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

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