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Preparer “Doctors” the Return Adding Phantom Income: Court Sustains Preparer Penalties

Posted on Feb. 21, 2017

Tax return preparers have heightened requirements when preparing returns claiming many refundable credits. While the IRS lost the battle over regulating unlicensed preparers, it does have tools to examine and sanction preparers who violate those rules. There have been very few opinions considering whether a preparer’s conduct justifies the imposition of civil penalties. Last week in Foxx v US the Court of Federal Claims held that a preparer was subject to a civil penalty under Section 6694(b) for his willful or reckless conduct relating to his failure to make reasonable inquiries into income from taxpayer’s purported auto-detailing business. The IRS claimed that the taxpayer did not in fact earn the income in question. The Foxx case presents the what frequent guest poster Carl Smith has referred in a guest post to as the topsy-turvy world of earned income tax credit (EITC) cases because the creation of the phantom income fueled a refundable EITC that exceeded the taxpayer’s income and self-employment tax liability.

George Foxx came to the attention of the IRS after it audited the tax return of Shakeena Bryant. Bryant had claimed an EITC; almost all of the earned income on the return was from an auto-detailing business she reported on Schedule C. Foxx referred to himself as the tax doctor and claimed to have 37 years of tax return prep experience. Bryant went to the tax doctor with a friend of hers, Herman James. On audit of Bryant’s return, the IRS disallowed the credit. During the audit, she agreed that she did not have the income necessary to justify her claiming the credit. In correspondence, Bryant claimed that she was instructed by Foxx to report the income to justify the refund.

IRS then examined Dr. Foxx and assessed a $5,000 penalty under Section 6694 for his willful or reckless conduct in preparing the return (note there is a separate $500 penalty under Section 6695(g) for violating the due diligence rules; that penalty was not at issue in the case). After an administrative appeal of his penalty IRS reduced it to $2500. Foxx paid and sued for refund.

The government deposed Bryant’s friend (James) who accompanied her to Dr. Foxx when the Tax Doctor prepared her return.

The case on the surface turned on whether the preparer George Foxx 1) facilitated the improper claiming of the credit by instructing the taxpayer how to goose the credit and make it look legitimate by applying for a business license even in the absence of the actual business or 2) prepared the return based on what Bryant told him about her business.

A bad fact for the Tax Doctor in this case was that James on deposition supported Bryant’s version of the facts. Both Bryant and James stated that she obtained a business license the same day the return was prepared pursuant to Dr. Foxx’s instruction. James also stated that Dr. Foxx “explained that such a license would allow him to obtain more money for Ms. Bryant, and Dr. Foxx, not Ms. Bryant, created the false business income that appeared on Ms. Bryant’s tax return.”

According to the opinion, Foxx clamed that in preparing the return he relied upon Bryant’s business license and two pages of his notes that outlined expenses associated with the business.

What was potentially a he said/they said case evolved into the court concluding that it did not matter which version was true. Even if Bryant did tell the preparer about her income the court concluded that Foxx had an affirmative obligation under the specific EITC due diligence regulations to dig deeper:

Dr. Foxx argued before the IRS that his reliance on Ms. Bryant’s alleged statements regarding her business was reasonable because Ms. Bryant otherwise would have only earned approximately $15 in 2007 based on the W-2 she provided to Dr. Foxx. Such an argument is misplaced; Ms. Bryant’s financial situation did not relieve Dr. Foxx of his obligation to make reasonable inquiries into any auto detailing business purportedly conducted by Ms. Bryant after she did not provide adequate documentation. His failure to do so was an intentional or reckless disregard of relevant Treasury Regulations [referring to the due diligence regulations under Section 6695]

Schedule C and Compliance Generally

As the Foxx case illustrates, the EITC creates the odd incentive for the creation of phantom income that could fuel a tax refund. That phantom income could also create a record of social security benefits that could generate Social Security benefits.

While noncompliance with the EITC generates significant attention, the absence of information reporting that ties much income to self-employed taxpayers contributes to those taxpayers in general comprising the largest source of the individual tax gap. EITC noncompliance among self-employed taxpayers is a small but significant part of the tax gap that is associated with self-employed taxpayers. Despite the EITC comprising a small portion of the tax compliance problem among the self-employed, there are special due diligence obligations imposed on preparers who prepare EITC returns with Schedule C’s that do not apply to other Schedule C returns.

On the IRS’s EITC web page for professionals it has a special training section discussing Schedule C. The training states that preparers “generally can rely on the taxpayers’ representations, but EITC due diligence requires the paid preparer to take additional steps to determine that the net self-employment income used to calculate the amount of or eligibility for EITC is correct and complete.”

IRS has on its EITC due diligence web site a series of scenarios discussing what it believes are examples of when preparers need to take additional steps. One of the scenarios involves a self-employed housecleaner who comes to a preparer claiming exactly $12,000 in earnings with no records and no expenses. A similar example is in the regulations. For the house-cleaner with the rounded off income figures and no expenses the IRS advice states that a preparer should “probably not” prepare the return in the absence of at least a written record of expenses and earnings, though opens the door a bit if the taxpayer “can reasonably reconstruct” the earnings and expenses. To that end the advice suggests that the preparer should ask how much she charges per house, as well questions relating to how many houses she cleaned on average per week and probe as to the reason for the lack of expenses (e.g., the homeowners provided all supplies).

Back to Foxx

One does not need to have a suggestion that a preparer has encouraged the fabrication of phantom income to generate preparer penalties. A cautious reading of the Foxx opinion is when preparing a return with an EITC based on self-employment income the preparer should  require documentary evidence supporting the amount claimed to have been earned and any expenses that are incurred. In the absence of records (a sure bet for many) the preparer should document and retain an explanation as to how he came to the net earnings, tying conclusions to specific information that the client has provided. For a taxpayer with little in the way of documents, it would be a good idea to have the taxpayer in writing affirm the manner that the preparer computed a business’ net earnings and state that the facts that the preparer is relying on are accurate to the best of the taxpayer’s recollection. Absent that the preparer opens himself up to a charge that he has failed to make “reasonable inquiries” in the presence of incomplete information (one of the requirements under the due diligence regulations).

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