IRS: you aren’t allowed to escape our trap!

June 19th, 2012 by Joe Kristan

Flickr image courtesy Woodswalker under Creative Commons license

A bunch of McDonalds franchisees in Utah were run in a multy-entity structure: the restaurants were operated in one corporation, while a management company provided payroll, training and benefits services to the restaurants to the operating company.  In 2002 they began working with a consultant who advised them to make an S election for the management company and start an ESOP in it.  The management company also began a non-qualified deferred comp plan for the highly-compensated employees of the managmeent company.

The ink had barely dried on the new structure when the IRS issued new regulations that pretty much wrecked it all.  New rules on S corporation ESOPs, combined with the deferred comp plan, changed everything, as the Tax Court explains (my emphasis):

 On July 21, 2003, the Commissioner issued temporary regulations under which, for the first time, the definition of synthetic equity under section 409(p)(6)(C) included employee balances under nonqualified deferred compensation plans such as the NQDCP which petitioners had established within the management company…

Where the deemed-stock ownership tests of section 409(p) are violated, there are significant consequences to the disqualified persons, to the S corporation, and to the ESOP. Prohibited allocations in favor of disqualified persons are treated as currently taxable to the disqualified persons, sec. 409(p)(2)(A), and excise taxes equal to 50% of the total prohibited allocations are imposed on the S corporation, sec. 4979A. Further, the ESOP will not satisfy the requirements of section 4975(e)(7) and will cease to qualify as an ESOP.

But other than immediate tax, a 50% penalty tax, and ESOP termination, the structure would work just fine.  So the franchisees went back to the drawing board.  They bought the management company stock back from the ESOP. paid out the deferred comp balances of about $3 million, and terminated the ESOP under their own terms.  The taxpayers pretty much undid their plan and went back to their old setup.  But the IRS had another surprise:

On audit respondent determined that petitioners’ July 12, 2004, purchase and acquisition from the ESOP of the stock in the management company occurred for the principal purpose of avoiding or evading taxes by obtaining a loss deduction to which petitioners would not otherwise have been entitled, and respondent disallowed under section 269 the approximate loss deduction of $2,969,000 petitioners claimed.

They weren’t even joking.  Now Sec. 269 is a very obscure and rarely used tool in the IRS terror kit.  In the rare cases when it is used, it usually involves C corporations trying to buy net operating losses or tax credits.  I have never heard of it used on an S corporation, and the Tax Court seemed surprised too:

Respondent acknowledges that because S corporations are passthrough entities for Federal income tax purposes and do not keep their own deductions and losses (i.e., S corporation deductions and losses automatically pass through to the shareholders), it is extremely rare that the Commissioner would seek to make a section 269 adjustment in the context of a taxpayer’s acquisition of an S corporation.

The Tax Court sensibly saw things the taxpayers way.  The judge pointed out that the taxpayers would have been stuck with a bad tax structure caused by IRS rules adopted after they had already set it up (citations omitted):

The above transactions and steps clearly were related and planned as part of an effort to avoid problems created for petitioners by the Commissioner’s temporary regulations, to restructure the management company, and to terminate the ESOP; but they represent valid and real transactions with economic effect that require our recognition as legitimate business transactions.

It’s disturbing to see the IRS try to use Sec. 269 here.  Every ownership structure is tax-motivated in one way or another.  To challenge  a taxpayer’s entity structure is an improperly tax-motivated transaction, absent some weird result like a windfall tax loss or credit, is grossly improper.  This kind of position would result in penalties if taken by a taxpayer.  Taxpayers should be able to collect a similar penalty from the IRS when the agency litigates abusively like this.

Cite: Love, T.C. Memo 2012-166

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