The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Chief Counsel is the chief legal advisor to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue on all matters pertaining to the interpretation, administration and enforcement of the Internal Revenue Laws. In this regard, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel is responsible for litigating cases in the US Tax Court. Such cases can arise from examinations conducted by different divisions within the IRS, such as the Large Business & International (LB&I), Small Business/Self Employed (SB/SE), Tax Exempt & Government Entities (TE/GE) and Wage & Investment (W&I) Divisions.
On January 21, 2022, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel announced plans to hire up to 200 additional attorneys to assist with litigation efforts. The announcement specifically notes that new hires are necessary “to help the agency combat syndicated conservation easements, abusive micro-captive insurance arrangements and other tax schemes.” They will also help the IRS manage its increasing caseload as part of its multiyear effort to combat what it believes are abusive schemes and to ensure that the appropriate taxes and penalties are paid. The new hires will be located around the country and focus on audits of complex corporate and partnership issues.
Additionally, there are a significant number of cases before the Tax Court that involve conservation easements and micro-captive insurance arrangements. The IRS’s attack on the donation of conservation easements is well known in the tax world. To date, the IRS has largely been successful in these cases based on non-valuation arguments that easement deeds do not comply with the applicable regulations. However, in the recent Hewitt v. Commissioner case, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dealt a significant blow when it held that the IRS’s interpretation of Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(6)(ii) was arbitrary and capricious and violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the US Department of the Treasury failed to respond to significant comments submitted during the notice-and-comment process. Many conservation easements are within the Eleventh Circuit’s jurisdiction and other appellate courts are expected to weigh in soon, which could result in the IRS and taxpayers proceeding to trial on valuation issues. Valuation issues are inherently fact intensive and will require the IRS to utilize substantial resources to litigate.
Practice Point: Much has been written about the trend of decreased enforcement by the IRS over the past several years, owing in part to decreased or stagnant funding from US Congress. Tax litigation, particularly in fact intensive cases involving valuation issues and transactions the IRS (but not necessarily the courts) deemed abusive, requires the expenditure of substantial resources by the IRS. The IRS has signaled that it is ready to reverse the trend. All IRS tax controversies start with the examination of the taxpayer’s positions on the return. We have seen an increase in IRS audit activity in the last year or so, especially with medium-sized businesses and high-net-worth individuals. The Chief Counsel is assembling his “army” to litigate positions developed during the examination. It’s a good time for taxpayers to review their aggressive or questionable tax positions to ensure they have the proof needed to sustain their burden during an examination, before the IRS Independent Office of Appeals and in court.