On July 6, 2023, the US Tax Court issued its decision in Betz v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2023-84. Betz considers the application of the pilot model supply rule to expenses incurred by a designer (CPI) of made-to-order air pollution control systems called oxidizers. At issue was approximately $500,000 of research and development tax credits pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 41 on wage and supplies expenses for 19 different oxidizers that CPI produced under various purchase agreements or purchase orders. Generally, IRC Section 41 grants qualifying taxpayers federal income tax credits for increasing research activities, calculated with respect to the amount of “qualified research expenses” (QREs) incurred by the taxpayer during the tax year over a base amount. The statute is complex and has been the subject of substantial controversy between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and taxpayers since its enactment in 1981.
In Betz, CPI generally oversaw the component fabrication process and the assembly of the systems at its subcontractor facilities and then installed or oversaw installation of the oxidizer at the customer’s location. Testing of the oxidizers generally occurred after assembly or after installation. The supply expenses generally included the major components of the various oxidizers, all of which were fabricated by subcontractors. CPI claimed the credit based on a study performed by a tax consultancy group, the fees for which were capped at a percentage of the research credits identified.
The IRS challenged whether the taxpayer met the test in IRC Section 41 that the research must be research “with respect to which expenditures may be treated as expenses under [IRC] section 174.” (See IRC Section 41(d)(1)(A).) The Tax Court found that CPI failed to substantiate that the claimed wages and supplies constituted IRC Section 174 “investigative” activities. CPI’s primary evidence was in the form of testimony from CPI executives and supervisory personnel whom the Tax Court found to be “vague, in conflict with the record, and lacking in credibility[.]” Alternatively, the Tax Court found that, even assuming CPI engaged in IRC Section 174 research activities that gave rise to IRC Section 41 creditable expenses, five of the projects constituted funded research given CPI’s complete transfer of rights in the results of any such research to its customers.
Regarding the supply QREs, the Tax Court held that taxpayer intent was essential to determining whether its efforts to create a pilot model satisfy the “uncertainty” standard in IRC Section 174 regulations. In that regard, the taxpayer had to show “that its purpose in producing that representation or model was to evaluate and resolve uncertainty about the product (i.e., to obtain unavailable information necessary to establish capability, method, or appropriate design).” The taxpayer failed to make this showing. The Tax Court pointed to the lack of “early-stage” testing as an indication that the oxidizers were not used as pilot models but were, in fact, final products.
Practice Point: Betz demonstrates that the IRS continues to scrutinize claims of qualified research expenses. The Tax Court’s critique of CPI’s reliance upon testimony highlights the importance of contemporaneous documentation showing how a pilot model was used to resolve uncertainty around a product’s design. Evidence of experimental testing of the model to learn specific information that would improve the ultimate product design may be key to linking the model to continuing experimentation efforts.
 CPI is a subchapter S corporation owned by the taxpayers Betz and Lincoln. For expedience, we will refer to CPI as the taxpayer.