When is a Tax Return Not a Tax Return?

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When a tax return is not a tax return
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The tax code commands the IRS to assess the tax reported to the IRS by a taxpayer on a non-fraudulent tax return. The provision is not optional for the IRS. It is mandatory.

However, the tax law does not define what is fraudulent or what counts as a tax return. This begs the question as to whether a taxpayer can file a document purporting to be a tax return and then renounce the return and avoid the tax. The court addresses this very fact pattern and question in Cortez v. United States, 2:21-cv-01598-DAD-DB (E.D. Cal. Jan. 11, 2024).

Facts & Procedural History

The taxpayer failed to file his 2004 income tax return or request an extension by the due date.

In 2009, after no return was filed, the IRS prepared a substitute for return or SFR for it. The SFR assessed $6,006 in tax for 2004.

Two years later, in 2011, the taxpayer filed a Form 1040 return for 2004 showing $2,113 in additional tax due beyond the $6,006 the IRS previously assessed.

The taxpayer then filed a refund claim for the $2,113 in tax that he paid. When the IRS failed to issue the refund timely, the taxpayer sued the IRS in court.

This opinion is a summary judgment opinion issued by the courts. The taxpayer filed a motion for summary judgment as to the $2,113 additional tax he reported on his amended tax return. He argued that the late-filed Form 1040 that he filed was not a valid tax return and, therefore, the assessment of the $2,113 was invalid and the period for the IRS to assess the tax had expired.

Seeking a Uniform Definition

The tax code does not define what constitutes a “tax return.” The taxpayer in this case was seeking a court order that there is only one definition for the term “tax return” in our federal law.

The request makes sense. The law generally does require one definition to be used consistently. This is found in the bedrock principle of “in pari materia.” This is a Latin term meaning “on the same subject” or “pertaining to the same matter.” The principle of in pari materia dictates that statutes or laws that address the same subject matter should be read and interpreted together, as if they were one law.

Under this rule, when a term or phrase is defined in one statute, and the same term or phrase appears in another statute within the same context or relating to the same subject matter, it is generally presumed that the term is intended to have the same meaning in both statutes. This helps to maintain consistency and coherence in the interpretation of laws.

Tax Returns in Different Contexts

The courts have not adopted one definition of what counts as a “tax return.” The courts have said that one has to consider the context of the law in question in determining whether a document is a “tax return.”

For example, when a tax return is required to be filed, but is not timely filed, the IRS is authorized to impose late filing penalties. The law for these penalties says that a late-filed return stops the accrual of this type of penalty. Thus, a late-filed income tax return is a “tax return” for purposes of penalties.

The IRS can also assess a civil tax fraud penalty when a taxpayer files a fraudulent tax return. When a document is a fraudulent return, the document that is filed is treated as a tax return. The courts have explained that a dishonest return is classified as a return to discourage fraud.

On the other hand, bankruptcy law says that some documents are not tax returns. Amendments to the bankruptcy laws in 2005 required tax returns to be filed for debtors to be eligible for a discharge for unpaid taxes in bankruptcy. The law required that tax returns meet “applicable nonbankruptcy law” for this purpose.

This nonbankruptcy generally refers to the long-established four-part Beard test to determine whether a filing is a valid tax return. Applying these rules, a tax return that does not meet the ‘honest and reasonable endeavor’ standard is denied the status of a return. The courts have said that this is to discourage people from using bankruptcy law to avoid having to satisfy their tax liabilities.

So, according to the courts, the same document can be a tax return for civil tax penalties, and not be a tax return for purposes of bankruptcy.

The Beard Test & Standards

Having noted that the context dictates whether a document is a tax return, the court went on to apply the nonbankruptcy law to determine whether a document is a tax return. This law is referred to as the Beard test, from Beard v. Commissioner, 82 T.C. 766 (1984) (aff’d, 793 F.2d 139 (6th Cir. 1986)), the seminal court case on point.

The taxpayer in Beard was a tax protester. The taxpayer tampered with an official Form 1040 by modifying margin and item captions to categorize his wages as “non-taxable receipts” that he claimed were not gross income subject to tax. The IRS caught the error and sent the taxpayer a letter saying that the document was not a tax return. The court agreed. It concluded that the tampered document was not a tax return for assessment purposes and, absent a tax return, failure to file penalties applied.

The so-called Beard test requires the courts to determine whether the document is a tax return by determining whether the document: (1) purports to be a tax return; (2) is signed under penalty of perjury; (3) includes enough information to calculate tax; and (4) represents an honest effort to satisfy tax laws.

In the present case, the court concluded that the late-filed return met each factor and, as such, was a tax return. Thus, the court concluded that the IRS’s assessment based on the tax return was valid.

The Takeaway

Our laws generally have to be read in conformity. This conformity applies unless the court says otherwise. The courts have said otherwise concerning the definition of what counts as a “tax return.” In the context of disavowing a previously filed tax return on the official IRS forms, as in this case, the court is not likely to find that the document was not a tax return just because it was late. It may reach that conclusion in bankruptcy cases when the taxpayer wants the document to qualify as a tax return, but not in the context where the taxpayer wants the opposite result.

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