419 Welfare Benefit Plans
A view from a former IRS Agent, CPA, College Professor - Sam Susser - Welfare Benefit Plans (WBP), also known as Welfare Benefit Trusts and Welfare Benefit Funds are vehicles by which employers may offer their employees and retirees with certain types of insurance coverage (e.g., life insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, and long-term care), as well as other benefits such as severance payments and educational funding.
If properly designed and in compliance with IRC sections 419 and 419A, WBPs offer employers with a valid tax deduction. However, as is the case with many plans that offer opportunities for deductibility, some WBPs fail to comply with Code standards, invite abuse, and otherwise are used inappropriately as a basis to reduce taxable income.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has targeted WBP, designating many such plans as “listed transactions.” The IRS’ attack arsenal includes, but is not limited to: Notice 2007-83 (where the IRS intends to challenge claimed tax benefits meeting the definition of a “listed transaction”); Notice 2007-84 (where the IRS may challenge trust arrangements purporting to provide non-discriminatory medical and life insurance benefits, if such plans are, in substance, discriminatory); Revenue Ruling 2007-65 (where the IRS will not disallow deductions for such arrangements for prior year tax years, except to the extent that deductions have exceeded the amount of insurance included on the participant’s Form W-2 for a particular year), and IR-2007-170 (the IRS’ guidance position on WBPs). Accordingly, taxpayers who have claimed deductions pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 419 are receiving letters from the IRS inviting them to an audit.
Let’s start off with a proposition that may surprise many of you – the IRS is generally good. No, that’s not an oxymoron. The rest of this article is in the words of Sam Susser:
For over 35 years, I have had the privilege of representing the IRS and the US taxpayers on tax audits. Our goal was to always determine the correct tax –whether the outcome was a deficiency or a refund. The bottom line, which the IRS supported, was to “do the right thing.” Over these years, I have met and befriended many competent and exemplary agents. As with all industries, there are a few who simply go through the motions, and there are a few who are simply incompetent. Fortunately, the latter two groups are in the minority. Now that I represent clients who are being audited by IRS, my objectives have not changed. The right thing must still be done. I only hope to get a well-versed agent who knows the law and can make a determination based on facts and circumstances, and not by preconceived notions.
I have been resolving the WBP issue mostly at the Revenue Agent (RA) level. Most RAs are knowledgeable in the area of WBP, and it it a pleasure dealing with them. My clients became involved with both abusive plans as well as what I determined to be non-abusive plan. Because most clients have sought the opinions of an independent professional tax attorney, CPA, Enrolled Agent , or other independent professionals who the IRS deems to be knowledgeable and capable of rendering an opinion on a Plan, Prior to 2007 I had a good case for abating the penalty and any interest thereon due to the reasonable cause exception. The RAs accepted my briefs for penalty relief and I usually resolved the case agreed at the agent’s level. The right thing was being done by both sides. Since 2007 the bar has been raised in meeting the reasonable cause exception. Simply put, if taxpayers failed to file Forms 8886 with their tax returns, the penalty could no longer be abated due to reasonable cause. If we do not come to an agreement, the case would, at taxpayer’s additional expense, proceed to the Appeals Division. This would normally be a good strategy in nebulous circumstances. With rare exceptions this is not a good strategy under these circumstances as explained later.
Just as there are good and bad IRS agents, there are good and bad WBPs. The abusive plans that have been sold should not affect those plans that adhere to the spirit of the tax laws. Thus, of the many plans sold to taxpayers, some can be considered “good.” The “bad” WBPs should not taint the “good” ones.
IR-2007-170, Oct. 17, 2007, recognizes that “[t]here are many legitimate welfare benefit funds that provide benefits, such as health insurance and life insurance, to employees and retirees. However, the arrangements the IRS is cautioning employers about is primarily benefits the owner or other key employees of businesses, sometimes in the form of distributions of cash, loans, or life insurance policies.”
A persistent pattern that I see with WBPs is that the IRS appears to presumptively hold such plans as improper contrary to the statement in IR-2007-170. From what I have indirectly encountered, it appears that the IRS may interview the plan administrator, with the primary objective of securing the plan’s participants (and audit targets) rather than determining whether the limitations of a Code Section 419 deduction were satisfied. No determination is made as to whether the plan meets or fails to meet Code requirements. The plan participants then receive audit letters: one to the entity claiming the deduction, and the other to the owner(s) of such entity. These audit letters are generally accompanied by a lengthy “canned” Information Document Request (IDR) ostensibly written by IRS attorneys.
During my decades with the IRS, IDRs are usually focused documents seeking very specific documents and information to determine whether further action is required. However, my review of IDRs on the subject of WBPs shows them to be akin to document production demands in a civil litigation. The IRS basically wants everything associated with the WBP – there is no specific focus. Moreover, they have a very expansive definition of documents, and seek them whether they are in the taxpayer’s possession, or in the possession of the taxpayer’s “attorneys, accountants, affiliates, advisers, representatives, or other persons directly or indirectly employed by you, hired by you, or connected with you, or your representatives, and anyone else subject to your control.”
What was most disturbing about these IDRs that I have seen is the fact that the RAs also have, on a number of occasions, requested copies of the tax returns for the tax year(s) under audit. This indicated to me, especially since the name of the WBP is repeatedly mentioned in the IDR, that my client was selected from the list provided by the plan administrator to the IRS. This in itself is not necessarily bad since this is a useful tool for the IRS in obtaining names of participants of plans that might not meet the muster of the Code and IRS pronouncements. However, I would think that the “give me everything from everybody” approach should not be the first step in an IRS inquiry into the validity of a WBP.
Other clients received audit letters with a similar IDR requesting information including copies of the returns under examination. These clients, however, had stopped participating in the plan many years prior to the audit years. Nonetheless, since the client's name was still on the Plan’s list of participants, the client was going to be audited. The IRS takes the position that the cash surrender value of any life insurance policy in the plan is available to the client and is therefore income to that client for the year the IRS has decided to audit Accordingly, the RAs are proposing adjustments in years in which no deduction to the WBP have been taken.
The … ?
To rub salt into the wound, the RA has enclosed an explanation as to why the deduction is disallowed, and has proposed a statutory underpayment penalty. The tax law provides for a penalty to be imposed where a taxpayer makes a substantial understatement of their tax liability. For individual taxpayers, a substantial underpayment exists when the understatement for the year exceeds the greater of ten percent of the tax required to be shown on the return, or $5,000. This is a relatively low threshold and is easily met by most taxpayers. The penalty is twenty percent of the tax underpayment.
Following the RA’s review, the taxpayer can expect to receive a 20 – 40 page “boiler-plated” or “canned” write-up, which will wind up as the Revenue Agent Report (RAR). The RARs that I’ve seen appear obviously drafted by IRS attorneys. Sometimes the RAR is shortened as a result of “cut and paste” procedures assembled by the RA. The RARs also contain alternative positions for these proposed disallowances. Taxpayers and representatives can take little comfort when all indications lead to the conclusion that the IRS has made a determination prior to assessing all the facts and circumstances of any given case standing on its own merits. My concern is that the WBP that meet IRS requirements are swept together with those that do not, and are unjustly branded as “bad.” The participants of these “good” plans must now overcome the preconceived notions of the RA. This becomes a difficult task as RAs won't deviate from the “boiler-plated” positions, forcing the taxpayer to expend funds in seeking further relief . The Appeals Division has similarly received a directive to sustain the RA RAR thus effectively eliminating the appeals right the taxpayers normally have. The only "appeals" route a taxpayer can take is to petition the Courts for a hearing. The time, expense, and outcome in defending a WBP under this scenario are enigmatic (hence the “…?”), and well, simply put, can really become downright UGLY!
The IRS needs to examine WBPs on a plan by plan basis, and make a determination based on the facts and circumstances of each plan. Specifically, they should be charged with independently evaluating whether a particular WBP generally adheres to the Code and the IRS’s issued pronouncements. The RA and those in charge of this project should be cognizant of the statement issued by Donald L. Korb (Chief Counsel for the IRS): “The guidance targets specific abuses involving a limited group of arrangements that claim to be welfare benefit funds.” (emphasis provided). He continues to state that: “[T]oday’s action sends a strong signal that these abusive schemes must stop.” (emphasis provided). For those plans that the IRS deems to be abusive, the IRS can concentrate its resources in auditing the plan participants. The IRS hierarchy needs to eliminate the UGLY, recognize the GOOD, and pursue the BAD.
The information provided herein is not intended as legal, accounting, financial or any type of advice for any specific individual or other entity. You should contact an appropriate professional for any such advice.
Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.