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Is Economic Hardship the Antidote for Knowledge in an Innocent Spouse Case?


A pair of innocent spouse cases just came out, one granting relief, Grady v. Commissioner, T.C. Summ. Op. 2021-29, and one denying relief, Rogers v. Commissioner, No. 20-2789 (7th Cir. 2021).  Neither case reaches a surprising result but the cases do continue trends.  In this post I hope to not only provide some background on these two cases but to also explore the trends that have emerged in innocent spouse cases.

In the Grady case, a case tried under the small tax case procedures, the Tax Court details a litany of issues that the non-requesting spouse (the ex-husband) caused during the marriage.  In the end, the Tax Court finds that the petitioner knew that the tax liability was not being paid so the knowledge factor is negative but essentially all other factors were positive, including economic hardship.  The Court states that:

While her knowledge when she signed the 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 joint Federal income tax returns that the tax due would not be paid weighs against her entitlement to section 6015(f) relief, generally knowledge is only one of the factors and knowledge alone is not determinative of the Court’s decision. See Minton v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-15 (granting relief despite the taxpayer’s admitting to knowledge of a balance owed); Demeter v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-238 (granting relief despite finding that the taxpayer knew or had reason to know that her ex-husband would have difficulty paying the tax liabilities). Therefore, in considering Ms. Gans’ entitlement to relief under section 6015(f), her knowledge is only one factor among many to be taken into account. As the Court has noted, no one factor, in and of itself, is determinative. See Stolkin v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2008-211; Beatty v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-167; Banderas v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-129.

As regular readers of this blog know, we believe, and have discussed here and here, that the Tax Court treats knowledge as a super factor in many cases.  Knowledge alone did cause Mr. Jacobsen and Ms. Sleeth to lose their innocent spouse cases despite four (Jacobsen) and three (Sleeth) positive factors. The fact that, even in this case where knowledge is the only negative factor, the Court spends a paragraph explaining that knowledge alone is not determinative, provides insight into the power of the knowledge factor.

The Rogers case continues the unbroken string of losses for taxpayers appealing IRC 6015 cases.  Since the change in the law in 1998 placing the innocent spouse provisions in IRC 6015, no taxpayer has won an appeal from an adverse Tax Court decision.

In Rogers, the 7th Circuit affirms the Tax Court’s holding that the wife of a shelter promoter isn’t entitled to innocent spouse relief.  The court noted that this was not the first visit to the 7th Circuit by one or both members of the marital unit:

Married since 1967, John and Frances Rogers filed joint federal income tax returns for many years. They underreported their tax obligations many times over, and the misreporting was the product of a fraudulent tax scheme designed by John, a Harvard‐trained tax attorney. The fraud did not elude the Internal Revenue Service, though, and the many subsequent collection and enforcement proceedings in the U.S. Tax Court have not gone well for the Rogerses. Our court has affirmed the Tax Court’s rulings every time.

Before us now is another appeal by Frances challenging two Tax Court decisions denying her requests for what the Tax Code calls innocent spouse relief. Our review of the record shows that the Tax Court took considerable care assessing Frances’s pleas for relief, in the end denying them largely on the basis that she was aware of too many facts and too many warning signs during the relevant tax years to escape financial responsibility for the clear fraud perpetrated on the U.S. Treasury. While the tragedy of what Frances has endured over the years is in no way lost on us, we are left to affirm, for the Tax Court got it right.

In one respect, the 7th Cir. disagrees with the Tax Court as to a factor — the substantial benefit factor does not weigh against relief in this case.  But, interestingly, the 7th Cir. never cites or discusses the Rev. Proc. factors.  It limits its discussion to how the Rogers facts compare to a prior 7th Cir. opinion from 1996, Reser, which, of course, involved 6013(e).  The most the 7th Cir. will do is cite a reg. under 6015 concerning significant benefit for purposes of (b), 1.6015-2, that actually derives from language in the Committee reports from 1971 for enacting 6013(e).  The committee reports can be found at H.R. Rep. No. 91-1734, at 2 (1970), and S. Rep. No. 91-1537, at 2 (1970), 1971-1 C.B. 608. The 7th Cir. focuses entirely on the knowledge issue (both for purposes of (b) and (f) relief) as grounds for denying relief.  If there were no other factors negative for relief, though some positive or neutral factors, this would make Rogers a case similar to the Jacobsen case decided by the 7th Cir. two years ago.

Interestingly, the Grady case presented only one negative factor, knowledge, and multiple positive factors, but the Tax Court granted relief.  That’s the exact same situation as in Jacobsen, but the case leads to a different result.  Carl Smith has done a fair amount of research and thinking on this issue.  He concludes that the reason why Grady won while Jacobsen didn’t is that, although Jacobsen had four positive factors for relief, he did not put in the evidence to establish financial hardship, which Grady did.  Research of innocent spouse cases shows that proving financial hardship serves as the only way to guarantee that the taxpayer wins an innocent spouse case where knowledge is a negative factor.  Lack of significant benefit, marital status, and compliance with return filing obligations are not enough to outweigh knowledge in some Tax Court opinions.  Note that, in Sleeth (from the 11th Cir. this year), Ms. Sleeth was also said not to have proved financial hardship, and her case also involved only one negative factor (knowledge), and three positive factors (the ones in the prior sentence). Jacobsen’s positive factors included those from Sleeth, as well as an additional fourth positive factor — for his bad health.

As mentioned above, the Rogers 7th Cir. opinion did not cite or discuss the Rev. Proc. that was applicable.  That seems significant, since the Tax Court almost always discusses each of the Rev. Proc. factors.  In 2011, Carl Smith wrote a Special Report for Tax Notes entitled “Innocent Spouse:  Let’s Bury that Inequitable Revenue Procedure“.  In the article, he called for the courts to return to deciding the equitable factor under common law — using opinions involving 6013(e) and 6015, not the Rev. Proc. factors.  While using the factors of the Rev. Proc. seems appropriate for the IRS in administratively evaluating cases, it seems less appropriate for courts which need not be bound by the IRS’ views of appropriate equitable factors.

In some ways the courts, particularly the Tax Court, seem to apply their own thinking, yet cloak the decisions in the factors of the Rev. Proc.  While the Rev. Proc. may say that knowledge is no longer a super factor and while the Tax Court may say it is applying the Rev. Proc., the outcomes suggest that the court has its own equitable barometer which still places significant weight on knowledge.  If the Tax Court weighs knowledge more heavily, then taxpayers must look for something to countervail knowledge or potentially lose even where they have many positive factors. In cases where knowledge is the only negative factor and there are three or more positive factors (one of which is lack of significant benefit), the taxpayer usually wins, but the taxpayer always wins if one of the positive factors is also financial hardship.  You can find the list of cases where knowledge was the only negative factor in the Jacobsen brief filed by the Harvard Tax Clinic in the appeal to the 7th Circuit.

 

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