The Taxman Cometh: IRS Announces Plans to Focus Audit Resources on Middle Market Companies

In a recent speech at the mid-year conference of the Tax Executives Institute, IRS Deputy Commissioner Steven T. Miller laid out the framework for the future of IRS corporate audits. To borrow Mr. Miller’s own assessment, this is bad news for large corporate taxpayers in the CIC (Coordinated Industry Case) program (i.e., the IRS is not going away) and it is also bad news for so-called middle market companies because they will be the new focus of the Internal Revenue Service’s audit scrutiny.

The new strategy Mr. Miller announced will use existing programs geared at CIC taxpayers, such as the IIR (Industry Issue Resolution) program, CAP (Compliance Assurance Process) and Schedule UTP (Uncertain Tax Positions), to increase transparency among large companies and thereby reduce the resources required to examine those companies. The strategy is to take revenue agents currently assigned to large corporations (those with over $1 billion in assets) and redeploy them to auditing taxpayers with revenues or assets between $10 million and $250 million. Miller went on to outline in some detail the steps the IRS will be taking to accomplish this new mission.

There are a number of takeaways here. At least three changes can be expected immediately. The incremental changes that large corporate taxpayers have been experiencing in recent years will continue. The IRS will expect more information, sooner, and more quickly. Mr. Miller was clear. If information requested in an IDR (Information Document Request) is not forthcoming, the IRS Summons power will be used to enforce revenue agent’s demands. Second, the IRS intends to bring its influence to bear upon the Office of Appeals. The IRS will request that Appeals Officers return cases to exam where new facts or arguments are raised for the first time in an Appeals Conference. This signals a further encroachment on the autonomy of an Appeals function that is already restricted in its consideration of coordinated issues, tiered issues and issues of interest. Third, The importance of Schedule UTP will only grow as the IRS reviews and refines its use of this tool to encourage taxpayer disclosures. Mr. Miller noted that those taxpayers who provided inadequate concise descriptions of positions on their 2010 Schedule UTP will be contacted by the IRS and should expect to have future returns reviewed.

The changes will not all be immediate however. The IRS is a large vessel and it cannot turn on a dime. However, once this ship changes course, as it appears it has committed to do, then the impact on the middle market will be significant. Mr. Miller mentioned a focus on companies with operations and assets of less than $250 million but there are still a number of companies in the $250 million to $1 billion range that also should expect to see increased audit activity. These likely will be the first companies to face new IRS examinations if only because they have already filed at least one Schedule UTP giving the IRS a good starting point. Once those companies with less than $100 million in assets are required to include a Schedule UTP with their Form 1120 (beginning in 2012 for those with $50 million in assets), many more corporate taxpayers can expect to hear from revenue agents wanting to open multi-year audits. The new direction is not limited to middle market corporate filers. Mr. Miller also made it clear that the new direction for LB&I will include an emphasis on pass through entities and financial products. Change is on the horizon.

U.S. District Court: California Must Turn Over Real Estate Information to the IRS

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California has issued an order allowing the Internal Revenue Service to serve a John Doe Summons on the California State Board of Equalization. A John Doe Summons is defined by Section 7609(f) of the Internal Revenue Code and is used by the IRS to gather information from a third party about a class or group of taxpayers suspected of not complying with the internal revenue laws. It is called a John Doe Summons because the IRS doesn’t know the specific names of the alleged violators but is seeking to identify them through the summons process. John Doe Summons have been used to implicate taxpayers in domestic and international tax-advantaged transactions with banks like Wachovia, HSBC and UBS.

In this particular matter, the Internal Revenue Service is seeking information about the transfer of real estate between family members for less than full value. The IRS believes that such transfers are being used to avoid Federal Gift Tax liabilities. The investigation is most likely to affect decedents who passed away in 2010 or before and whose final Federal Estate Tax Return has not yet been filed or is still subject to audit because the lifetime gift tax exclusion for those years was only $1 million. The lifetime exclusion for 2011 and 2012 is more a robust $5 million dollars. Nonetheless, a Federal Gift Tax Return, Form 709, is required in any year which a gift of more than $13,000 is made. Failure to file a gift tax return is subject to a Section 6651 penalty.

The IRS targeted the California State Board of Equalization because it receives records of all California real property transfers to ensure compliance with Proposition 13, the well known California voter initiative which limits annual property tax assessment increases. The judge found that the IRS satisfied the technical requirements to serve the summons and ordered enforcement. The California BOE likely will be turning over the records at the beginning of the new year and you can expect the IRS to start initiating examinations based on what it collects sometime on 2012.

Read the order and memorandum here:
In the Matter of the Tax Liabilities of John Does, No. 2:10-mc-00130-MCE-EFB, (E.D. CA, December 15, 2011)

Tax Court: Western Union/First Data Settles $2B Transfer Pricing Litigation

On December 15, 2011, Western Union announced that it entered into an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to settle a long standing transfer pricing dispute with its former parent company, First Data Corporation. According to documents filed with the Securities Exchange Commission, Western Union and First Data agreed to a total of $1.18 billion in transfer pricing related adjustments. The total adjustment included the recognition of $885 million of additional income in 2003 related to First Data’s restructuring plan, which transferred certain intangible assets out of the United States, and additional adjustments between 2004 and 2011 to reach the $1.18 billion total. Penalties were dropped.

Western Union and First Data will make approximately $470 million in payments to satisfy the adjustments under the settlement agreement. Western Union also announced that it will eliminate its tax reserve related to the case and should record a one-time tax benefit of approximately $200 million in 2011.

In March 2009, First Data Corporation filed a petition in the United States Tax Court disputing a notice of deficiency alleging more than $2 billion of transfer pricing related adjustments and penalties. The matter was notable not only for the size of the proposed adjustment but also for several other procedural and tactical moves that took place over the course of the dispute.

While undergoing an examination of its 2003 reorganization and the transfer pricing planning that accompanied that transaction, First Data also was subject to a John Doe Summons in which the IRS sought the names of merchants who transferred money outside the United States using First Data’s services (more particularly Western Union’s services). First Data resisted the Summons but a U.S. District Court judge in Denver ruled that First Data had to turn over the requested information.

Shortly before First Data’s petition was filed in the Tax Court, the Chief Counsel of the IRS issued a Technical Advice Memorandum (TAM), TAM 200907024, which held that the transfer of a portion of a taxpayer’s global delivery business overseas was fully attributable to identifiable intangible assets under section 936(h)(3)(b) therefore gave rise to a deemed royalty under section 367(d). The facts of the TAM were distinctly similar to those of the First Data case and were widely believed be drawn from the First Data examination. Some speculated, appropriately so, that the TAM was part of the IRS’s larger litigation strategy.