A blog post

Taxpayer Loses Charitable Deduction for Lack of Appraisal

Posted on the 07 June, 2012 at 10:52 pm Written by in Taxes

Joseph Mohamed seems a good sort. He and his wife live in Sacramento, California. He is a successful real estate professional. In 1998 they formed the Joseph Mohamed Sr. and Shirley M. Mohamed Charitable Remainder Unitrust II. Tax pros call this a “CRUT.”

QUESTION: What is a CRUT? This is a special trust involving a charity. You can guess that a purpose of the trust is to make a charitable donation. In a CRUT, an annuity goes to the donor (in this case, Joseph and Shirley) for a period of years. At the expiration of that period, the remainder goes to a charity. In the Mohamed’s case, that period is twenty years. Why would you do that in place of simply donating twenty years out? Because the CRUT allows you to claim the charitable deduction now.

In 2003 and 2004 the Mohameds donated several properties to the CRUT. The properties were worth somewhere between $18 million and $21 million. Joseph Mohamed prepared his own taxes. This means he ran into Form 8283 to report the property donations. He did not read the instructions though, as he did not think he had to. The form seemed straightforward enough.

Form 8283 has several parts. Part 1 Section B required a description of the donated property and “can be completed by the taxpayer and/or appraiser.” It also had the following text:

“If your total art contribution deduction was $20,000 or more you must attach a complete copy of the signed appraisal. See instructions.”  

Mohamed was contributing real estate, not art. He read that to mean that he did not have to attach an appraisal. He did attach all types of statements and documentation to his return, including his own valuation of the real estate.

The return gets audited (who is shocked?). The IRS was displeased that Mohamed had self-valued such a large dollar donation of property. The IRS first goes after the valuation. Makes sense. Mohamed then gets an independent appraisal which shows that the properties are worth more than he claimed.

The IRS then pulls back and realizes something. Regulation 1.170A-13(c) requires the following for donations of this nature and amount:

  1. A qualified appraisal must be made not more than 60 days before the donation and no later than the due date of the return.
  2. It must be signed by a qualified appraiser, who cannot be the donor or person claiming the deduction.
  3. The qualified appraisal must contain defined information, such as a description of the property, its basis and fair market value.

Mohamed had a problem. You see, he did not have a qualified appraisal. That requires an independent appraiser, and he obtained that after the filing of his return. There was of course no signature, as there was no qualified appraisal. While he attached numerous statements to his return, they did not completely address the litany of questions that the IRS wanted in Reg 1.170A-13(c).

The IRS disallowed the donations. Mohamed goes to Tax Court and raises three arguments:

  1. The extreme result indicates that the Regulations are invalid.
  2. The IRS-designed Form 8283 misled him.
  3. He substantially complied with the documentation requirements.

The Court quickly dismissed arguments 1 and 2. It went through an analysis (which we will skip) and concluded that the Regulations were valid and reflected Congressional intent. The IRS, for example, was ordered by Congress to issue Regulations requiring appraisals for donations of property in excess of $5,000. A Regulation that implements Congressional intent is difficult to rule invalid. The Court was sympathetic to argument 2, but it pointed out that the form is not the tax law. The Court even added that “a taxpayer relies on his private interpretation of a tax form at his own risk.”

Now we get to argument 3. What does “substantially comply” mean? There was a previous case (Bond) where the Court found substantial compliance, but succeeding cases have ever compressed the reach of that decision. The Court determined that substantial compliance meant complying with the “essential requirement” of the statute. Problem is, the “essential requirement” of the statute is the need to obtain a qualified appraisal. With that verbal loop, there was no way that Mohamed could substantially comply.

Here is the Court:

We recognize that this result is harsh – a complete denial of charitable deductions to a couple that did not overvalue, and may well have undervalued, their contributions – all reported on forms that even to the Court’s eyes seemed likely to mislead someone who did not read the instructions.”

MY TAKE: I am sympathetic to the Mohameds, but I am also confused. They must have used a tax professional in the past to establish the CRUT. They then make a near-$20 million donation but do not hire a pro to walk it through? It doesn’t make sense to me.

In both Mohamed and Durden there was no question that contributions were made; there were also no question as to the amounts. The taxpayer may have felt comfortable thinking: what are they going to do, put me in jail? No, they won’t put you in jail, but they will take away your charitable deduction. Don’t think that a court will bail you out, as there may be limits to what a court can do.

What is the answer? I would encourage the use of a tax professional if there is even a whiff of a question on your return. I know – it costs money. The problem is that you may not know you have hit a slick spot until after the IRS contacts you. As Mohamed and Durden have shown, that may be too late.