For a variety of reasons, a taxpayer may believe that the IRS penalty is unreasonable. But what grounds of defence would be valid?
Despite a taxpayer filing a return on reasonable grounds and in good faith, mistakes may result in IRS penalties. This may seem easy to understand, but in practice it is difficult to clearly define. Even if a taxpayer believes he or she complied with the tax law based on common sense, the IRS may take a different view.
Who would win if both sides were to disagree? The IRS, of course. In other words, the taxpayer has the burden of listing its reasonable cause. Taxpayers are required to exercise caution when reporting their tax liability, as all tax returns are signed under an admission of knowledge penalty for perjury clause.
How the IRS evaluates the reasonableness of a defence depends on a number of factors, one of the main factors being what the specific elements of the penalty are. The defence must involve a number of other concepts in addition to probable cause, such as the absence of intentional negligence (falsification).
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) analyzes the circumstances and facts on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a taxpayer meets the "reasonable cause and good faith tax return" exception. Similarly situated cases will not necessarily have the same audit result, as this determination is subjective. The amount of money affected by a judgment can be significant - penalties for accuracy are usually 20% of the amount in question, and penalties for fraud can be 75% of the amount of tax underpaid, or even jail time.
What are the other penalties to which the "reasonable cause" exception applies? Some of the common ones are (1) failure to file or pay taxes on time; (2) incorrectly filing a refund or tax credit; (3) underestimation of the taxpayer's tax liability by the person filing the tax form, etc.
Can a taxpayer defend himself/herself in good faith and with reasonable cause, regardless of the penalty? Is there a time when a taxpayer does not have to use the "reasonable cause" provision to defend himself or herself?
For example, a taxpayer may have filed a return based on an incorrect 1020 tax form without knowing that the form was incorrect or outdated. At the time of an IRS audit, if it is found that the 1020 tax form contains less data than the taxpayer actually received (which can happen to anyone), then reasonable grounds for omission may apply, such as if the taxpayer had income of 300,100 but reported 300,000, and the taxpayer reasonably believed that the form was correct. But what if the taxpayer actually received 300,000 and the 1020 tax form was incorrectly stated as 300? This situation would be quite defensible to say that the taxpayer was justified in using this incorrect figure.
Is there a large amount of money involved that can still be defended with reasonable justification? The answer is yes. Because it is common to make a mistake or two when filling out a form, it is possible to use the "reasonable excuse and honest tax return" defense. If there are only one or two errors, even if they are sometimes obvious, the IRS will consider the taxpayer's experience, background, and education level to be explainable. However, if there are many errors, then the IRS will likely not waive the penalty.
Reliance on the advice of a tax professional may also be a valid reason for a taxpayer to avoid a penalty. However, the taxpayer must provide the tax professional with all necessary information related to the tax issue. It is unconvincing and unacceptable for a taxpayer to selectively provide information with the intent of getting the answers he or she wants to hear.
The tax specialist must also be experienced in dealing with relevant tax issues. It would likely be unreasonable for a taxpayer to take a complex corporate tax issue and consult a specialist who specializes in dealing with low income personal tax issues.
The IRS investigator will also consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether the taxpayer was willfully negligent. Some penalty exemptions are based only on reasonable grounds, such as filing an excessive refund; others are based on honesty in addition to reasonable grounds, such as accuracy penalties; and others are based on reasonable grounds and lack of willful negligence, such as timely filing and payment of taxes. Taxpayers must satisfy each of these conditions.
Can taxpayers communicate verbally? While it may be verbal at first, usually dealing with the IRS requires written documentation and in some cases a signature under the penalty clause for false certification.
In addition to the factors we mentioned earlier such as the taxpayer's experience, knowledge, educational background, and following professional advice, the IRS Commissioner will also consider the taxpayer's reasons, past tax payment history, timing, conditions beyond the taxpayer's control, etc. But this does not only look at one year, the IRS will also look at the previous three years of tax payment records. If the same penalty has been imposed before, then another mistake will be considered by the IRS as a failure to exercise reasonable care.
Many tax issues are complex, and taxpayers can make mistakes for a variety of reasons. If a taxpayer does not file his tax return on time, the IRS will not waive the penalty even if the advice of a tax professional is wrong. If the taxpayer says that the accountant forgot to submit the tax form, this reason is also unacceptable because the IRS considers that everyone has the responsibility to file and pay taxes on time and this responsibility cannot be avoided.
Providing explanations to the IRS to waive penalties is a big topic, and we have only scratched the surface here. If you have been fined, it can be helpful to know about previous cases. If the amount involved is significant, you should consider seeking professional advice and recommendations.