When 5 ½ Months Seems Fast

November 23rd, 2020

Last week I complained about the IRS taking more than 5 ½ months to process an amended return. Well, I may have some clarity now on IRS processing time and it ain’t pretty.

On February 4th clients of mine mailed their 2018 tax return to the IRS. This particular return could not be electronically filed. They mailed it certified mail. It took nearly a full month to get from Las Vegas to Ogden, Utah. On March 1st it was received.

And then nothing…until today.

The IRS shows the return was processed today, November 23rd. That’s more than 8 ½ months from the date it was received (and more than 9 months after it was sent). Yes, we’re dealing with Covid but this is really unacceptable. These clients have been waiting to set up a payment plan (installment agreement) but couldn’t because the return was “in limbo.”

Per IRS Commissioner Rettig, there are 1 million unprocessed tax returns, 6.8 million returns “in process,” and 3 million pieces of unopened mail. Or a child could be conceived and born faster than whatever it is you’re sending to the IRS is responded to.

So, what’s the solution? I honestly don’t see much improvement until next summer (when I think we’ll be able to put Covid in the rear-view mirror). Until that happens, it’s just going to be a slog.

Long-term, the IRS really needs to have its funding increased. The main IRS computer is older than I am (to give a hint of my age, I watched “The Play” in-person as a college student 38 years ago). The IRS is (as far as I know) the only place where money spent at the federal level brings back more money (Commissioner Rettig said that for every dollar spent, the IRS brings in $7). Let’s spend some money and move the IRS into the 21st Century!

When It Takes the IRS 5+ Months to Process an Amended Return…

November 18th, 2020

Back in May, clients of mine discovered they left something out of their 2018 tax return. We prepared an amended return, the clients included a check for the additional tax, and it was mailed off to Kansas City. The check was cashed in July, so the amended return was received.

Fast forward to today. The amended return still has not been processed (and no one knows when it will be; it’s almost certainly sitting in a bin with thousands of other amended returns), but the IRS Automated Underreporting Unit discovered the error and sent the clients a notice. They found the same error. So now my clients have to respond to this notice, telling the IRS there’s an amended return somewhere in Kansas City.

Normally, when a taxpayer submits an amended return for a year the IRS computer system notes the return exists so that no AUR notices are sent until the IRS processes the return. Because of Covid the IRS is behind. Way, way behind. At last report the IRS still has 8+ million pieces of mail to go through. So what my clients are going through is going to be repeated by many others, just adding to the IRS’s backlog.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a solution to these issues. Covid isn’t going away until likely next summer (based on the vaccine news, I expect most Americans to be vaccinated by then), meaning the IRS issues we face today will continue for months. (Even when the IRS fully reopens we’re looking at months to clear the backlog.) And it’s not just amended returns. I have a payment issue for a client (the IRS misapplied a payment) where I sent a response in September 2019; that response has still not been assigned to anyone. An Appeals request sent in February has just been assigned to somebody, but the helpful staff at the Practitioner Priority Service (and they did help me this morning) have no idea when the case will actually be worked. We all do need to be patient, but many taxpayers aren’t which is adding to the issues.

Do Canadian Professional Poker Players Owe Income Tax?

November 5th, 2020

In the United States, the tax law can be boiled down to two sentences: Everything is taxable unless Congress exempts it. Nothing is deductible unless Congress allows it. Gambling winnings are taxed–they are an accession to income. An American professional gambler clearly owes income tax.

However, in many countries like Australia only professional gamblers (those conducting a business) are taxed on their gambling winnings. This came up when Australian Joseph Hachem won the World Series of Poker. He successfully argued that at the time he won he was an amateur gambler and did not have to pay income tax on his winnings.

The law in Canada is not settled in this area. There is a court case from British Columbia that says that professional poker players do not have to pay tax on their winnings. But clarity is likely coming, as the Tax Court of Canada will hear the case of Jonathan Duhamel in March.

Mr. Duhamel won the 2010 World Series of Poker main event earning $8,944,310. Canada’s tax agency, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), argues that Mr. Duhamel was operating a business; thus, he owes income tax on his net income. CRA argues that Mr. Duhamel hasn’t paid $1,219,114 (Canadian Dollars) in tax from 2010-2012. That’s $934,695 (USD), well worth fighting over.

The case will probably come down to whether or not the business aspect of Mr. Duhamel’s career outweighs the luck that caused him to win specific events. Per an article in The Canadian, CRA believes that because he considers himself a professional poker player, he behaves like a “serious businessman” while playing poker, he has no other primary source of income, and he performs his occupation for 40 to 50 hours per week, he is in business and owes income tax. Mr. Duhamel argues it’s just luck that causes him to win.

The good news for Canadian poker players is that clarity on income taxes is coming (probably next summer). The bad news is that to this observer it appears that CRA is starting with pocket Queens versus Mr. Duhamel’s eight-seven suited.

IRS Mailing Erroneous CP259F Notices

November 4th, 2020

We prepare a few split-interest charitable trust returns (IRS Form 5227) every year. Coincidentally, I serve as trustee of a split-interest trust. Imagine my surprise when I received a CP259F Notice from the IRS for the trust that I am trustee of stating, “You didn’t file a Form 5227.” The only problem is that I did file it (mailing it certified mail, return receipt requested) and it shows as delivered on March 4th. (Form 5227 cannot be electronically filed.) Meanwhile, multiple clients received the same letter; all filed their returns on or about the same date (and have proof of filing).

I called the IRS this morning and confirmed that these returns are most likely sitting in a trailer in Ogden, Utah waiting to be processed. Because of Covid, the Ogden, Utah mailroom did not reopen until mid-June. It could be tomorrow or three months from tomorrow before the Form 5227s are processed. The IRS asked that we ignore these notices and not send a second return because a second return (a) could be processed before the first return (causing another set of issues, including erroneous late filing penalties), and (b) sooner or later the backlog will be cleared (the returns will be considered filed on the date received, not the date the IRS eventually processes the returns). The IRS representative I spoke with stated these notices should not have gone out.

I do want to point out that this issue shows why using certified mail is essential when sending anything to a tax agency. While I’m hopeful that the trust return is sitting in the trailer and will eventually be filed, it’s inevitable that something is going to get lost. (There were over 23 million pieces of mail waiting to be processed at one point; the backlog is still more than 5 million.) Should the IRS lose the Form 5227, I have proof of filing that should hold up and prevent the imposition of late filing penalties.

This also is definitely the year to have patience with the IRS.

2021 State Business Tax Climate Index: Bring Me the Usual Suspects!

November 3rd, 2020

Every year the Tax Foundation publishes its State Business Tax Climate Index. As they state, they look at how each state taxes, not on the how much. Per usual, the names at the top and the bottom haven’t changed much.

The top ten states are:

  1. Wyoming
  2. South Dakota
  3. Alaska
  4. Florida
  5. Montana
  6. New Hampshire
  7. Nevada
  8. Utah
  9. Indiana
  10. North Carolina

The bottom ten states:

41. Alabama
42. Louisiana
43. Vermont
44. Maryland
45. Arkansas
46. Minnesota
47. Connecticut
48. New York
49. California
50. New Jersey

This is what the Tax Foundation states about the bottom ten:

The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, has the second highest-rate corporate and individual income taxes in the country and a particularly aggressive treatment of international income, levies an inheritance tax, and maintains some of the nation’s worst-structured individual income taxes.

I deliberately waited until election day to make this post. Why? Because some states have ballot measures today that will impact their rankings. For example, Californians will vote on whether to have a “split-roll” property tax, where business properties would be assessed annually based on current value rather than only when a property is sold. California today ranks 14th in property tax; if this measure passes, the ranking will fall dramatically. Illinois votes today on changing their personal income tax from a flat-rate tax to a progressive system.

Nevada, my state, ranks seventh. It’s not that every tax is great in Nevada (we have a poor sales tax system and unemployment insurance taxes); however, we lack income taxes. (We do have a gross receipts tax, called the Commerce Tax, that large businesses must pay.)

Some states, like Utah and Indiana, have most taxes but they administer them neutrally, simply, and with relatively low rates. Contrast that with California, which has an awful income tax system, high rates, and ridiculous regulations.

Below is a map (from the Tax Foundation) of the United States with the rankings of each state. If you’re considering locating a business, it makes sense to look at taxes (and other factors, too); the Tax Foundation’s annual guide is a tremendous resource.

IRS: DFS Is Wagering (Gambling)

October 19th, 2020

In February 2014, I wrote a post titled, “Taxes and Daily Fantasy Sports: The Duck Test.” I concluded:

So daily fantasy sports have at least some element of luck. Then from a tax standpoint they sure look to be a form of wagering activity. There’s a prize, chance, and consideration. The Duck Test again: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a duck.

On Friday, the IRS released a second Chief Counsel Memorandum dealing with Daily Fantasy Sports. An IRS attorney asked the question, “Does the amount paid by a daily fantasy sports player to participate in a daily fantasy sports contest constitute an amount paid for a wagering transaction under §165(d) of the Internal Revenue Code?” The Chief Counsel’s Office conclusion was:

The amount paid by a daily fantasy sports player to participate in a daily fantasy sports contest constitutes an amount paid for a wagering transaction under §165(d).

The Chief Counsel’s office opinion is basically what I wrote over six years ago:

DFS transactions meet the definition of wager as interpreted by the Tax Court and State courts because there is an uncertain event (such as the live performance of individual players), winnings if the event resolves in participant’s favor, and consideration is lost if the event does not resolve in participant’s favor. Each DFS transaction is a pay to play competition with predetermined winnings for a certain number of participants. The outcome of the competition turns on the overall statistical performance of live professional players assembled into the fantasy team. The winning participant receives a return of his or her initial bet along with wagering gains, while the losing participant walks away empty handed. This is consistent with the courts’ interpretation of the term “wager.”

The IRS Chief Counsel memorandum also correctly notes that the fact that DFS is skillful wagering is a blind alley. “DFS transactions are similar to poker and other wagers in which a player’s skill is a component of the game but it does not dictate the outcome. As such, the argument that DFS transactions are excluded from wagering as a game of skill are unpersuasive.”

There are some obvious conclusions from this. First, DFS sites have been issuing Form 1099-MISC’s, not W-2G’s, to participants. We can expect the IRS to pressure the sites to switch (and expect the sites to fight this). Second, expect the sites to come under pressure to register as gambling sites in “grey market” states or to leave such states.

Both DraftKings and FanDuel, the two leading DFS sites, have expanded into sports betting (which is clearly gambling) and have registered appropriately in states where they act as sports books. In those states, DFS being considered wagering/gambling won’t matter. However, just like Nevada did years ago some other state or states are going to also consider DFS to be gambling.

For DFS players, there is both good and bad in this memorandum. The good is that you can deduct losses (to the extent of winnings). If DFS were a skill contest, you couldn’t; however, if DFS is a wagering activity losses are explicitly allowed up to the amount of winnings. That’s good. The bad is that for professional DFS players, you might not be able to take business expenses in a year that you lose money. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (passed at the end of 2017) specifically disallows a professional gambler from taking business losses.

For the DFS sites, this is a continuation of the bad news coming from the IRS. Like the first Chief Counsel memorandum, I expect the DFS sites to bury their head in the sand and fight this. Unfortunately, while DFS clearly involves substantial skill to be a consistent winner, that is completely irrelevant as far as whether or not it is a wagering (gambling) activity. The only way around this for the DFS companies is for Congress to change the law.

Forgot to File the FBAR? A Typo Gives You Two More Weeks

October 17th, 2020

The FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) was effectively due last Thursday, October 15th. FINCEN (the Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency) issued an extension (the notice was released on October 6th) for those impacted by the recent natural disasters such as some hurricanes, wildfires, and the Iowa derecho. Those individuals so impacted have until December 31st to file.

But when the agency first updated the notice on October 14th, they accidentally left out that it only was for those impacted by the natural disasters. Oops. Yesterday, FINCEN clarified this:

On October 14, 2020, FinCEN posted an incorrect message on its Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) E-Filing website.  FinCEN removed it within 24 hours.  The message incorrectly stated there was a new filing extension until December 31, 2020 for all filers of Reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBARs).  The extension until December 31, 2020, however, is intended only as an accommodation for victims of recent natural disasters covered in FinCEN’s October 6, 2020 notice ( https://www.fincen.gov/sites/default/files/shared/Notice-Extend%20FBAR%20Due%20Date%20for%202020%20Disaster%20Victims-Final%2020201005.pdf )

FinCEN apologizes for the error and any confusion this has caused, and has coordinated with the IRS to address the concerns of filers who may have missed their filing deadline due to the October 14, 2020 message.

Filers who file their 2019 calendar year FBAR by October 31, 2020 will be deemed to have timely filed.  As set out in the October 6 notice, FBAR filers impacted by recent natural disasters continue to have until December 31, 2020 to file their FBARs.

So if you forgot to file the FBAR, relax and get it done over the next two weeks. The penalties are on the ridiculous side for not filing the FBAR. Just do it!

Just File the FBAR

October 8th, 2020

One week from today is the tax filing deadline. It’s also the effective deadline for filing the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, FINCEN Form 114; that’s the form that’s better known as the FBAR. The FBAR is part of the Bank Secrecy Act (it’s not a tax form), but tax professionals like me get the joy of preparing the form. There’s no tax due with filing the FBAR–it’s an information return. Yet I regularly hear excuses on why not to file the form.

You are required to file the FBAR if you have $10,000 aggregate at any time during the previous year in one or more foreign financial accounts. These include the obvious (non-US bank accounts and non-US brokerage accounts) to the not so obvious (most online gambling accounts). Penalties for not filing the FBAR are stiff (to say the least). Non-willful penalties begin at $10,000 while willful penalties start at the greater of $100,000 or half the balance in the account—yes, that penalty is per account.

The FBAR must be electronically filed. Most tax professionals’ software will handle filing the form. You can also do it yourself on the BSA E-Filing System. And if you have an FBAR filing requirement, you may also need to file Form 8938 with your tax return. This is essentially a duplicate of the FBAR but with different filing thresholds and slightly different accounts that must be reported. (The IRS has a good webpage on the differences between the FBAR and Form 8938 filing requirements.)

The rule of thumb with the FBAR is simple: When in doubt, include the account. There are no penalties for overreporting; there are severe penalties for underreporting. Take foreign cryptocurrency exchanges. The IRS has publicly stated that these do not have to be included on the FBAR. However, the instructions to the FBAR don’t say that. Thus, I urge individuals to include them. I maintain a list of foreign online gambling sites and cryptocurrency exchanges.

So don’t forget the FBAR when you’re filing your taxes. And if you have any doubts on whether to include that account, include it.

It’s Time to Panic

September 30th, 2020

As I write this, it’s September 30th. Two weeks from tomorrow is Thursday, October 15, 2020. That’s the deadline for individual taxpayers on extension to file their tax returns (except for those in disaster areas such as the fires that impacted California, Oregon, and Washington). If you have yet to send your paperwork to your tax professional it’s past the time to do so. Yes, it’s time to panic!

If your return is simple and straightforward, stop procrastinating and get it done and filed. If your return has any sort of complexities, you must start working on it now. Your tax professional needs time to get it done correctly. You need to turn in that paperwork post haste. If you’ve procrastinated, stop, sit down, and get it done–NOW.

It may already be too late for your return to be timely filed with many tax professionals. For example, our official deadline was September 15th. Luckily, we’re only a day or two behind so our procrastinating clients are still in relatively good shape. However, that might not be the case with all tax professionals. And I can guarantee if you drop off your paperwork with us on October 13th your return is almost certainly not going to be timely filed.

If you file late, it’s as if you never filed your extension. So sit down and get everything done now! Of course, if you like paying a 25% penalty, simply procrastinate for another three weeks.

The Dead Need Not Amend (Even When They Have To)

September 25th, 2020

When I eventually go to the pearly gates, I assume I’ll be leaving income tax behind. It would be a rather rude surprise to find I have lifetime employment in the great beyond, too.

This past week I needed to amend a 2019 federal return. A couple left off one item from their return. It had no impact on their tax, but the return did need to be amended. The IRS is now allowing amended 2019 federal returns to be electronically filed, so after obtaining the signature document I efiled the return. That’s a lot more efficient than mailing the return to the IRS.

But the return was rejected, because the spouse was deceased. That was true, and was noted on the originally filed return. The original return was electronically filed, so I couldn’t see why the amended return couldn’t be. Silly me, I missed yet another exception to the ability to electronically file amended returns. You cannot electronically file an amended return if a spouse is deceased. This wasn’t listed in any of the IRS notices announcing electronic filing of amended returns.

Unfortunately, that exception is real and is an IRS issue. My software company confirmed it’s an IRS programming issue and at least for now any amended return with a deceased taxpayer needs to be mailed to the IRS. Still, at least most 2019 amended returns can be electronically filed.