We welcome back my colleague, Caleb Smith, in the Harvard Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center. Caleb has the misfortune to sit next to me and have me come over and regularly pose to him guest blog posts he might write. In today’s post he linked up with Toby Merrill and our amazing colleagues at the Legal Services Center in the Predatory Lending Clinic who have a nationwide project going to assist individuals who fell prey to unscrupulous for profit colleges. We hope that the Revenue Procedure issued by the IRS that Caleb discusses here might become a model for future rulings in similar circumstances. Kudos to the IRS and Treasury for identifying and implementing a solution to a problem that could have created a lot of headaches for individuals who were already suffering from their student loan problems. Keith
A lot has recently been said about the problems that arise when 1099s and other information returns are issued when they shouldn’t be. These earlier posts seemingly run the gamut of 1099 issues: from how to strategically defend against “phantom income” here to insight on how difficult it is to bring action against potentially malicious 1099 issuers (bottom of the post, here). The prior posts focus mostly on what to do when a 1099 was issued that shouldn’t have been. This post focuses on preventing the issuance of the 1099 in the first place.
As a tax practitioner, it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Generally, you work with an individual client to solve their individual tax problem. Sometimes, however, you can’t help but take note that your client’s problem is identical to a pool of other individuals: think, for example, of the Bank of America underreporting of mortgage interest covered here, here and here. The recently issued IRS Rev. Proc. 2017-24 is perhaps an even better example of a systemic fix for a problem that will affect thousands of individual clients. Among other things, it demonstrates the potential of collaboration between tax and disparate fields of law to reach an optimal outcome. For your reading pleasure, it also provides an opportunity to learn a bit more about the sometimes-sordid world of for-profit colleges.
Background of Rev. Proc. 2017-24
In early 2013, a for-profit vocational school called the American Career Institute (ACI) closed suddenly, shutting out thousands of students in Massachusetts and Maryland. Shortly thereafter, the company went into receivership, and the Massachusetts Attorney General sued the company and its principals. After more than two years of contentious litigation, the Attorney General reached a consent judgment with the school in which the corporate defendants admitted significant wrongdoing and violations of state law.
At the same time that the Commonwealth was litigating the case, the U.S. Department of Education was dealing with an influx of applications for loan discharges from borrowers who were cheated by for-profit schools, especially the defunct Corinthian Colleges. Under federal law and the terms of all federal student loan master promissory notes, federal student loan borrowers are entitled to assert such “defenses to repayment” of their federal student loans when their schools violate their rights under state law.
The Department of Education eventually made a finding that certain subsets of former Corinthian Colleges students are presumptively entitled to have their loans discharged under this provision, and invited those borrowers to submit applications for discharge. Before the first discharges were granted or announced, advocates raised the issue with the Departments of Education and Treasury.
This advocacy helped result in the IRS issuing Rev. Proc. 2015-57, in which the IRS held that borrowers with federal loans taken out to attend ACI or Corinthian would not have income upon those loans cancellation. Rev. Proc. 2015-57 was a big win for taxpayers, but didn’t go quite as far as Rev. Proc. 2017-24…
What Rev. Proc. 2017-24 Does
Rev. Proc. 2017-24 essentially says three things: (1) “ACI/Corinthian students, completely disregard your cancelled student loans, (2) also, we want to avoid a bunch of other problems so don’t worry about things like potential ‘tax benefit rule’ issues on having taken education credits in the past, and most importantly (3) Creditor, you don’t have to report the cancelled debt under 6050P -so don’t bother issuing a 1099-C.” The first two directives are pretty much already handled in Rev. Proc. 2015-57. It is the final point that addresses the most obvious problem that the IRS (and practitioners) could see looming on the horizon.
Without Rev. Proc. 2017-24 there is the serious risk that creditors would issue 1099-Cs to former students of Corinthian or ACI even though most of those students wouldn’t have discharge of indebtedness income under the disputed debt doctrine. The creditor would have impetus to avoid potential IRC § 6050P compliance problems by erring on the side of issuing 1099-Cs. This in turn would create an information reporting nightmare. To the IRS computers, it would look as if former students simply forgot to report the 1099-C on their returns. In fact, under the disputed debt doctrine there is no streamlined “form” for the former student to file “showing their work” as to why they did not include the 1099-C on their return (as they could on Form 982 for the insolvency exclusion). At best the taxpayer could attach a Form 8275 disclosure statement to their return explaining their disputed debt doctrine position. I have my doubts that this would ever be done. (As a side-note, low-income taxpayers seeking free tax assistance through VITA cannot file Form 982 for insolvency and very likely cannot file Form 8275, as it is “out-of-scope” of the VITA guidelines.)
But there is another issue that the IRS seems to acknowledge, albeit indirectly. After detailing the defense to repayment argument as a reason much of the debt wouldn’t be taxable, the IRS casually drops one more reason why much of the cancelled debt shouldn’t be included in income: the insolvency exclusion (see Section 2.03 of Rev. Proc. 2017-24). The IRS doesn’t say why it has reason to believe many of these individuals are insolvent (I don’t doubt that many are). It is just one more potential reason listed as to why we should treat ALL of the affected individuals as not having cancellation of debt income. Since the insolvency exclusion requires a reduction of tax attributes (and therefore properly requires a step beyond just “not reporting” the cancelled debt as income, see IRC § 108(b)), I think the IRS is actually mentioning insolvency for a different reason. Namely, that the IRS recognizes that many of these individuals would be very hard to collect from in the first place. And although it might seem unfair to administer assessment of tax based on collection criteria, to an extent this already happens all the time. Collectability is already cited as a factor in determining whether to pursue an examination of a taxpayer (see IRM 220.127.116.11). Treating collectability as a factor in the exam stage (which can be thought of, in a sense, as the assessment phase) is even cited with approval by TIGTA, as covered by Procedurally Taxing here.
The New Normal: Why Collectability and Efficiency Matters
The quote “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is attributed to the great American statesman Ben Franklin. Given current budget issues, it could serve just as well as the IRS guiding principle. Think of the downstream costs without Rev. Proc. 2017-24. Thousands of taxpayers, generally low-income and with the least access to competent tax advisors, would receive 1099s. My bet is that many would ignore them when they filed their returns. This, in turn, would lead to a flurry of activity from the Automated Under-Reporter function of the IRS, leading to the usual split of taxpayers that respond to the notices and those that do nothing until their paychecks are on the verge of getting levied. Those that wait to respond would, most likely, have an excellent argument on the merits that they shouldn’t have cancelled debt income… but good luck finding a venue to make that argument in the collection stage. Instead, out of expediency, many of these individuals would likely look to (and be eligible for) collection alternatives. The outcome? Skewed tax rolls, about an extra billion trees chopped down for IRS notices, and little to no more money taken in by the Treasury.
Of course, the IRS shouldn’t make decisions purely out of administrative efficiency concerns: the proper application of the tax law should govern. But where both equity and the law bend strongly towards broad strokes (that just so happen to carry significant efficiency gains as well), I for one find it hard to work up too much moral outrage. (A similar example can be found in the IRS administration of the PATH Act ITIN expiration statutes. The law plainly says all pre-2008 ITINs expire January 1, 2017 (See IRC 6109(i)(3)(c). The IRS plainly says (at page 5) all ITINs with 78 or 79 as the middle digit expire January 1, 2017… but that’s it. Don’t worry if your ITIN was actually issued before 2008, as it would be a nightmare to track those all down.)
And this leads to the final point: that the “new normal” of an under-funded IRS may provide greater opportunity for systemic advocacy and innovative alternatives to the usual procedures. As a recently publicized example, one may consider the educational letters sent out by TAS to EITC recipients that likely over-claimed their credit but weren’t audited. The IRS may have a greater appetite for a Rev. Proc. 2017-24 type solution when the argument is advanced that, on the whole, tax administration is better served by painting with a broad brush. Cancelled debts stemming from lawsuits are not the only area where this approach is being taken. But seeing where these opportunities are, and effectively advocating for them, requires collaboration and an eye to the non-tax world.
If nothing else, the value of Rev. Proc. 2017-24 may be as a reminder to tax practitioners on the value of stepping outside of the tax bubble (or even just noticing that you may be in one).