Small partnerships, big risks. A venerable voice in Iowa tax, Neil Harl, has for some time touted the “small partnership exception” as a way for partnerships with 10 or fewer members to avoid filing tax returns, and the operation of the partnership rules in general. A version of it appeared at Tax Analysts yesterday ($link), where he argues that a tax case defeat for a non-filing small partnership does not call his argument into question. Non-subscribers can read his basic argument here.
I find it unconvincing as a legal matter. Dr. Harl’s argument is that a provision that applies by its terms to the Code subchapter covering how partnership examinations are conducted (“For purposes of this subchapter,” meaning Chapter 63, Subchaper C) creates a blanket exemption to the filing requirement imposed in a different part of the code (Chapter 61, Subchapter A). Time has resolved the argument after 2017 as the Code section Dr. Harl relies on has been repealed effective in 2018.
Still, even assuming Dr. Harl is correct on the law, he is unconvincing on the practicalities. Dr. Harl himself says that partnership failure to file penalties are proper unless “all partners have fully reported their shares of the income, deductions, and credits of the partnership on their timely filed income tax returns.”
That puts any managing partner at the mercy of his least responsible partner. There’s no practical way to force a partner to file. In a ten-person partnership, one non-filing partner triggers $1,950 in monthly failure to file penalties. That’s a big risk for a partner to take on just to save filing a return, and it was a losing bet for the South Dakota Battle Flats partnership.
Dr. Harl summarizes the advantages he sees in his approach (my emphasis):
The availability of the exception generally means a lower annual cost for income tax return preparation and freedom from the onerous penalties for failure to file a timely or complete Form 1065, not to mention the advantage of sidestepping the complex rules that apply to partnerships generally such as the depreciation rules applicable to partnerships after transfer of depreciable assets to the partnership.
The Battle Flats case disposes of the “freedom from onerous penalties” bit. As far as return prep costs, Dr Harl himself notes that the income of a small partnership has to be reported somehow:
So how do the small partnerships report their income? The statute is not clear on that point but the definition of “partner” implies that each partner is to take into account the “partnership items” which would include income, gains, losses and credits. Those items would be reported on Schedule C, F or E as would be appropriate for that partner.
That means the partnership has to provide each partner with the income from operations sorted in a way that enables the partner to properly file their 1040s. That’s exactly what Form 1065 and its Schedule K-1 do. Either you prepare a homemade document to do what the K-1 does, or you do a K-1. It’s hard to see why it’s cheaper to design a homemade K-1 than to use the one the IRS provides.
Tax pro Chris Hesse responds to Dr. Harl in the comments to his Tax Analysts piece:
Readers who carefully read Rev. Proc. 84-35 will conclude that Dr. Harl’s position is not sustainable. Those who follow Dr. Harl’s path will find themselves not only subject to the penalties for late filing, but incurring the professional costs of defending a losing argument. Advisors should counsel that it is less costly to comply.
I think that’s correct. Even if you are convinced that Dr. Harl has the law right, I don’t see why it makes sense for a partnership to place its tax compliance, and the risk of severe non-filing penalties, in the hands of its least responsible partner.
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