For those who know me or occasionally read my articles, you know that I am not a “high wire” type of tax practitioner. Pushing the edges of tax law is for the very wealthy and largest of taxpayers: think Apple or Donald Trump. This is – generally speaking - not an exercise for the average person.
I understand the frustration. A number of years ago I was called upon to research the tax consequence for an ownership structure involving an S corporation with four trusts for two daughters. This structure predated me and had worked well in profitable years, but I (unfortunately) got called upon for a year when the company was unprofitable. The issue was straightforward: were the losses “active” or “passive” to the trusts and, by extension, to the daughters behind the trusts. There was some serious money here in the way of tax refunds – if the trusts/daughters could use the losses. This active/passive law change happened in 1986, and here I was researching during the aughts – approximately 20 years later. The IRS had refused to provide direction in this area, although there were off record comments by IRS officials that were against our clients’ interests. I strongly disagreed with those comments, by the way.
What do you do?
I advised the client that a decision to claim the losses would be a simultaneous decision to hire a tax attorney if the returns got audited and the losses disallowed. I believed there was a reasonable chance we would eventually win, but I also believed we would have to be committed to litigation. I thought the IRS was unlikely to roll on the matter, but our willingness to go to Tax Court might give them pause.
I was not a popular guy.
But to say otherwise would be to invite a malpractice lawsuit should the whole thing go south.
And this was a fairly prosaic area of tax law, far and remote from any tax shelter. There was no “shelter” there. There was, rather, the unwillingness of the IRS to clarify a tax law that was old enough to go to college.
I am reading about a CPA firm that decided to advise a tax shelter. It went south. They got sued. It cost them $375,000.
Here is a question that we have not discussed before: is the $375,000 taxable to the (former) client?
Let’s discuss the case.
The Cosentinos and their controlled entities (G.A.C. Investments, LLC and Consentino Estates, LLC) had a track record of Section 1031 exchanges and real estate.
COMMENT: A Section 1031 is also known as a “like kind” exchange, whereby one trades one piece of property for another. If done correctly, there is no tax on the exchange.
The Consentinos played a conservative game, as they had an adult disabled daughter who would always need assistance. They accumulated real estate via Section 1031 transactions, with the intent that – upon their death – the daughter would inherit. They were looking out for her.
They were looking at one more exchange when their CPA firm presented an alternative tax strategy that would allow them to (a) receive cash from the deal and (b) defer taxes. The Consentinos had been down this road before, and receiving cash was not their understanding of a Section 1031. Nonetheless the advisors assured them, and the Consentinos went ahead with the strategy.
OBSERVATION: It is very difficult to walk away from a Section 1031 with cash in hand and yet avoid tax.
Wouldn’t you know that the strategy was declared a tax shelter?
The IRS bounced the whole thing. There was almost $600,000 in federal and state taxes, interest and penalties. Not to mention what they paid the CPA firm for structuring the transaction.
The Consentinos did what you or I would do: they sued the CPA firm. They won and received $375,000. They did not report or pay tax on said $375,000, reasoning that it was less than the tax they paid. The IRS sent them a love letter noting the oversight and asking for the tax.
Both parties were Tax Court bound.
The taxpayers relied upon several cases, a key one being Clark v Commissioner. The Clarks had filed a joint rather than a married-filing-separately return on the advice of their tax advisor. It was a bad decision, as filing-jointly cost them approximately $20,000 more than filing-separately. They sued their advisor and won.
The Court decided that the $20,000 was not income to the Clarks, as they were merely being reimbursed for the $20,000 they overpaid in taxes. There was no net increase in their wealth; rather they were just being made whole.
The Clark decision has been around since 1939, so it is “established” law as far as established can be.
The Court decided that the same principle applied to the Cosentinos. To the extent that they were being made whole, there was nothing to tax. This meant, for example:
- To extent that anything was taxable, it shall be a fraction (using the $375,000 as the numerator and total losses as the denominator).
- The amount allocable to federal tax is nontaxable, as the Cosentinos are merely being reimbursed.
- The amount allocable to state taxes however will be taxable, to the extent that the Cosentinos had previously deducted state taxes and received a tax benefit from the deduction.
- The same concept (as for state taxes) applied to the accounting fees. Accounting fees would have been deducted –meaning there was a tax benefit. Now that they were repaid, that tax benefit swings and becomes a tax detriment, resulting in tax.
There were some other expense categories which we won’t discuss.
By the way, the Court’s reasoning is referred to as the “origin of the claim” doctrine, and it is the foundation for the taxation of lawsuit and settlement proceeds.
So the IRS won a bit, as the Cosentinos had excluded the whole amount, whereas the Court wanted a ratio, meaning that some of the $375,000 was taxable.
Are you curious what the CPA firm charged for this fiasco?
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.