Previously, we discussed the two categories of IRS “gifts” that taxpayers cannot accept: clerical gifts and purely computational gifts. We left, however, with the cliffhanger that computational gifts may become “conceptual” gifts, which attorneys often can accept. Today, we’ll look closer at what a conceptual gift is and whether it is what was at issue in the Householder case (covered here).
Each step away from the strictly arithmetic computational gift takes you closer to the conceptual. Facts and circumstances are critical in determining which category the gift best falls into. So much of tax calculation involves the interplay of disparate statutes and facts, which may or may not have been explicitly covered in the settlement and negotiation. What first appears to be a matter of computation can often be a matter of concept: for example, the failure of the IRS to raise an issue that at first seemed ancillary but ultimately is determinative.
For example, imagine you are settling a deficiency case where your client filed their return late. Both parties have agreed on the deficiency amount, but never really discussed (or settled on) the exact date the return was filed. The IRS prepares a settlement document that reflects the deficiency agreed on but has a lower IRC § 6651(a)(1) late-filing penalty than you expected. Is this a computational error or a conceptual error?
At first blush, failure-to-file penalties seem like basic arithmetic: essentially, you look at the total amount of tax that should have been reported (and paid) and multiply that by 5% for each month the return is late. In the above hypothetical you’ve reached a determination of the amount of tax that should have been reported when you settled on the deficiency amount. But it isn’t clear that you ever discussed or determined exactly when the return was filed -that is, how late the return is, and by consequence how many months the penalty applies. That value could be subject to reasonable dispute. Exactly when a return is “filed” can be contentious. If the return was truly “late-filed” the issue would be when the IRS received it… but even that date isn’t always clear, especially post-Fowler (see coverage here).
Reverse engineering the late-filing penalty calculations may help in this case: how many months does the penalty amount proposed by the IRS equal? Is it a mathematically impossible number under the statute? (IRC § 6651(a)(1) rounds each fraction to a full month, so if you are 32 days late it is the equivalent of two months.) If so, it is likely a computational error.
Likely a computational error. But not definitely.
Again, conceptual errors may linger behind even the most seemingly mathematical mistakes. The IRS could conceivably have decided on a penalty amount that doesn’t immediately appear to add-up. For example, maybe the parties agree that the return was three months late, but the IRS believes there are significant hazards of litigation on a “reasonable cause” argument. In that case, the IRS may settle on a penalty that doesn’t otherwise make mathematical sense: a penalty of only 60% of the amount due for a three month-late return, accounting for the 40% chance that the petitioner may prevail on a reasonable cause argument in court.
The thing is, as a matter of negotiation the IRS pretty much always has discretion to settle on dollar amounts that won’t “make sense” in a winner-takes-all application of the Code. Left unbounded, the unscrupulous tax attorney could always say, “it wasn’t an arithmetic error: they were just scared I might win!” This line of argument should not always be availing. Whether an attorney can shoehorn a computational error into the conceptual category depends on the facts and circumstances of the case at issue, and the actual conduct of the parties in reaching their settlement.
First though, it is important to recognize why tax attorneys may be so tempted to categorize gifts as “conceptual” in the first place. The biggest reason? These are the gifts you can (in some sense, “must”) accept from the IRS. They are (generally) client confidences that do not raise to the level of misrepresentation to the court. Unless the client wants you to disclose the issue, you shouldn’t. Admittedly, different people in the tax world have different views on your responsibilities to the client and tax administration more broadly. The 2020 Erwin Griswold Lecture gives an interesting overview of the opinions of some prominent tax personalities on that point.
ABA Statement 1999-1 uses the example of a Schedule C deduction to illustrate. In the example the parties eventually agree that the deduction should be allowed, but counsel for the taxpayer believes (secretly) that the deduction likely should be due to passive activity under IRC § 469, and therefore wouldn’t benefit the client. The IRS doesn’t raise this issue, and neither does counsel. ABA Statement 1999-1 advances this as a “conceptual” error: counsel must not disclose unless their client expressly consents to their doing so.
To me, this is a roundabout way of asking whether the conceptual error might not be an “error” at all. As the ABA Statement notes, passive activity issues are highly factual and “subject to some reasonable dispute.” That seems less like a conceptual “error” on the IRS’s point, and more like a conceptual “weakness.” In the ABA’s example the wiggle room is in the reasonable dispute on a highly factual question of law. But that isn’t always how conceptual errors work, particularly when you “know” the key facts at issue.
For example, imagine the IRS audits your client claiming their niece as a qualifying child for the Earned Income Tax Credit. All the IRS is putting at issue is whether the niece lived with your client. Later in the process, you learn that the real problem with your client’s return is that they are legally married and needs to file married filing separate (which disallows the EITC). The IRS, however, doesn’t think to raise this issue. Note that this is essentially what happened in Tsehay v. C.I.R., discussed here. Even though that may be a “conceptual” error you still are not completely off the hook. I would argue that you cannot enter a decision with the court failing to correct that mistake. Recall your obligations to the court under MRCP 3.3 and note especially Rule 3.3(a)(2): the prohibition on failing to disclose adverse controlling legal authority.
In sum, the only time you may be completely free is where it is a conceptual “weakness” rather than an outright error: those instances where you could argue “maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a mistake at all.” Let’s see if that’s what happened with the Householders.
As Applied to the Householders
The gift to the Householders was in the form of a very messy Notice of Deficiency. Most pertinently, it involved the transformation of a gain (reported by the taxpayer) into a rather large, favorable loss that never seems to have been claimed by the taxpayer at all. The Notice of Deficiency explanation illustrates the confusion: “It is determined that the amount of $317,029 claimed on your return as a loss resulting from the sale of your business is allowable.” The problem is that loss was not claimed on the return.
How did this mistake come to be? Was it from dueling legal theories for calculating the gain on the sale? I am operating from imperfect information, but the order would suggest otherwise. The working theory is that the IRS revenue agent was looking at an unsigned Form 1040 that had been submitted during examination negotiations, and not the actual Form 1040 that had been filed.
One may be tempted to call this a “clerical” mistake: a typo transposing numbers from the actual filed return and one that was just floating in the revenue agent’s file. But one can also imagine facts that would shift this into the world of “conceptual” errors. If there was a return floating around the revenue agent’s file that took the position there was a $317,029 loss, it is conceivable that the IRS simply agreed with that position. How are you to know if the IRS agreement was inadvertent? More facts would certainly be needed surrounding the transaction at issue to determine if it were a conceptual or clerical error.
A core question Householder raises is whether by filing a petition and invoking the power of a tribunal (and thus MRPC Rule 3.3), you are under any sort of obligation to correct errors on a Notice of Deficiency: computational, clerical, or otherwise. A secondary question is whether silence on such a mistake is the same as prohibited “misrepresentation” to the court. I don’t think it is always so simple as to say “it’s not my job to fix the IRS’s mistakes.”
In any event, by the time Householder gets to the Tax Court, Judge Holmes is essentially handcuffed in getting to the right number. Particularly where settlement is done on issues rather than bottom line numbers, it appears that silence on an error concerning how those issues will ultimately “add up” under Rule 155 computations is not going to be upset by the court. See Stamm Int’l Corp. v. C.I.R., 90 T.C. 315 (1988).
But that’s not what this foray into ethics is all about. This is not about what the Tax Court can do, but what a tax attorney should do under their professional obligations. I certainly do not have enough facts to know whether Householder involved conceptual, computational, or clerical mistakes. I do know that these sorts of gifts raise all sorts of ethical issues and are not as fun to receive as one may think.