As we discussed here, and in our recent article in The Federal Lawyer, deference to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pronouncement is an important issue for taxpayers and their advisors. Our prior writings dealt generally with the three levels of deference in tax cases and how they have been applied by the courts. A recent Tax Court case looks at the level of deference owed to statements in preambles to tax regulations.
In Estate of Morrissette v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 11 (Apr. 13, 2016), the taxpayer cited to the preamble to regulations dealing with split-dollar life insurance arrangements. Those regulations dealt with two mutually exclusive regimes for taxing these types of arrangements entered into after September 17, 2013. The preamble to the regulations included an example that was structurally identical to the arrangements at issue in the Tax Court case. In reviewing the preamble, the court noted that while it had previously been unpersuaded by a preamble, it believed that the preamble was a statement of the IRS’s interpretation of the statute and therefore should be judged under the “power to persuade” standard in Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 US 134, 140 (1944). The Tax Court found that the preamble was consistent with the taxpayer’s interpretation of the statute and contrary to the IRS’s position, and found the logic of the preamble to be sound.
The Tax Court’s statements regarding Skidmore deference are important for taxpayers, both in planning and defending transactions. In prior cases, the Tax Court has held that the IRS is “obligated to follow” its “published administrative position” and treated such positions as a concession as to the proper result, e.g., Dixon v. Commissioner, 138 T.C. 173, 188 (2013). A preamble to a regulation could be viewed as a published administrative position, given that it is part of a Treasury Decision that is published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin and the IRS’s position is that the Internal Revenue Bulletin is the “authoritative instrument of the Commissioner.” Treas. Reg. § 601.601(d). It is unclear whether the taxpayer in Estate of Morrissette argued that the IRS was obligated to follow the preamble.
Taxpayers that wish to rely on preambles to regulations, or that are defending against an IRS position based on a preamble, need to be aware of these arguments in planning and defending their transactions. To the extent the preamble is supportive of a position and contains a persuasive and sound analysis, one could argue that Skidmore deference applies. Under this argument, the IRS should not be able to disavow its interpretation of a statute or regulation. Additionally, taxpayers may wish to argue that under the principle announced in Dixon and prior Tax Court cases, the statements in a preamble constitute a concession by the IRS to which it is bound. A similar analysis should be undertaken if the preamble is contrary to the taxpayer’s position.