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Substantial Changes to Partnership Tax Audit Procedures will Severely Impact Partner Liability and Rights Before the IRS

Does your client own an interest in a partnership or an entity treated as a partnership for US tax purposes?  If so, you better take notice because the new partnership tax audit rules are making drastic changes as of January 1, 2018.  The new rules, known as “BBA,” will administer a tax deficiency at  the partnership level, unless certain elections are made.  These rules are a significant departure from the old rules, known as “TEFRA”, which administered a tax deficiency at the individual partner level.  All partnerships will need to amend their respective partnership agreements to take the BBA changes into consideration.  What should a partnership or its partners be concerned about?

Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the major concerns of these new procedures:

Have you chosen a Partnership Representative (“PR”) under the BBA rules? If so, have you set forth the limitations and obligations of the PR?

  • Once the BBA Rules are effective, all authority over the partnership tax audit lies with the PR
  • The BBA procedures give the PR statutory authority to bind all partners with respect to all actions taken by the partnership in the BBA administrative proceeding and in any judicial proceeding
  • Since the PR is the exclusive party to act on behalf of the partnership, the PR may also, in effect, bind all partners to extensions of the statute of limitations, settlements and available elections

Does your existing partnership agreement require the partnership or the PR to provide notice to all partners of a IRS audit?

  • The BBA procedures abolish all partner-level notices of IRS actions that existed under TEFRA
  • Unlike the TEFRA rules, under BBA there is no affirmative obligation for the Internal Revenue Service, the partnership or the PR to send a notice of an IRS audit to each partner
  • Without revising the partnership agreement, a partnership audit could occur and be resolved without the partners’ knowledge

Does your existing partnership agreement contemplate who will be responsible for tax deficiencies?

  • Under the BBA procedures, unless the PR takes certain actions, tax deficiencies are assessed against the partnership in the year the controversy is resolved (known as the adjustment year) and not in the year which generated the tax deficiency (known as the reviewed year)
  • In effect, the economic burden of a tax deficiency could be borne by partners who had no interest in the partnership when the income/deduction was generated

Does your existing partnership agreement provide for opting-out of the BBA procedures?  If so, does the PR have an affirmative obligation to opt-out?

  • The BBA procedures allow smaller partnerships (with fewer than 100 partners) to elect to opt-out of the BBA rules and have the audit be administered at the partner rather than partnership level
  • Do you desire to have the audit administered at the partner level?  Are you concerned about the IRS expanding the audit to other parts of your business?
  • Are you willing to continue to be responsible for tax deficiencies for the years in which you held an interest in a partnership, even if you later sell such interest.

Does your existing partnership agreement provide for pushing-out tax deficiencies to the reviewed year partners?

  • The push-out election allows the partnership to pass on an adjustment to a former partner without providing them an opportunity to comment, contest, or even receive notice of the adjustment
  • If you exit a partnership are you willing to leave this decision up to the current PR?
  • As a former partner would you desire some control over these decision for which you are ultimately responsible?

The above items address some of the questions partnerships and partners should be thinking about before the BBA procedures go into effect on January 1, 2018.  It is recommended that all partnerships work with their tax counsel to perform a thoughtful and thorough review of their partnership agreements.  The only way to control the results of these new procedures is to be pro-active now before the rules go into effect.

Please contact Jeff Erney at jeffry.erney@dentons.com or Sunny Dhaliwal at sunny.dhaliwal@dentons.com

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IRS To Revise Guidance for In-Person Appeals Conferences

According to Andrew Keyso, Acting Deputy Director of Appeals, the IRS will be issuing new guidance “within the next few weeks” regarding when it will hold an in-person appeals conferences.

Recently, the IRS made waves when it revised the Internal Revenue Manual to limit when a taxpayer was entitled to an in-person appeals conference. The guidance gave Appeals the discretion regarding when to hold an in-person. In making the decision, Appeals was to consider a limited set of facts and circumstances, such as whether a taxpayer had special needs or whether Appeals would have to consider the credibility of a witness. A taxpayer could request one but the decision rested with the Appeals.  The guidance was meant to dramatically limit the number of in-person conferences Appeals would hold.

According to Mr. Keyso, after receiving substantial feedback from the tax community, the IRS will issue new guidance expanding the scope of when in-person meetings will be held.

This is good news for the taxpayer.

Once the new guidance is issued, we will blog about it.  Please check back for updates.

Tax Court Disallows a $33 Million Charitable Donation Deduction Because Taxpayer Did Not Sufficiently Fill Out Form

Serving as a vivid reminder that it is vital that a taxpayer comply strictly and completely with the charitable deduction regulations, the Tax Court recently denied a $33 million charitable deduction in its entirety and imposed a gross valuation misstatement penalty because the taxpayer did not properly fill out Form 8283.

In Reri Holdings I, LLC v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. 1 (2017), a partnership donated an interest in a piece of property to the University of Michigan.  The donor retained an appraiser who assigned a fair market value of $33 million to the donation.  The taxpayer prepared a Form 8283 appraisal summary and included the form with its return.  The form indicated that the donor had acquired the donated interest through a purchase but did not include an amount for the donor’s “cost or other adjusted basis.”  Importantly, the Court does not state whether the taxpayer also attached the appraisal report prepared by the appraiser.

The Tax Court denied the entire deduction solely because the Form 8283 did not list the donor’s cost basis. According to the court, Congress prescribed strict substantiation requirements when claiming a charitable deduction over certain amounts in order “to alert the Commissioner to potential overvaluations of contributed property and thus deter taxpayers from claiming excessive deductions.”  A failure to comply with these requirements will result in a denial of the deduction, even if the amount of the deduction is correct.

A taxpayer can sometimes avoid this draconian result if it substantially complies with the regulations. Critically, a taxpayer does not do so if it fails to provide sufficient information to alert the IRS to a potential overvaluation.

That is precisely what the court determined happen here. By failing to list the adjusted cost basis of the property, as required by Treas. Reg. § 170A-13(c)(4)(ii)(E), the taxpayer did not comply with the regulations.  Omitting the cost basis “prevented the appraisal summary from achieving its intended purpose,” as “[t]he significant disparity between the claimed fair market value and the price [the taxpayer] paid to acquire [the property] just 17 months before it assigned [the property] to the University, had it been disclosed, would have alerted [the IRS] to a potential overvaluation of [the property].”  As such, the taxpayer did not substantially comply with the regulations and justified denying the entire deduction ab initio.

The Tax Court also imposed a 40% gross overvaluation penalty on the taxpayer. After finding the fair market value of the donation was only approximately $3 million, subjecting the taxpayer to the penalty, the court rejected the taxpayer’s reasonable cause defense.  Even though it had an appraisal, the court held that “a taxpayer must do more than simply accept the result of a qualified appraisal” and rejected, as immaterial, the taxpayer’s evidence of a second earlier appraisal that appeared to conform to the one prepared for the return.

Though not the subject of this litigation, it is important to note that there may be consequences to the appraiser, as well. With a judicial determination that the value claimed was grossly overstated, the appraiser may be subject to, among other things, a penalty pursuant to I.R.C. § 6695A.  If the IRS imposes a penalty on the appraiser, the IRS’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) may also take action, see Circular 230 § 10.60, and can reprimand or even disqualify the appraiser.

If you have any questions about this post or about how to ensure that you comply with the substantiation requirements before donating property, please contact Jeff Erney at Jeffry.Erney@dentons.com or Peter Anthony at peter.anthony@dentons.com

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Sweeping Tax Obstruction of Justice Decision

In a decision that could have far reaching consequences in both the civil and criminal tax realms, on June 27th, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the conviction of Carlo Marinello, who was found guilty of obstructing justice by failing to maintain proper books and records and failing to file tax returns.

The Supreme Court will likely settle a dispute that emerged among the lower courts about the proper scope of the obstruction statute under the Internal Revenue Code. The Supreme Court’s decision will have obvious consequences in the criminal tax world.  That is plain.  What is less apparent, is the power the decision could have in a civil audit.  Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, it could provide the IRS a substantial criminal hammer to wield against taxpayers who dispose of, or fail to maintain, business records, even if they have no knowledge that a criminal investigation has begun.

The Supreme Court will likely hear argument on this case in the fall and issue a decision sometime after that. We will keep you updated on the case, so be sure to check back.

Background

The below facts come from the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

In 1990, Carlos Marinello founded a freight service company that couriered packages between the United States and Canada. He kept little documentation of his income and expenses, and shredded or threw away any documentation that he may have had.  From 1992 onward, Mr. Marinello did not file personal or corporate tax returns.

In 2004, the IRS received an anonymous tip and opened a criminal investigation into Mr. Marinello and his company. That criminal investigation was closed the next year because the IRS could not determine if the unreported income was significant.  Mr. Marinello had no knowledge of that investigation.  Around that same time, he consulted with an attorney and an accountant who advised him he must file returns and maintain proper business records.  Despite that advice, Mr. Marinello did not do so.

The IRS was not done with Mr. Marinello yet. In 2009, the IRS re-opened the investigation and interviewed him. Mr. Marinello admitted to not filing returns and to shredding most of his business records.

The United States charged Mr. Marinello with nine counts of tax-related offenses. The conduct alleged in the indictment occurred prior to Mr. Marinello’s interview with the IRS in 2009.  One of the offenses charged was for obstruction of justice under 26 U.S.C. § 7212(a).  Section 7212(a) makes it a crime to “obstruct or impede . . . the due administration of this title.”  The government alleged that Mr. Marinello violated this section by, among other things, “failing to maintain corporate books and records for [his company]” and “destroying, shredding and discarding business records of [his company].” Mr. Marienllo was found guilty of the offense.

Decisions Below

Before the trial court, Mr. Marinello argued that to commit obstruction of justice under section 7212, one must have knowledge of a pending IRS investigation. The trial court rejected such an argument, holding that all that was necessary was for the jury to find that Mr. Marinello intended to obstruct the due administration of the Internal Revenue laws.  He appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City.

Before the Appeals Court, Mr. Marinello again argued that the obstruction statute requires knowledge of a pending investigation. A panel of the Second Circuit disagreed, holding that the statute “criminalizes corrupt interference with an official effort to administer the tax code, and not merely a known IRS investigation.”  In doing so, the Second Circuit aligned itself with 3 other appeals courts.  It also reinforced a circuit split, as the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio had reached a different conclusion on the same question.

Mr. Marinello sought review before the full Second Circuit. While the court declined to review the decision of the panel, two judges dissented from the denial of review and warned of the consequences of the court’s decision.  Judge Jacobs wrote ominously that if this decision was allowed to remain the law of the land, “nobody is safe: the jury charge allowed individual jurors to convict on the grounds, variously, that Marinello did not keep adequate records; that, having kept them, he destroyed them; or that, having kept them and preserved them from destruction, he failed to give them to his accountant.”  The decision affords, he wrote, “oppressive opportunity for prosecutorial abuse.”

Potential Consequences

As Judge Jacobs warned, should the Supreme Court uphold the decision, a taxpayer should be weary about engaging in any of the conduct, such as disposing of business records, that landed Mr. Marinello in jail. As Judge Jacobs so succinctly put it, “How easy it is under the panel’s opinion for an overzealous or partisan prosecutor to investigate, to threaten, to force into pleading, or perhaps (with luck) to convict anybody” (emphasis in the original).  Now, more than ever, it is important that taxpayers in civil cases are represented by competent counsel aware of the potential criminal pitfalls an otherwise cautious taxpayer may find themselves in.

Contact Jeff Erney for questions about this post.  Jeffry.Erney@dentons.com

IRS Urges Partnerships to Amend Partnership Agreements To Address Expanded Role of Partnership Representatives

The new partnership audit regime, enacted as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (“BBA”), allows the IRS to assess and collect  unpaid tax at the entity level, rather than from individual partners.   The BBA is effective for tax years after 2017 and replaces the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (“TEFRA”).  Under TEFRA, a partnership designates one of its partners as the “tax matters partner” (“TMP”) to act for the entity in proceedings with the IRS.  Instead, in the BBA regime, that person is called the “partnership representative” (“PR”) and has far greater authority than a TMP.  It is imperative that all partnerships understand the changes that are coming and prepare accordingly.

Most significantly, the PR is the exclusive point of contact with the IRS and has the sole responsibility to bind both the partnership and all of the partners to his or her actions.   At a conference on June 16, Brendan O’Dell, an attorney-adviser in the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Policy, emphasized the significance of understanding the difference between the TMP and PR.

Under TEFRA, the TMP was required to be a partner, and was subject to numerous obligations to other partners with regards to the partnership’s interactions with IRS. Under TEFRA, all partners other than the TMP had significant rights during an audit, including notification rights, the right to participate in proceedings and contradict the actions taken by the TMP.  During the audit and administrative appeals, the TMP did not have the authority to bind the other partners.

Conversely, under the BBA regime, the PR is not required to be a partner with “skin in the game” but rather can be any person, including a non-partner, provided they have a substantial presence in the U.S. Moreover, the PR has sole authority to bind the partnership, and all partners and the partnership are bound by the actions of the PR and any final decision during all stages of the proceeding (audit, appeals and litigation).  This includes the power to bind the partnership and all partners to extensions of the statute of limitations and available elections.  Other partners no longer have a statutory right to notice of, or to participate in, the partnership-level audit proceeding.  Moreover, the decisions of the PR can economically impact the partnership, current partners, and former partners.  For example, a PR has the ability to unilaterally decide whether an audit adjustment must be borne by the partnership or by the partners.

Thus, this expanded authority granted to the PR is likely to lead to disputes, and potentially litigation, between partners and the PR. According to Mr. O’Dell, in the event of such a dispute, the IRS will not get involved and “will still treat the actions of the partnership representative as binding on the partnership and to those partners.”  In order to alleviate such issues, the IRS emphasized addressing the authority of the PR in the partnership agreement before the BBA regime becomes effective, as many, but not all, of the powers granted to the PR under BBA may be circumscribed by the partnership agreement.  These issues, thus, “put a lot of pressure on the front end for drafting agreements” and adding in adequate protections, O’Dell said.

The IRS has made clear that once the new partnership audit rules are effective, it will exclusively communicate with and seek consent from the PR. Thus, any protection or notice afforded to partners, former partners, and the partnership must come from the partnership agreement.

We highly recommend that all partnerships review and revise their partnership agreements before the BBA takes effect (years after December 31, 2017) in order to address the changes of the new law.  Contact Jeff Erney for questions about this post or how a partnership can best structure its partnership agreement now before the BBA takes effect.  Jeffry.Erney@dentons.com