This week’s Redfield v Commissioner illustrates the harsh and sometimes unfair results that sometimes attach when a taxpayer misses a deadline. The taxpayer in this case was a disabled 12-year Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan; he was suffering from PTSD and memory loss. After leaving the Marines he returned in 2010 to accept a civilian position at an airfield in Kandahar. Unfortunately his physical and mental condition worsened and he returned back to the States later in 2010. The case illustrates perhaps a gap in our tax system: the Service is required to enforce most deadlines without regard to whether the taxpayer’s disability contributed to the taxpayer’s delinquency.
Redfield’s tax troubles arose from his failing to file a tax return for the 2010 year, the year in which he had some foreign source income from the time he was working as a civilian in Kandahar. In 2014, IRS eventually prepared a substitute for return under Section 6020(b). Redfield did not respond to the stat notice that accompanied the SFR; instead he filed a delinquent 2010 return, which attempted to exclude the foreign source income from his shortened civilian gig in Kandahar.
Section 911 provides that citizens and residents living and working outside the US can exclude some of that earned income (the cap is adjusted for inflation and is about $100,000 these days). I will not spend much time on the nuances of the foreign earned income exclusion but Section 911 states that a taxpayer wishing to avail himself of the exclusion has to elect its application. The statute also directs the Treasury to issue regs to implement the regime. Treasury issued regs under Section 911 that fill in the details of that election: the when and the how are spelled out in detail.
The case considers whether Redfield satisfied the regulation’s timing requirement. The regs establish 4 methods of making the election 2 of them require the election to be made either with or in response to a timely filed return; a third requires that the election be made within one year of a timely filed return. That did not happen here.
The main issue revolved around the fourth method. It allows a taxpayer to file the election if it is made before the Service “discovers that the taxpayer failed to elect the exclusion.” In particular, the Tax Court considered whether the Service’s SFR amounted to its discovering that Redfield did not elect to exclude the wages he earned while working in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately for Redfield, in McDonald v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-169 the Tax Court held that the Service discovers the failure to make the election no later than the issuance of the substitute for return. Redfield’s election was submitted years after the SFR, and the Tax Court held that he was out of luck.
The Tax Court acknowledged the harshness of the outcome, but felt that its hands were tied:
We acknowledge petitioner’s military service to this country and recognize that he emerged far from unscathed from his tours of duty in Afghanistan. We understand that the procedural requirements for making a timely [foreign earned income exclusion] election are not exactly intuitive and that the scars petitioner incurred during his military service may have contributed to the tax delinquency at issue.
While these facts may be relevant to the penalty and additions to tax that the IRS determined, they do not alter the requirement of a timely election. As to that requirement we must give effect to the regulations that the Secretary has issued under his delegated authority from Congress and to this Court’s prior construction of those regulations. That being so, we unfortunately have no alternative but to hold that petitioner did not make a timely and valid [foreign earned income exclusion] election for 2010. He is therefore not entitled to exclude from gross income any foreign earnings under section 911.
Some Parting Thoughts
Keith has written extensively on the impact of disability and time deadlines in the Code. An article he co-wrote a few years ago suggests that Congress should more directly apply the concepts of financial disability to other deadlines that taxpayers may not meet.
Deadlines by their nature may at times work and produce an unfair substantive result. The Service administers a complex tax system and processes many million tax returns. Yet it seems that for taxpayers who suffer from mental and physical disabilities, especially for veterans whose injuries arose in service for our country, there should be a safety valve for the Service or the court to provide relief when the failure to meet a deadline is connected to the taxpayer’s disability.