A transaction may comply with a literal reading of the Tax Code but result in unreasonable tax consequences that are not intended by the tax laws. To combat these transactions, the IRS has used for many years a doctrine known as the economic substance doctrine. Congress codified the doctrine in 2010 and recently the IRS issued instructions to examiners explaining how to apply the codified doctrine.
In recent years, the IRS has successfully used the economic substance doctrine to fight abusive tax shelters. These cases involved, among other things, corporate owned life insurance, limited liability companies, and other entities. According to the IRS, these entities and the transactions they entered into were designed solely for tax avoidance purposes and lacked economic substance. The IRS scored some significant victories using the economic substance doctrine against tax shelters.
The economic substance doctrine was developed by the courts over the past 70 years. Because it was judicially created, courts applied the doctrine in different ways. There was no national standard in applying the doctrine. In some cases, the differences among the courts of appeal were subtle; in other cases, they their interpretations of the doctrine varied widely.
Codification was promoted as a way to standardize application of the doctrine. Congress codified the economic substance doctrine in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HCERA). The codified doctrine applies to transactions entered into on or after March 30, 2010 (the date of enactment of HCERA).
Congress codified the economic substance doctrine as follows: In the case of any transaction to which the economic substance doctrine is relevant, the transaction shall be treated as having economic substance only if the transaction changes in a meaningful way (apart from federal income tax effects) the taxpayer’s economic position; and the taxpayer has a substantial purpose (apart from federal income tax effects) for entering into such transaction.
Congress also approved tough penalties. There is a strict liability penalty of 20 percent (40 percent for undisclosed transactions) of any underpayment attributable to the disallowance of claimed tax benefits by reason of the application of the economic substance doctrine or failing to meet the requirements of any similar rule of law.
Almost immediately after HCERA became law, taxpayers asked the IRS how it intends to enforce the codified economic substance doctrine. The IRS issued a notice (Notice 2010-62) and a directive for its examiners (LMSB-20-0910-024) in September 2010. The IRS followed up that initial guidance with a new directive on July 15, 2011.
The IRS explained that latest directive lays out a step-by-step inquiry examiners should make to determine if it is appropriate to apply the economic substance doctrine. The IRS also reiterated that any decision to apply the doctrine must be approved by senior agency personnel.
First, an examiner should evaluate whether the circumstances in the case are those under which application of the economic substance doctrine to a transaction is likely not appropriate. Second, an examiner should evaluate whether the circumstances in the case are those under which application of the doctrine to the transaction may be appropriate. Third, if an examiner determines that the application of the doctrine may be appropriate, the guidance provides a series of inquiries an examiner must make before seeking approval to apply the doctrine. Fourth, if an examiner and his or her manager and territory manager determine that application of the economic substance doctrine is merited, guidance is provided on how to request senior manager approval.
The directive also advised examiners that the enhanced penalties under HCERA are limited to the application of the economic substance doctrine. Until more guidance is issued, the IRS will not impose these enhanced penalties due to the application of any “similar rule of law” as authorized by HCERA.
Looking ahead, it appears the IRS intends to take a measured approach in applying the codified economic substance doctrine. Senior IRS officials have indicated that the agency will be careful in applying the codified doctrine. Of course, guidance in this area is very limited at this time. Our office will keep you posted of developments. If you have any questions about the economic substance doctrine, please contact our office.