Marijuana Dispensary’s Deductions go Up in Smoke

Medical-Marijuana-SymbolIn an opinion that would make Willie Nelson shake his head, the Tax Court held that a taxpayer was not entitled to deduct business expenses related to his “Health Care” business (read: medical marijuana dispensary).  The Court also disallowed the taxpayer’s cost of goods sold (COGS) and casualty loss for items seized during the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) raid of his dispensary in 2007.

The taxpayer resided in California and owned two medical marijuana dispensaries in 2007 operating under the name Alternative Herbal Health Services (“AHHS”).  AHHS sold various strands of marijuana, pre-rolled marijuana joints, and edible food items prepared with marijuana.  It did not sell any pipes, papers, or vaporizers, however they were made available to customers to medicate on site.  AHHS provided several educational activities to its customers at no charge including “loading, grinding, and packing marijuana for customers’ use of bongs, pipes and vaporizers.”  On January 11, 2007 the DEA searched the taxpayer’s dispensary in West Hollywood and seized marijuana, food items suspected to contain marijuana, and marijuana plants.

The taxpayer had a very short record retention policy, as his typical practice was to shred all sales and inventory records at the end of the day or by the next day.  When it came time to prepare his 2007 tax return, the taxpayer gave the numbers to his attorney who then gave them to his tax return preparer.  The Schedule C for his 2007 tax return reported a “Health Care” business with $1,700,000 in gross receipts and $1,429,614 in COGS and $194,094 in expenses.  The taxpayer included $600,000 attributable to the value of the marijuana seized by the DEA in his gross receipts and COGS entries for 2007.  All of the gross receipts and expenses reported on the taxpayer’s 2007 return were from the sale or expenses associated with AHHS’s marijuana or marijuana edibles.  After three amended answers, the IRS asserted a tax deficiency of $1,047,743 and assessed a $209,549 accuracy-related penalty under section 6662(a) for the 2007 tax year.

Under IRC § 280E a taxpayer may not deduct any amount paid or incurred in carrying on a trade or business if such trade or business consists of trafficking controlled substances which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any state in which the trade or business is conducted.  The Court relied on its own decision in Californians Helping To Alleviate Med. Problems, Inc. (CHAMP) v. Commissioner, 128 T.C. 173 (2007) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) to determine that the taxpayer was trafficking in a controlled substance within the meaning of IRC § 280E.

However, Judge Goeke distinguished this case from CHAMP, where a potion of the taxpayer’s operating expenses were allowed because the taxpayer’s activities included those unrelated to the sale or distribution of marijuana.  In this case, the taxpayer provided no evidence that AHHS sold any non-marijuana-related items.

The Court also disallowed the taxpayer’s IRC § 165 casualty loss deduction and denied his characterization of the marijuana seized by the DEA as COGS in 2007.  The Court found that characterizing the marijuana seized by the DEA as COGS was difficult the taxpayer’s record retention policy left little substantiation for the value of items seized.  Even if he had been able to provide substantiation the product could not be considered COGS because was confiscated and, in fact, was not sold.  When the smoke cleared, Jude Goeke unsurprisingly upheld the accuracy-related penalty under IRC § 6662(a).

Read the full opinion here: Beck v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-149.


Timing is Everything in Easement Donations, or Is It?

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which when taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare understood the importance of timing to success. Apparently, the Tax Court holds a similar view when it comes to charitable donations of conservation easements.

life_is_all_about_timing_481189800This is our third post on the Tax Court’s opinion in Bosque Canyon Ranch. The memorandum decision isn’t necessarily an important case; it didn’t establish any new precedents for the Court. However, there is quite a bit about modern conservation easements packed into a fairly short opinion, which gives us an opportunity to unpack some of what is there.

Today, we look at the Court’s conclusion that the property transfers between the two Bosque Canyon limited partnerships and their partners were disguised sales. (Click here for a more detailed case summary.)

A transfer of partnership property to a partner within two years of a cash (or other) contribution by that partner is presumed to be a disguised sale under IRC §707. The Bosque Canyon partnerships received cash and transferred property to partners within a two year window. That timing is not in question.

The presumption in IRC §707 may be refuted by facts and circumstances showing that the transfer did not constitute a sale. Treas. Reg. §1.707-3(b)(2) suggests 10 circumstances when a sale might be present. The Court identified five of those factors in its opinion.

  • the timing and amount of the distributions to the limited partners were determinable with reasonable certainty at the time the partnerships accepted the limited partners’ payments;
  • the limited partners had legally enforceable rights, pursuant to the LP agreements, to receive their Homesite parcels and the appurtenant rights;
  • the transactions effectuated exchanges of the benefits and burdens of ownership relating to the Homesite parcels;
  • the distributions to the partners were disproportionately large in relation to the limited partners’ interests in partnership profits; and
  • the limited partners received their Homesite parcels in fee simple without an obligation to return them to the partnerships.

When the transfers between the partnership and partners are not simultaneous, an additional rule provides that a disguised sale occurs only if “the subsequent transfer is not dependent on the entrepreneurial risks of partnership operations.” Treas. Reg. §1.707-3(b)(1)(ii). The timing of the transfers was not in dispute either. They were not simultaneous.

The timing issue, however, came in the context of entrepreneurial risk. The taxpayers argued that the limited partners’ contributions would be at risk if the anticipated conservation easements were not granted. The Court rejected this argument based on the timing of the easement grants. Unfortunately, the conservation easements for both partnerships were granted before the limited partnership agreements were executed. The Court found that the payments were not subject to the entrepreneurial risks of the partnership because the easements were secured before the partnerships were formed. In the case of Bosque Canyon Ranch I, the easement was granted just two days before the agreement execution, prompting us to recall Maxwell Smart’s famous line.

Given the Court’s determination on entrepreneurial risk, there was no need to parse the specific facts and circumstances of these transfers, or whether the five factors identified by the court were enough to warrant disguised sale treatment. It leaves open the question whether similar, or even slightly different, facts and circumstances would be sufficient to find a disguised sale. We don’t know. But with time, and another case, there’s a fair chance we will.

Tax Court Denies Texas Conservation Easement

Last week we wrote about the Tax Court’s application of Belk v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. 1 (2013) in the Bosque Canyon Ranch case. Here’s a more detailed description of the case.

BCRBosque Canyon Ranch (“BCR”) is a 3,729 acre-tract in Bosque County, Texas. Petitioners formed BCR I, a Texas limited partnership, in July 2003. BCR I made $2.2 million in improvements to BC Ranch between 2003 and 2005.

In 2004, BCR I began marketing limited partnership interest (“LP units”) at $350,000 per unit. Each purchaser would become a limited partner in BCR I and the partnership would subsequently distribute a fee simple interest in a five-acre parcel of property (the “Homesite parcel”) to that limited partner. Each Homesite Parcel owner had the right to build a house on the parcel and use BC Ranch for various activities. The distribution of Homesite Parcels was conditioned on BCR I granting a conservation easement to the North American Land Trust (“NALT”) for 1,750 acres of BC Ranch.

BCR I granted the conservation easement to NALT on December 29, 2005.  The land subject to the conservation easement could not be used for residential, commercial, institutional, industrial, or agricultural purposes. BCR I had 24 LP purchasers in 2005 with payments totaling $8,400,000. BCR I obtained a certified appraisal report effective November 28, 2005, valuing the conservation easement at $8,400,000.

BCR II was formed in December 2005 as a Texas limited partnership and BCR I deeded 1,866 acres of BC Ranch to BCR II.  In 2006, BCR II began marketing Homesite parcels with offering documents were substantially similar to that of BCR I. BCR II granted NALT a conservation easement on September 14, 2007.  BCR II collected payments of $9,957,500 from 23 purchasers and obtained an appraisal valuing the 2007 easement at $7,500,000.

After all of the transfers, the 47 limited partners of BCR I and BCR II owned approximately 235 acres and 3,482 of the remaining 3,509 acres were subject to the 2005 and 2007 NALT easements.

Procedural History

BCR I filed a 2005 Form 1065 reporting capital contributions of $8,400,000 and claiming an $8,400,000 charitable contribution deduction related to the 2005 NALT easement. The IRS sent petitioner a 2005 FPAA on December 29, 2008, determining that BCR I was not entitled to a charitable contribution deduction. The IRS also determined that petitioners were subject to either accuracy-related or gross valuation misstatement penalties. IRS counsel submitted an amended answer on April 26, 2010, contending that the BCR I transactions at issue were sales of real property.

BCR II filed a 2007 Form 1065 reporting capital contributions of $9,956,500 and claiming an $7,500,000 charitable contribution deduction related to the 2007 NALT easement. The IRS sent petitioner a 2007 FPAA on August 23, 2011, determining that BCR II was not entitled to a charitable contribution deduction and that petitioners were subject to either accuracy-related or gross valuation misstatement penalties. IRS counsel did not allege that the BCR II transactions were sales of real property. The Court consolidated petitioners’ cases for trial.

Charitable Contribution Deductions

The Homesite parcel owners and the NALT could, by mutual agreement, modify the Homesite boundaries. The deed forbids a decrease in “the overall property subject to the easement” and changes in the “exterior boundaries of the property subject to the easement.” The deed also provides that the boundary changes only occur between unburdened parcels (the Homesite lots).

The Court found that the property protected by the 2005 and 2007 easements could lose this protection as a result of boundary modifications allowed after the easements were granted. Citing Belk v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. 1 (2013), the Court held that the restrictions were not granted in perpetuity as required under IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) because the 2005 and 2007 deeds allow modifications between the Homesite parcels and the property subject to the easements. Thus, the easements are not qualified real property interests required under IRC § 170(h)(1)(A). (There are some distinct factual differences from Belk that we noted in an earlier post found here).

Judge Foley also took issue with the lack of documentation establishing the condition of the property provided by petitioners to NALT as required by Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(5)(i). The Court found that the documentation was “unreliable, incomplete, and insufficient to establish the condition of the relevant property on the date the respective easements were granted.”

Disguised Sale

Judge Foley found that the partnerships deeded the Homesite properties to the limited partners within five months of the limited partners’ payments for the property. Under Treas. Reg. 1.707-3(c)(1) and 1.707-6(a) transfers between a partnership and a partner within a two-year period are presumed to be a sale of the property to the partner unless the facts and circumstances clearly establish that the transfers do not constitute a sale.

Petitioners argued that the partners’ payments would be at risk, pursuant to the terms of the LP agreements, if the easements were not granted. The Court rejected this argument based on its finding that the 2005 and 2007 easements were granted prior to the execution of the BCR I and BCR II LP agreements, respectively.  Thus, the Court held that BCR I and BCR II were required to recognize income on any gains related to the 24 and 23 disguised sales by each limited partnership, respectively.

Gross Valuation Misstatement Penalties

Judge Foley held that the petitioners were liable for a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty under IRC § 6662(h). Petitioner’s argued that they acted reasonably and in good faith by procuring a qualified appraisal from a qualified appraiser and by relying on a memorandum from their CPA.  Judge Foley found that while these actions constituted a good faith investigation of the easement’s value, BCR I did not provide NALT with sufficient documentation of the condition of the property being donated and affirmed the 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty against BCR I for 2005.

For returns filed after August 17, 2006, the gross valuation misstatement penalty is modified by Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(g) when the determined value of the property is zero and the value claimed is greater than zero. Additionally, taxpayers who file returns after 2006 can no longer claim a reasonable cause defense for gross valuation misstatements relating to charitable contribution deductions. (Though reasonable cause is still a valid defense for substantial valuation misstatements. See, IRC § 6664(c)(3).) Thus, the Court held that BCR II is liable for the 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty relating to the 2007 tax year.

Read the full opinion here: Bosque Canyon Ranch L.P., v. Commissioner, TC-Memo. 2015-130

Tax Court Denies Conservation Easement Donation on Qualified Appraisal

farms_ag_howard_countyQuality appraisals are still key to conservation easement donation deductions. In Costello v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-87, the Tax Court held that the taxpayers did not submit a “qualified appraisal” within the meaning of IRC § 170(f)(11)(E)(1) and upheld the substantial valuation misstatement penalties imposed on the taxpayers for the 2006, 2007, and 2008 tax years.

The taxpayers own a farm in Howard County, Maryland. Howard County uses a density exchange program in which each property has a certain number of development rights that may be sold to another developer of property, referred to as a “density exchange option.” Each development right essentially equates to one additional residence that a developer can build on a given property. In order to sell their development rights to a third party, the landowner must grant an easement to Howard County.

In 2006, the taxpayers granted the county a land preservation easement on their property. The taxpayers sold 16 of their 17 available development rights to a developer for a total purchase price of $2.56 million. Upon recordation of the deed of easement on October 17, 2006 all future development was prohibited on the taxpayers’ farm with the exception of farming.

The taxpayers obtained an appraisal on July 1, 2007. The appraisal assumed they could purchase eight additional development rights and the highest and best use of the subdivision would be a subdivision with 25 homes. The appraiser estimated a fair market value of $7.69 million before the sale of the development rights and gauged the fair market value of the property after the sale of the development rights at $2.1 million.

The taxpayers’ appraisal stated the assumption that the property was “free and clear of any and all liens or encumbrances” as of December 1, 2006. The appraisal did not account for the $2.56 million that the taxpayers received from the developer and the easement granted to the county in exchange for 16 of their 17 available development rights.

Additionally, the taxpayers’ 2007 appraisal omitted a number of required items, including an accurate description of the property contributed, the date of the contribution, or the terms of agreement. It also did not use the words “conservation easement” or “land preservation easement.” Judge Lauber concluded that the appraiser was not aware of the deed of easement that the taxpayer’s transferred to Howard County.

The donee (Howard County) did not sign the appraisal summary, as required under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(4)(i)(B), because it had serious doubts about the taxpayer’s ability to take a charitable contribution deduction. At the taxpayers’ request, the appraiser prepared an addendum on March 25, 2008 taking into account the $2.56 million that the taxpayer’s received for their development rights in 2006. The addendum reduced the taxpayers’ noncash charitable contribution to $3,004,692.

An official from Howard County signed off on the addendum and the taxpayers filed an amended 2006 return on May 16, 2008. The taxpayers’ claimed a charitable contribution deduction of $1,058,643 on their amended 2006 return, $1,666,528 on their 2007 return, and the remaining $278,521 on their 2008 return.

The IRS issued a notice of deficiency for all three years on July 13, 2012 disallowing the charitable contribution deductions in full and assessing accuracy-related penalties. The notice of deficiency also disallowed like-kind exchange treatment on the sale of the development rights and deductions claimed for business use of the home. The taxpayers’ timely petitioned the Tax Court challenging the disallowance of the charitable contribution deductions, asserting a higher basis on the sale of the development rights, and disputing the accuracy-related penalties.

At trial, Judge Lauber did not consider the taxpayer’s addendum to the appraisal because it was made more than five months after the due date (including extensions) of the taxpayer’s 2006 return. Under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i)(A) to be “qualified” an appraisal must be made no more than 60 days before the contribution and no later than the due date (including extensions) of the return on which the charitable deduction is first claimed.

The taxpayers argued for application of the substantial compliance doctrine under Bond v. Commissioner, 100 T.C. 32 (1993) and Hewitt v. Commissioner, 109 T.C. 258 (1997). Judge Lauber held that the numerous defects and missing categories in the taxpayers’ appraisal prevented the taxpayers’ from successfully asserting substantial compliance.  Judge Lauber further opined that even if the court assumed substantial compliance, the contribution was part of a quid pro quo exchange as defined in Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U.S. 680 (1989), because the taxpayers could not legally sell the development rights without first granting an easement to Howard County.

The Court also dismissed the taxpayers’ contention that the transaction was a bargain sale because once the taxpayers signed the contract to sell their development rights, they had no excess development potential to grant Howard County through a bargain sale.

In sum, the Court held that the appraisal “failed to inform the IRS of the essence of the transaction in which petitioner’s engaged.” Thus, the appraisal was not a qualified appraisal under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i).

Judge Lauber also denied the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense to the application of the 20% substantial valuation misstatement penalties under IRC § 6662(b)(3) for all three-tax years because the taxpayers did not get a qualified appraisal under IRC § 170(f)(11)(E)(1).

Read the full opinion here:  Costello v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-87 (2015)

Tax Court Preserves Taxpayer Protections against Arbitrary and Capricious Appeals Rulings

us_tax_courtIn Buczek v. Commissioner, 143 T.C. 16 (2014), the Tax Court granted the IRS’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under IRC § 6330(g) where the taxpayers offered only frivolous arguments as the basis for a Collection Due Process (“CDP”) hearing.  Of note, however, is the Court’s refusal to overturn the Tax Court’s decision in Thornberry v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 356 (2011), which also involved a IRC § 6330(g) determination.

In November 2013, the IRS sent the taxpayers a final notice of intent to levy to collect unpaid Federal income tax and interest assessed for 2009.  The taxpayers timely filed Form 12153, Request for a Collection Due Process or Equivalent Hearing, in response.  The taxpayers did not check any boxes on the Form 12153 but wrote “common law hearing” on the form where they could state another grounds for requesting a CDP hearing.  The taxpayers submitted seven additional pages with the Form 12153, including a copy of the notice of intent to levy stamped with common tax protestor arguments, “Pursuant to UCC 3-501″, “Refused from the cause”, “Consent not given”, and “Permission DENIED”.

The IRS sent the taxpayers a letter in January 2014 requesting that the taxpayers amend their CDP hearing request to provide a legitimate reason for the hearing or to withdraw the request.  The taxpayers did not timely respond to this letter.  In March 2014, the IRS sent the taxpayers a letter informing the taxpayer that the IRS was disregarding the taxpayers’ CDP request under the authority of IRC § 6330(g).

The taxpayers attached the notice of disregard letter to their Tax Court petition in response to a notice of deficiency for a different tax year.  The Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction and ordered the notice of disregard letter be filed as an imperfect petition for the taxpayers’ 2009 tax liability.  The taxpayers filed an amended petition in May 2014 pursuant to an order by the Court.  The taxpayers’ petition and subsequent pleadings complained about the conduct of an IRS agent, not the appeals officer that sent the notice of disregard letter, and did not raise any “justiciable issue with regard to the Appeals Office’s disregard of his hearing request or its determination to proceed with the collection of his unpaid income tax liability for 2009.”

In June 2014, the IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction asserting that the Court does not have jurisdiction when a disregard letter is issued under IRC § 6330(g).  The motion to dismiss was contrary to the Court’s decision in Thornberrywhich held that while IRC § 6330(g) denies further administrative or judicial review of the portions of a CDP request that the Appeals office deem frivolous, the statute does not deny judicial review of that determination.

Judge Dawson, writing for the court, denied the IRS’s request to overturn Thornberry, distinguishing this case on its facts.  Unlike the taxpayers in Thornberry, who presented four valid grounds for a CDP hearing under IRC § 6330(c)(2), here the taxpayers’ CDP request did not make any assertions that would raise a legitimate issue under IRC § 6330(c)(2).  The taxpayers did not challenge the appropriateness of the collection action, request collection alternatives, or properly contest the underlying tax liability.  Also, unlike Thornberry, where the taxpayers’ CDP request and petition properly raised issues under IRC § 6330(c)(2)(A) and (B), here the taxpayers did not raise any valid issues that could be considered in a CDP hearing.

Judge Dawson granted the IRS’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction based upon his determination the the taxpayers did not make a proper request for a CDP hearing and thus the CDP request was properly treated as if it was not submitted.  However, Judge Dawson clearly states that the Court’s review of IRS determinations under IRC § 6330(g) are important in protecting taxpayers from determinations that are “arbitrary and capricious” and did not overturn Thornberry.

Read the full opinion here: Buczek v. Commissioner, 143 T.C. No. 16 (2014)

Amended Returns Don’t Help Taxpayer Minimize §6707A Penalties

us_tax_courtIn Yari v. Commissioner, 143 T.C. No. 7, the Tax Court upheld a $100,000 statutory maximum, penalty under IRC § 6707A(b)(2)(A) assessed against the taxpayer for failing to report a listed transaction.  The case presents an issue of first impression on the proper calculation of a penalty under IRC § 6707A(b).

The taxpayer participated in a listed Roth IRA transaction from 2002 to 2007.  The transaction involved the taxpayer forming a disregarded entity, Topaz Global Holdings, LLC, and a Nevada corporation, Faryar, Inc., which elected to be treated as an S-Corporation for federal income tax purposes.  The taxpayer opened a Roth IRA account in 2002 with an initial contribution of $3,000.  The Roth IRA acquired all of Faryar, Inc.’s stock for $3,000 and became the sole shareholder of the corporation.

From 2002 to 2007, Faryar, Inc. reported management fees from related entity Topaz Global Holdings, LLC and interest income of $1,221,778.  Because Faryar, Inc. was an S-Corporation with a Roth IRA as the sole shareholder, the income was not taxed at either the corporate level or the shareholder level.  The structure allowed the taxpayer to exceed Roth IRA contribution limits and decrease the income he otherwise would have reported because Topaz Global deducted the management fee paid to Faryar, Inc.

In IRS Notice 2004-8, the IRS designated these Roth IRA transactions as “abusive.”  The taxpayer filed a federal income tax return for 2004 in on October 17, 2005.  This return did not disclose the taxpayer’s participation in the Roth IRA transaction.  The IRS audited the taxpayer’s returns for 2002 through 2007 and issued notices of deficiency for each year.  The IRS determined that the taxpayer should have included $482,912 from the management fee transaction as income in the 2004 tax year.  After computational adjustments, this increased the taxpayer’s tax liability by $135,215.  The IRS issued notices of deficiency and the taxpayer when to the Tax Court.

During the course of the audit, the taxpayer amended his 2004 tax return to correct reported Schedule K-1 information.  The amended return also included $482,912 from the management fee transaction as income. The taxpayer then filed a second amended return claiming a net operating loss carryback from 2008, and again reporting the $482,912 management fee as income.

The taxpayer and the IRS settled the deficiency cases and entered into a closing agreement in 2011.  The closing agreement required the taxpayer to include certain amounts in his income for each of the tax years, including $482,912 for the 2004 tax year.  The Court entered stipulated decisions in the deficiency cases that reflected the closing agreement.

In September 2008, the IRS issued a IRC § 6707A penalty of $100,000 for the 2004 tax year because the taxpayer failed to disclose his participation in a listed transaction.  The IRS issued a Notice of Intent to Levy in February 2009 and the taxpayer timely requested a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing.  Prior to the hearing, Congress amended IRC § 6707A as part of the Small Business Jobs Act (SBJA) to change the method of calculating the penalty.  The change was effective retroactively for penalties assessed after December 31, 2006.  The new statute designated a penalty of 75% of the decrease in tax shown on the return as a result of the listed transaction and set minimum and maximum penalties of $5,000 and $100,000, respectively, for individuals under IRC § 6707A(b).

The IRS suspended the CDP hearing to reconsider the calculation of the penalty and determined that the penalty did not need to be modified under the new statute.   The taxpayer took the position that the amended returns should be used to calculate the decrease in tax, and thus the penalty should be the statutory minimum of $5,000 under IRC § 6707A(b)(2)(B).  The revenue agent disagreed and used the original return to calculate the penalty, resulting in a maximum $100,000 liability under IRC § 6707A(b)(2)(A).  At the taxpayer’s request, the settlement officer issued a notice of determination sustaining the collection action.  The taxpayer challenged the calculation of the penalty and petitioned the Tax Court.

Despite stipulations to the Tax Court’s jurisdiction over this matter, the Court determined its jurisdiction over the matter and distinguished this case from Smith v. Commissioner, 133 T.C. 424 (2009).  In Smith, the Court found it lacked jurisdiction to redetermine an IRC § 6707A penalty because the penalty did not fit the statutory definition of deficiency and because the IRS could assess and collect the penalty without issuing a statutory notice of deficiency.  However, the Tax Court held that the Court does have jurisdiction to redetermine a liability challenge asserted by a taxpayer in a Collection Due Process hearing pursuant to IRC § 6330(d)(1).  Notably, the Tax Court reviewed the CDP determination de novo because the underlying tax liability was properly at issue.  Sego v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 604, 610 (2000).

The taxpayer stipulated that he participated in a listed transaction and that he failed to properly disclose his participation.  The taxpayer argued that the amended returns should be used to calculate the decrease in tax, and thus the penalty should be the statutory minimum of $5,000, rather than the $100,000 maximum assessed by the IRS.  He based his argument on the plain language of the statute, the statutory scheme, and legislative history.

The Court held that “the statute is clear and unambiguous: The penalty is calculated with reference to the ‘tax shown on the return’. IRC § 6707A(b).”  In its analysis of legislative intent, the Tax Court found that Congress intended to penalize the failure to disclose participation in a listed transaction, not the tax savings produced by the transaction.  The Court also noted that Congress could have referenced “a” return in the statute, rather than “the” return, if it intended for the IRS to use amended returns in calculating the penalty under IRC § 6707A.  Thus, the Court upheld the maximum penalty of $100,000 assessed against the taxpayer.

The Tax Court did leave the door open for taxpayers who file an amended return prior to the due date of the original return.

Read the full opinion here: Yari v. Commissioner, 143 T.C. No. 7.

Conservation Easement Yields New Rule on Reasonable Cause Penalty Defense

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonThe Tax Court disallowed another charitable deduction for the donation of a façade easement in Boston’s South End Historic District. This time the decision was based on valuation principles, not technical foot faults, and the taxpayers were able to avoid certain penalties.

In Chandler v. Commissioner, 142 TC No. 16 (2014), the taxpayers owned two homes in Boston’s South End Historic District, the Claremont Property and the West Newton Property. The homes were purchased in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The taxpayers entered into an agreement in 2004 to grant the National Architectural Trust (“NAT”) a façade easement on the Claremont Property. They then executed a similar arrangement when they purchased the West Newton Property in 2005.

The taxpayers used an NAT recommended expert to value the easements. He valued the Claremont easement at $191,400 and the West Newton easement at $371,250. The taxpayers took charitable deductions related to the easements of more than $450,000 between 2004 and 2006.

The IRS did not challenge the easements’ compliance with §170(h). However, the IRS did allege that the easements had no value because they did not meaningfully restrict the taxpayers’ properties beyond the provisions under local law. The taxpayers’ countered that the easement restrictions were broader than local law because they limited construction on the entire exterior of the home and required the owners to make repairs. Local law only restricted construction on portions of the property visible from a public way and did not require owners to make repairs. The taxpayers’ also noted that the easement subjected the property to stricter monitoring and enforcement of the restrictions. The Tax Court, citing its recent opinion in Kaufman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-52, (discussed below), rejected the taxpayers’ arguments because “buyers do not perceive any difference between the competing sets of restrictions.”

The only remaining issue was valuation. The taxpayers abandoned their original appraisals and presented new expert testimony at trial. The taxpayers’ new expert used the comparable sales approach to calculate a before value of $1,385,000 for the Claremont Property and $2,950,000 for the West Newton Property. The taxpayers’ expert chose seven properties for comparison: four properties in Boston and three properties in New York City. On the basis of data from these properties, he estimated that the taxpayers’ easements diminished the value of both properties by 16%.

The Tax Court found the taxpayers’ expert unpersuasive. The Court dismissed the three New York City comparables because they “tell us little about easement values in Boston’s unique market.” The court also found that three of the four Boston properties were “obviously flawed.” The Court took particular exception to the expert’s use of a comparable unencumbered property that was not actually unencumbered. The Court stated that the “error undermines [the expert’s] credibility concerning not only this comparison, but the entire report.”

The Tax Court also found the respondent’s expert report unpersuasive. The respondent’s expert examined nine encumbered Boston properties that sold between 2005 and 2011. He compared the sales prices immediately before and after the imposition of the easements. Each property sold for more after it had been encumbered by the easement. However, the expert failed to account for significant renovations that took place on many of the properties after they were encumbered. Thus, the Court found the expert’s analysis unpersuasive because “it does not isolate the effect of easements on the properties in his sample.” However, in the final analysis, the Court sided with the IRS and disallowed the taxpayer’s deductions.

However, the Court did accept the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense for gross valuation misstatement penalties in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, the reasonable cause exception for gross valuation misstatements of charitable contribution property was eliminated with the Pension Protection Act of 2006, so the Court denied the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense for the 2006 tax period.

Read the full opinion here: Chandler v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 16

Reliance on Tax Attorney & Licensed Appraiser Helps Taxpayer Preserve Deductions & Avoid Penalties

us_tax_courtIn Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, a TEFRA partnership avoided accuracy-related penalties even though the Tax Court reduced the fair market value of its conservation easement by $3.98 million.

The taxpayer claimed a $23.94 million charitable contribution deduction on its 2006 partnership return. The IRS disallowed $16.97 million of the value under exam. At trial, the parties presented valuation experts who relied upon the comparable sales method to set the before and after value of the property. The taxpayer’s expert valued the land at $307,000 per acre, while the IRS expert came in at at $94,000 per acre. The Tax Court reviewed the four properties used by both experts and compared the property’s then-current use with its highest and best use. The taxpayers’ contended that 360 multifamily dwelling units could be developed on the 82-acre parcel. The IRS disagreed, emphasizing: a failed rezoning history; environmental concerns; limited access to outside roads; and neighborhood opposition. The Court rejected each of these arguments and found that “there is a reasonable probability that [the parcel] could have been successfully rezoned to allow for the development of multifamily dwellings.”

The IRS also argued that the real estate market was softening in 2006. Judge Goeke accepted the idea of a declining real estate market and reduced the taxpayer’s pre-encumbrance appraisal of the land from $25.2 million to $21 million. Using the same “after” value percentage (5% of the unencumbered property) the Court found that the fair market value of the conservation easement was $19.96 million.

Following the framework set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Woods, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction to consider the IRC § 6662 penalties. The Court then accepted the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense and disallowed the 20% penalty because the taxpayer: retained a tax attorney to advise them on the tax aspects of the easement donation; hired a credible, licensed appraiser, and made a good-faith attempt to determine the easement value.

Read the Tax Court opinion here: Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-79

Tax Court Rejects Expert Value, Imposes Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn what may be the last word on Kaufman v. Commissioner, the Tax Court sustained the IRS’s complete disallowance of charitable deductions claimed for the donation of a façade easement. The case returned to the Tax Court on remand from the First Circuit Court of Appeals to determine the value of the easement and the application of accuracy-related penalties.

The taxpayers’ owned a 150 year-old row house in a designated historic district in Boston, Massachusetts subject to the South End Landmark District Residential Standards (“South End Standards”). In 2003, taxpayers’ entered into an agreement with the NAT to donate a façade easement over the property. The taxpayers contacted an appraiser, recommended by NAT, who appraised the value of the easement. The appraisal concluded that the total loss of value, including the easement and the value of the unused development rights, was $220,800. The taxpayers deducted that amount on their 2004 and 2005 tax returns as a charitable donation of a qualified conservation easement. The Commissioner challenged the deductions with a statutory notice of deficiency.

In Kaufman v. Commissioner, 134 T.C. 182 (2010) (Kaufman I), the Tax Court ruled for the IRS in a motion for partial summary judgment. The Court held that the conservation easement failed to satisfy the “in perpetuity” requirements of the Treasury Regulations. The Court then issued a second opinion making additional findings, disallowing other items and imposing penalties on the remaining issues (Kaufman II). The taxpayers’ appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the Tax Court’s ruling that the taxpayers’ mortgage lender agreement undercut the regulation’s “in perpetuity” requirement as a matter of law (Kaufmann III) and remanded for further consideration of the taxpayers’ charitable contribution deductions under the facts.

The primary issue on remand was the proper valuation of the façade easement. The taxpayers’ valuation expert used a sales comparison analysis with data from three comparable properties. Using the before-and-after method, he determined that the value of the property was $1,840,000 before the grant of the easement. The expert used a “method unique to him and not a generally accepted appraisal or valuation method” to determine that the total value of the property was reduced by 12% or $220,800 when encumbered by the façade easement.

The IRS’s expert discredited the taxpayer’s valuation stating that it was “the fruit of an inappropriate valuation methodology employing a wholly unsupported adjustment factor.” Notably, both the IRS expert and the taxpayer’s expert agreed, “neither the preservation agreement nor the preexisting restrictions hamper the potential for developing the property to its highest and best use…as a single family home.”

The Tax Court gave no weight to the taxpayers’ expert because of his close relationship with NAT, his limited experience appraising façade easements, and his use of a “unique” valuation methodology. The Court also conducted its own comparison of the façade easement restrictions and the South End Standards. The Tax Court found that the agreements were “basically duplicative” and there were no significant additional restrictions placed on the property by the façade easement.

The Court held in favor of the IRS finding that the façade easement had no fair market value when conveyed to NAT. The Tax Court also upheld the IRS’s imposition of accuracy-related penalties.

Read the full opinion here: Kaufman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-52

Tax Court Denies Taxpayers’ Second Attempt to Avoid Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-38, the Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s request to consider alternative grounds for disallowing deductions conservation easement conveyance. The taxpayer sought to avoid 40% accuracy-related penalties assessed on the disallowance of the deductions in Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-138 (Mountanos I) (see our Summer 2013 newsletter).

In Mountanos I, the taxpayer claimed a $4.9 million deduction return for conveying a conservation easement to the Golden State Land Conservancy. The IRS challenged the easement on multiple grounds, including valuation. The Tax Court found that the conservation easement had no value because the conveyance had no effect on the “highest and best use” of the property. The Court did not consider the respondent’s alternative arguments and imposed a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty.

The taxpayer filed a motion seeking reconsideration of the Court’s decision on the 40% penalty. Relying on prior opinions of the court, the taxpayer argued that the Court should consider alternative grounds that the taxpayer fails to concede as the basis for calculating the penalty.

The Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s motion for reconsideration of the penalties because it would allow the taxpayer to “take two bites at the same apple.” Judge Kroupa also questioned the viability of the cases relied upon by the taxpayers in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Woods. Woods rejected the taxpayer’s reliance on the “Blue Book” formula in an attempt to avoid the gross valuation misstatement penalty.

Read the full opinion here: Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-38