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IRS Provides Guidance on Reliance of FAQs for Penalty Protection Purposes

On October 15, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a news release and fact sheet for IRS Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), which are typically posted on the IRS’s website. The purpose of the fact sheet is to confirm and explain the extent to which FAQs can be relied upon for purposes of avoiding civil tax penalties. (For a primer on penalties and defenses, see our prior article in the Tax Executive.)

The Internal Revenue Code and Treasury Regulations, along with relevant case law, provide rules on what can (and cannot) be relied upon for penalty protection purposes. The most common penalty defenses are reasonable basis (sometimes coupled with a disclosure requirement), substantial authority and reasonable cause. Substantial authority is an objective standard, and Treasury Regulation § 1.6662-4(d)(3)(i) contains a laundry list of such authorities. Absent from this list are IRS FAQs. Reasonable basis has generally been viewed as an objective standard as well (at least outside the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit), and satisfaction of the substantial authority standard suffices for reasonable basis purposes. Reasonable cause is a subjective standard based on consideration of all the facts and circumstances, with the most important factor being the extent to which the taxpayer took steps to determine their proper tax liability.

For many years, taxpayers and practitioners have debated the value of IRS FAQs. On the one hand, they provide much needed guidance that can be helpful to taxpayers. On the other hand, FAQs are not published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin, are not treated as precedential or binding on the IRS and may be removed or changed by the IRS at any time (without any repository available to find prior versions of FAQs). The IRS relies heavily on FAQs to provide immediate guidance to taxpayers—sometimes in the form of substantive guidance—but has historically disclaimed any ability for taxpayers to rely on its FAQs or for IRS personnel to follow its FAQs. This has led to uncertainty in the tax community as to whether (and to what extent) taxpayers can and should follow IRS FAQs for both substantive positions and penalty protection purposes.

Prior to his return to private practice earlier this year, former IRS Chief Counsel Michael Desmond noted the need for better transparency and permanency around certain IRS FAQs. That transparency and permanency has finally arrived, although the weight of its value still remains uncertain. In the new release and fact sheet, the IRS announced as follows:

FAQs are a valuable alternative to guidance published in the Bulletin because they allow the IRS to more quickly communicate information to the public on topics of frequent inquiry and general applicability. FAQs typically provide responses to general inquiries rather than applying the law to taxpayer-specific facts and may not reflect various special rules or exceptions that could apply in any particular case. FAQs that have not been published in the Bulletin will not [...]

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Expect Controversy in the Wake of Tax Reform

Tax reform is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may receive additional funds to implement the new tax law. With lowered tax rates, accelerated expensing and forced repatriation of foreign earnings comes an increased risk of an IRS audit. This brave new tax world has left so many questions that tax advisors’ phones have been ringing off the hooks! But as the end of the 2017 year and first quarter of 2018 dust settles, be mindful of the IRS audit to come. (more…)




The IRS Is Struck Down Again in Privilege Dispute

Courts continue to strike down the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as it continues to test the bounds of the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine through the issuance of improper summonses. In the last several years, the IRS has filed numerous summons enforcement proceedings related to the production of documents generally protected by the attorney-client privilege, tax-practitioner privilege, and/or work product doctrine. These summonses include overt requests for “tax advice” and “tax analysis,” which several courts have refused to enforce. For example, see Schaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2015).

Once again, in United States v. Micro Cap KY Insurance Co., Inc. (Eastern District of Kentucky), a federal district court rejected the IRS’s arguments and refused to enforce an inappropriate summons. The opinion is available here. The IRS filed this enforcement proceeding seeking to compel the production of confidential communications between taxpayers and the lawyers that assisted them in forming a captive insurance company. After conducting an in camera review (where the judge privately reviewed the documents without admitting them in the record), the judge found the taxpayers had properly invoked privilege since each document “predominately involve[d] legal advice within the retention of [] counsel.”

The court also rejected the government’s argument that the attorney-client privilege was waived by raising a reasonable cause and reliance on counsel defense to penalties in the taxpayers’ case filed in Tax Court. Because the government’s argument was untimely, it was waived and rejected outright. The court, however, proceeded to explain how the argument also failed on its merits. (more…)




Tax Court Addresses “Issue of First Impression” Defense to Penalties

We previously posted on what we called the “issue of first impression” defense to penalties and the recent application of this defense by the United States Tax Court (Tax Court) in Peterson v. Commissioner, a TC Opinion. We noted that taxpayers may want to consider raising this defense in cases where the substantive issue is one for which there is no clear guidance from the courts or the Internal Revenue Service. Yesterday’s Memorandum Opinion by the Tax Court in Curtis Investment Co., LLC v. Commissioner, addressed the issue of first impression defense in the context of the taxpayer’s argument that it acted with reasonable cause and good faith in its tax reporting position related to certain Custom Adjustable Rate Debt Structure (CARDS) transactions. For the difference between TC and Memorandum Opinions, see here.

The Tax Court (and some appellate courts) has addressed the tax consequences of CARDS transactions in several cases, each time siding with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In its opinions in those other cases, the Tax Court has found that the CARDS transaction lacks economic substance. The court in Curtis Investment concluded that the CARDS transactions before it was essentially the same as the CARDS transactions in the other cases with only immaterial differences. Applying an economic substance analysis, the Tax Court held the taxpayer issue lacked a genuine profit motive and did not have a business purpose for entering into the CARDS transactions. (more…)




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