Last summer, the Tax Court decided what seemed to be a fairly routine innocent spouse case involving three tax years, Jacobsen v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-115. Mr. Jacobsen’s former wife had embezzled about $500,000 from her employer, and he was seeking to be relieved of taxes on the embezzlement income that had been omitted from their joint returns. The Tax Court dismissed the 2009 year from the case because the taxes had already been discharged in Mr. Jacobsen’s unfortunate ensuing bankruptcy. For the 2010 year, the court relieved him under section 6015(b) because he did not even have reason to know of the embezzlement (his ex-wife having hidden the money in small deposits in their joint business account and then gambled it all away), and four other equitable factors favored relief, while none disfavored relief. For the 2011 year, though, the court denied him relief under section 6015(b), (c), and (f), holding that, because he helped a return preparer prepare the 2011 return after his wife had already gone to jail, he had actual knowledge by then of the omitted income.
Of course, actual knowledge precludes relief under subsections (b) and (c), but it doesn’t preclude relief under subsection (f), equitable relief. Rev. Proc. 2013-34, 2013-2 C.B. 397, applicable to the case, provides factors to consider for equitable relief. Prior Rev. Proc. 2003-61, 2003-2 C.B. 296, had provided that actual knowledge was an especially strong factor weighing against relief, though it could be overcome. A major liberalization of relief in the 2013 Rev. Proc. is that actual knowledge is now weighed no more heavily against a taxpayer than reason to know. But then, Judge Paris, purporting to apply the 2013 Rev. Proc., but with no comparison of the factors for 2011, held that because Mr. Jacobsen had actual knowledge and helped prepare the 2011 return, he could not get equitable relief.
Mr. Jacobsen had been pro se. Keith and I were perplexed by the 2011 ruling. There were four positive factors for relief – marital status (divorced), no significant benefit, compliance with later tax filing requirements, and adverse health issues (Mr. Jacobsen is a vet with PTSD). How could they be outweighed by merely one negative factor, actual knowledge, which is no longer held extra-strong weight? (Helping prepare a return does not seem to be a separate factor, but simply part of the knowledge factor.) So, the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic volunteered to represent Mr. Jacobsen in an appeal of the 2011 part of the case to the Seventh Circuit. The DOJ did not cross-appeal the IRS loss on the 2010 year.
We think this is an important case to vindicate the liberalization of the actual knowledge factor in Rev. Proc. 2013-34. While there have been many court of appeals opinions under the prior Rev. Procs. under subsection (f), this will apparently be the first appellate case applying Rev. Proc. 2013-34. We know that the Tax Court has held that it isn’t bound to follow the Rev. Proc., but Judge Paris purported to follow the Rev. Proc. when discussing the equity factor for relief under subsection (b) for 2010. Even if the Rev. Proc. is only advisory, can a court purporting to apply it let one negative factor outweigh four positive factors? And isn’t the judge making actual knowledge, in effect, a per se disqualifier from relief under subsection (f), which contains no provision concerning knowledge?
A law student helped the IRS try the case in the Tax Court. Three law students at Harvard helped Keith and me draft our appellate brief. Here is the appellee’s brief. No reply brief was filed. A Harvard clinic student will do the oral argument for Mr. Jacobsen in the Seventh Circuit on September 13 – which we hope will be a lucky day, despite its being a Friday. This must be either the first case or one of the first cases where law students have helped both taxpayers and the IRS in litigating a case.