Internal Revenue Code (Code) section 7803(a)(3)(C) provides that taxpayers have “the right to pay no more than the correct amount of tax.” However, there are two relevant considerations to this “right.” First, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) must take the appropriate steps before it can assess and collect any amount of tax beyond that reported by the taxpayer. Second, taxpayers who believe they overpaid their tax must take affirmative steps to protect their rights to claim a refund before the period of limitations on seeking a refund expires. We recently provided an overview of these steps.
Taxpayers traditionally claim the right to an income tax refund (or credit) by filing a formal amended tax return using the appropriate form prescribed by the IRS (e.g., Form 1040X, Form 1120X, etc.) under IRS procedures and guidelines (e.g., Code section 6402 and the underlying regulations). However, in some situations, taxpayers can assert a valid refund claim through other means such as correspondence or other written communications with the IRS that is not made by filing a formal amended tax return. Courts have consistently recognized the validity of so-called “informal” refund claims and explained that such claims must have a written component that gives the IRS sufficient notice of the fact that the taxpayer believes they have overpaid their income tax and that a refund is due.
Likewise, the IRS acknowledges the propriety of the informal claim doctrine. However, the IRS’s position appears to be inconsistent as Internal Revenue Manual 126.96.36.199.2.6(3) (09-29-2015) references the judicially-created informal claim doctrine noted above, but Publication 5125, which discusses the IRS’s Large Business & International examination process, states that the claim must also be made under penalties of perjury. (See: Internal Revenue Manual 188.8.131.52.2.6.3 (09-29-2015).)
The recent district court decision in Johnson v. United States (No. 2:10-cv-01561-TLN-JDP (E.D. Cal., Sept. 30, 2021) addressed whether correspondence between taxpayers and the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) can give rise to an informal claim. The taxpayers in that case reviewed copies of their tax account transcripts for several years and determined that funds offset by the IRS from tax years 2013 and 2014 and applied to earlier tax years were incorrect because there was no liability remaining in those earlier years. Specifically, the taxpayers argued that they were entitled to refunds for tax years 2009 and 2010 and relied on discussions and correspondence with TAS, including a faxed letter summarizing the timeline of the issues, to support their position that their refund claim was timely under the informal claim doctrine. The IRS argued that the informal claim doctrine did not apply because the letter did not include facts sufficient to apprise the IRS of the factual basis for the claims; the letter only referenced 2009 (and therefore was insufficient for 2010) and was not signed under penalties of perjury.
The district court sided with the taxpayers regarding the year 2009, finding that the letter constituted an informal claim under the judicially-created informal claim doctrine. However, the court sided with the IRS for the year 2010 because that year was not referenced in the letter and did not put the IRS on notice that a refund was being asserted for that tax year. The court rejected the IRS’s argument that the claim was defective because it was not signed under penalties of perjury, noting that while this rendered the claim insufficient for purposes of constituting a formal claim, it was still a valid informal claim.
Practice Point: Taxpayers seeking refunds from the IRS must ensure that they follow appropriate IRS guidance and case law to ensure their claims are valid and timely. There is usually no dispute regarding the validity of timely filed formal refund claims, but the IRS and district courts look much closer at the validity of informal refund claims. In our experience, it is generally better to submit formal refund claims, but taxpayers should be aware of the informal claim doctrine as there may be situations where correspondence with the IRS can give rise to valid and timely refund claim in the absence of an amended tax return. In any event, it is usually the best practice to memorialize communications with the IRS and send “confirming” communications when dealing with them.