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The Tax Practice of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
The Tax Practice of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law

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Posted on in Tax Rants

Many clients have been contacting me these past several weeks and asking what my take is on the IRS after the change in administration.   Will enforcement activities decrease as a result of the new president’s own rancor for the agency?  Or will the Service instead react like the intelligence community, digging in its collective heels and strengthening its entrenched bureaucracy, perhaps even resurrecting the more draconian tactics of past times?

The answer I have been offering to my clients is both frustrating and disturbing:  I really have no idea.   And I do not think anyone really does know what to expect.  Playing a wait-and-see game makes substantive tax planning difficult, and tax controversy representation even more challenging. 

If the new President, with a supporting Congress, follow through on advertised tax reform proposals, the overall rates will be lowered, saving money for middle and upper income taxpayers.  And if the Affordable Care Act is repealed (Obamacare), so goes the 3.8% surtax on investment income.  While it is uncertain if these changes will happen at all, it is even more unclear now whether they would become effective for the 2017 or the 2018 tax year, making the deferral-of-income strategy a difficult recommendation to counsel at this point.

Posted on in Tax Rants

International investment is becoming easier and easier, so long as you have available funds. 

Advancements in technology, as well as the decreasing significance of language barriers and restrictive politics has made it possible for U.S. interests to invest overseas, even if the capital outlay is not massive. 

But the U.S. reporting rules are strict, and compliance essential.  Here’s what you need to know about reporting requirements prior to undertaking even a minimal foreign investment project. 

FBAR Reporting

In February of 2007, the Internal Revenue Service issued a news release outlining the reporting requirements for foreign financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers under the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA).    

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Posted on in Tax Rants

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I recall the “reinvention” of the Internal Revenue Service following the nasty Senate hearings in 1998.   

This was before 9/11, when our government’s problems were consistent with a simpler, less troubled time.  For those of you who weren’t of age at the time to care about such things, or perhaps weren’t even inhabiting this planet yet, these hearings were a big deal.  The Tax Collector was put on trial, and the proceedings televised to the nation – the IRS’ Watergate.  Current employees provided testimony behind curtains with masked voices like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.  Taxpayers complained bitterly about the “Gestapo-like” tactics of aggressive Revenue Officers and Special (criminal) Agents. 

The aftermath?  Our government’s procurement of a million dollar consultant study analyzing the structural and other problems with the IRS bureaucracy.  The study led to some new legislation – the third, but most significant ever, Taxpayer Bill of Rights.  Also, the IRS reorganized itself, and rolled-out a functionally (rather than geographically) based bureaucracy, while at the same time publicly dedicating itself to improved customer relations and a responsive, educating, client-servicing agency.   The “New” IRS. 

Tax Lien filings and levies dropped significantly in the wake of the roll-out.  Seizures were dramatically reduced and, in part due to the new protective legislation requiring a district court order, the taking of residences to satisfy tax debts all but disappeared entirely from the IRS Collection toolbox.

Shortly thereafter, the offer in compromise program criteria were liberalized, so instead of a 95% plus rejection rate, more and more taxpayers started realizing the “fresh start” promised by the alternative.   And the government reportedly reduced its receivables significantly, making it more resemble a business.  Good for everybody. 

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overpaid, overpayment of taxes, Chicago Tax AttorneysOn our website and blog, we’ve discussed extensively the various scenarios for underpayment of taxes, tax audits, tax court litigation, etc. But what happens when you pay too much in taxes? This happens a lot more than most people recognize, and consequently, many taxpayers do not realize their overpayment until it’s too late.

Won’t the IRS Just Refund My Overpaid Taxes?

Like most dealings with the IRS, the answer to this question is…it depends. The key is if the IRS is aware of the overpayment. For example, if you file a tax return that shows you owing $1000 and you accidentally mail in a check for $1500, the IRS will probably (though there is no guarantee) catch the mistake and refund you the $500 overage. The far more common scenario, however, is an overpayment that the IRS is not aware of. Common examples that fall into this category include failure to claim a credit or deduction you are entitled to (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or home mortgage deduction) or in the case of a business filer who was entitled to carry a net operating loss from a prior year. There are also cases in which a taxpayer overpays as a result of an audit examination.

Filing a Claim for Refund

In the vast majority of cases, there are two ways to file a refund claim when you overpay your taxes.  In many instances, you may be able to file an amended return for the tax year in question to correct the error and claim your overpayment. The other method is to file Form 843 Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement. When filing this form, it is important to clearly state the specific reason(s) for the refund claim. In certain limited circumstances, you may also choose to file an "informal" Claim for Refund – this is just a letter to the IRS claiming an overpayment of a particular amount for a specific reason. This method is seldom used, and you should only choose this option with the assistance of a skilled tax attorney. Whatever method you select to claim your refund for overpaid taxes, it is best to take action sooner rather than later; unless there are extenuating circumstances, the statute of limitations for filing a refund claim is within three years of the date of filing the return or two years of the date the overpayment was made, whichever is later.  Its actually a bit more complicated than just that, though, because you can only claim an overpayment of monies that were paid within the prior two years.  One more thing to be careful of is filing a claim for an excessive or unjustified amount. Because of the high number of frivolous claims, Congress has given the IRS the authority to levy a penalty equal to 20% of the amount of the claim.

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clock, statute of limitations, Chicago Tax AttorneysIt recently came to your attention that you made a mistake on the tax return you filed a couple of years ago.  Do you still need to worry about it?  And if so, for how much longer?  What if you discovered this tax controversy because the IRS sent you a letter pointing out your mistake and telling you that you now owe them more money then you believed at the time?

Without the Letter

If the IRS hasn't alerted you to a problem with your taxes, they must "assess" any additional tax within 3 years from either the due date of the return or the date the return was actually filed (if filed late). There are two exceptions:

  • If the error involves an omission of 25% or more of the gross income reported on the return, they get 3 additional years.
  • If the IRS can prove that you filed a false tax return, a fraudulent tax return, or failed to file any return at all.  In such cases, the statute of limitations goes out the window and they can come after you at any time (i.e., no statute of limitations period on making an additional assessment).

With the Letter

If you've received a letter from the IRS telling you that you owe more taxes for a particular year, this generally means you have already been assessed , so you are now dealing with the "collection" statute of limitations.  

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U.S. Tax Court, tax law, Chicago Tax Lawyers"I guess you will have to go to jail. If that is the result of not understanding the Income Tax Law I shall meet you there. We shall have a merry, merry time, for all of our friends will be there. It will be an intellectual center, for no one understands the Income Tax Law except persons who have not sufficient intelligence to understand the questions that arise under it." Senator Elihu Root, commenting on the complexity of the very first income tax law in 1913. The U.S. Tax Court began its existence as the Board of Tax Appeals in 1924, when it was still a part of the Executive branch. In 1942, an act of Congress renamed it "The Tax Court of the United States," but it was still a part of the Executive branch and existed in the same building as the IRS. It wasn't until 1969 that a second act of Congress converted it into a 'legitimate' Court - part of the Judicial branch - and renamed it (again) as the "U.S. Tax Court."  

In 1974 the U.S. Tax Court finally got its own building in the heart of Washington D.C. Despite its centralized location, the Tax Court  "travels", hearing cases in cities all over the country.  In the major metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago), the Court will visit and hear cases mostly every month, while in less populous locales, the Court will visit once or twice a year (Billings, Anchorage, Knoxville).

Two Kinds of Cases

If the IRS claims that you owe money, but there is no single year for which you owe $50,000 or more, you can elect for your case to be heard under the 'small' tax case procedures of the Court.  As with the non-small ("regular") cases, you'll generally be required to pay a $60 fee when you file your "petition", which is the document on which you make the small case procedure selection. What is the difference between small case and regular Tax Court procedures? In small tax cases, the Court "relaxes" the rules of evidence, so that if it is not economical for you to hire an attorney (i.e., the amount at issue doesn’t warrant legal fees or you simply do not have the resources to pay a representative), you will not be held to the same strict rules of evidence that would otherwise apply.  However, small tax cases, by statute, cannot be appealed; whatever the judge decides, ends the matter with finality. Regular tax cases are, therefore, a much more formal affair.  But, there is no rule that requires you to hire a lawyer, even in a regular tax court case.  Note that the Tax Court has no equivalent of the 'public defender;' if you cannot afford an attorney, one will

Stipulations

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litigation hazard, tax appeals, Chicago Tax Attorneys"A fair and impartial resolution is one which reflects on an issue-by-issue basis the probable result in event of litigation, or one which reflects mutual concessions for the purpose of settlement based on relative strength of the opposing positions where there is substantial uncertainty of the result in event of litigation." - Internal Revenue Manual section 8.6.1.3(2). When you've sent a Letter of Appeal to the IRS asking for an administrative review of a decision that was made by the Examination function regarding your tax dispute, the IRS assigns an Appeals Officer to determine of there is a possibility for settling the issue. The mission of the Appeals Officer is to resolve your case in a way that:

  • Avoids litigation;
  • Is "fair and impartial";
  • Will encourage voluntary compliance;
  • Represents the integrity and efficiency of the IRS.

Because the Appeals Officer's mission explicitly includes the objective of avoiding litigation, they'll generally begin the discussion by going over the various ways in which you could settle out-of-court by reaching a compromise that fully embraces any hazards to the government of litigating the issue.

Hazards of Litigation Defined 

What the Appeals Officer is actually determining is a quantitative analysis of:

  • The likelihood that, if the case goes to Tax Court on the liability issues, what are the chances the government will prevail, and what are the chances that the taxpayer will prevail.
  • The cost of litigation to the government is simply not an issue.

Application of the Hazards of Litigation Standard

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cnc status, tax debt, Chicago Tax Attorneys"Available for a limited time only," the advertisements said, "The IRS' CNC Tax Program can help keep you from paying the IRS if you can't afford it!"

You may have heard an advertisement like that on the radio or TV in the past few years. But the truth is that the Currently Not Collectible moniker isn't a 'program;' it's a status that selectin taxpayers can be placed in by the IRS, if they are temporarily experiencing an extreme economic hardship. There is no 'limited time," – that’s a sales pitch. Put simply, the CNC status is a tax controversy in which the IRS marks your account as "this person is too poor to collect from." That status doesn't mean that you don't owe the money; it just means that you can't pay right now, so the IRS goes into 'observation mode' and waits for you to show signs of being able to pay. Here's an example scenario:

 

  1. You fall behind on your installment tax payments.
  2. The IRS detects that you've fallen behind, and they terminate your installment agreement.
  3. The IRS re-engages its normal process of attempting to actively collect via calling, sending letters, inviting you to their office, and/or visiting your home or business.
  4. You still cannot pay.
  5. The IRS begins enforced collections, meaning they attempt to garnish your wages, seize your bank accounts, file liens against identified assets.
  6. You realize that they're going to come after you relentlessly (they are the IRS, after all) and that you can't afford to live if they keep messing with your paychecks. So, you talk to an agent and you demonstrate that paying what you owe – even by monthly installments - would create a severe economic hardship, such that you will not be able to pay your electric bill or buy groceries for your family. Furthermore, if your delinquency involves some form of paperwork (i.e. a tax return that was never filed, or withholding that was insufficient to meet your tax burden), you must resolve that problem as well. Finally, you file Form 433-A or 433-F, along with all of the statements, receipts, and paystubs that prove your hardship.
  7. The IRS will attempt to work with you to find an Offer in Compromise or other method of collecting on the debt first prior to using the CNC status. If they can squeeze something out of you, that’s the oreferred mode.
  8. Assuming that fails, the IRS puts the "Currently Not Collectible" status on your account, and they wait. Note that penalties and interest still accrue during this time - you just don't have to pay those penalties and interest until you're out of hardship.
  9. While they're waiting, you still pay your current taxes as normal; you just don't have to pay on the delinquent taxes you owe. If you fail to file or fail to pay, the CNC is dropped and collection efforts resume.
  10. If, on the documents you're filing in order to maintain your CNC status, your financial situation shows that you're doing well enough to begin payments on your existing debt, the CNC status is removed and collection efforts resume.
  11. Most CNC statuses come with a 'follow-up date' upon which the CNC automatically expires and the IRS collection efforts begin again. It may be possible to get back into CNC status by re-requesting, and thus obtain a new follow-up date.
  12. Finally, if your account remains in CNC status for so long that the debt expires (10 years in most cases), the CNC status ends and your account normalizes without any payments made on the debt (or the interest or penalties that accrued associated with that debt).

This process is long, full of numerous potential pitfalls, and it's not that great of an option anyway, as you have to live a life of poverty in order to utilize it. The one positive to CNC status is the knowledge that there is a scenario in which the IRS allows you to live and pay your bills without taking your grocery money. If you are behind on back taxes and are currently in (or on the road to) CNC status, it is important to seek professional guidance to determine your best path forward. At Chicago-Kent Tax Clinic, we provide free consultations and low-cost representation from attorneys with in-depth experience working with the IRS and in private practice. To speak with one of our skilled Chicago tax lawyers, contact us today at 312-906-5041.

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