By: Steven D. Hamilton, Principal, Steven D. Hamilton, CPA

August 01, 2014 3:26 pm EDT

I have been thinking about IRS penalties.  I had a client that racked up payroll tax penalties, and we tried to get them waived. The IRS thought otherwise. Many tax practitioners will tell you that penalty abatement rests as much on drawing a sympathetic IRS officer as any technical argument the practitioner can offer. I am increasingly a member of that camp.

Let’s briefly discuss my client, and then let’s discuss the Arthur and Cheryl English Tax Court decision.

I acquired a new client from a sole practitioner. He had been their accountant for a number of years, and it was his usual routine to go out, review the books, prepare a payables listing, run payroll and whatnot. Fairly routine stuff. The client then bought a business. In addition to more complicated accounting, the accountant now had some additional payroll tax issues to address.

It did not go well. The accountant miscalculated certain third-quarter payroll tax deposits. Others he simply deposited late. He continued this into the fourth quarter. The client sensed something was wrong, and then decided something was in fact wrong. This took time, of course. By the time my client hired me, the prior accountant had affected two tax quarters.

The IRS –of course – came back quickly with penalties.

I disagreed with the penalties. My client – relying on a tax professional – paid as and when instructed. Granted, my client eventually realized that something was amiss, but surely there is permitted a reasonable period to investigate and replace a tax advisor. Payroll can have semiweekly tax deposit requirements, which timeframe may be among the most compressed in the tax Code. It does not mesh at all with replacing a nonperforming professional.

We got the third quarter penalties waived.

Then the IRS came after quarter four. I once again trotted out my reasonable cause request. The IRS denied abatement, in response to which we requested an Appeals hearing.  My heart sank a bit to learn that our case went before a newly minted Appeals officer. She could not understand why the client had not “resolved” the payroll issue by the end of quarter three. Surely, she insisted, my client “must have known” that there was a problem, and he should have done an “investigation” or something along those lines. She trotted out the well-worn trope that is the bane to many a reasonable cause request: a taxpayer is not allowed to “delegate” his tax responsibility to another, even if that other is a tax professional.

At what point does reliance on a tax professional extend to “delegation” of responsibilities? Apparently, my scale was quite different from that of this brand-new Appeals officer.

We lost the appeal.

Sigh. I suspect that – in about ten years – she would decide the same case differently.

Let’s talk about Cheryl English.

Cheryl became disabled in 2007. She carried a private disability policy with Hartford Insurance, and Hartford paid while she filed and waited on her social security disability claim. There was a catch, however. If Cheryl were successful in receiving social security, her Hartford benefits would be reduced by any social security benefits she received.

In 2010 she won her social security claim. She received a check of approximately $49,000, from which she forwarded approximately $48,000 to Hartford. She netted approximately $1,500 when the dust cleared.

And there is a nasty tax trap here.

If one purchases a private disability policy and pays for it on an after-tax basis, then any benefits received on the policy are tax-free. It is one of the reasons that many tax advisors – including me – frown on using a cafeteria plan to purchase disability coverage.

Cheryl received tax-free benefits from Hartford.

Then she received social security.

She consulted with two CPAs. Both assured her that – since the social security was being used to repay nontaxable benefits – it would be nontaxable.

There is symmetry to their answer.

However, taxes are not necessarily symmetrical. The Code states what is taxable. Both CPAs were wrong.

Social security can be taxable. The same is true for social security disability.

The IRS wanted tax of approximately $10,500. They also wanted an “accuracy” penalty of approximately $2,100.

OBSERVATION: Remember that Cheryl only cleared approximately $1,500 from the transaction. The IRS wanted approximately $12,600 in taxes and penalties. There clearly is lunacy here.

Cheryl took the case pro se to the Tax Court.

NOTE: “Pro se” means she represented herself.

The Court reviewed the Code, where it found that social security benefits could be nontaxable if one repays the benefits. That is not what happened here, however. Cheryl received social security benefits but repaid an insurance company, not the Social Security Administration. The Court looked for other exceptions, but finding none it determined that the benefits were taxable.

She owed the tax.

The Court struck down the “accuracy” penalty, though, observing that she sought the opinion of two CPAs and acted with reasonable cause and in good faith. The Court commented on the complexity of the tax law in this area, stating:

The disparate treatment of private and public disability benefits for tax purposes is curious and somewhat confusing,”

I am curious why Cheryl made no claim-of-right argument. There is a provision in the Code for (some) tax relief when a taxpayer recognizes something as income and later has to pay it back. I presume the reason is that Cheryl did not have tax (or much tax) in the Hartford years, so the tax break would have been zero or close to it when she repaid Hartford.        

Cheryl won on the penalty front, but she still had to pay taxes of $10,500 on approximately $1,500 of net benefits. Frankly, she may have been better off not having the Hartford policy in the first place.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

About the author

Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.

social securityIRS penaltiespayroll tax depositsprivate disability insurancepro se
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