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 [...]