The judicial substance-over-form doctrine provides the IRS with the ability to set aside carefully orchestrated tax planning arrangements to treat a transaction consistent with its substance. However, the doctrine does not give the Service carte blanche to deny tax benefits. In Summa Holdings, Inc. v. Commissioner, No. 16-1712 (available here), the Sixth Circuit overturned the Tax Court and declined to apply the substance-over-form doctrine when faced with taxpayers who, “to [their] good fortune, had the time and patience (and money) to understand how a complex set of tax provisions could lower [their] taxes” and “complied in full with the printed and accessible words of the tax laws.”
Summa Holdings involved a closely held corporation (Summa Holdings, Inc.) that supercharged the tax benefits provided by paying commissions to an interest charge domestic international sales corporation (IC-DISC) by having the IC-DISC owned by two Roth IRAs. While the dividends paid by the IC-DISC were taxable upon receipt, the dividend amounts (totaling $6 million over 7 years) were vastly larger than the annual contribution limits placed on Roth IRAs. For unfathomable reasons, the IRS did not challenge the $3,000 price that the Roth IRAs paid for the IC-DISC stock. Instead, the IRS asserted that that the substance of the arrangement was that the corporation paid dividends to its shareholders and the shareholders made excess contributions to the Roth IRAs.