I have been reading a lot of opinions discussing misbehaving tax return preparers. The IRS has a heavy arsenal it can deploy against those preparers short of criminal sanctions: civil penalties, injunctions and disgorgement are the main tools, all of which we have discussed from time to time. A recent email advice that the IRS released explores when an entity that employs a return preparer can also be subject to return preparer penalties.
One way to think about the uptick in actions against return preparers is that the IRS has taken Judge Boasberg and others to heart when IRS lost the Loving case a few years ago.
Part of the reason Judge Boasberg (later affirmed by the DC Circuit) tossed the IRS return preparer scheme out was that the IRS approach to including return preparation within 31 USC § 330 (which authorizes the Secretary to regulate “the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury” )seemed to disregard or minimize the existing powers the IRS had to combat bad egg preparers:
Two aspects of § 330’s statutory context prove especially important here. Both relate to § 330(b), which allows the IRS to penalize and disbar practicing representatives. First, statutes scattered across Title 26 of the U.S. Code create a careful, regimented schedule of penalties for misdeeds by tax-return preparers. If the IRS had open-ended discretion under § 330(b) to impose a range of monetary penalties on tax-return preparers for almost any conduct the IRS chooses to regulate, those Title 26 statutes would be eclipsed. Second, if the IRS could “disbar” misbehaving tax-return preparers under § 330(b), a federal statute meant to address precisely those malefactors—26 U.S.C. § 7407—would lose all relevance.
As Judge Boasberg flagged, a key aspect of the IRS power to police return preparers is civil penalties under Title 26. Section 6694(b) provides a penalty for a preparer’s willful or reckless misconduct in preparing a tax return or refund claim; the penalty is the greater of $5,000 or 75% of the income derived by the tax return preparer from the bad return/claim.
The recent email advice from the National Office explored the Service’s view on whether the IRS can impose a 6694 penalty on the entity that employs a misbehaving return preparer as well as the individual return preparer who was up to no good. The advice works its way through the statutory and regulatory definitions of return preparer under Section 6694(f), which cross references Section 7701(a)(36) for the definition of “tax return preparer.”
Section 7701(a)(36) provides that “tax return preparer” means any person who prepares for compensation, or who employs one or more persons to prepare for compensation, tax returns or refund claims.
The regs under Section 6694 tease this out a bit. Treasury Regulation § 1.6694-1(b) provides the following:
For the purposes of this section, ‘tax return preparer’ means any person who is a tax return preparer within the meaning of section 7701(a)(36) and § 301.7701-15 of this chapter. An individual is a tax return preparer subject to section 6694 if the individual is primarily responsible for the position(s) on the return or claim for refund giving rise to an understatement. See § 301.7701-15(b)(3). There is only one individual within a firm who is primarily responsible for each position on the return or claim for refund giving rise to an understatement. … In some circumstances, there may be more than one tax return preparer who is primarily responsible for the position(s) giving rise to an understatement if multiple tax return preparers are employed by, or associated with, different firms.
Drilling deeper the advice also flags Reg § 1.6694-3(a)(2), which sets out when someone other than the actual return preparer may also be on the hook for the 6694 penalty:
- One or more members of the principal management (or principal officers) of the firm or a branch office participated in or knew of the conduct proscribed by section 6694(b);
- The corporation, partnership, or other firm entity failed to provide reasonable and appropriate procedures for review of the position for which the penalty is imposed; OR
- The corporation, partnership, or other firm entity disregarded its reasonable and appropriate review procedures though willfulness, recklessness, or gross indifference (including ignoring facts that would lead a person of reasonable prudence and competence to investigate or ascertain) in the formulation of the advice, or the preparation of the return or claim for refund, that included the position for which the penalty is imposed.
In the email, the Counsel attorney points to the above reg for the conclusion that its “interpretation of Treasury regulation § 1.6694-3(a)(2) is that generally, the entity (corporation, partnership, or other firm entity) that employs a tax return preparer will simultaneously be subject to the penalty under section 6694(b) only if the specific conditions set forth in the regulation are met. Otherwise, only the individual(s) that is primarily responsible for the position(s) on the return or claim for refund that gives rise to the understatement will be subject to the penalty.”
The email does refer to a district court opinion case (affirmed by the Sixth Circuit) from a few years ago, US v Elsass, where the court found that the owner of an entity was a “tax return preparer” for the purposes of the return preparer penalty provisions. In that case, the owner was the sole owner and personally prepared a substantial number of the returns at issue and was in its view the moving force on the positions (a theft loss/refund scheme).
The upshot of the advice is that absent circumstances similar to Elsass, or the presence of conditions 1 and either 2 or 3 above in Reg 6694-3(a)(2), an entity that employs return preparers itself is likely not subject to penalties. That conclusion suggests that return preparers should be careful to document and review procedures that are in place to ensure that an employed preparer has supervision and, of course, to make sure that management follows those procedures.