United States Tax Court Decision for the Week and Filing Status

A recent Tax Court decision was reported potentially dealing with tax litigation and filing status of Joint v. Separate returns. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Litigator works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.

Taxpayer Can File Joint Return After Original Return Erroneously Reported Single Status

The Tax Court held that a return that a taxpayer originally filed, erroneously claiming single status, did not constitute a “separate return” within the meaning of Code Sec. 6013(b) and, thus, the taxpayer and his wife were entitled to file a joint return and pay joint return tax rates for the year at issue. The Tax Court concluded that the term “separate return” means a return on which a married taxpayer has claimed the permissible status of married filing separately, rather than a return on which a married taxpayer has claimed a filing status not properly available to him or her. Camara v. Comm’r, 149 T.C. No. 13 (2017).

Facts

Fansu Camara was married to Aminata Jatta. Nevertheless, on his 2012 Form 1040, which he filed on April 15, 2013, Mr. Camara erroneously checked the box for single filing status. In a notice of deficiency issued to Mr. Camara for his 2012 tax year, the IRS changed his filing status from single to married filing separately. On May 8, 2015, Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta timely petitioned the Tax Court with respect to that notice of deficiency as well as a notice of deficiency that the IRS issued to them for their 2013 tax year. On May 27, 2016, Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta filed with the IRS a joint 2012 return, which they had both signed. Ms. Jatta had not previously filed a 2012 return.

The couple and the IRS agreed that if Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta were entitled to elect joint filing status for 2012, the joint return that they filed on May 27, 2016 – after receiving the notice of deficiency and petitioning the Tax Court – correctly reflected their 2012 tax liability with certain agreed-upon changes. And the IRS conceded that Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta met the substantive requirements for joint filing status and rates for 2012. However, the IRS contended that Code Sec. 6013(b)(2) barred Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta from filing a joint return, and consequently, they were procedurally barred from claiming the benefits generally available to married taxpayers who file a joint return.

Code Sec. 6013 governs whether a married couple may file a joint return. Under Code Sec. 6013(a), a married couple can “make a single return jointly of income taxes” subject to three restrictions, which are not applicable in this case. Code Sec. 6013(b) permits married taxpayers to elect in certain circumstances to switch from a separate return to a joint return. Code Sec. 6013(b)(1) provides that if an individual has filed a “separate return” for a tax year for which that individual and his or her spouse could have filed a joint return, that individual and his or her spouse may nevertheless “make a joint return” for that year. Because the Code Sec. 6013(b) election applies only where an individual has filed a separate return, limitation under Code Sec. 6013(b)(2) likewise apply only if the individual has filed a separate return. The term “separate return” in Code Sec. 6013(b)(1) is not defined in the Code or the regulations.

IRS Arguments

The IRS argued that Mr. Camara’s original 2012 return, on which he erroneously claimed single filing status, constituted a “separate return” within the meaning of Code Sec. 6013(b)(1) and, consequently, two limitations under Code Sec. 6013(b)(2) applied to prevent Mr. Camara from making the Code Sec. 6013(b) election to switch to a joint return. The two limitations that the IRS invoked were in Code Sec. 6013(b)(2)(A) and Code Sec. 6013(b)(2)(B). The first limitation bars the Code Sec. 6013(b) election after three years from the filing deadline (without extensions) for filing the return for that year. The second limitation bars the Code Sec. 6013(b) election after there has been mailed to either spouse, with respect to such tax year, a notice of deficiency, if the spouse, as to such notice, files a petition with the Tax Court within 90 days.

According to the IRS, the two limitations were satisfied because: (1) the date on which Mr. Camara and Ms. Jatta filed a joint return – May 27, 2016 – was more than three years after Mr. Camara filed a separate return; and (2) Mr. Camara received a notice of deficiency, and filed a petition with the Tax Court before filing a joint return.

The IRS also cited the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Morgan v. Comm’r, 807 F.2d 81 (6th Cir. 1986), aff’g T.C. Memo. 1984-384, as compelling a decision in its favor. Morgan involved married taxpayers who filed “protest returns” claiming married filing jointly status for some years and married filing separately status for other years. Affirming the Tax Court, the Sixth Circuit in Morgan held that Code Sec. 6013(b)(2) precluded the husband from claiming the benefits of joint return filing status after the IRS issued a notice of deficiency calculating his tax on the basis of married filing separately.

Tax Court Holding

The Tax Court held that the 2012 return that Mr. Camera originally filed, erroneously claiming single status, did not constitute a “separate return” within the meaning of Code Sec. 6013(b). Thus, Mr. Camera and his wife were entitled to file a joint return and pay joint return tax rates for that year.

The Tax Court began its analysis by noting that the issue raised by the IRS has not been formally addressed by the Tax Court in a reported or reviewed opinion. The court also noted that no Court of Appeals has held that a single return or a head of household return is a separate return for the purposes of Code Sec. 6013(b) and the two Appeals Court cases that have considered this issue, Ibrahim v. Comm’r, 788 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 2015) and Glaze v. Comm’r, 641 F.2d 339 (5th Cir. 1981), have held the opposite. The court also observed that some Memorandum Opinions had interpreted “separate return” to include a single return or a head of household return for this purpose. For the most part, however, those Memorandum Opinions merely accepted the rationale of earlier cases, and the ultimate authority for those Memorandum Opinions appeared to be traceable to earlier cases where the effect of an erroneous claim of filing status was neither addressed nor even presented as an issue.

The Tax Court noted that its decision in the instant case would be appealable to the Sixth Circuit. However, the court rejected the IRS’s argument that the Sixth Circuit’s holding in Morgan compelled it to rule in the IRS’s favor. Morgan, the court said, did not squarely address the issue presented in the instant case because Morgan did not explain the effect under Code Sec. 6013(b) of a married taxpayer’s initial filings of a return erroneously claiming single status.

The court did find, however, that the Fifth Circuit, in Glaze, squarely addressed the issue. In Glaze, the Fifth Circuit held that filing a return with an erroneous claim to an impermissible filing status (i.e., a filing status of single when the taxpayer was married) did not constitute an “election” to file a separate return. The Fifth Circuit in Morgan, the court observed, distinguished Glaze on the grounds that Glaze involved no protest return and the taxpayer had not attempted to file a return as a married taxpayer originally. The Tax Court found that Mr. Camara’s case was distinguishable from Morgan on the same grounds on which Glaze was distinguished in Morgan. Mr. Camara neither filed a protest return nor attempted to file a return as a married taxpayer originally.

Considering the context of Code Sec. 6013(b) as a whole and giving due regard to the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Glaze, as well as an Eight Circuit’s opinion in Ibrahim, the Tax Court concluded that the term “separate return” means a return on which a married taxpayer has claimed the permissible status of married filing separately, rather than a return on which a married taxpayer has claimed a filing status not properly available to him or her.

Finally, the court also noted that the legislative history showed that Code Sec. 6013(b)(1) was intended only to provide taxpayers flexibility in switching from a proper initial election to file a separate return to an election to file a joint return; it was not intended to foreclose correction of an erroneous initial retur

United States Tax Court Decision for the Week – You be the Judge

A recent Tax Court decision was reported that may be of interest to individuals potentially dealing with tax litigation. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Practitioner, as a litigator, works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.

Modified Child Support Order Didn’t Contradict Taxpayer’s Claim That He Was Custodial Parent

The United States Tax Court held that a taxpayer was entitled to take dependency exemptions, the earned income tax credit, and child tax credits for the year at issue. The court found that the IRS’s argument that the taxpayer wasn’t the custodial parent and wasn’t entitled to the exemptions and credits was entirely based on a child support order effective after the year at issue, and thus inapplicable. The court also determined that the taxpayer had reasonable cause for incorrectly claiming head of household filing status and thus was not liable for penalties assessed by the IRS. Tsehay v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2016-200.

Background

Yosef Tsehay, whose first language is not English, worked as a custodian at a community college in Washington. He and his wife were married in 2001 and over the years their relationship was “on-again, off-again.” During 2013, the two were married and living together with their five children in a public housing apartment. Tsehay’s wife was responsible for paying the rent on the public housing unit, and he paid for food and other expenses of his family. In 2014, the couple separated, and during 2015 they were undergoing divorce proceedings.

Although Tsehay paid a tax return preparer to prepare his return, Tsehay electronically filed the 2013 Form 1040A himself. On the return, he claimed: (1) dependency exemption deductions for four children; (2) the earned income tax credit (EITC) for three children; (3) the child tax credit (CTC) for four children; and (4) head of household filing status. He did not attach a Form 8332, Release/Revocation of Release of Claim to Exemption for Child by Custodial Parent, or a statement conforming to the substance of a Form 8332, to his Form 1040A for tax year 2013.

Following an audit, the IRS disallowed Tsehay’s claimed dependency exemption deductions, earned income tax credit, and child tax credit for 2013. The IRS also changed his filing status from head of household to single and determined an accuracy-related penalty under Code Sec. 6662(a).

Analysis

Under Code Sec. 151(c), an individual is allowed an exemption deduction for each “dependent,” which is generally defined as a qualifying relative or a qualifying child. In addition, taxpayers are entitled to claim the EITC under Code Sec. 32 and the CTC under Code Sec. 24 for qualifying children. Under Code Sec. 152(c), to be a qualifying child of the taxpayer, the child must have had the same principle place of above as the taxpayer for more than one-half of the tax year.

Under Code Sec. 2(b), a taxpayer can file as a head of household if the taxpayer is unmarried, has paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year, and a qualifying person has lived with the taxpayer for more than half the year.

The Tax Court noted that the IRS’s determinations stemmed from its records showing that Tsehay was not the custodial parent of his minor children and from his failure to attach a copy of Form 8332 or its equivalent to his return. The IRS provided a copy of a child support order to establish that Tsehay was in fact a “noncustodial parent.” However, the court stated, the child support order was entered August 3, 2015, and thus did not apply for the year at issue. The court determined Tsehay had sufficiently established that he and his wife were married during 2013, and thus a Form 8332 to claim dependency exemptions was not required.

The court noted the children claimed on Tsehay’s return as dependents had the same principal place of abode as he did for more than one-half of the year at issue and were his qualifying chidlren, and determined that he was entitled to the dependency exemption deductions claimed on his 2013 return. In addition, because he had “three or more” qualifying children for tax year 2013, the court determined he was entitled to the earned income credit and to child tax credits and the additional child tax credits claimed.

With regard to his filing status, Tsehay explained to the court that because he and his wife had separated by the time he was ready to file his 2013 tax return, he had asked his preparer to file for him as “married filing separately.” The court noted that the preparer erroneously filed his return as “head of household.” Because Tsehay was married for 2013, the court stated he could not qualify for head of household filing status, and noted he also was not eligible to file as single as claimed by the IRS. Instead, the court said, his correct filing status for 2013 was in fact married filing separately.

With regard to the accuracy related penalty, the court observed that Tsehay had a language barrier, sought and relied on professional advice, and was separated from his wife when he filed his return. Under those circumstances, the court stated, Tsehay had reasonable cause and acted in good faith in filing his returns, and declined to impose penalties.