today. It is unreasonable to threaten an employer with payroll taxes (and penalties) because they made the mistake of sending an employee into your state for 3 or 4 days. This is not the Lewis and Clark era.

Will this bill pass Congress? My hunch is that no tax bill will pass Congress until the elections are resolved, and then only a tax extender bill passed at the last hour of the last day. This bill will not pass this Congress, but at least the issue is being discussed and highlighted. Perhaps next time and next Congress.

Aug 17

There is good tax news for many U.S. expats and dual citizens. Beginning September 1st, the IRS is starting a new program allowing many expats to catch-up on late tax returns and late FBARs without penalties.

This new program is different from the “Offshore Voluntary Disclosure” programs of the last few years. For one thing, this program is more geared to an average expat. Secondly, and more important to the target audience of the OVD programs, this program does not offer protection from criminal prosecution. That is likely a nonissue to an average expat who has been living and working in a foreign country for several years and has not been trying to hide income or assets from the U.S.

Under this new program, an expat will file 3 years of income tax returns and 6 years of FBARs. This is much better than the 8 years of income tax returns and 8 years of FBARs for OVD program participants.

All returns filed under this program will be reviewed by the IRS, but the IRS will divide the returns into two categories:

Low Risk – These will be simple tax returns, defined as expats living and working in foreign countries, paying foreign taxes, having a limited number of investments and owing U.S. tax of less than $1,500 for each year. Low risk taxpayers will get a pass – they will pay taxes and interest but no penalties.

NOTE: When you consider that the expat will receive a foreign tax credit for taxes paid the resident country, it is very possible that there will be NO U.S. tax.

 Higher Risk – These will be more complicated returns with higher incomes, significant economic activity in the U.S., or returns otherwise evidencing sophisticated tax planning. These returns will not qualify for the program and (likely) will be audited by the IRS. This is NOT the way to go if there is any concern about criminal prosecution. However, it MAY BE the way to go if concern over criminal prosecution is minimal. Why? The wildcard is the penalties. Under OVDP a 27.5% penalty is (virtually) automatic. Under this new program the IRS may waive penalties if one presents reasonable cause for noncompliance.

NOTE: This is one of the biggest complaints about the OVD program and its predecessors: the concept of “reasonable cause” does not apply. The IRS consequently will not mitigate OVD penalties. This may have made sense for multimillionaires at UBS, but it does not make sense for many of the expats swept-up by an outsized IRS dragnet.

The IRS has also announced that the new program will allow resolution of certain tax issues with foreign retirement plans. The IRS got itself into a trap by not recognizing certain foreign plans as the equivalent of a U.S. IRA. This created nasty tax problems, since contributions to such plans would not be deductible (under U.S. tax law) and earnings in such plans would not be tax-deferred (under U.S. tax law). You had the bizarre result of a Canadian IRA that was taxable in the U.S.

QUESTION: If your tax preparer had told you that this was the tax result of your Canadian RSSP, would you have believed him/her? Would you have questioned their competency? Sadly, they would have been right.

Aug 16

The IRS itself has been in the news recently. Whether it is the ham-handed treatment of Section 501(c)(4) political/nonprofit groups or the shadow funding of ObamaCare, the agency has been drawing attention and criticism. Today we are going to talk about two recent studies requested by Charles Boustany (U.S. Rep – LA). He presently serves as the Chairman of the House and Ways Subcommittee on Oversight.

The first report is titled “There Are Billions of Dollars in Undetected Tax Refund Fraud Resulting From Identity Theft. It addresses identity theft, which has been the number one consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for 12 consecutive years.

The IRS presently processes returns and issues refunds before receiving the information forms with which to crosscheck. For example, if someone receives his/her Form W-2 and files for a refund in January, the IRS is issuing that refund check before the underlying wage information has been received from the employer, much less integrated into IRS information systems. This weakness has been exploited and has become a virtual cottage industry in certain cities such as Tampa, Florida.

Consider what TIGTA discovered:

  • 2,137 returns resulting in $3.3 million in refunds were sent to one address in Lansing, Michigan
  • 518 returns resulting in $1.8 million in refunds were sent to one address in Tampa, Florida
  • 23,560 refunds totaling more than $16 million were issued to 10 bank accounts;  2,706 tax refunds totaling $7.3 million were issued to a single account

This is real money. TIGTA estimates that the IRS will issue almost $21 billion in identity-theft refunds over the next five years.

TIGTA made several recommendations, including:

  • Taking advantage of the information reporting available to the IRS. Social security benefit information, for example, is available in December – before filing season begins. Whereas this is a fraction of identity fraud, it is a positive step.
  • The IRS uses little of the data from its identity theft cases to develop patterns and trends which could be used to detect and prevent future tax fraud. Examples include whether the return was electronically or paper-filed, how the refund was issued, and, if issued by direct debit, the account number or debit card number receiving the refund.
  • Allow the IRS greater access to the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH). NDNH is a national database of newly-hired employees. It includes an employee’s name and address as well as wage information. By referencing information from prior year tax filings, the IRS could correlate NDNH data to determine whether reported wage reporting and claimed withholding appear fraudulent.
  • Encourage banks and work with federal agencies to ensure that direct deposit refunds are made only to an account in the taxpayer’s name.
  • Limit the number of tax refunds issued via direct deposit to the same bank account or debit card.

NOTE: That recommendation seems obvious.

 “Substantial Changes Are Needed to the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number Program to Detect Fraudulent Applications”

The second report is disturbing. IRS employees had contacted Congress directly about supervisor misconduct and potential fraud in a program that reviews and verifies individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs). Congress then called in TIGTA to investigate.

We should explain that an ITIN is an Individual Tax Identification Number. ITINs were started in 1996 as tax identification for individuals who may have U.S. tax filing requirements but are not eligible for social security.

How can this happen?

  • Consider a German businessperson who invests in and receives income from a Miami shopping mall
  • Consider a Nigerian graduate student attending the University of Missouri (many) years ago with yours truly
  • Consider my brother-in-law’s wife, who is English and married to a U.S. citizen 

An ITIN will allow one to open a bank account and file tax returns. For example, if one’s spouse is English and one lives in England, the spouse will need an ITIN to file a U.S. income tax return. The children – who possibly have never been to the U.S. – will need ITINs to be claimed as dependents on the U.S. income tax return.

OBSERVATION: This is one of the absurd consequences of the U.S. worldwide income tax regime. A U.S. citizen has to file tax returns, even if he/she has lived outside the U.S. for many years, has a family outside the U.S. and has no immediate plans of repatriating to the U.S.

When one finally obtains a green card, one can transfer work and wage information from the ITIN to the Social Security Administration.

One applies for an ITIN by filing a form (Form W-7) and attaching supporting documents to verify one’s identity and foreign status. A passport will satisfy both the identity and foreign status requirements. The IRS will otherwise accept a combination of documents, including a foreign driver’s license, a foreign birth certificate, a foreign voter’s registration, a visa or other IRS-listed documents. The process usually takes place through the mail, which means that no US-agency employee actually sees the person applying for the ITIN.

Unfortunately, ITINs have been swept-up in political battles. For example, there is fear that the IRS will share this information with Immigration, although the IRS is not permitted by law to do so. This may discourage people from obtaining ITINs, so the argument goes. On the other hand, there are states that will allow one to obtain a driver’s license solely with an ITIN, which seems a perversion of its intended purpose.

TIGTA goes into the IRS to investigate the complaints. Here are some of its findings:

  • IRS management is not concerned with addressing fraudulent applications in the ITIN Operations Department because of the job security that a large inventory of applications to process provides. Management is interested only in the volume of applications that can be processed, regardless of whether they are fraudulent.
  • IRS management has indicated that no function of the IRS, including Criminal Investigation or the Accounts Management Taxpayer Assurance Program, is interested in dealing with ITIN application fraud.
  • IRS management has:
    •  Created an environment which discourages tax examiners responsible for reviewing ITIN applications from identifying questionable applications.
    • Eliminated successful processes used to identify questionable ITIN application fraud patterns and schemes.
    • Established processes and procedures that are inadequate to verify each applicant’s identity and foreign status.

Good grief! The IRS disbanded an ITIN team that was having too much success, countered by provided virtually no training to new hires and transfers and put negative evaluations in overly-eager reviewers’ files.

TIGTA made nine recommendations in this report. The IRS agreed with seven and has already announced plans to implement interim changes. One has caused quite the consternation in the immigrant community by requiring copies of original documents with ITIN applications.

OBSERVATION: Let’s be fair here: would you be comfortable sending original copies of anything to the IRS? Assuming you can find that birth certificate from the mother country, how are you going to replace it when the IRS loses the thing?


Aug 07

Shepherd v Commissioner is a pro se case before the Tax Court. “Pro se” means that the taxpayer is representing himself/herself, without a professional. Technically that is not correct, as a taxpayer can go into Tax Court with a professional and still be considered “pro se.” This happens if the professional (say a CPA) has not passed the examination to practice before the Court. The CPA can then “advise” but not “practice,” and the taxpayer is considered “pro se.”

Today we will be talking about cancellation-of-debt income. Tax pros commonly refer to this is “COD” income. For many years I rarely saw a COD issue. In recent years it seems to be endemic. There are two common ways to generate COD: a home is foreclosed or a credit card is settled. If one pays less than the balance of the debt, the remaining balance is considered to be income to the debtor.

How can that be, you may ask. Let’s use an example. Say you go to your bank and borrow $50,000. When the loan is due, you cannot afford to pay in full. The bank agrees to accept $36,000 as full payment on the loan. From the IRS’ perspective, you received and kept a net $14,000. Perhaps you bought a car, went on vacation, or paid for a kid’s college, but you had an accession to wealth. The IRS considers the $14,000 to be income to you.

There are exceptions, and Shepherd involves the “insolvency” exception. This is different from the bankruptcy exception. Granted, in both cases you are likely insolvent, but for the insolvency exception you do not have to file with a bankruptcy court.

Let’s quickly take a look at the wording for insolvency in the tax code:

                108(d)(3) INSOLVENT.— For purposes of this section, the term “insolvent” means the excess of liabilities over the fair market value of assets. With respect to any discharge, whether or not the taxpayer is insolvent, and the amount by which the taxpayer is insolvent, shall be determined on the basis of the taxpayer’s assets and liabilities immediately before the discharge.

 An easy way to understand insolvency is the following formula:

  • Add the fair market value of everything you own, then
  • Subtract everything you owe

If the result is negative, you are insolvent. You owe more than you own. You are negative or upside-down. There are special rules for assets such as a pension, but you get the concept.

The IRS says that – if you are insolvent – then COD income not be taxable to you to the extent you are insolvent. Let’s use numbers to help understand this:

  • You own $160,000
  • You owe $175,000
  • Visa forgives $22,000

Your COD income is $22,000 (what Visa forgave).

Your insolvency is $15,000 (175,000 – 160,000).

Therefore $7,000 of your COD income (22,000- 15,000) will be taxable to you. The rest is not taxable.

The tax law requires you to do the calculation of what you own and what you owe as of the date the debt is forgiven. It is not two years later or 18 months before. Remember: this is tax law not a tax suggestion.

Let’s swing over to Shepherd. He and his wife lived in New Jersey and owed Capital One Bank approximately $10,000. In 2008 they settled for approximately $5,500, leaving COD income of $4,500.

The Shepherds claimed insolvency and did not report the $4,500 as 2008 income. The IRS looked into it and found that the key to the insolvency calculation was the value Shepherd attached to two houses.

The first was his beach house. Shepherd received a property assessment of $380,000 for the 2010 tax year. He appealed the assessment, claiming a value closer to $340,000. He presented this as evidence before the Court. The Court had two immediate issues:

  • There is a long-standing tax doctrine that the value of property for local tax purposes is not determinative of fair market value for federal income tax purposes. This is the Gilmartin case, and it clearly established the tax code’s preference for an appraisal over property tax bills.
  • Shepherd did not present to the Court the methodology, procedures or analysis, including comparable sales, for thinking that the value was closer to $340,000. At that point it was just an opinion, and the Court was not bound by his opinion.

The Court pointed out that these events took place two years after the debt forgiveness and said fuhgeddaboudit to Shepherd’s valuation of the beach house.

The second was his principal residence.

  • Shepherd showed the Court a tax bill. The Court duly dismissed that under the Gilmartin doctrine.
  • Shepherd applied for a loan modification in 2011. Chase Home Finance showed a value of $380,000 in a modification letter. The Court wasn’t buying into this, noting that Chase’s letter did not show any analysis or procedures used in arriving at value, such as comparable sales. That is, it was not an appraisal. Oh, and by the way, the letter was three years after the debt discharge.

What is a tax pro’s take? Folks, Shepherd had virtually no leg to stand on. How can one read the tax code stating “immediately before the discharge” and reason that three years later – and after one of the worst housing markets in U.S. history – would constitute “immediately before”? This is simply not reasonable. You are going to lose this if challenged by the IRS. Shepherd’s position is so preposterous that I suspect he was truly “pro se” and did not have a professional, either when he prepared his return or when he was presenting his arguments in Court.

Aug 01

As you probably know, the summer Olympics began last week. For a while, east London will be the newest tax haven going.

The basic UK individual income tax rate is 20%, although incomes over 150,000 pounds are taxed at 50%.  The basic corporate tax rate is 24% and a bargain compared to the U.S. corporate rate of 35%.

The UK does have a VAT of 20%, so it is unfair to compare only income taxes.

The “London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Tax Regulations 2010” exempt the earnings of Olympic athletes and foreign nationals working on Games –related activity, such as judges, journalists and representatives of sports bodies. The Regulations do not exempt construction workers at the sites, nor do they exempt UK residents. The exemption is solely for nonresidents.

The exemption also extends to non-resident companies doing business at the Olympic sites. There has been pressure on companies to forego the tax holiday. Both McDonald’s and Coca Cola have declined the tax break, while General Electric said that all Olympic activities are being done through resident companies and therefore are not eligible for the tax holiday.

What was the reason for this break?

I am unsure about the corporate tax holiday, but the individual tax holiday is easy to understand. The UK’s general tax rule is to tax a proportion of an athlete’s earnings. The proportion is the number of UK appearance days to total annual appearance days. As an example, say a tennis player competes at the Olympics for a week and for 35 days in total during 2012.  The general rule is that 20% of the tennis player’s earnings would be subject to UK tax. That may or may not be fair. The general rule assumes that appearance earnings are proportional.

But it gets worse. The UK will tax both the athlete’s performance and endorsement income. Take someone with significant endorsement income – say Usain Bolt – and this can get expensive. It is the reason Usain Bolt had not previously set foot on a British track since 2009. Golfer Sergio Garcia has admitted to limiting his British appearances because of this tax. It is also the reason that Wembley Stadium lost its bid for the 2010 Football (that is, soccer) Champions League. 

So, HMRC waived the rule and created a temporary tax haven for the Olympic Games.

There has been controversy over the tax holiday, with pressure groups arguing that the holiday was unnecessary if not unjust. Just and unjust are slippery terms, but the general argument is that for-profit activities – whether corporate or athlete – should pay whatever taxes the host country deems to implement. The host country should be able to recoup the cost of its Olympic facilities, for example. Seems reasonable. Tax holidays however have become a factor in the IOC decision process. The unwelcome fact is that east London may not have had the Olympics without the holiday.

Should you be going to England during the first week of August, you may want to consider the Bristol Tax Avoidance Olympics on August 4th. In the spirit of protest, the events will include:

  • Cooking the books
  • Jumping through the tax loopholes
  • Avoiding the taxman
  • Hide (your profits) and seek


Jul 27

This past Tuesday I submitted financial and other information regarding a collections appeal with an IRS officer in California. We have several clients with unpredictable income streams, and this client is one of them. We are pursuing something called a “manually monitored installment agreement,” which allows for changes in an IRS payment plan as one’s income varies. It can be difficult to obtain. In fact, a revenue officer I often work with informed me that this type of agreement was “above his grade.” That comment struck me as odd and is something I intend to follow-up on.

Back to our client. I was concerned as time was running out, and the client did not seem to register the urgency of the matter. I am working within a compressed time period. To her credit, the IRS officer showed patience and goodwill. She was within her rights to be much stricter with me, but she agreed to move the file and hearing back to Cincinnati. I was greatly relieved, as Rick wanted the file here.

“How much more do they want?” “They have everything.” “What are they going to do if I don’t?” These are all common questions. So much so I should just post the questions and answers on my office wall to save time.   

Today let’s talk about this part of IRS representation: the collections appeal. Let’s also talk about Pace v Commissioner, who got himself into collections appeal and perhaps should have been less confrontational and more forthcoming.

Your entry into the IRS will likely be through Examinations. This step is what we consider the “audit”, although these days the whole matter may be handled through the mail. The IRS is becoming fond of computerized matching, for example, as Congress provides it with ever-more tax reporting for anything that you do. Such is the new audit, I guess.

If you owe money your file will be transferred to Collections. Collections will send you a bill, and you will be working with Collections if you want a payment program, a cannot-collect status or an offer in compromise. The problem with Collections is that they are not really interested in the how-and-whys of you getting there, but they are very interested in getting money from you. They can back this up by garnishing your wages, liening your assets, levying your bank account or terminating your installment plan. Collections appeal exists as a safety valve for these more-aggressive collection actions. It takes your file out of Collections and gives it to an appeals officer. You have a chance to present information – geared to writing the IRS a check, of course – to someone who may be less “eager” to separate you from your last dollar at the earliest possible chance.

Perhaps you are talking to the appeals officer about delaying payments while you look for work, about setting up a payment plan, or having the IRS restart a payment plan they decided to terminate. Understandably, that appeals officer is going to want to know your finances. You will be sending him/her a Form 433-A or B, which is a listing of your assets and your earnings and expenses for (at least) the last three months. He/she will also want copies of bank statements as well as of significant bills, like your mortgage or car payments. You may have to send them a copy of your broker statement, for example, if you have a few dollars invested in the market. None of this is surprising. What if you don’t provide what he/she wants? Well, he/she can stop working with you and throw you back into the Collections pool. For you to do this seems self-defeating, doesn’t it? With that, let’s talk about Pace.

Pace operated a chiropractic business through a corporation (Dauntless). Pace fell behind on his 2006 and 2007 taxes. The IRS sent a Final Notice of Intent to Levy.  Pace did the right thing and requested a collection due process (CDP) hearing to discuss a collection alternative. The appeals officer requested a 433-A and B. During this process the officer learns that Pace is associated with two more entities – Achievement Therapeutic Services LLC (Achievement) and Kenneth D. Pace LLC (KDP). The officer requests a 433-B for them, as well as evidence that they are up-to-date on their tax filings. Pretty routine.

Pace provides none of it. He does have an argument. Whereas he is the registered agent for both, he has derived no income from these two entities, and he does not think producing any information regarding them is appropriate.

NOTE: Me? I think I can still play linebacker for the Bengals this upcoming football season.

The collections appeal hearing takes place.  Tell me, if you were the appeals officer, what would you do?

The appeals officer threw Pace back into Collections for their tender mercies, that is what he did. Pace next goes to Tax Court.

My Take: Pace is bonkers. I would have provided the IRS with copies of tax returns for Achievement and KDP, if tax returns existed. If the entities were dormant, then I would have discussed that fact with the appeals officer and asked what he considered a reasonable next step.  By not doing so, the Tax Court decided that Pace was the one being unreasonable.  Being unreasonable, Pace lost his case.

Jul 24

I met with a client last week who has a child with special needs. His daughter has a syndrome I cannot remember, except that it is quite rare and was named after a physician who practiced at Children’s Hospital here in Cincinnati. He is concerned about her welfare, especially after he passes away. We wound up talking about gifting and expected changes in gift tax law.

Let’s talk about the gift tax today.

There is an opportunity to gift up to $5,120,000 without paying gift tax, but this expires at the end of 2012. If you are married, then double that amount (10,240,000). If you exceed that amount, then gift tax is 35%. The $5,120,000 is set to drop to (approximately) $1,360,000 in 2013, and the 35% rate is slated to increase to 55%. If you are in or above this asset range, 2012 is a good time to think about gifting.

Here are some gifting ideas to consider:

(1)   Use up your $13,000 annual exemption per donee. This is off-the-top, before you even start counting. If you are married, you can have your spouse join in the gift, even if you made the gift from your separate funds. That makes the exempt gift $26,000 per donee.

(2)   Let’s say that gifting appeals to you, but you do not want to part with $5,120,000. Perhaps you could not continue your standard of living. I know I couldn’t. One option is to have one spouse gift up to $5,120,000 without gift splitting. This preserves the (approximately) $1,360,000 exemption for future use by the other spouse.

(3)   By the way, gifting between spouses does not count as a taxable gift. Should one spouse own the overwhelming majority of assets, then consider inter-spouse gifting to better equalize the estates. This is more of an estate planning concept, but it may regain interest if the estate tax exemption decreases next year.

(4)   Consider intrafamily loans. The IRS forces you to use an IRS-published interest rate, but those interest rates are at historic lows. For example, you can make a 9-year loan to a family member and charge only 0.92% interest. Granted, the monies have to be repaid (or gifted), but the interest is negligible.

(5)   Consider a family limited partnership. We have spoken of FLPs (pronounced “flips”) before. A key tax benefit is being able to discount the taxable value of the gift for the lack of control and marketability associated with a minority interest in the FLP.

(6)   Consider income-shifting trusts to move income and asset appreciation to younger family members. A common use is with family businesses. Say that you own an S corporation, for example. Perhaps the S issues nonvoting stock and you transfer the nonvoting stock to your children using Qualified Subchapter S trusts.

(7)   Consider a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). With this trust, you receive an annuity for a period of years. The shortest period I have seen is 2 years, but more commonly the period is 5 or more years. The amount you take back reduces the amount of the gift, of course, but not dollar-for-dollar. I am a huge fan of GRATs.

(8)   Consider a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT, pronounced “Q-pert”). This is a specialized trust into which you put your house. You continue to live in the house for a period of years, which occupancy reduces the value of the gift. If you outlive that period then you can continue to live in the house, but you must begin paying fair market rent to the trust.  I have seen these trusts infrequently and usually with second homes, although I also can see a use with a principal residence in Medicare/Medicaid planning.

(9)   Consider a life insurance trust (ILIT, pronounced “eye-let”). This trust buys a life insurance policy on you, and its purpose is to keep life insurance out of your estate. You might pay the policy premiums on behalf of the trust, using your annual gift tax exclusion. This setup is an excellent way to fund a “skip” trust, which means the trust has beneficiaries two or more generations below you. The “skip” refers to the generation-skipping tax (GST), which is yet another tax, separate and apart from the gift tax or the estate tax.

(10)  Consider a dynasty trust if you are planning two or more generations out. This technique is geared for the very wealthy and involves an especially long-lived trust. It is one of the ways that certain families (the Kennedy’s come to mind) that family wealth can be controlled for many years. A key point to this trust is minimizing or avoiding the generation-skipping tax (GST) upon transfer to the grandchildren or great grandchildren. The GST is an abstruse area of tax law, even for many tax pros.

OBSERVATION: You could incur both a gift tax and a GST tax. That would be terribly expensive and I doubt too many people would do so intentionally.

Although not frequently mentioned, remember to consider any state tax consequence to the gift. For example, does the state impose its own gift tax? If you live in California, would the transfer of real estate reset the assessable value for property taxes?

It is frustrating to plan with so much uncertainty about tax law. We do know that – for the balance of this year – you can gift over $5 million without incurring a gift tax liability. That much is a certainty. If this is you, please think about this window in combination with your overall estate plan. This opportunity may come again – or it may not.

Jul 18

John Tarpoff was the head cattle buyer at Gateway Beef, LLC (Gateway). Gateway was formed in 2003 by Gateway Beef Cooperative and Brach’s Glatt Meat Markets (Glatt). Glatt was owned by Sam Brach (Brach).  The co-op sold cattle to Gateway, which then produced kosher beef for Glatt.

In addition to buying cattle, Tarpoff did the following:

  • Filed Gateway’s articles of incorporation, signing as “organizer’
  • Was a signatory on two Gateway checking accounts
    • When opening the accounts, he presented company resolutions which he signed above lines that said “secretary” or “member.”
  • With the resolutions he could open accounts and withdraw funds

Brach was the wallet and financed Gateway. The bookkeeper, Marsha Caughron (Marsha), handled accounts receivable and payable, payroll, and some sales. She received all the mail, including bills and any notices from the IRS. She would print checks, attach the bills and initially send them to Brach. He would sign some, sometimes not all, and send them back. Brach was pretty strict that nothing could be paid without his permission.

Procedures changed and Tarpoff started signing all Gateway checks from January to May 2004 and most checks after that through July 2004. Once again, he signed nothing without Brach’s permission. Some of the checks he signed were for delinquent 2003 taxes, although he could not easily recognize them as such. He would review invoices to be sure they matched the check, but that was pretty much all. He did not even know whether Gateway had sufficient funds to cash the checks. Remember: he was the head cattle buyer, not the accountant.

Tarpoff explained to the Court:

            Whatever checks were given to me, I would look at them, glance at them and sign them.”

He could not recall ever refusing to write or sign a check.  

Gateway was a shooting star, living a short life and burning through a lot of money. At some point, Brach stopped paying the payroll taxes. The bookkeeper, Marsha, would calculate the taxes, attach checks and send them to Brach. Brach would not sign or return the checks. When she pressed, he told her to speak with his accountant, Michelle Weiss. Brach also instructed Marsha to fax all IRS notices to Michelle. Tarpoff was unaware of these faxes.

Tarpoff wrote at least 10 checks that bounced. One (for approximately $49,000) must have been pretty important, as he tried to get it paid. Meeting with resistance, he paid it out of personal funds. He said this was the only bad check he was aware of. He was never repaid his $49,000 and ultimately had to refinance his home because of it.

Gateway finally folded in July 2004. Tarpoff left. After learning that some vendors had not been paid, he suspected shenanigans with the payroll taxes. He was informed that Brach had not paid the taxes and the bookkeeper (Marsha) told him she had been receiving IRS notices. That was the first he learned of the matter.

The IRS came in. They wanted the payroll taxes. They also wanted almost $67,000 in penalties from Tarpoff for quarters March and June, 2004.

The IRS said that Tarpoff was responsible because: 

  • He held himself out as secretary or manager.
  • He attended board of directors meetings.
  • He was the organizer of Gateway Beef, LLC.
  • He could open accounts and withdraw funds.
  • He signed over 1,800 checks.
  • He could hire and fire employees.
  • He could refuse to sign checks.
  • He invested approximately $50,000.
  • He knew the government had not been paid.
  • Even if he did not know the government had not been paid, he could have deduced it. He had paid payroll taxes in the past (at another company), and he signed enough checks to realize that all taxes had not been remitted.
  • The company was losing money; he was in a position to know and review the books and records to be sure taxes were being paid.
  • He used monies to pay creditors ahead of the government.                       

The Court held the following:

  • Other than puffery, the only evidence of officer status was preprinted checks. He did not write any business title himself.
  • He never attended a board of directors meeting.
  • He only looked at the checks and invoices to see that they matched. He could not pay anything without Brach’s permission.
  • He could interview prospective employees and he handled relations with the union, but he could not hire or fire without Brach’s permission.
  • Perhaps he could have refused to write checks, but Brach would have signed instead. Brach had previously signed checks.
  • He did not “invest” $50,000. To the contrary, he had so little control he could not get his own money back.
  • He did not know about the payroll issues and did not receive IRS notices. They went instead to the bookkeeper and then to Brach’s accountant.
  • Saying that he knew in general about an employer’s responsibilities over payroll taxes is not the same as saying he willfully and consciously failed to remit Gateway taxes.
  • There was no evidence he knew the company was losing money, and he did not have authority to look at the company books.
  • He paid creditors ahead of the government because he did not know about the payroll taxes until after he left Gateway.

Tarpoff finally won, but in Court and after much time and expense.

I am curious why the IRS did not go after Brach. From reading the case it seemed quite clear that he had more control than Tarpoff. The IRS thought they saw the fact pattern they like: looks like an officer, makes business decisions, pays bills, writes checks, decides who gets paid, “in the loop” enough to know that the IRS is getting ignored.

From what I see Tarpoff was in a terrible position. He was associated with a money pit, had responsibility but no authority, was intimidated by a boss (Brach), reached into his own wallet (I can only imagine he was preserving his business reputation) and lost the money, and at the end was hounded by the IRS. Frankly, I am cynical about Brach’s behavior in this matter, as I sense that Tarpoff was set-up as a “fall guy.”

If there was a truck or dog or past girlfriend in the story, one could write a country song.

Seriously, be very careful if you have some of the “sexy” fact patterns the IRS likes and you are somehow associated with payroll at a struggling company. The IRS has a track record on this issue. You do not want to run on this track. In some areas you can work with the IRS. This is not one of them.