The federal tax reform package recently approved by Congress (the Bill) contains a cap on the state and local tax deduction that may be claimed by individuals on their federal income tax returns. The Bill provides that an individual may claim up to $10,000 of state and local property taxes and either income or sales taxes. The cap expires on January 1, 2026.

Individual taxpayers who have been considering prepaying their 2018 (or later) taxes in 2017 should be aware that the final version of the Bill contains a provision that prohibits individuals from prepaying their income tax for future years in 2017. As a result, any guidance issued by state revenue departments (for example, in Illinois) regarding the prepayment of 2018 income tax is no longer applicable. In certain jurisdictions, individuals may still have an opportunity to prepay their property tax assessments. For additional details, please contact your tax preparer.

In an effort to resolve Illinois’ 20-month budget impasse, the Illinois Senate leadership (Senate Majority Leader John Cullerton and Senate Minority Leader Christine Rodogno) have jointly proposed a series of bills to increase revenue, reduce spending, and respond to the Illinois Governor’s concerns regarding pension reforms, workers compensation reform and property tax relief.  A series of twelve bills have been introduced, all of which are interlinked for passage.  The bills are termed the Illinois “Grand Bargain.”  Most of the tax-related changes are found in Senate Bill 9.  The current version of the Senate Bill 9 (Amendment 3) (“Bill”) was submitted on March 3 and includes the following proposed changes: Continue Reading Tax Highlights of Proposed Illinois “Grand Bargain”

Northeastern University, the Trustees of Boston University, Wellesley College and 131 Willow Avenue, LLC prevailed in their appeal of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s (the Department) rejection of their Brownfields tax credit applications in Massachusetts Superior Court. 131 Willow Avenue, LLC v. Comm’r of Revenue, 2015 WL 6447310 (2015). The taxpayers argued, and the court agreed, that the Department improperly denied their applications based on the unlawful use of Directive 13-4 issued by the commissioner of revenue (the Commissioner). At issue was the validity of Directive 13-4’s prohibition on nonprofit and transfer Brownfields tax credit applicants from receiving or transferring credits based on documentation submitted in a taxable year that commenced before the effective date of a 2006 amendment expanding the Brownfields tax credit statute to include nonprofit organizations and allow for credit transfers. The court held that the directive was “unreasonable and [the Department’s] denial of the applications based on that directive was unlawful.” Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Holds Department of Revenue’s Guidance to Be Unreasonable

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (the Department) released a draft administrative procedure introducing a pilot Voluntary Disclosure Program (the Program) for the settlement of uncertain tax issues for business taxpayers on January 19. The Department introduced this Program in response to a suggestion made by Scott Susko, an author of this article, and another practitioner, both of whom serve as taxpayer professional representatives on the Department’s Advisory Council. We commend the Department for reacting to this suggestion in such a proactive manner.

The Program will provide “a process through which uncertain tax issues may be resolved on an expedited basis, generally within four months” (All quotations in this post are from the Department’s draft administrative procedure).

We think this Program will be particularly helpful to public companies in resolving issues related to their financial statement reserves.

The Program defines an “uncertain tax issue” as an issue “for which there is no clear statutory guidance or controlling case law, and which has not been addressed by the Department in a regulation, letter ruling, or other public written statement,” and “for which a taxpayer would be required to maintain a reserve in accordance with ASC 740: Accounting for Uncertainty in Income Taxes (formerly Fin 48).” The issue also “must not have been addressed as part of a prior audit of the taxpayer, a prior application for abatement or amended return filed by the taxpayer, or a prior ruling request made by the taxpayer.”

To qualify for the Program, “any potential tax liability attributable to the uncertain tax issue(s) must be $100,000 or more, exclusive of interest and penalties.” A taxpayer that is under audit or has received notice of an impending audit is not eligible for the Program. The Department has the “discretion to determine that the Program is not appropriate for specific cases.”

The Department “will consider settlement of an uncertain tax issue(s) where: (1) the taxpayer has presented its position on the issue(s) and the Department agrees that the tax treatment of the issue(s) is uncertain; and (2) the taxpayer has fully disclosed and documented the issue(s) and the facts associated with that issue(s).”

A taxpayer may initiate the process by submitting an anonymous letter to the Department, which will respond to the taxpayer within 30 days. If the Department accepts the taxpayer into the Program, the taxpayer may submit an application, including a settlement proposal and identifying the taxpayer, within 45 days of receiving the Department’s acceptance letter.

The Department will waive penalties related to the uncertain tax issue for a taxpayer that reaches an agreement with the Department pursuant to the Program, as well as for a taxpayer that does not reach an agreement with the Department “provided the taxpayer acted in good faith.”

The Department requested practitioner comments on the draft administrative procedure by February 1, and MWE submitted two technical comments.

Our first comment was that following the initial evaluation, the Department should issue to the taxpayer a one-page technical position explaining whether it does or does not agree with the taxpayer’s position and responding to the taxpayer’s settlement proposal. The Department’s position would not be final, but it would be a helpful starting point to the taxpayer in terms of determining whether it would like to participate in the program before identifying itself to the Department.

Our second comment was that following the initial evaluation, the Department should provide a range or framework for a potential deal with the taxpayer. The potential deal would not be binding, but it would give the taxpayer some comfort in moving forward with the program.

The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Support Act of 2015 (BSA), introduced by the Washington, D.C. Council at the request of Mayor Muriel Bowser on April 2, 2015, contains a subtitle (see Title VII, Subtitle G, page 66-67) that would give the Office and Tax and Revenue (OTR) complete discretion to indefinitely suspend the period of limitation on assessment and collection of all D.C. taxes—other than real property taxes, which contain a separate set of rules and procedures. The change to the statute of limitation provision would eliminate a fundamental taxpayer protection that exists today in all states. Those concerned should reach out to members of the D.C. Council to discourage adoption of this subtitle of the BSA.

Current Law

Under current law, the amount of tax imposed must be assessed (in other words, a final assessment must be issued) within three (3) years of the taxpayer’s return being filed. See D.C. Code § 47-4301(a). Practically speaking, this requires the mayor to issue a notice of proposed assessment no later than two (2) years and 11 months after the return is filed—to allow the taxpayer the requisite 30 days to file a protest with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). See D.C. Code § 47-4312(a). As the law reads today, the running of the period of limitation is suspended between the filing of a protest and the issuance of a final order by OAH, plus an additional 60 days thereafter. See D.C. Code § 47-4303. The District has 10 years after the final assessment to levy or begin a court proceeding for collections. See D.C. Code § 47-4302(a).

Proposed Changes

The BSA would extend the limitation period for assessment and collection, as follows:

  1. The BSA would add a new provision to statutorily require the chief financial officer (CFO, the executive branch official overseeing the OTR) to send a notice of proposed audit changes at least 30 days before the notice of proposed assessment is sent; and
  2. The BSA would toll the running of the statute of limitation on assessment and collection during the period after the CFO/OTR issues the aforementioned notice of proposed audit changes until the issuance of a final assessment or order by OAH.

The BSA does not indicate an applicable date for these changes. As a result, the provision likely would be applicable to any open tax period, effectively making the change retroactive to returns already filed.

Effect

By changing the law to toll the statute of limitation for the period after OTR issues a notice of proposed audit changes, the BSA would allow OTR to unilaterally control whether the three-year statute of limitation is running. The current statute requires that OTR issue its notice of proposed assessment before the expiration of the three-year statute—and gives taxpayers the ability to protest such notices before the OAH. By tolling the statute upon issuance of a notice of proposed audit changes, which is not subject to review by OAH, the BSA would strip taxpayers of the protection offered by a three-year statute of limitations closing the tax year. Instead, OTR would be able to indefinitely toll the statute by issuing a notice of proposed audit changes—an undefined document with no current statutory basis, which is not subject to judicial review. The end result for taxpayers will be indefinite audits and a disruption of the timely and efficient closing of tax years. We note that the approach is also inconsistent with the OTR’s own ‘Taxpayer Rights’ promise of “prompt treatment.” 

Starting September 1, 2015, the Comptroller of Maryland (Comptroller) will offer qualifying taxpayers that failed to file or pay certain taxes an opportunity to remit tax under very attractive penalty and interest terms.  The 2015 Tax Amnesty Program (Program) is the first offered in Maryland since 2009, when the state raised nearly $30 million, not including approximately $20 million collected the following year under approved payment plans.  The amnesty program offered before that (in 2001) brought in $39.4 million.  Consistent with the Maryland amnesty programs offered in the past, the Program will apply to the state and local individual income tax, corporate income tax, withholding taxes, sales and use taxes, and admissions and amusement taxes.

The Program was made law by Governor Larry Hogan when he signed Senate Bill 763, available here, after two months of deliberation in the legislature.  While the Program is scheduled to run through October 30, 2015, the Comptroller has a history of informally extending these programs beyond their codified period.  For companies that are nervous about potential assessments following the Gore and ConAgra decisions, the amnesty offers an opportunity that should be evaluated.

Perks  

The Program’s main benefits include:

  1. Waiver of 50 percent of the interest;
  2. Waiver of all civil penalties (except previously assessed fraud penalties); and
  3. A bar on all criminal prosecutions arising from filing the delinquent return unless the charge is already pending or under investigation by a state prosecutor.

Qualification

The Program is open to almost all businesses, even if under audit or in litigation.  The statute provides for only two classifications of taxpayers that do not qualify:

  1. Taxpayers granted amnesty under a Maryland Amnesty Program held between 1999-2014; and
  2. Taxpayers eligible for the 2004 post-SYL settlement period relating to Delaware Holding Companies.

Because the Program’s enacting statute does not prohibit participants from being under audit, or even those engaged in litigation with the Comptroller, even taxpayers with known issues and controversy may find the amnesty an attractive vehicle to reach resolution of a controversy with the state.

Practice Note

Because the range of taxpayers eligible for the Program is so broad, we encourage all businesses to evaluate whether participation will benefit them.  Given that past Maryland amnesty programs excluded taxpayers over a certain size (based on employee count), large companies who were not able to resolve uncertain exposure in the state should evaluate this new offering.  If your business is currently under audit (or concerned about any tax obligations from previous years), please contact the authors to evaluate whether the Program is right for you.

State income tax laws generally build on federal tax law.  The typical pattern is to begin the calculation of state taxable income with federal taxable income and then to modify it by adding or subtracting items where state tax policies differ from federal tax policies.  As a result, a corporation’s state taxable income can be affected by the application of the federal Internal Revenue Code.  State revenue departments generally do not consider themselves bound by Internal Revenue Service determinations respecting the application of federal tax law and believe that they are free to interpret the Internal Revenue Code as they see fit.  Unfortunately, this has led to problems because state tax auditors often are not well trained in federal tax principles.  We had an instance earlier this year in which an auditor claimed that the merger of a wholly-owned subsidiary into its corporate parent was taxable because there was an increase in the parent’s retained earnings.  The merger was a plain vanilla tax-free liquidation under Sections 332 and 337 of the Internal Revenue Code (there was no intercompany debt and the subsidiary was clearly solvent), but sending copies of these provisions to the auditor left him unmoved.  We finally got him to back down by showing that the parent’s increase in retained earnings was matched by a decrease in the subsidiary’s retained earnings so that there was no overall increase.  As we explained to the client, a win is a win, even if for the wrong reasons.  Nevertheless, if the auditor had been properly versed in the most basic federal corporate tax principles, this exercise would not have been necessary.

Two recent decisions illustrate misapplications of federal tax law by state revenue departments.

The Idaho Tax Commission recently held that a subsidiary’s net operating loss (NOL) carryovers did not pass to its parent in a merger of the subsidiary into the parent.  The parent did not continue to operate the business of the merged subsidiary and the Commission held that “based on IRC §382, the Petitioner cannot carry the loss forward after the merger.”  Idaho State Tax Commission Ruling No. 25749 (Apr. 17, 2014).  The Commission’s statement of federal tax law is incorrect.  Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code does not apply to a merger of a wholly-owned subsidiary into its parent.  Because of constructive ownership rules, no change in ownership is deemed to occur.  Moreover, Section 382 does not prevent an NOL from passing to the surviving company in a merger; it simply limits the extent to which the NOL can be used.  Although it is true that the limitation is zero for years in which the merged company’s business is discontinued, the NOL is not destroyed.  If the parent later sells assets received from the subsidiary that had built-in gain at the time of the merger, the loss can be used to offset the gain.

Discussions that we have had with the Commission after the decision came out indicate that the Commission had concluded that there was real doubt as to whether the subsidiary’s losses were valid in the first place.  Nevertheless, its explanation of the reasons for preventing the loss from passing to the parent are incorrect as a matter of law and may be a problem to taxpayers if Commission auditors take the Commission’s language at face value in the future.

NIHC, Inc. v. Comptroller of the Treasury (Docket 63, Court of Appeals of Maryland) (August 18, 2014) involved corporations that were filing consolidated federal income tax returns but separate Maryland income tax returns.  A subsidiary distributed appreciated property to its parent in a transaction in which, had they been filing separate federal income tax returns, a gain would have been taxed to the subsidiary under Section 311(b) of the Internal Revenue Code.  Under the federal consolidated return regulations, however, the subsidiary’s gain was “recognized” but “deferred.”  This means that the gain was not immediately taxed but would have been taxed in later years upon the occurrence of certain events (e.g., a breakup of the consolidated return group, the transfer of the appreciated property by the parent outside the group, or the depreciation or amortization of the transferred property by the parent).  Under the federal consolidated return regulations, the subsidiary recognized income gradually over the next 15 years as the parent amortized the appreciated property.  Thus, the subsidiary reported income in later years but not in the year of the distribution.

In the litigation, the subsidiary took the position that it should have recognized the gain for Maryland income tax purposes in the year of the distribution because the corporations were filing separate Maryland income tax returns.  In other words, the taxpayer argued that the deferral principles of the federal consolidated return regulations, which were predicated upon the filing of consolidated returns by the corporations, should not apply for Maryland tax purposes because the corporations were filing separate Maryland tax returns.  The statute of limitations for assessing deficiencies for a taxable year of the distribution had expired.  The court, without discussing the applicable principles, held that the subsidiary made its bed and should lie in it and should not profit by the mistake that it claimed to have made in filing its tax returns for the year of the distribution.  The court failed to analyze the federal tax principles and their relationship with Maryland tax principles.

This may have been a classic case of bad facts making bad law.  The subsidiary had been established as an intangible holding company and the court made it clear that it disapproved of the taxpayer’s alleged attempt to divert income from Maryland through the intangible holding company device.  Nevertheless, the court clearly misapplied federal tax principles.

The takeaway here is that practitioners should not assume that state tax auditors will understand and correctly apply federal tax principles.  It may be necessary to call upon a company’s federal tax advisors to explain these principles to the auditors in simple terms.  It may also be necessary to talk to senior people in the department of revenue, who are more likely to be knowledgeable about federal tax rules than are the auditors.

Illinois is one of a small number of states that impose both an income tax and a premium tax on insurance companies.  Disputes have arisen between insurers and the Illinois Department of Insurance (Department) regarding the proper treatment of income tax refunds in the calculation of retaliatory tax.  The dispute typically concerns whether an income tax refund should be included in the Illinois Basis of an insurer’s retaliatory tax computation for the year in which the income tax refund is paid or in the Illinois Basis for retaliatory tax computation for the tax year to which the refund relates.  The Department has taken the position that the income tax refund must be applied to Illinois Basis for the year in which the refund is paid, based on language of a Departmental regulation (50 Ill. Adm. Code Sec. 2515.50(b)) providing that Illinois Basis used to compute retaliatory tax must include “the amount of Illinois corporate and replacement income tax paid, decreased by the amount, if any, of any corporate and/or income replacement tax cash refund received in the same calendar year if that cash refund has been considered part of the Illinois corporate and replacement income tax paid in the calculation of the annual retaliatory tax in a preceding year.” (50 Ill. Adm. Code Sec. 2515.50(b)(5)) (emphasis added).

On March 3, 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court for the Fourth District issued an unpublished ruling in which it found that 50 Ill. Admin. Code Sec. 2515.50(b) was invalid because it conflicted with the state’s mandate that the retaliatory tax include corporate income tax imposed, not paid, in a particular year.  The opinion authorized the taxpayers who challenged the Department’s interpretation to calculate their retaliatory tax by applying their corporate income tax refund to the tax year to which the refund related, regardless of the year in which it was paid.

In its opinion, the appellate court twice noted that if the Department’s interpretation had been upheld, the taxpayers would have been required to pay more retaliatory taxes than they would have originally owed simply because they initially overpaid their corporate income tax.  This point of equity appears to have been a strong supporting factor for the appellate court in its decision to invalidate the regulation.  United States Liability Ins. Co., et al v. The Department of Insurance, 2014 IL App. (4th) 121125-U (March 3, 2014) (Opinion issued pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23).