Trump’s Tax Plan

Donald Trump will take office in January 2017. What does this mean for tax season?

Fortunately, the upcoming 2016 tax season will see few changes. Trump’s proposed policies will start to go into effect for the 2017 tax season.

According to http://www.TaxFoundation.org, income tax refunds may increase, reflecting on their website the following: “On a static basis, the Trump tax plan would increase the after-tax incomes of taxpayers in every income group. The bottom 80 percent of taxpayers (those in the bottom four quintiles) would see an increase in after-tax income between 0.8 percent and 1.9 percent, under both policy assumptions.  Taxpayers in the top quintile would see a 4.4 percent increase in after-tax income under the higher-rate assumption, or 8.7 percent under the lower-rate assumption.” There will also be a likely repeal of ObamaCare, which would mean the end of the net investment income tax. The seven tax brackets will be cut down to three, featuring 12%, 25%, and 33% rates.

According to Forbes, the Federal Estate Tax will leave us, but with caveats: “According to Trump’s proposal, it won’t be completely without tax. As it stands right now, his plan would tax the appreciation inherent in the assets of an estate valued in excess of $10 million, but only when the beneficiary sells the assets; meaning that the assets won’t be taxed immediately upon death.” There will also be tax cuts for businesses, cutting rates from 35% to 15%. Of the wealthy, Forbes also had this to say: “According to the Tax Policy Center, the totality of the Trump plan will reduce federal tax revenue by $6.2 trillion over the next ten years. Of those tax cuts, nearly 47% will go to the richest 1%. To put it into dollar terms, those earning less than $48,400 will experience an annual tax cut of less than $400, while those earning in excess of $700,000 will walk away with an average of an extra $215,000 per year.”

It is unclear how these changes will impact lower tax brackets, but there will be fewer personal exemptions for families and single filers. NPR shared a slightly different take: “Economists disagree on whether the tax plan would be good for the economy. The Tax Policy Center says that over the first decade, the government would lose $6.2 trillion in revenue, producing huge budget deficits that could hurt the economy.”

For better or worse, there are changes on the horizon. In the coming months, we at Paragon Trust Company and Fortress Fiduciary Company will be working hard to keep all our clients informed regarding these changes during the upcoming tax season, and beyond.

Tony De Angelo

Tax Preparation in the United States today and how best to deal with a horribly confused landscape

Most reasonable people will agree on the fact that life is often a study in degrees. In any given situation, efficiency and cost-efficiency are best served by meeting a given need by an appropriate level of servicing that need.

For example, did you cut yourself shaving? A piece of wet tissue paper or a band aid usually does the trick. However, a deeper gash needs professional attention.

If you have some bug or tar spots on your car, a solvent purchased at the department store and some elbow grease will usually remove all of the blemishes. But did you drive through some acid rain? In that case, call your local auto body shop!

But when it comes to tax preparation, we find often that many otherwise reasonable people with known complexities in their situation will act unreasonably, and will look to get things done as cheaply as possible. If you want a cheap fix, the options of off-the-shelf software programs, and seasonal, unregistered  storefront preparers are all easy to find. But neither will be of help to you during your time of need if an error is made, or should a question arise.

Do you think I am over-dramatizing? I wish. At a recent session of the U.S. Tax Court, I rode down the elevator with a lovely young mom (“Lori”) who was called before the Court to explain her misdeeds to a Federal Judge. She was poor, and could not afford a lawyer or a practitioner. In approaching me, she somehow felt secure and shared her woes with me. Her crime? Admittedly knowing nothing about income taxes. She trusted a local “refund mill” tax preparer that was later criminally charged for falsely creating large refunds for 300 clients. She just so happened to be one such client. I felt terrible and walked her back into the building to talk to a volunteer clinician, who thankfully, was able to get her on the right track.

The Federal Government arguably acted somewhat out of character about five years ago. Seeing what was happening to the “Lori’s” of the world, it embarked on a massive  house cleaning effort demanding that all tax preparers  register and pass basic competency tests to thereby root out the bad apples. To fund this effort, all of the “good guys” on the right side of the law were forced to pay additional costly fees for yearly registration. Many of us chafed at this, but many of us felt that if this was what it took to have the losers leave town- we were all for it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fair. This government endeavor was challenged by several unenrolled preparers. They made the claim that what they did every winter was not “practice” or “client representation,” but rather, just a personal service that the government had no power to regulate. To that end, the Federal District Court did likewise and ruled that preparation of a tax return cannot be regulated by the Federal Government. The government declined to appeal this matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the possibilities for acceptance and victory were quite small.

So where does all of this leave us? In a much bigger mess than where we first started. The bad guys still roam. A large part of the commercial preparer block goes unregulated and is not subject to mandatory training and education as licensed practitioners are. A system of “voluntary” tax preparer regulation by the IRS Commissioner was just about laughed out of the park by the AICPA. State governments are being asked to pick up the regulatory slack under various “consumer protection” statutes.  And needless to say, there will be more injured “Lori’s” in the world, with nothing being done about it. The licensed folks are still paying for additional registration while the bad guys are still here.

In conclusion, I’d like to say there is a happy ending, but there really isn’t any. It is nothing more than the predictable result of what happens when large commercial enterprises and acutely thrifty consumers move to their sides of the foul line. And with that, everything in between gets more muddied than ever.

Let us leave this article where we started: Choosing your proper tax professional. Assess the need you have in a candid and honest manner. Educate yourself, as the time you take now will save costly dollars later. Talk to several practitioners and ask them what is important to you. Consider whom, or what will be there for you should you have a need or an issue. Then, make your best choice. Competent and decent practitioners have a great service to provide and nothing to hide look forward to having these discussions with you- whether you become a client or not.

Tony DeAngelo

What do you MEAN that my oil fund investment is actually a “large partnership?” And I can be AUDITED because of it?

Due to lower investment interest rates and correspondingly favorable provisions in the Tax Code in recent years, the “Master Limited Partnership” (or “MLP”) has often been the investment of choice for value seeking investors looking to find high yield at seemingly low risk.  Sold by many financial advisers as “high yield funds,” many investors have absolutely no idea that their “fund” is actually a “large partnership” until such time as they are confronted with the tax reporting nightmare of recording the entity’s results.  Even so, many investors elect to continue to hold MLP’s for a number of contemplated investment considerations, some of which are more muddied than ever due to the recent fall in oil prices.

Several years ago in our Newsletter, we had reported that the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) stated that the IRS has failed to interact and efficiently audit “large partnerships,” which are defined as entities with 100 or more direct partners and $100 million or more in assets. The report was based on concerns that so called large partnerships have increased 47 percent since the last evaluation period.  According to “Accounting Today” it was noted that in the 2012 tax year that “IRS field audits reviewed the books and records of only 0.8 percent of large partnership returns, according to the preliminary report.” Ostensibly, the auditing of less than 1 percent of these large partnerships is failing to cover mass amounts of money. Companies who bring in millions of annual revenue, such as MLP’s, are currently audit-free. More specifically, statistics show that 99 percent of these companies manage to be unidentified.

To the best of our knowledge and observation, MLP’s are not currently being set down for examination. However, once the GAO raises a concern, it is often followed by an effort on the part of the Treasury to sharply correct the same. Since MLP’s are known in the trade as “pass-through” entities, a change to partnership tax results for an open year under the tax statute will result in changes to the returns of the MLP unit holders for the same period. Translation: if an MLP that you own happens to get audited for a past year, you’ll have to amend your tax return and probably pay more tax. So much for these investments being deemed as “funds.”

But wait, there’s more!

During 2015, we had noted that several of the larger partnerships had a ratable pass-through for their investor-partners of “cancellation of indebtedness” income. In other words, a partnership ravaged by the poor oil market was unable to pay its legitimate debts. In this case the debtor, ostensibly seeing no possible way that their debt would ever be repaid, wrote the debt off. To this end, many limited partners of oil interests were forced to pay additional taxes on forgiven debts for which they were never responsible for!

To those veterans remaining in the field, many of us remember having to ask clients to pay back taxes in the late 1980’s for all of their “dog” tax sheltered partnerships that were audited in the days of unlimited (and often fabricated) write-offs. Then, as is now, many of these folks were surprised that the government could do such a thing, and the interest and penalties to be paid were often a shock. What they did not realize, but learned all too painfully, was that a partnership pays no income taxes. Howver, its partners do! The weeping and gnashing of teeth from that initiative was enormous.

But, where does all of this proceed today? Will MLP’s be audited? Will some of them report debt-cancellation income to their investors? None of us really know. As a dear friend and colleague of mine always says…. “Stay tuned to this station.”

 

Tony De Angelo

One practitioner’s personal history of thirty years of simplified income tax proposals.

When I was a very young pup getting started in this business long ago, I was able to save a little bit of money from my job and purchase cable television, which was then a novelty. When the cable service was installed, I quickly became fascinated with the “C-Span” network, as I found it interesting as to see how tax laws were actually made.

One night, I stumbled into a debate on C-Span where Bill Bradley (then a Democratic senator from New Jersey, Princeton graduate and former player on my favorite pro-basketball team) proposed a very simple flat-tax system. Mr. Bradley explained that the existing system was ripe with over-complication and loopholes, encouraged cheating, and was far too complicated for Americans to deal with. With that comment, he took out a 3” by 5” index card, while a corresponding graphic floated on the screen.

Sen. Bradley then explained that this little card would now be our simple, new, tax form, as I followed the graphic on the screen. This was so simple that a grade school student could complete it in a matter of moments! One block for your total income, of whatever source. One block for a standard deduction, a varying amount depending if you were married or single. Another block for exemptions for your family members and dependents, and you arrived at your “taxable income.”  Depending on the result; you were to multiply that amount by one of two rates in order to arrive at your Federal tax. Voila! DONE!

I became entirely immersed in these proceedings. Not only was this man throwing me out of a job, but I began to feel that what I had chosen for my profession really had no meaningful social significance whatsoever. As I watched the senator’s presentation, I honestly did not know whether to laugh, cry, scream, or fall into a state of shock. In my case, shock dashed with a wee bit of betrayal was the predominant emotion.

However, as the Senator concluded, a number of his colleagues began to comment and ask questions:

“Sen. Bradley, I think we have to allow the deduction for mortgage interest and property taxes, otherwise, the construction and banking industries will collapse.”

“Sen. Bradley, I am concerned that people will not give to charity without a corresponding tax offset.”

“Sen. Bradley, if we do not provide a favored rate for capital assets, none of those assets will get sold. The securities markets will fall flat!”

 “Sen. Bradley, if there is not a carve out for retirement savings, no one will bother to save!”

Now Bradley, wanting to appear as an open-minded and intelligent guy, tried very hard to accommodate each comment. He made statements like “OK…we can provide for that deduction by adding another line, block, schedule, attachment, rider….” He was making markups to his card that began to resemble the grid of the failed Robert Moses New York City highway system. By the time the session ended, what was present on the screen resembled something very close to the tax return form that I was now struggling to learn at work. So really, I wondered what the reason was for all of that debate stuff was for. Truly the whole discussion about changing the tax system was entirely circular.

The next morning, I wanted to show my professional dedication to the senior tax partner of my firm by telling him how I spent the previous evening. He looked at me, shook his head, and laughed loudly. “This law-change stuff is the making of sausage, kid. None of it sticks around past the dessert course!”

As of the time of this writing, over thirty years later, these impressions remain dead-on correct. We still do not have a simple, fair, or flat system of taxation in the United States, despite many outcries to that effect.  But, could we? Is it possible?   I really do not think so. For unfortunately the problem is largely a problem of our own making.

If we were to take ten Americans of varying social and economic status and have them describe what the ideal income tax system is, each one would agree on the concept of “simplicity”, but each one would as well want to see their burdens offloaded on others.  The rich man would want a lower rate and incentives. The lower-income lady would want the rich guy to pay more. The nice young married couple down the street would absolutely flip out if we took away their housing and charitable deductions.  The well-to-do single woman with no children would protest at the loss of a charitable deduction.  And, if we add in representatives from the financial, lobbying, and non-profit industries, we could all be there debating, for many years, with lofty dissertations of social goals and revenue targets.

I have said for years that the tax rules we have, are the rules that we deserve. But needless to say, reform has all been tried before and, it’s going to be tried again. Make it simple, make it fair. Eliminate the bells and the whistles.  Eliminate the burdens.  Sure! Sounds great! But when does it happen?

No one really knows when, or if, it will ever happen.  But until such time, we’ll be here to help you  cope and deal with whatever set of ground rules is presently before us, up to, (and including) the time of the next changes.

Tony De Angelo

WHERE DO YOU LIVE FOR TAX PURPOSES?

For most people of my generation, “where do you live?” was not a complicated question. For me, “Stamford, CT” was a simple response. This was the case of most of those in my town. Most of the adults at that time worked in one of the industrial plants downtown in some capacity. Or perhaps they owned a store or worked in a sundry occupation such as my father, who ran movies on Atlantic Street. There was almost never a question as to what was someone’s residence was.

But, a funny thing happened over the years. The industrial base of the USA diluted. Plants closed. Neighborhoods shifted. People became more transient in the search for employment. In later years, we all experienced the collapse of the housing and real estate markets. We began to see how something called “social networking” could pull people together in one place that were countless miles apart.

In recent days the concept of “home” has grown to be an intention of the heart and mind, as people often identify with a place of belonging, which may not be where they are physically situated in many cases.

However, our friends at the local taxing authorities have not become so enlightened over time. Most states with an income tax law adopt a either a very rigid “physical presence” or “residential connection” test to determine who actually is tied to their jurisdiction for tax purposes. As states become more and more desperate for revenue, more and more of these hard tests are being employed in the war between states for taxpayer dollars.

The fine firm of Morrison and Foerster recently reported in its newsletter on a New York case, the Matter of Tatiana Varzar, .In this case, the New York State Tax Appeals Tribunal rejected Ms. Varzar’s claim that she had changed her residency from Brooklyn, New York, to Florida, finding she had failed to establish either that she had changed her domicile or that she was not a “statutory resident” of New York State and City.

During the years 2004, 2005, and 2006, Ms. Varzar owned and maintained a home in Brooklyn and another home in Pompano Beach, Florida. Separately, she claimed to have maintained an apartment in Tampa, Florida, for an unspecified period during this interval.

Ms. Varzar carried on an assortment of business ventures in New York and Florida. Finally, she purchased a restaurant near her Pompano Beach home, but the restaurant did not open until after the time interval in question.

For each of the years in question, Ms. Varzar filed individual income tax returns as a nonresident of New York. At audit, the NYS Tax Department determined that Ms. Varzar was a domiciliary of New York State and City, and that she was a statutory resident of New York State and City because she failed to show that she spent more than 183 days outside of New York State and City for each calendar year, with 183 days per year being the usual benchmark for the determination of residency for a given state.

Later, the Tribunal ruled against Ms. Varzar. Analyzing the four criteria for determining whether a taxpayer changed domicile, it concluded that Ms. Varzar had failed to prove that she changed her domicile from Brooklyn to Florida. Most critically, the Tribunal determined that Ms. Varzar’s business ties to Florida were “limited” as compared to her Brooklyn business ties, and that the evidence reflected Ms. Varzar as having family and community ties in Brooklyn, but not any family or community ties to Florida. The Tribunal also concluded that the Department properly characterized Ms. Varzar as a statutory resident because she did not carry her burden to show that she was not present in New York State or City for more than 183 days during any of the years at Issue. The Tribunal highlighted the lack of any documentary evidence establishing Ms. Varzar’s whereabouts during the subject years, and upheld the administrative judge’s conclusion that Ms. Varzar’s testimony was not sufficiently credible.

In this case, it was very clear to all how this particular determination was made. But do all such cases along these lines favor the governmental authorities?

Well, not exactly.

One of my favorite cases with respect to this genre is Berry Gordy, Jr. vs. the Board of Equalization of California. Some of my older readers will no doubt remember Berry Gordy Jr. (he of Motown fame), who fashioned a record company in a small building in Detroit while working in the auto industry. From said studio came some of the finest musical talent ever to walk this earth, and Berry was so successful that it dawned on him one day that there was no reason to remain in Detroit year round. So, he moved to sunny California, and spent his time enjoying life and owning several homes there. However, California noting Gordy’s success, decided that they wanted some of his wealth as well. It asserted that Gordy was spending more time in Beverly Hills than in Detroit (can you blame him?), and taxed him as a full-year resident for all of 1969.

But here, the result was different. Citing that Gordy had a much stronger residential connection to Michigan than California, the court ruled in Gordy’s favor, as his professional associations, vehicles, children’s schools, and social ties all painted a picture of a man who had never “left” Detroit.

It is interesting to take the Varzar and Gordy cases and compare them. At first it seems that they are two different decisions in different jurisdictions based on similar fact patterns, made many years apart. However, a common theme in each case is intention. Ms. Varzar never truly intended to leave New York while Mr. Gordy never truly intended to part ways with Michigan. In the end, intention followed by the commitment of large amounts of property in a given jurisdiction seemed to rule the day for determining the tax status of each respective individual.

This premise of residential intention cuts both ways. Not long ago, a desperate cash-strapped city in Connecticut attempted to levy property taxes on the vehicles parked on tax assessment day at a student dorm. Conveniently forgetting the rule that dormitories are not homes and that students are not residents, this was a good try, but the property belonged elsewhere to a permanent jurisdiction. None of the students intended for that cash-strapped city to be their permanent residence when moving into the dorm.

But for tax determinations, can intention and commitment of capital in one location override one’s physical presence in another location during a year? Frankly, there are casebooks and articles written on that very subject, and jurisdictional laws vary. There are no easy answers, and professional guidance should always be sought.

However, one thing is for certain.  As states become more desperate for revenue, look to see more strict definitions of residency and domicile made against taxpayers in order to tax anything parenthetically related to its borders.

Tony De Angelo

 

Goodnight Georges Santayana, wherever you are! (The “Ball of Confusion”-esque future of Private Tax Collection).

Recently, I had driven over to my local office supply superstore to buy printer ink. Since the store was an authorized U.S. Postal Service kiosk, I also brought along a submission that I wanted to mail to a local taxing authority via Priority Mail. As I hit the lock button on the car and walked into the store, I had a warm and fuzzy feeling as to how wonderfully convenient this large store was for poor old me, a time-stressed small business owner. What a neat thing to have two mission-critical needs met in one place!

As the glass doors parted and let me in to the store, I walked over to the postal desk, “manned” (if you will) by a very attractive young lady who probably was young enough to be my granddaughter. She asked if she could help me, and I stated my intention to mail the package I was holding via Priority Mail. Fully expecting to see a red white and blue sticker and hard envelope slide across the counter in my direction, she turned to her keyboard, and said to me, “Phone number, please?”

I gulped, somewhat in shock. I then listened to some words falling out of my mouth, as if they were spoken by another person: ” The U.S. Post Office is not allowed to ask me for my phone number in mailing Priority Mail”

I then heard her impatient voice, as it almost sounded distant to me: “Sir, we are not the Post aw-fice, We are (X-store)”.

Me: “S’ok. I will go to the Post Office”.

After buying the ink and driving eight miles back to my local Post Office feeling terribly snookered by the veiled and misleading marketing attempt of this particular office superstore, I relayed my story to my lovely and dedicated local postmaster, who brought up a very good point. “You know, Tony, postal kiosks are not supposed to ask for personal information. They are supposed to behave exactly as we do, as they are our regulatory delegates”.

I thanked her, and when I arrived back, I reviewed the time-tested definition of (what is) a “state actor”, and that anyone acting as an agent or delegate in lieu of government with respect to a function must act like government. That little bit of knowledge (and one Metro-Card) will probably get me on the NYC Subway line of my choice, but it did lead me to envision what is certain to happen with the Federal Government’s latest effort in order to “privatize” certain Federal tax collections.

For those of you in the audience who are interested, (as the great Dodger baseball announcer Vin Scully is fond of saying), Internal Revenue Code Sec. 6306 permits the IRS to use private debt collection agencies in order to collect back tax debts. Now for those of you scoring the game at home, The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (FAST Act) gave the IRS the specific power to contract with private collection agencies for the collection of certain “inactive tax receivables.”  And for the youngsters in the audience (as Mr. Scully is also fond of saying), let the record reflect that this attempt at “outsourcing” tax debt was tried in the 1990’s, and failed miserably, with the biggest issue being the dilution and obfuscation of taxpayer rights due to the ignorance of private collectors regarding the tax law.  (For the sabermetric nerds in the audience that would actually like to read these rights, allow me to direct you to those silly little tax books seemingly collecting dust on bookshelves everywhere, where you can have fun reading them).

However, turning to the serious, here is the fundamental problem with privatization of tax collections: If a Federal Tax debtor is attempting to settle a debt with the government, he is afforded certain rights and privileges that are really quite complex and highly technical. On the other side of the table from the debtor is a representative of the IRS who (most likely) is not as well-schooled in these rights and privileges as one might think, as he or she follows a publicly-available document known as the “Internal Revenue Manual” in his collection dealings with taxpayers. The document is simply a document outlining IRS practice and procedure, but it is not law and non-binding upon any party to the proceedings. (Sshhhh…you did not hear that from me!).  There are many times when working a case when I have pointed out glaring differences between the Internal Revenue Manual and the Regulations, to the surprised responsible IRS Officer.

So if tax disputes were a baseball game, it would be the equivalent of two teams playing with two different rule books and two distinctly different concepts of what the umpire is supposed to do. Confusing enough for you? (Can any of this stuff GET any hairier?)

So, enter private bill collection agencies. Now to those of you who have ever dealt with commercial collectors, you realize several things fairly quickly, being 1) Bill collectors have very defined, and repetitive jobs where their function is to collect as much money as possible from debtors. 2) Bill collectors are often compensated on a percentage of what debts they collect. 3) Most debtors either cannot pay their bills (or are running from paying their bills), and 4) The combination of items 1) through 3) lead these souls to be unsympathetic to any explanations that the debtor might be giving, no matter how legitimate or justifiable.

I am not the most imaginative person in the universe, but even for me it is not hard to imagine the following scenario: I give to you Susie Jones, a single mom with two children who has fled from an abusive relationship moving into a friend’s garage. One month later, Susie’s mom died, leaving her as the beneficiary of an IRA. While saddened at her mother’s passing, she was grateful for the badly-needed cash and later followed the advice of her high school friend that managed a bank. With the friend telling her that “inheritances are tax-free”, she invested the IRA proceeds into a large condominium in a great neighborhood, feeling that even with this IRA take-down, she would not have to file a tax return. As Susie’s confidence grew, she was even able to return to holding a job.

So there we have the story of Susie, a very nice young lady who has experienced two tragedies and two address changes in a short period of time, and who is now pointing her life’s arrow in the right direction.

However, during this same time frame, the Form 1099 reflecting the IRA withdrawal (in addition to IRS notices concerning income taxes generated on the IRA) were chasing Susie, but due to a tragicomedy based on errors of expired forwarding addresses coupled with bad tax advice by a person who never should have given it, Susie continued restructuring her life, blissfully unaware of what was taking place.

After some time, the notices were farmed out to a private collection agency. who then located Susie’s new address and sent a collection notice to her. Horrified, Susie sought out the assistance of a local tax practitioner who obtained the proper representational authority from Susie, and called the collection agency.

(The conversation went something like this):

RIIINNNNG.

(Collector): “Ajax Asset Recovery. This is Adrienne”.

(Representative): “Hello, my name is Charles Smith, and I am a tax practitioner in Phoenix, AZ. I represent Susie Jones. I am calling in reference to a notice that Susie received last week with respect to income taxes owed for X-year. To this end, I am calling to ask you for courtesy and a thirty-day hold to be placed on the account, as I am just getting to what took place, and to be fair, I would like to be able to represent Susie to the best of my ability”.

(Collector): “WHO the heck did you say you are?”

(Representative): “Again ma’am, my name is Charles Smith, and I am a tax practitioner in Phoenix, AZ. I represent Susie Jones. I am calling in reference to a notice that Susie received last week with respect to income taxes owed for X-year. To this end, I am calling to ask you for courtesy and a thirty-day hold to be placed on the account, as I am just getting to what took place, and to be fair, I would like to be able to represent Susie to the best of my ability”.

(Collector): “I can’t speak with you. You are not her!!”

(Practitioner): “Ma’am, according to Circular 230 promulgated by the Internal Revenue Service, taxpayers are afforded the right to have certain credentialed individuals represent them in tax matters. Would you like me to fax over my authority?”

(Collector): “I don’t care about any of that, I don’t care about her rights. She is far by any of that. If she does not pay her bill, we will put a lien on any property she has”.

(Practitioner): “I beg to differ with you ma’am, but Susie has retained all of her rights with respect to forced collection. First of all, from what I understand, she relied on a trusted advisor in good faith with respect to the retirement account’s taxability. Secondly, she never received any notices with respect to tax collection, as they were sent to the wrong address. Thirdly, there may be other remedies available to her, for which some time can only tell if they are useful to her. She is a once-abused single mom trying to piece her life together, so once again, I politely ask you for courtesy as we research this case”.

(Collector): “Listen Mr. whatever your credentials are, I don’t have to follow any rules other than state law. Don’t you know its a crime to impede lawful bill collection?”

(Practitioner): “Ma’am…don’t you know it’s a FEDERAL crime to obfuscate the rights of a taxpayer? I think I need to bring this to the attention of the District Director and the Taxpayer Advocate”.

You see where all of this is headed…and this is precisely the reason why this effort to privatize tax collection failed twenty years ago. Those who act in lieu of government must act like government in being “state actors”. and how could that ever be possible using private collection agencies unfamiliar with Federal Tax Procedure? I can just see the endless stream of complaints going back to Congressional offices as government once more tries to make an effort be “efficient”, (with predictable result).

I trust that I have made this point clear to you. But, in conclusion, you might be wondering who in the heck is Georges Santayana, (and why on earth is he relevant to our discussion?)

Contrary to what you may be thinking, Mr. Santayana was not a tax practitioner, but he was a famous 20th Century philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. It was Mr. Santayana who coined the phrase that they who do not remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.

Goodnight Mr. Santayana, wherever you are. You certainly knew a lot more about tax practice than you ever thought.

Tony De Angelo

 

The truth about “Offer Mills” (and other things no one is telling you about resolving tax debt).

If you are out driving at rush hour and listening to news or talk radio, you’re sure to be besieged by incessant commercials from various “tax relief” outfits, many fronted by well-spoken celebrity spokespeople  offering absolutely instant relief if you owe a taxing authority $10,000 or more. As you are dodging errant cars on the freeway or parkway, you are sure to here encouraging claims of  the benefits of an“offer in compromise” (“OIC”), or “you can wipe your debts away” for “pennies on the dollar”, or “the Fresh Start Program is for a limited time only”. After a lane change, you may even hear that “the IRS has been known to accept as little as 1% of the amount owed and give you a fresh start”.

Sound great? You may not have known that the IRS is as friendly a debtor as your Uncle Harold! FANTASTIC!

(If only it were true).

As the old commercial said, If you like peanut butter, you’ll LOVE Skippy.  With glittering voices ringing out with stellar claims of tax settlements of pennies on the dollar, the awful truth is that less than one-quarter of compromise applications are ever accepted. Truth be told further, offer applications are almostnever fully accepted if the applicant has any liquid or marketable assets whatsoever, regardless of what the Regulations and the Internal Revenue Manual state, as settlement officers are given “discretion” (read: they can do whatever they darn well please), to settle any matter on their own terms. Moreover, most of the commercials barking through your car radio are generated from lead-generation firms that collect client information and sell it to a tax debt relief firm for up to $500 per lead!  Others use the OIC program to grab attention and then direct a taxpayer into a program he or she actually qualifies for, (such as an installment agreement plan), that he or she could easily arrange, without any help whatsoever.

Of course, one cannot be entirely certain if all of the carnival barkers on radio and television are selling false hope and snake oil, but its been more than certain that a number of them have been. Names like “The Tax Lady” Ronnie Lynn Deutsch, Tax Masters, and J.K. Harris in the “Offer Mill” business litter the landscape and have bilked thousands out of millions, with little to no results. My experience with most of these outfits (drawn from my clients who have fled from them) is the first prerequisite in dealing with such an Offer Mill is a large upfront retainer payment (usually in excess of $5,000) is required. With that large chunk of change, the Offer Mill usually puts together a flimsy offer document that by statute and by rule operates to delay tax collection for the better part of one year, until the IRS examiner laughs the document out of the park. The poor client thinks all is wonderful during this initial “quiet period”, until the rejection letter comes back with appeal rights. At that point, the Mill asks for another $5,000, “to go forward”, (more than likely, this type of “going forward” is equivalent to walking out onto the freeway at rush hour).

What is also a matter of great suspicion are the “credentials” of the people actually working these Mills. Most of the Mills have really slick websites featuring people of ostensibly formidable credentials who will go to bat on this matter, all for you.  What taxpayers are NOT told is that the majority of folks involved in this business have no credentials, are bound by no regulations, and are simply churning completed applications out like an assembly line, (thus this type of practice earn the well-deserved name, of “Offer Mill”). Truth be told again, ANY filed offer application (no matter HOW deficient), will stop tax collection, for at least a time.

Now, one of the things that the scammers and Mills will not tell you is that if you have any saleable assets at all during the time of your application, the taxing authorities will place a lien upon them in order to carry out their true mission (which regardless of what you may have been told, kids, is to “protect the revenue”). Once a lien is filed and becomes a matter of public record, a taxpayer is sure to be assaulted by numerous calls and mailed notices offering such dubious offers of “tax relief”. Many of these notices are so carefully crafted, they appear as if they are coming from the taxing agencies themselves, right down to the color of the paper and the typeface, featuring disclaimers so small you need a magnifying glass to see them. (Let me tell you, these “notices” are GOOD…one even faked out my associate the other day!) Also many of the “per-commission” callers calling to solicit business for these shams are often so incoherent, you will win on the odds of their not being able to find their way to order a hamburger at McDonald’s.  One thing is for certain: as economies worsen and debtors increase, this type of evil tax seduction is sure to wax worse and worse.

Now, you might be asking yourself as to why this “industry” is not better regulated on a number of fronts, especially in the realm of consumer protection. Believe me, I have asked myself the same question. Recently, I showed samples of these “tax relief” notices to a horrified Congressional aide in my state. She was absolutely shocked, and referred it to her congressman. But truly, what are the chances of one congressman advancing an “anti-Mill” bill through the House and the Senate and getting universal approval for it? Such a bill would have to advance over cries of “job creation” and “consumer rights” and “free enterprise”, and hoards of slimy lobbies and bought-off legislators. Frankly in my estimation, the chances of any real reform happening in this area are really, not good.

However, all of this leaves the poor tax debtor with a troubling question: If I need competent professional assistance to help me with my tax debt, where do I go? If its me, I would stay entirely away from the outfits that are barking their siren song to you on the car radio, just because the odds are not in your favor of finding a reputable, honest and knowledgeable soul to work with in that part of the universe. In my estimation, the best thing one can do is to interview severallicensed practitioners and to cross-compare the information received. Quickly, a realistic assessment of your situation and a commonality will be ascertainable. Further, I would absolutely run from any one or any thing asking for large amounts of money upfront. A reputable person knows that there are no quick-fixes here, and that there will be a long relationship between you and he, so a payment plan could be easily worked out.

Finally, if one hears anything other than the fact that an OIC is anything but a long, arduous, painful, and difficult process (with less than a 25% chance of success), they are being lied to. As my seventh-grade English teacher would say, “it is simple as that, kids. and just as difficult”. Even so, the tool of the offer in the right hands of a skilled practitioner can go a long way in settling mounds of substantial tax debt.

In closing, if you have any further questions about the IRS Offer program, please do not hesitate to contact me.

IN SEARCH OF…Professional Quality and Integrity

Given my age and status as a member of the great Baby-Boom generation, I am often thought of by my younger colleagues and friends as automatically being a fan of the original “Star-Trek” TV show. When I mention to them that I may have seen one Star-Trek episode in my life, they look at me as oddly as my 20-year old show producer did, thinking everyone in my generation passionately followed the show. I was just never a fan.

But, I was a fan of the late, great actor Leonard Nimoy. He really was a great deal more versatile than just his “Spock” role on Star-Trek. A number of years back, he hosted a TV show called “In Search Of”, where he would be off on an expedition hoping to find information or artifacts related to some rare or unclear item in history.

Driving out from New Haven one night, I was listening to a radio talk show out of New York where the host was commenting on all of the alleged recent breaches in trust and ethics taking place in city government, some of which are chilling…even by New York standards. I began to shake my head, wondering to myself that if Mr. Nimoy was to do an “In Search Of” show concerning ethics and responsibility in New York government, would he be able to find any? Subsequently, I could not help in thinking how strong the parallels are between situations such as this, and that of any professional-client relationship.

In over thirty-five years of practice, I have been asked to do a number of tasks by folks that, (in the words of the great Muhammad Ali), would shock and amaze you, since these tasks went far beyond that of the standard fare of my professional employment. I had always wondered why this was the case.  After pondering this one evening, it dawned on me that these occurrences were based upon the biblical premise of those who are faithful in the least, are faithful in the most. The act of being faithful towards another by its own definition implies putting the interests of another ahead of one’s own. When a good practitioner or professional works to protect and effectuate tasks and wishes on behalf of a client, he or she is trusted more with more things in more ways than could ever be imagined. (Of course, the flip side is if one in a position of fiduciary counsel and trust violates those premises, the opposite effect is bound to occur.)

Over the course of time, I have had visits and calls from prospective clients who have indicated their dissatisfaction with their present adviser. When I ask them why, the answers normally fall somewhere within the following general categories:

“He never listens to me”.

“I’m tired of seeing her (vacation/conference/family event) pictures on Facebook, but she keeps dropping the ball when I ask for her to do something for me”.

“I really don’t know what I have been paying for.”

“He’s into his bigger clients. He never has time for me.”

“Did you see that (car/house/watch/ring?)  Guess how she’s paying for it!”

“Its’ great that her daughter was admitted to (the college of her choice), but how does that help me with my messes?”

In all of the above complaints, you will notice a common thread. Each and every comment references a person who gives the clear perception of being their own highest priority at the ostensible expense of their client, regardless of what their personal intentions may be. It is interesting that a blanket statement of “Susie is just too expensive” is rarely heard, as good clients will pay good money for equivalent or greater value.  But yes, dear readers, there are those people out there who are just into low-balling prices and are not sensitive or do not care about quality, and if it is me, I usually send those folks on their way so they can meet up with like-minded souls who can meet their need, (and more often than not, help get them into trouble).

So what does all of this practitioner-client stuff have to do with the global failures of integrity mentioned in the first paragraph of this article? (Glad you asked!) Kindly ask yourself these questions. Why didn’t General Motors listen to whistle-blowers fourteen years ago when warned of grave quality issues concerning their vehicles? Why didn’t the U.S. State Department react more acutely and proactively to the horrors that occurred in Benghazi? Why didn’t the IRS immediately dismiss those adjudicating charitable exemptions who were acting upon reasons other than those based on the Internal Revenue Manual and regulations? The answer is simple: A correction in each of the above instances would have necessitated (inter-alia) an act of contrition, an admission of guilt, a huge change in approaches, and an act of accountability resulting in a HUGE financial loss, with the removal (and well-deserved prosecution in some cases) of the functional people involved. But the key objective of any cover up going as far back to Watergate (or maybe, any cover up going as far back as Adam and Eve) is simple: protect the position, authority, profit, and property of the people involved, (period), all else be damned. For after all, we come first!

Whenever there is an act of public malfeasance where one in authority abuses power, outrage usually follows. But what is the root cause of that outrage? Its’ founded on a simple determination perhaps reiterated by some GM car owners with the realization that “these people don’t care a thing about me”.  (Sounds an awful lot like our aggrieved clients said above, who really are concerned about if anyone at all, in fact, is watching their backs.)

I spent a large part of my growing up in Stamford, CT in theaters, where my Dad worked a movie projectionist. In this connection, I have many memories of motion pictures that were great (and not so great, as my long-suffering wife Kathy will attest to). But of the great films, one often stays in mind, and I have been in love with it from the day that I first saw it in the theater in 1967. This film, “The Dirty Dozen” is really based on a very simple premise.  A U.S. Army Major in World War II with a checkered track record (played by Lee Marvin) is assigned a dozen convicted murderers to train and lead them into a mass assassination mission of German officers, that for all intents and purposes is a fatal one. The murderers are given a carrot: if they survive, they will be freed from death row and return to active duty where, they will probably be killed anyway. (As you can see, its not an uplifting set of facts we are presented with).

Now, the cast of murderers (portrayed by some of the greatest actors that have ever lived, such as Telly Savalas, John Cassavettes and Charles Bronson) start off on this charade thinking that it really makes no difference whatsoever as to if they succeed or fail, because they’re dead, no matter what. However, as time goes on, they realize that the Major shows great integrity, and has invested himself so much into this mission that he routinely casts aside his own well-being for their own, so much to the point where they raise their own self-worth, and then begin to look out for the welfare of each other.

To make this better, writer Nunnally Johnson builds in a character contrast of another Army officer, the Major’s superior Col. Everett Dasher Breed (so terrifically portrayed by Robert Ryan). Now, Col. Breed is the exact opposite of the Major, a West Point elitist of low character and zero integrity who is spit and polish, controlling and manipulating, and most importantly one who is continually reflecting the sole objective of protecting his own turf and appearances. Towards the end of the movie, as push comes to shove (and later, to shot), we all come to know his pitiful true value.

Needless to say, we’ve all had (or have) supervisors and managers like Col. Breed. You can see them coming a mile away, as they show such a lack of integrity, shallowness and substance, you can see right through them. Parenthetically, I have found over time that clients view practitioners using the same set of X-Ray eyeglasses.  And in using those spectacles, what do they see? In comparison to the movie, do they feel like they are working with the Major, or the Colonel? Do they perceive us as serving them (or, the other way around) I do realize that this is heavy premise, but it is one that is nonetheless true.

For all of us in practice, I would suggest that the newness of the Spring may be a good time to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves: Why are we here?  And who do we serve? Each and every one of us has a major trust placed in us.

Please accept my best wishes for a great June.

 

Tony De Angelo

Tony’s Tax Tips

IRS Urges Public to Stay Alert for Scam Phone Calls

The IRS continues to warn consumers to guard against scam phone calls from thieves intent on stealing their money or their identity. Criminals pose as the IRS to trick victims out of their money or personal information. Here are several tips to help you avoid being a victim of these scams:

  • Scammers make unsolicited calls.  Thieves call taxpayers claiming to be IRS officials. They demand that the victim pay a bogus tax bill. They con the victim into sending cash, usually through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. They may also leave “urgent” callback requests through phone “robo-calls,” or via phishing email.
  • Callers try to scare their victims.  Many phone scams use threats to intimidate and bully a victim into paying. They may even threaten to arrest, deport or revoke the license of their victim if they don’t get the money.
  • Scams use caller ID spoofing.  Scammers often alter caller ID to make it look like the IRS or another agency is calling. The callers use IRS titles and fake badge numbers to appear legitimate. They may use the victim’s name, address and other personal information to make the call sound official.
  • Cons try new tricks all the time.  Some schemes provide an actual IRS address where they tell the victim to mail a receipt for the payment they make. Others use emails that contain a fake IRS document with a phone number or an email address for a reply. These scams often use official IRS letterhead in emails or regular mail that they send to their victims. They try these ploys to make the ruse look official.
  • Scams cost victims over $23 million.  The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, has received reports of about 736,000 scam contacts since October 2013. Nearly 4,550 victims have collectively paid over $23 million as a result of the scam.

The IRS will not:

  • Call you to demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call you if you owe taxes without first sending you a bill in the mail.
  • Demand that you pay taxes and not allow you to question or appeal the amount you owe.
  • Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For instance, require that you pay with a prepaid debit card.
  • Ask for your credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
  • Threaten to bring in police or other agencies to arrest you for not paying.

If you don’t owe taxes, or have no reason to think that you do:

  • Do not give out any information. Hang up immediately.
  • Contact TIGTA to report the call. Use their “IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting” web page. You can also call 800-366-4484.
  • Report it to the Federal Trade Commission. Use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov. Please add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

If you know you owe, or think you may owe tax:

  • Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you.

Phone scams first tried to sting older people, new immigrants to the U.S. and those who speak English as a second language. Now the crooks try to swindle just about anyone. And they’ve ripped-off people in every state in the nation.

Stay alert to scams that use the IRS as a lure. Tax scams can happen any time of year, not just at tax time. For more, visit “Tax Scams and Consumer Alerts” on IRS.gov.

Each and every taxpayer has a set of fundamental rights they should be aware of when dealing with the IRS. These are your Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Explore your rights and our obligations to protect them on IRS.gov.