Maryland Trial Lawyer Small Business Retirement Plans Fuel Litigation Dolan Media Newswires
by Lance Wallach
Small businesses facing audits and potentially huge tax penalties over certain types of retirement plans are filing lawsuits against those who marketed, designed and sold the plans. The 412(i) and 419(e) plans were marketed in the past several years as a way for small business owners to set up retirement or welfare benefits plans while leveraging huge tax savings, but the IRS put them on a list of abusive tax shelters and has more recently focused audits on them.
The penalties for such transactions are extremely high and can pile up quickly.
There are business owners who owe taxes but have been assessed 2 million in penalties. The existing cases involve many types of businesses, including doctors' offices, dental practices, grocery store owners, mortgage companies and restaurant owners. Some are trying to negotiate with the IRS. Others are not waiting. A class action has been filed and cases in several states are ongoing. The business owners claim that they were targeted by insurance companies; and their agents to purchase the plans without any disclosure that the IRS viewed the plans as abusive tax shelters. Other defendants include financial advisors who recommended the plans, accountants who failed to fill out required tax forms and law firms that drafted opinion letters legitimizing the plans, which were used as marketing tools.
A 412(i) plan is a form of defined benefit pension plan. A 419(e) plan is a similar type of health and benefits plan. Typically, these were sold to small, privately held businesses with fewer than 20 employees and several million dollars in gross revenues. What distinguished a legitimate plan from the plans at issue were the life insurance policies used to fund them. The employer would make large cash contributions in the form of insurance premiums, deducting the entire amounts. The insurance policy was designed to have a "springing cash value," meaning that for the first 5-7 years it would have a near-zero cash value, and then spring up in value.
Just before it sprung, the owner would purchase the policy from the trust at the low cash value, thus making a tax-free transaction. After the cash value shot up, the owner could take tax-free loans against it. Meanwhile, the insurance agents collected exorbitant commissions on the premiums - 80 to 110 percent of the first year's premium, which could exceed million.
Technically, the IRS's problems with the plans were that the "springing cash" structure disqualified them from being 412(i) plans and that the premiums, which dwarfed any payout to a beneficiary, violated incidental death benefit rules.
Under §6707A of the Internal Revenue Code, once the IRS flags something as an abusive tax shelter, or "listed transaction," penalties are imposed per year for each failure to disclose it. Another allegation is that businesses weren't told that they had to file Form 8886, which discloses a listed transaction.
According to Lance Wallach of Plainview, N.Y. (516-938-5007), who testifies as an expert in cases involving the plans, the vast majority of accountants either did not file the forms for their clients or did not fill them out correctly
By Lance Wallach
June 2011 The IRS started auditing 419 plans in the ‘90s, and then continued going after 412i and other plans that they considered abusive, listed, or reportable transactions, or substantially similar to such transactions. In a recent Tax Court Case, Curcio v. Commissioner (TC Memo 2010-115), the Tax Court ruled that an investment in an employee welfare benefit plan marketed under the name “Benistar” was a listed transaction in that the transaction in question was substantially similar to the transaction described in IRS Notice 95-34. A subsequent case, McGehee Family Clinic, largely followed Curcio, though it was technically decided on other grounds. The parties stipulated to be bound by Curcio on the issue of whether the amounts paid by McGehee in connection with the Benistar 419 Plan and Trust were deductible. Curcio did not appear to have been decided yet at the time McGehee was argued. The McGehee opinion (Case No. 10-102) (United States Tax Court, September 15, 2010) does contain an exhaustive analysis and discussion of virtually all of the relevant issues. Taxpayers and their representatives should be aware that the Service has disallowed deductions for contributions to these arrangements. The IRS is cracking down on small business owners who participate in tax reduction insurance plans and the brokers who sold them. Some of these plans include defined benefit retirement plans, IRAs, or even 401(k) plans with life insurance.
In order to fully grasp the severity of the situation, one must have an understanding of Notice 95-34, which was issued in response to trust arrangements sold to companies that were designed to provide deductible benefits such as life insurance, disability and severance pay benefits. The promoters of these arrangements claimed that all employer contributions were tax-deductible when paid, by relying on the 10-or-more-employer exemption from the IRC § 419 limits. It was claimed that permissible tax deductions were unlimited in amount. In general, contributions to a welfare benefit fund are not fully deductible when paid. Sections 419 and 419A impose strict limits on the amount of tax-deductible prefunding permitted for contributions to a welfare benefit fund. Section 419A(F)(6) provides an exemption from Section 419 and Section 419A for certain “10-or-more employers” welfare benefit funds. In general, for this exemption to apply, the fund must have more than one contributing employer, of which no single employer can contribute more than 10% of the total contributions, and the plan must not be experience-rated with respect to individual employers. According to the Notice, these arrangements typically involve an investment in variable life or universal life insurance contracts on the lives of the covered employees. The problem is that the employer contributions are large relative to the cost of the amount of term insurance that would be required to provide the death benefits under the arrangement, and the trust administrator may obtain cash to pay benefits other than death benefits, by such means as cashing in or withdrawing the cash value of the insurance policies. The plans are also often designed so that a particular employer’s contributions or its employees’ benefits may be determined in a way that insulates the employer to a significant extent from the experience of other subscribing employers. In general, the contributions and claimed tax deductions tend to be disproportionate to the economic realities of the arrangements. Benistar advertised that enrollees should expect to obtain the same type of tax benefits as listed in the transaction described in Notice 95-34.
The benefits of enrollment listed in its advertising packet included: Virtually unlimited deductions for the employer; Contributions could vary from year to year; Benefits could be provided to one or more key executives on a selective basis; No need to provide benefits to rank-and-file employees; Contributions to the plan were not limited by qualified plan rules and would not interfere with pension, profit sharing or 401(k) plans Funds inside the plan would accumulate tax-free; Beneficiaries could receive death proceeds free of both income tax and estate tax; The program could be arranged for tax-free distribution at a later date; Funds in the plan were secure from the hands of creditors.
The Court said that the Benistar Plan was factually similar to the plans described in Notice 95-34 at all relevant times. In rendering its decision the court heavily cited Curcio, in which the court also ruled in favor of the IRS. As noted in Curcio, the insurance policies, overwhelmingly variable or universal life policies, required large contributions relative to the cost of the amount of term insurance that would be required to provide the death benefits under the arrangement. The Benistar Plan owned the insurance contracts. Following Curcio, as the Court has stipulated, the Court held that the contributions to Benistar were not deductible under section 162(a) because participants could receive the value reflected in the underlying insurance policies purchased by Benistar—despite the payment of benefits by Benistar seeming to be contingent upon an unanticipated event (the death of the insured while employed). As long as plan participants were willing to abide by Benistar’s distribution policies, there was no reason ever to forfeit a policy to the plan. In fact, in estimating life insurance rates, the taxpayers’ expert in Curcio assumed that there would be no forfeitures, even though he admitted that an insurance company would generally assume a reasonable rate of policy lapses. The McGehee Family Clinic had enrolled in the Benistar Plan in May 2001 and claimed deductions for contributions to it in 2002 and 2005. The returns did not include a Form 8886,Reportable Transaction Disclosure Statement, or similar disclosure. The IRS disallowed the latter deduction and adjusted the 2004 return of shareholder Robert Prosser and his wife to include the $50,000 payment to the plan. The IRS also assessed tax deficiencies and the enhanced 30% penalty totaling almost $21,000 against the clinic and $21,000 against the Prossers. The court ruled that the Prossers failed to prove a reasonable cause or good faith exception. More you should know: In recent years, some section 412(i) plans have been funded with life insurance using face amounts in excess of the maximum death benefit a qualified plan is permitted to pay. Ideally, the plan should limit the proceeds that can be paid as a death benefit in the event of a participant’s death. Excess amounts would revert to the plan.
Effective February 13, 2004, the purchase of excessive life insurance in any plan is considered a listed transaction if the face amount of the insurance exceeds the amount that can be issued by $100,000 or more and the employer has deducted the premiums for the insurance. A 412(i) plan in and of itself is not a listed transaction; however, the IRS has a task force auditing 412i plans.
An employer has not engaged in a listed transaction simply because it is a 412(i) plan.
Just because a 412(i) plan was audited and sanctioned for certain items, does not necessarily mean the plan engaged in a listed transaction. Some 412(i) plans have been audited and sanctioned for issues not related to listed transactions.
Companies should carefully evaluate proposed investments in plans such as the Benistar Plan. The claimed deductions will not be available, and penalties will be assessed for lack of disclosure if the investment is similar to the investments described in Notice 95-34. In addition, under IRC 6707A, IRS fines participants a large amount of money for not properly disclosing their participation in listed, reportable or similar transactions; an issue that was not before the Tax Court in either Curcio or McGehee. The disclosure needs to be made for every year the participant is in a plan. The forms need to be properly filed even for years that no contributions are made. I have received numerous calls from participants who did disclose and still got fined because the forms were not filled in properly. A plan administrator told me that he assisted hundreds of his participants file forms, and they still all received very large IRS fines for not properly filling in the forms.
The IRS has recently been auditing 412(i) defined-benefit pension plans. They are seeking substantial taxes and penalties from what they characterize as “abusive plans,”but they do not regard all 412(i) plans as necessarily abusive. A properly structured and administered 412(i)plan can be an invaluable tax reduction tool for a business, but care must be taken. In addition, the IRS is stepping up its examinations of companies’ retirement plans this year, aiming to catch those that are cheating their workers or the government, and to ensure that the plans meet federal regulations. The offerings to be examined include traditional pensions, 401(k)s and profit-sharing plans.
A few years ago, when I spoke at the national convention of the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries about VEBAs, the IRS spoke about their 412(i) concerns. Since then, they have escalated their challenges to “abusive” 412(i) plans. In fact, certain plans are on the IRS list of abusive tax transactions.
Taxpayers who participate in “listed transactions” are required to report them to the IRS or face substantial penalties ($100,000 in the case of individuals, and $200,000 in the case of entities). In addition, “material advisors” to these plans are required to maintain certain records and turn them over to the IRS on demand. When I addressed the 2005 annual convention of the National Society of Public Accountants, the IRS spoke about Circular 230. My impression was that if an accountant signed a tax return that disclosed involvement in a listed and/or abusive tax transaction, there could be Circular 230 implications.
Most accountants are not familiar with 412(i) plans. They are a type of defined-benefit pension plan that allows a large contribution. The funding vehicles are usually fixed annuities and fixed life insurance. They are traditionally sold by life insurance professionals and financial planners. Given the substantial taxes and penalties that may be assessed if the IRS concludes that a 412(i) plan has not been properly structured or administered,
The IRS is aiming to catch companies that are cheating the workers or the government. especially if it concludes that the plan is a listed transaction, it is important that the taxpayer know the rules.
The accountant should also be aware of them. The fact that plan is being sold by an insurance company does not make it safer. Recently the IRS has taken action against plans sold by insurance companies.
IRS Attacks Business Owners in 419, 412, Section 79 and Captive Insurance Plans Under Section 6707A
By Lance Wallach Expert Witness Taxpayers who previously adopted 419, 412i, captive insurance or Section 79 plans are in big trouble. In recent years, the IRS has identified many of these arrangements as abusive devices to funnel tax deductible dollars to shareholders and classified these arrangements as listed transactions." These plans were sold by insurance agents, financial planners, accountants and attorneys seeking large life insurance commissions. In general, taxpayers who engage in a “listed transaction” must report such transaction to the IRS on Form 8886 every year that they “participate” in the transaction, and you do not necessarily have to make a contribution or claim a tax deduction to participate. Section 6707A of the Code imposes severe penalties for failure to file Form 8886 with respect to a listed transaction. But you are also in trouble if you file incorrectly. I have received numerous phone calls from business owners who filed and still got fined. Not only do you have to file Form 8886, but it also has to be prepared correctly. I only know of two people in the U.S. who have filed these forms properly for clients. They tell me that was after hundreds of hours of research and over 50 phones calls to various IRS personnel. The filing instructions for Form 8886 presume a timely filling. Most people file late and follow the directions for currently preparing the forms. Then the IRS fines the business owner. The tax court does not have jurisdiction to abate or lower such penalties imposed by the IRS.
"Many taxpayers who are no longer taking current tax deductions for these plans continue to enjoy the benefit of previous tax deductions by continuing the deferral of income from contributions and deductions taken in prior years."
Many business owners adopted 412i, 419, captive insurance and Section 79 plans based upon representations provided by insurance professionals that the plans were legitimate plans and were not informed that they were engaging in a listed transaction. Upon audit, these taxpayers were shocked when the IRS asserted penalties under Section 6707A of the Code in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Numerous complaints from these taxpayers caused Congress to impose a moratorium on assessment of Section 6707A penalties.
The moratorium on IRS fines expired on June 1, 2010. The IRS immediately started sending out notices proposing the imposition of Section 6707A penalties along with requests for lengthy extensions of the Statute of Limitations for the purpose of assessing tax. Many of these taxpayers stopped taking deductions for contributions to these plans years ago, and are confused and upset by the IRS’s inquiry, especially when the taxpayer had previously reached a monetary settlement with the IRS regarding its deductions. Logic and common sense dictate that a penalty should not apply if the taxpayer no longer benefits from the arrangement. Treas. Reg. Sec. 1.6011-4(c)(3)(i) provides that a taxpayer has participated in a listed transaction if the taxpayer’s tax return reflects tax consequences or a tax strategy described in the published guidance identifying the transaction as a listed transaction or a transaction that is the same or substantially similar to a listed transaction.
Clearly, the primary benefit in the participation of these plans is the large tax deduction generated by such participation. Many taxpayers who are no longer taking current tax deductions for these plans continue to enjoy the benefit of previous tax deductions by continuing the deferral of income from contributions and deductions taken in prior years. While the regulations do not expand on what constitutes “reflecting the tax consequences of the strategy,” it could be argued that continued benefit from a tax deferral for a previous tax deduction is within the contemplation of a “tax consequence” of the plan strategy. Also, many taxpayers who no longer make contributions or claim tax deductions continue to pay administrative fees. Sometimes, money is taken from the plan to pay premiums to keep life insurance policies in force. In these ways, it could be argued that these taxpayers are still “contributing,” and thus still must file Form 8886.
It is clear that the extent to which a taxpayer benefits from the transaction depends on the purpose of a particular transaction as described in the published guidance that caused such transaction to be a listed transaction. Revenue Ruling 2004-20, which classifies 419(e) transactions, appears to be concerned with the employer’s contribution/deduction amount rather than the continued deferral of the income in previous years. Another important issue is that the IRS has called CPAs material advisors if they signed tax returns containing the plan, and got paid a certain amount of money for tax advice on the plan. The fine is $100,000 for the CPA, or $200,000 if the CPA is incorporated. To avoid the fine, the CPA has to properly file Form 8918.