Ninth Circuit Holds Tax Form is Substance

By and on June 4, 2021

The substance over form doctrine (and related step transaction and economic substance doctrines) are often invoked by courts to disallow tax consequences that seem too good to be true. Courts have struggled for years with how to properly apply these doctrines. Those advocating against application usually rely on the famous passage by Judge Learned Hand in Helvering v. Gregory, 69 F.2d 809, 810 (2d Cir. 1934): “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” Those advocating for this position seek shelter in cases like Commissioner v. Court Holding Co., 324 U.S. 331, 334 (1945), in which the Supreme Court of the United States stated, “the incidence of taxation depends upon the substance of a transaction. …. To permit the true nature of a transaction to be disguised by mere formalisms, which exist solely to alter tax liabilities, would seriously impair the effective administration of the tax policies of Congress.” But ultimately, as the Supreme Court explained in Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465, 469 (1935), “the question for determination is whether what was done, apart from the tax motive, was the thing which the statute intended.”

However, what the statute intended is not always easy to determine. In Mazzei v. Commissioner, No. 18-82451 (9th Cir. June 2, 2021), the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit answered this question in the context of tax motivated transactions involving the since-repealed foreign service corporation (FSC) regime that was complied with all the formalities required by the Internal Revenue Code but which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asserted should nonetheless be recharacterized under the substance over form doctrine. The Court noted it is a “black-letter principle” and courts follow “substance over form” in construing and applying the tax laws. However, this doctrine is not a “smell test” but rather a tool of statutory construction that must be applied based on the statutory framework at issue. Thus, in appropriate situations where Congress indicates that form should control, the substance over form doctrine is abrogated.

That is exactly what happened in Mazzei. Agreeing with the First, Second and Sixth Circuits, which had previously addressed similar issues, the Ninth Circuit found that the statutory framework and history indicated that Congress did not intend for the substance over form doctrine to apply to the FSC regime. While “[i]t may have been unwise for Congress to allow taxpayers to pay reduced taxes” under the statutory scheme, “it is not our role to save the [IRS] from the inescapable logical consequence of what Congress has plainly authorized.”

Practice Point: The distinction between tax avoidance (permissible) and tax avoidance (impermissible) is not always an obvious line. Taxpayers should be able to rely on the words used by Congress when enacting tax laws, but courts have recognized that there are circumstances where formal compliance is not enough. The substance over form and related doctrines should always be analyzed—like other tools of statutory construction—when structuring transactions. Where there is evidence that statutory provisions deliberately elevate, or have been construed to elevate, form above substance, these doctrines may not be applicable. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion, along with the other related appellate cases cited therein, provide a useful framework for taxpayers and their advisors in making these determinations.

Andrew R. RobersonAndrew R. Roberson
Andrew (Andy) R. Roberson focuses his practice on tax controversy and litigation matters. He represents clients before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Examination Division and Appeals Office and has been involved in more than 50 matters at all levels of the federal court system, including the US Tax Court, several US courts of appeal and the Supreme Court. Andy has experience settling tax disputes through alternative dispute resolution procedures, including Fast Track Settlement and Post-Appeals Mediation, and in representing clients in Compliance Assurance Process (CAP) audits. He also represents individuals in Global High Wealth Industry Group audits and in connection with offshore disclosure programs. Read Andy Roberson's full bio.


Kevin SpencerKevin Spencer
Kevin Spencer focuses his practice on tax controversy issues. Kevin represents clients in complicated tax disputes in court and before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at the IRS Appeals and Examination divisions. In addition to his tax controversy practice, Kevin has broad experience advising clients on various tax issues, including tax accounting, employment and reasonable compensation, civil and criminal tax penalties, IRS procedures, reportable transactions and tax shelters, renewable energy, state and local tax, and private client matters. After earning his Master of Tax degree, Kevin had the privilege to clerk for the Honorable Robert P. Ruwe on the US Tax Court. Read Kevin Spencer's full bio.

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