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IRS Still Ignores Allocation of Underpayment Mandated by 2011 Pullins Opinion in Computing Section 6015(f) Relief

Posted on Feb. 14, 2019

I came back out of retirement to become the acting director of the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic for the first six months of this year, while Keith is on sabbatical.  One of the depressing things I just discovered is that the IRS is still ignoring the method for computing innocent spouse relief in underpayment cases under section 6015(f) that the Tax Court adopted (at least for some cases) in Pullins v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 432 (2011).  In a nutshell, the IRS computers take the joint tax return liability as reported and allocate it between the spouses based on each’s relative proportion of total reported taxable income.  But, in Pullins, the court said that, at least in that case, relief should be to eliminate all tax except that which would be paid by the requesting spouse had she filed a married filing separately return.

I dealt with this issue when I was the director of a tax clinic at Cardozo School of Law some years ago, and every time I saw the allocation the IRS had done of the spouse’s taxes for purposes of underpayments cases, I had to ask the IRS to recompute the relief consistently with Pullins.  The IRS always did so at my request, increasing the amount of relief.  But, I shouldn’t have had to ask.  And I wondered about all the thousands of pro se requesting spouses out there who were seeking (f) relief in underpayment cases.  They would never have known to challenge the IRS computations of their relief the way I knew to make the challenge.

Last week, I consulted with a taxpayer who had reached a resolution of a Tax Court section 6015(f) underpayment case and who asked me to look at the IRS settlement computations.  Once again, the computations ignored Pullins.  The amount by which the taxpayer was being cheated was $300.  However, after I pointed this out to her, she decided not to make a fuss about this – not wanting to possibly jeopardize the settlement that she had already achieved on the major issue of getting relief at all.

But, I want to alert everyone to what is going on, and I hope the National Taxpayer Advocate will look into this matter.  After all, it is now almost 8 years since Pullins rejected the way the IRS computers are programmed to calculate section 6015(f) relief in underpayment cases.

The goal of the innocent spouse provisions (at least where there has been no abuse) is to relieve a requesting spouse only of the tax on the nonrequesting spouse’s income, not the tax on the requesting spouse’s income.  But, implementing this goal can be tricky.

If the tax as to which innocent spouse relief is sought is a “deficiency” – i.e., attributable to an audit adjustment increasing reported tax (a situation involving an “understatement”) – then relief may be available to the taxpayer under section 6015(b), (c), or (f).  Congress provided rules for calculating relief under section 6015(c) that provide, as a general rule, that “[t]he portion of any deficiency on a joint return allocated to an individual shall be the amount which bears the same ratio to such deficiency as the net amount of items taken into account in computing the deficiency and allocable to the individual under paragraph (3) bears to the net amount of all items taken into account in computing the deficiency.”  Section 6015(d)(1).  In a simple example, if the deficiency were $30,000, and the underlying adjustments to income were $80,000 of unreported income of the husband and $20,000 of unreported income of the wife, and the wife requested section 6015(c) relief, she could be relieved, at most, of 80% of the $30,000 deficiency – or $24,000.

The IRS uses this allocation system for subsection (c) relief also when computing relief from deficiencies under subsections (b) and (f).  And I take no issue with the IRS doing so.

However, there is no provision of section 6015 that tells the IRS how to compute relief under subsection (f) in an underpayment case – i.e., where the IRS has no issue with the tax reported on the return except that, when the return was filed, not all of the tax shown thereon was paid.  The IRS has filled this gap only in Manual section (7/29/14), which states, in part:

If liability is attributable to both the RS [requesting spouse] and NRS [nonrequesting spouse], equitable relief will only be considered for the portion attributable to the NRS.


. . . .  Underpayments of tax are allocated based on each spouse’s pro rata share of the joint taxable income.


For purposes of determining how much of an underpayment is attributable to each spouse, the EITC and ACTC is allocated to each spouse in proportion to the spouse’s share of the adjusted gross income.

Imagine a case where the total tax shown on the joint return was $6,400 and the return only showed two items of income:  $80,000 of wages of the husband and $20,000 of wages of the wife.  After standard deductions for a married filing jointly return and two personal exemptions, assume that the taxable income is $58,000.  Imagine that the balance unpaid on that return is currently $4,000.  How much the requesting spouse should be relieved of under (f) is determined, in part, by how much of the total $6,400 of tax the requesting spouse already paid – either through income tax withholding, estimated tax payments, and payments made after the IRS commenced collection.  Under the Manual provision, though, the IRS would also say that the $6,400 of total tax should be allocated to the spouses 80% to the husband and 20% to the wife because that is their relative shares of the taxable income reported.  So, the wife would be allocated $1,280 of the reported joint tax liability of $6,400.

Pullins presented a similar fact pattern – i.e., the wife sought relief, and the wife’s income was relatively small compared to the total reported joint taxable income. Judge Gustafson, though, rejected the method the IRS used to determine section 6015(f) relief in that underpayment case.  Instead, he noticed that, had the wife filed a return as married filing separately, she would have had less tax.  That is because, by adding her income to her husband’s to file a joint return, both spouses got taxed at a high bracket.  But, her income alone would have been taxed at a low bracket if she had filed married filing separately.  In my example in the previous paragraph, the wife could have filed a married filing separately return showing only $20,000 of gross income.  Taking a combined standard deduction and personal exemption of, say, $11,000, the wife’s taxable income would have been only $9,000.  All of that $9,000 would be subjected only to the 10% tax bracket, so the tax she would have paid would have been about $900 – $380 less than her proportionate share of the joint liability.

In Pullins (at page 432), the judge wrote:

As we stated above, for purposes of determining the extent of her liability for or overpayment of tax on her own income, we use Ms. Pullins’s computation on the basis of married-filing-separately status, rather than the IRS’s computation that made a pro rata allocation of the reported liability (based on married-filing jointly status). To reckon the amount of tax liability that Ms. Pullins should have to pay because it is fairly attributable to her, we think that on the facts of this case it is reasonable to figure Ms. Pullins’s tax liability separately. The IRS’s method assumes a joint liability and then attributes to her a pro rata share of the joint liability, but the purpose of section 6015 is to grant relief from joint liability.  Under the IRS’s method, if we found Ms. Pullins to be otherwise entitled to section 6015 relief, we would nonetheless leave her liable for a portion of the joint liability.  Our aim here, however, is to figure Ms. Pullins’s own liability apart from joint liability and then ensure that we do not excuse her from paying her own liability.  To accomplish that aim, a determination of her separate liability, rather than an allocation of the joint liability, is most reasonable here. [footnotes omitted]

In footnote 8 on that page, the judge noted that the allocation that he was making was similar to one that would be made if it was determined that there was no joint return at all because the return had been signed under duress.  The footnote reads:

As an analogy, see 26 C.F.R. sec. 1.6013–4(d) (to allocate liability where a supposedly joint return was signed under duress, ‘‘The return is adjusted to reflect only the tax liability of the individual who voluntarily signed the return, and the liability is determined at the applicable rates in section 1(d) for married individuals filing separate returns’’ (emphasis added)). [emphasis in the Pullins original]

I think that Judge Gustafson declined to set down a general rule for all underpayment cases under section 6015(f) because he might want to adopt the IRS system of allocating the reported joint tax in proportion to relative taxable income when the requesting spouse was a person with much higher gross income than the nonrequesting spouse.  Also, there is the problem of the earned income tax credit.  If that credit applies for a married couple, it is only available if they file married filing jointly.  The nonrequesting spouse could not get any earned income tax credit with married filing separately status.  Section 32(d).

The case on which I was recently consulted was one like Pullins, where the requesting spouse had relatively small income compared to her husband’s and her income would have been taxed at a much lower rate had she filed a married filing separately return.  The return also involved no earned income tax credit.  Over the years, I have probably seen a half-dozen of this kind of case.  All presented this fact pattern.  My suspicion is that this is the typical innocent spouse case because, in my experience, the requesting spouse is usually the low earner in the family.

After almost 8 years since the issuance of Pullins, I think it high time that the IRS modify its Manual provision to reflect the Pullins system for calculating section 6015(f) relief in underpayment cases.  The IRS can adopt exceptions to deal with (1) the unusual situation of tax on a married filing separately return basis exceeding the allocation of the joint return tax in proportion to relative taxable income and (2) earned income tax credit returns.  I like the idea of allocating that credit between the spouses, though I would modify the allocation to be based on relative shares of the total earned income, not adjusted gross income.  After all, the tables for the earned income tax credit are computed with respect to combined earned income.

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