In the refund case of Gregory v. United States, No. 1:19-cv-00386 (Ct. Cl. 2020) the Court of Federal Claims denies the refund claim of a couple because they did not sign the amended return. The issue of signatures has become more important during the pandemic because of the difficulties of meeting in person. For the Gregorys the issue probably involved distance because they were working the Australian outback. Still, the case shows that an actual signature can be an important step in making a request to the IRS.
The outcome for the Gregorys may change for others in their situation in the future. On August 17, 2020, in IR-2020-182, the IRS announced that ” [m]arking a major milestone in tax administration, the Internal Revenue Service announced today that taxpayers can now submit Form 1040-X electronically with commercial tax-filing software.” Read on and find out what happened to the Gregorys when electronic filing of amended returns was unavailable.
The Gregorys are U.S. citizens but during the period at issue they worked as defense contractors at a facility near Alice Springs, Australia starting in 2015. They timely filed their original 2015 return claiming a small refund. The IRS sent them a notice of adjustment seeking to assess an additional liability. I suspect the inquiry caused the Gregorys to ask around about their taxes. This was their first year in Australia on this contract. If it was their first year filing a non-resident return, they had many things to learn. Over the course of the next couple of years they started learning them and they hired an accounting firm to review their return. That firm determined that they had overpaid their taxes by more than $20,000 and prepared an amended return claiming the exclusion for foreign earned income and the exclusion for employer provided housing. The amended return was signed by an employee of the preparer of the amended return and not by the Gregorys.
The IRS reviewed the amended return and allowed the refund claim but for $1,039 related to the housing exclusion. They received a check and no doubt happily paid the preparer of their amended return for setting them on the right path in dealing with the special issues raised when working overseas. For reasons that do not make economic sense to me, the Gregorys decided to file suit to recover the relatively small disallowed amount. Instead of filing in district court, they filed in the Court of Federal Claims, an alternate forum for refund suits.
The IRS moved to dismiss the case arguing that the Gregorys did not sign the refund claim making the claim invalid. The Gregorys countered that the IRS accepted the refund claim and paid them a refund of most of the amount claimed and should not, after doing so, raise the issue of valid signature.
The Court of Federal Claims went through the test of what a taxpayer must do in order to file a valid claim and obtain jurisdiction in a refund suit. First, a taxpayer must meet the Flora full payment rule. Second, a taxpayer must file a claim. Third, the taxpayer must provide “the amount, date, and place of each payment to be refunded, as well as a copy of the refund claim when filing suit in the Court of Federal Claims.” The Gregorys problem stems from the second requirement – a valid claim.
The court then walked through what makes a valid claim stating, inter alia, that it “must be verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury.” The court explained why having it signed under penalties of perjury is important. It also referred to the possibility of having the return signed by someone holding a power of attorney if the POA is attached to the return. Here, it was not.
Then the court addressed the waiver doctrine raised by the taxpayers in their defense. The court acknowledged that the IRS can waive compliance with its own regulatory requirements but cannot waive compliance with statutory requirements. IRC 6061 requires “any return, statement or other document required to be made under any provision of the internal revenue laws or regulations shall be signed in accordance with forms or regulations prescribed by the Secretary.” IRC 6065 provides “[e]xcept as otherwise prescribed by the Secretary, any return, declaration, statement, or other document required to be made under any provision of the internal revenue laws or regulations shall contain or be verified by a written declaration that is made under the penalties of perjury.” Regulation 301.6402-2(c) allows for someone other than the taxpayer to sign under penalties of perjury only if a POA form accompanies the return.
The IRS argued that in partially allowing the refund claim it waived the regulation requiring the attachment of the POA but that to the extent it did not agree with the claim, it did not, and could not waive the signature requirement in litigation by allowing a part of the claim. It pointed out the taxpayers’ argument could allow individuals to avoid the penalties of perjury requirement altogether. The court agreed and dismissed the case.
Signature issues are becoming more and more important. Electronic signatures are becoming more prevalent. We now allow remote notarization in many states. Individuals in many assisted living facilities that have locked down have no practical means of physically signing documents and often do not have computer capabilities. Getting signatures or some type of verification on documents that allows the government or the interested party to know the validity of the approval while at the same time addressing the practical difficulties created by the pandemic, requires careful attention.
While the IRS allows individuals to file tax returns electronically, it has not historically allowed the filing of amended returns electronically requiring individuals like the Gregorys who live thousands of miles from their preparer to make arrangements to meet the signature requirements. I don’t fault the IRS for wanting documents signed under penalties of perjury and requiring proof that the person submitting the claim is really the taxpayer. Electronic signature tools exist. New rules are coming out.
The IRS issued a memo on March 27, 2020 that provides a temporary deviation from IRM signature procedures. The memo allows IRS employees on the collection side to accept images of signatures and e-signatures on a number of documents, including SOL assessment/collection extensions, closing statements, POAs, and generally any document collected “outside of standard filing procedures.” The Tax Court issued a press release on August 6, 2020 which announces that electronically-filed stipulations with digital signatures will be accepted by the Court. In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a rule that authorizes e-signatures for all documents filed with Mass. courts. Numerous federal district courts have issued new rules accepting e-signatures, which can be found on this page.
Maybe next time the Gregorys can move forward in a case like this with the friendlier e-file rules, which could allow them to work with their accountant from thousands of miles away and still file a valid amended return. I remain curious about their decision to sue for such a small amount and wonder about the decision dynamic that led to this case in a refund posture.