Can a Resident of a Non-Tax Treaty Country (With Respect to Gambling) Get His Withheld Funds Back?

February 9th, 2016

Today, I received an inquiry from a citizen of New Zealand (he is not a US citizen or permanent resident). He had done well in a poker tournament here in the United States–well enough to have had 30% of his net winnings withheld. Non-US citizens who are not from a country with a Tax Treaty with the US where gambling income is exempted are subject to 30% withholding on gambling winnings. The gentleman had gambling losses in the US that exceeded his win. He wanted to know if I could file a Form 1040NR for him so he could get his withheld funds returned to him.

The problem is that except for Canadians and residents from tax treaty countries, there is no way to get that withholding back. Canadians are allowed to file a Form 1040NR and claim gambling losses up to the amount of wins, and get a refund. New Zealanders are not.

But he produced an email he had sent to another accounting firm along with their response. He asked the same question he asked me, with the same facts, and was told by that firm he could get a refund. He also referred me to an Internet article where someone said it was possible.

Well, the IRS was wrongly giving refunds a few years ago but they figured out there was a problem. The IRS redesigned Form 1040NR a couple of years ago; line 11 of Schedule NEC now states,

Gambling Winnings—Residents of countries other than Canada. Note: Losses not allowed.

I know the law in this area, and my correspondent is out of luck. He cannot legally get back his withheld funds. (If he is a professional gambler and has to pay tax to New Zealand on his winnings, he likely can get a tax credit on his New Zealand tax return to prevent double taxation.)

What bothers me isn’t the incorrect information on the Internet (I’ve come to expect that) but that my correspondent communicated with a supposedly respected accounting firm that should have known the right answer but either didn’t know or didn’t care to find out. I don’t know tax law well with respect to, say, the banking industry. Of course, if a bank were to approach me about doing their tax returns I’d decline the engagement and refer them to someone who does know that industry. My mother taught me that if you don’t know the answer to a question, saying “I don’t know but I’ll find out” is a great answer, and it’s one I use today. I hope that firm tries that answer out in the future. Their Errors & Omissions insurance carrier will appreciate it.

IRS Must Pay Fees in Civil Forfeiture Case

February 8th, 2016

I’m a huge fan of the Institute for Justice. Last week, the Institute for Justice won a case for a man who had $107,702.66 seized from him. Last May, Lyndon McLellan won the right to get back his $107,702.66 that was seized in a wrongful civil forfeiture action. Last week, he won the approximate $20,000 in legal and other fees he incurred in getting back his own money.

Judge John C. Fox (no relation) noted:

Certainly, the damage inflicted upon an innocent person or business is immense when, although it has done nothing wrong, its money and property are seized. Congress, acknowledging the harsh realities of civil forfeiture practice, sought to lessen the blow to innocent citizens who have had their property stripped from them by the Government. …This court will not discard lightly the right of a citizen to seek the relief Congress has afforded.

I am not a fan of civil forfeiture as currently practiced: It’s being abused widely by the government. Indeed, some government police agencies consider it a part of their normal funding! This is an issue that those both on the left and right can agree on (that there is abuse) so maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some bipartisanship and some reigning in of this.

If you’re thinking of making a charitable donation and wondering about a good organization to donate to, you could do far, far worse than the Institute for Justice.

Good News on the Practitioner Priority Service (PPS)

February 8th, 2016

It was with fear and trepidation that I picked up my phone and dialed the IRS’s Practitioner Priority Service (PPS). This is the telephone number that tax professionals use to obtain information from the IRS. Over the past year and a half calling PPS has been, to put it mildly, an adventure. It has taken hours (at times) to get through…if we can get through.

On my first call, I pushed the appropriate buttons and heard, “The hold time is estimated as less than two minutes.” And it was less than two minutes before someone picked up…on a Monday! For my second call, there was no hold time!

Now, this is a small sample size, etc, so things might go back to the way it was in 2015 tomorrow but at least for a day the IRS actually gave good customer service to tax professionals. Maybe this will be kept up for the rest of the 2016 Tax Season!

It Was Only a 13.33% Kickback

February 7th, 2016

Last year I reported on the case of Ronald Boyd. Mr. Boyd was Chief of Police of the Port of Los Angeles. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are two of the busiest ports in the world, and Mr. Boyd had a nice job. But he saw an opportunity.

In 2011, Mr. Boyd and two other individuals entered into an agreement where Mr. Boyd would receive 13.33% of revenues related to a smartphone app called “Portwatch.” Mr. Boyd guaranteed that the port would adopt the app, and in return for that he got the promise of future revenues. There’s only one problem with that: Mr. Boyd didn’t disclose that. Oops.

Adding to his woes were the future plans of the business: The goal was to take Portwatch and get more money by developing and marketing a similar app called Metrowatch to sell to other government agencies. (The idea of Portwatch is that it would allow ordinary citizens to report crime at the port. In that sense, the app is quite good.) Unfortunately, Mr. Boyd decided that lying to federal investigators was a good idea (it’s not, of course).

Unfortunately, as the investigation into Mr. Boyd continued the government discovered something else:

Boyd also pleaded guilty to tax evasion in relation to his personal income tax return for 2011. In his plea agreement, Boyd admitted receiving income from a security business he operated, At Close Range. The income came from the owner of a company doing business with the Port, American Guard Services, and Boyd admitted that he failed to report that income on his personal income tax returns for years 2007 through 2011.

Mr. Boyd pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents, tax evasion, and a misdemeanor charge of failing to file a tax return (he neglected to file a 2011 tax return for At Close Range). He’ll be sentenced in July.

“I Bestow on You the Title of Taxpayer in Good Standing…”

February 7th, 2016

A bit of humor to start the day. Courtesy of Spidell’s Tax Season Tribune, I discover that a video game has decided to emulate the Internal Revenue Service. Now, it’s been years since I played video games. Apparently the game Witcher 3 is quite successful. And in this game is the Deputy Tax Enumerator for Revenue and Customs for Occupied Temeria, Dorian Branch. Here’s a YouTube excerpt:

Maryland Suspends Processing Tax Returns from 23 Liberty Tax Service Locations

February 4th, 2016

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot announced on Tuesday that he has suspended processing from 16 more Liberty Tax Service locations (bringing the total suspended to 23). The decision was made based on suspicious characteristics found on the returns:

  • Business income reported when taxpayers did not own a business.
  • Refund amounts requested much higher than previous year tax returns.
  • Inflated and/or undocumented business expenses.
  • Dependents claimed when taxpayers did not provide required 50 percent support or care.
  • Inflated wages and withholding information.

These reasons sound like tax fraud 101–what’s been done by unscrupulous preparers year after year. This year, though, at least one state is making an effort to nip these problems before they grow too large.

It should be noted that these stores were owned by franchisees. Jim Wheaton, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs at Liberty, told Accounting Today that they have a “…robust compliance program, and we expect our franchisees to make sure that their offices comply with all federal and state tax requirements.”

For consumers, the advice that Maryland noted in their press release is accurate: “Taxpayers should carefully review their returns for these issues and should be suspicious if a preparer: deducts fees from the taxpayer’s refund to be deposited into the tax preparer’s account; does not sign the tax return; or fails to include the Preparer Taxpayer Identification number “PTIN” on the return.” I’ll add, if you don’t own a business and see business income on your return, there’s a problem. If you’re not attending college (or have a dependent attending college) and see education tax credits, there’s a problem. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

IRS Computers Crash

February 4th, 2016

2015 was a year the IRS would like to forget. Unfortunately, 2016 may be heading the same way. Yesterday, the IRS had a computer failure impacting multiple systems.

Those systems are still down this morning (as of 6:30am PST). The IRS currently cannot accept returns, and IRS e-services (the tool tax professionals use to pull transcripts) is also down. However, “Where’s My Refund” and IRS Direct Pay are working. More importantly, tax professionals can still submit returns to their software vendors; these returns are being held by the software companies until the IRS computers come back online.

The IRS’s statement on the failure notes,

Taxpayers can continue to prepare and file their tax returns as they normally would. Taxpayers can continue to send their tax returns to their e-file provider; these companies will hold the tax returns until the IRS resumes accepting electronic tax returns. Taxpayers who have already filed their tax returns do not need to take any additional action.

As a reminder to anyone who works with a computer (which is probably everyone who reads this), back up your computer! Your computer will crash at the least opportune moment (my corollary to Murphy’s Law). Do not keep your backups on your computer! And, most importantly, periodically test your ability to restore from your backups.

A Tale of Three States

February 3rd, 2016

Hawaii, Indiana, and Mississippi are three states where daily fantasy sports (DFS) is being debated. The three states are representative of what is likely to occur in every state.

Last week, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin issued an advisory opinion that DFS was gambling under Hawaii law.

Gambling generally occurs under Hawaii law when a person stakes or risks something of value upon a game of chance or upon any future contingent event not under the person’s control…The technology may have changed, but the vice has not.

On Tuesday, Honolulu (Oahu County) Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro sent letters to DFS companies FanDuel and DraftKings ordering them to cease and desist offering DFS to Honolulu residents:

Gambling is illegal in Hawaii, and on January 27, 2016, the state Attorney General issued a formal advisory opinion confirming what I have long believed: That daily fantasy sports contests are a form of gambling and violate Hawaii statutes.

It appears DraftKings will leave Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Attorney General also issued an opinion that DFS is illegal in the state. The opinion notes that DFS would be illegal both in a casino (there are casinos in Mississippi) and outside of a casino. Neither DraftKings nor FanDuel has left the Magnolia State.

Today, the Indiana State Senate sent legislation to the Indiana House that would explicitly legalize and regulate DFS. It is unclear whether or not the bill will eventually make it into law.

The wild cards that could both negatively or positively impact DFS are:

  • Will the current federal investigations of DFS in Florida lead to prosecutions?
  • Will New Jersey win the en banc appeal of New Jersey’s legalization of sports betting (the lower court and the Court of Appeals ruled that New Jersey was barred by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA))?  A loss by New Jersey could make DFS illegal nationally; one interpretation of PASPA is that it makes all sports betting, including indirect betting such as DFS, illegal (except for the states specifically exempted within the law).  A win by New Jersey might overturn PASPA.
  • Will the lawsuits and appeals filed by DFS companies in New York and Illinois succeed in anything but delaying DFS exits from these states?
  • Will the payment processors leave DFS making the industry financially unable to continue?
  • Will the IRS rule that DFS is or isn’t gambling?
  • Will Congress act on gambling in any manner?
  • Will an anti-gambling candidate become the next President of the United States?

A lot will happen over the next two to three months. Because it’s Tax Season, I won’t be following this as closely as I have been over the last couple of months. A great resource on DFS is the Legal Sports Report.

An observer might ask, what does this all mean? I believe that we will see a dichotomy within the states on how they treat DFS. I believe that about 20 states will explicitly ban DFS, another 20 states will legalize and regulate DFS, while a few states will ignore DFS and let it continue in its current unregulated state. But the wild cards noted above could drive the DFS industry under or make it wildly successful.

The Liberty to Commit Tax Fraud

January 31st, 2016

There are thousands of tax professionals. These range from the huge firms such as H&R Block to mom and pop outfits. The professionals range from Enrolled Agents, CPAs, and tax attorneys to those who have just put up a sign saying that they’re “professionals.”

Liberty Tax Service is one of the huge chains. They have employees dressed up like the Statue of Liberty outside of their locations. According to the IRS and Department of Justice, a Liberty Tax franchisee in metro Detroit took quite a few liberties with tax law.

Craig Comer operates five Liberty Tax Service locations near Detroit. If the complaint lodged by the US Department of Justice is correct, the five franchise locations did the usual illegal things to increase refunds:

According to the complaint, the defendants prepare income tax returns for customers that fraudulently overstate refunds and claim refundable credits by, among other things, claiming false or inflated Schedule C income and expenses, bogus dependents, false filing statuses, improper education credits and false itemized deductions. Based on audit adjustments the IRS has made to tax returns prepared and filed by the defendants for 2008 to 2013, the defendants’ conduct has cost the U.S. Treasury approximately $4.5 million for those years alone, according to the suit.

There are also allegations of forging customer signatures, changing returns that customers have already signed, committed fraud with the Earned Income Credit, and violated IRS PTIN (Practitioner Tax Identification Number) requirements. All tax professionals who prepare tax returns for money are required to put their PTIN on every tax return they file. The government is alleging that this wasn’t done by this franchisee.

This story does show two things. First, requiring every tax professional to obtain a license won’t stop tax fraud. The alleged fraud here was started by an individual with a PTIN, someone who assuredly could obtain the former RTRP designation or the current AFSP “seal of approval.” Second, the Department of Justice news release notes, “In the past decade, the Tax Division has obtained injunctions against hundreds of unscrupulous tax preparers.” This is absolutely true, and the DOJ should be commended for their work. It also shows that licensing every tax professional isn’t needed to get rid of unscrupulous ones.

FTB’s New MyFTB Impresses; Will the IRS Take Heed?

January 25th, 2016

Submitting a Power of Attorney form to the IRS means I must fax the form to the IRS’s Centralized Authorization File (CAF) unit and hope that the POA is entered in timely. A few years ago authorized e-services providers (which I am) could enter the POAs directly in the IRS system but no more.

Meanwhile, California’s Franchise Tax Board (FTB), the state’s income tax agency, has never allowed California POAs to be entered by practitioners. The procedure was to fax or mail them and wait weeks for them to be entered. No more.

The FTB debuted the new MyFTB on January 4th, and it’s a winner. I signed up, and waited for my PIN to be mailed to me (that took the expected 7-10 days). I then input the PIN, and have access. I can see the accounts I’m authorized for, and the new system allows me to enter a POA.

However, the POA does not immediately go into effect. The FTB requires that a pdf of the POA be attached so that the FTB can review it. The FTB states that within two weeks (well, 15 days) the POA will be in their system.

The FTB’s procedure appears to me to allay the issues that the IRS had with rogue professionals entering POAs without authorization. And consider the time savings here. I’ve entered all the information into the FTB’s computer system. An FTB employee can match the pdf I uploaded to the POA I entered. If it matches, the employee can make my POA go live. He or she doesn’t have to retype the information I entered, saving the FTB time (and money). The POA gets into the FTB’s systems faster, making me happy (and my client). It’s a win-win.

There’s a lot more that’s doable with the FTB’s new MyFTB. I can look at account balances, estimated payments amounts (clients get these wrong all the time), 1099 information on the state level (IRS wage and income transcripts don’t have this information), calculate a balance due for a future date, protest an assessment, view images of notices and correspondence, and more.

If you’re a tax professional who deals with California clients or a California taxpayer, I urge you to enroll in MyFTB. I’m very impressed. I may rag on the FTB (especially in the enforcement area) but from my point of view MyFTB is a model to be emulated by the rest of the country.

Such a system, if implemented by the IRS, would also be a win-win. Unfortunately, my expectations on that end aren’t particularly high. Indeed, I’ll be surprised if we see such a system for the IRS in the next five years.