Thursday, June 22, 2017
No one knows what is going to happen with tax reform, which means now is the perfect time to speculate wildly about how Congress may help or hurt tax-exempt nonprofits if and when it actually does something.
Tax Simplification: If Congress follows the President's lead and simplifies in part by sharply increasing the standard deduction, it will make the charitable contribution deduction irrelevant to an even greater proportion of U.S. households as the number of itemizers shrinks significantly. According to an Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report, this change alone could reduce charitable giving by an estimated $11 million annually, and if combined with a lower top tax rate of 35% they could together reduce charitable giving by $13.1 billion. To put these figures in perspective, the most recent Giving USA report reported $282 billion in donations from individuals for 2016.
Non-Itemizer Deduction: One proposal to counter this effect is a charitable contribution deduction for non-itemizers, as long advocated for by Independent Sector among others. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report estimates that allowing non-itemizers to deduct their charitable contributions would more than offset the negative effect on contributions from the standard deduction increase and rate reduction proposals. That said, it is hard to see how this proposal could have much chance of success given both its revenue cost and the administrative and enforcement complexity it introduces, particularly in an era of reduced IRS examinations. For an analysis of some of these issues, see this October 2016 Urban Institute report.
The Ghost of Rep. Camp: While Dave Camp is not dead he is no longer in Congress, which you would think would limit his influence over current tax legislation. But he did something brilliant when he was driving the tax reform bus as Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee several year ago: he went through the laborious process of actually drafting legislative language and having the result analyzed and scored by the Joint Committee on Taxation. This means that both the specific language and revenue effects of each provision of the Tax Reform Act of 2014 is available to be pulled off the shelf and deployed immediately as part of any current tax reform legislation. As detailed on pages 535-598 of the JCT report, this includes numerous provisions relating to tax-exempt organizations, including a number of limitations on the existing charitable contribution deduction. Especially if some revenue raisers are needed to pay for other aspects of tax reform, I expect to see some of Rep. Camp's proposals reappear in current legislation.
The Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year Act of 2017: Given the uncertainty about the content, timing, and even liklihood of major tax reform legislation, it is a good idea to have a backup plan. The CHARITY Act (I do not know where they got the "I" from) is a modest, bipartisan attempt to tweak the existing tax laws for tax-exempt charities. Its provisions include simplifying the private foundation investment tax under section 4940, making donor advised funds eligible for IRA rollover contributions, increasing the mileage rate applicable to personal vehicle use for volunteer charitable activities, creating an exception to the private foundation excess business holdings rules under section 4943 (can you say Newman's Own Foundation?), and an electronic return filing requirement for all tax-exempt nonprofits.
I look forward to months if not years of further crystal ball gazing on these topics.
Journalists have a constant interest in charity private benefit stories, particularly ones with a political angle. And unfortunately they seem to be able to find them. Recent reports raising questions about plain vanilla (non-political) private benefit have focused on a variety of donors and charities, including New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, the James G. Martin Memorial Trust in New Hampshire, and billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. But not surprisingly reporters have paid even greater attention to situations relating to politics and politicians, including ones involving the Eric Trump Foundation, Boston mayoral hopeful Tito Jackson, President Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and the Daily Caller News Foundation. These stories are distinct from ones relating to the use (and possible misuse) of charities for political purposes more generally, such as the recent article regarding the David Horwitz Freedom Center.
I should emphasize that none of these situations have resulted so far in any apparent civil or criminal penalties, and in some instances the facts described may not cross any legal lines. Indeed, the only one of these situations that appears to have drawn government scrutiny so far is the one involving the Eric Trump Foundation, which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has said his office is looking into.
The same cannot be said of three other situations that involve the possible misuse of charitable assets. One, relatively minor situation relates to the admitted access of the Missouri Governor's political campaign to a charity's donor list without apparently the charity's knowledge or permission. Two other situations are more serious in that they each involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. In March, a federal grand jury indicted former U.S. Representative Stephen Stockman and an aide on charges relating to the alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from conservative foundations to fund campaigns and pay for personal expenses. (More coverage: DOJ Press Release.) And last month a federal jury convicted former U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a scholarship charity, funds that she then used for her own personal and professional purposes. (More coverage: N.Y. Times.)
The various lawsuits that grew out of the IRS exemption application controversy continue their slow grind with discovery ordered in the Linchpins of Liberty and True the Vote cases (which are before the same judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia), a protective order keeping the depositions of Lois Lerner and Holly Paz confidential in the class action NorCal Tea Party Patriots case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, a court-ordered July 24th mediation conference in the same case, and an April 21st hearing on the motion for partial judgment pending in the Freedom Path case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, at which apparently nothing exciting happened as I could not find any media coverage of the hearing. In fact, as far as I can tell no one is paying any attention to these cases at this point except for the parties, their lawyers, a few minor conservative news outlets, and the Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report (the last two links are to stories by them (subscription required), and even they ignored the April 21st hearing).
In related news, the Federal Election Commission's inspector general's office recently concluded that FEC employees did not violate any rules when they communicated with the IRS about politically active groups. (More coverage: Bloomberg BNA (subscription required)). And Congress extended the various budget-related provisions it created in the wake of the controversy, including the prohibition on using any funds to issue guidance under section 501(c)(4) for the rest of the current fiscal year (so through September 30, 2017). Finally, the American Center for Law and Justice (which is representing the plaintiffs if some of the above lawsuits) announced that the Tri-Cities Tea Party received a favorable determination letter from the IRS under section 501(c)(4) seven years after filing its application.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
While the IRS is underfunded and Congress is deadlocked, this does not mean there is no action by the federal government with respect to tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. For starters, the IRS' continues to report data like clockwork, including the always informative Data Book. Highlights from the FY 2016 Data Book include the miniscule examination rate (only 2,956 annual returns examined, including Forms 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, 990-PF, 1041-A, 1120-POL, and 5227), continued strong closures of exemption applications (92,129 for the year, of which the IRS approved 86,406, disapproved 54, and had another 5,669 closed for other reasons, including withdrawals), and now almost 1.6 million organizations recognized as exempt under section 501(c).
The IRS Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities has also had its charter renewed for two more years, and released its sixteenth Report of Recommendations earlier this month. The Committee has been restructured in a way that many of its current members feel is not helpful, as they shared at length in the report. More specifically, the Committee is now divided into subgroups not based on functional areas but instead on subject areas, specifically FICA Replacement Plans, Online Accounts, and, ironically, Future of the ACT.
Finally, the IRS and other federal authorities continue to pursue the most egregious wrongdoing by actors at tax-exempt nonprofits, including criminally. Recent news reports include two major stories along these lines. One involves a federal indictment against a bank officer and her husband who are alleged to have transferred embezzled funds from Bank of America totalling $1.2 million to a variety of charities, possibly in exchange for return payments or other benefits from those charities, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Boston Globe. The other, separate situation involves a search by IRS and U.S. Postal Service investigators at the headquarters of televangelist Benny Hinn, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. No further public information is currently available regarding this investigation.
Monday, May 8, 2017
It is rare to for nonprofit law to be in the federal spotlight as vividly as it was last week when President Trump signed an Executive Order on "Free Speech and Religious Liberty." Section 2 of the EO addresses the Johnson Amendment (which prohibits partisan political activity by 501c3 nonprofits):
Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term "adverse action" means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.
During the signing ceremony, President Trump explained:
“Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about an issue of political or public importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status, a crippling financial punishment. Very, very unfair. But no longer... This financial threat against the faith community is over... So you’re now in a position where you can say what you want to say. And I know you’ll only say good and what’s in your heart. And that’s what we want."
Before the final text of the order was released, commentators raised numerous objections to the order that was anticipated: a broad commitment not to enforce the Johnson Amendment against religious groups. However, the text of the signed order says nothing concrete in terms of legal or policy. Indeed, the ACLU initially promised a lawsuit, but ultimately backtracked, concluding that the order "signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome." Undeterred, the Freedom from Religion Foundation is going ahead with its planned lawsuit, reading between the lines of the EO to perceive a clear "stop enforcement" signal to the IRS.
Friday, March 17, 2017
The final version of Conservation Easements and the Valuation Conundrum, 19 Florida Tax Review 225 (2016), written by Nancy McLaughlin (Utah) is now available. Here is the abstract:
For more than fifty years, taxpayers have been able to claim a federal charitable income tax deduction under Internal Revenue Code § 170(h) for the donation of a conservation easement or a façade easement. For just as long, the deduction has been subject to abuse, including valuation abuse. Dismayed by the expenditure of significant judicial and administrative resources to combat abuse in the easement donation context, the Treasury Department recently proposed reforms, including reforms to address valuation abuse. The reforms were proposed in somewhat of an analytical vacuum, however, because there has been no comprehensive analysis of the easement valuation case law. This article fills that void. It examines the easement valuation case law and discusses the most common methods by which taxpayers or, more precisely, their appraisers overvalue easements. It also proposes alternative reforms informed by the lessons learned from the case law. Concise summaries of the relevant facts and holdings of the cases are included in appendices.
Last month the IRS made publicly available information from approved Forms 1023-EZ (Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption). As Terri Helge noted in this space, one question those data raised was whether hundreds of churches had used the form to obtain IRS recognition of their tax-exempt status under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), as a review of the names of successful applicants suggested. Such use would be problematic because churches are ineligible to use the streamlined application.
Yesterday the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported (subscription required) that "Some Charities Misuse IRS Short Registration Form, Chronicle Data Suggests." The article focuses in particular on the fact that some applicants quickly grew into million-dollar-plus organizations even though the streamlined application is only supposed to be used by charities that expect to have relatively modest financial resources.
Both these observations raise serious concerns about whether the attempt by the IRS to limit the use of the form to relatively small charities that do not raise any complicated legal issues is failing, with hundreds if not thousands of ineligible organizations obtaining a favorable IRS determination letter by using the streamlined form. These observations also further bolster earlier concerns raised by the National Taxpayer Advocate, who drew on the IRS' own determination that the approval rate for Form 1023-EZ users drops from 95 percent to 77 percent when the IRS reviewed documents or basic information of applicants. The question we are left with is how will the cash-strapped and politically battered IRS respond to these apparent shortcomings. No word from the IRS on the answer to this question yet.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
Richard Spencer's White Nationalist Nonprofit Loses Tax-Exempt Status - For Failing to File Required Annual Returns
The L.A. Times reports that the IRS has revoked the tax-exempt status of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist group headed by Richard Spencer, effective as of May 15, 2016. The revocation was not because of either a failure to satisfy the methodology test applied to "educational" organizations under Revenue Procedure 86-43 or for alleged political campaign intervention during the 2016 election. Instead, it was for failing to file the last three IRS annual information returns due from the organization, a failing that Spencer blamed on an IRS misclassification that led to the public listing for the group indicating it was not required to file such returns. Assuming that the Institute challenges this revocation, it will be interesting to see how the IRS responds to this argument.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
In her Annual Report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson listed charitable contribution deductions under Internal Revenue Code section 170 as number eight on her list of ten Most Litigated Issues. The topics that led to the most disputes in the 26 decisions from the June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016 twelve-month period that she reviewed were substantiation (12 cases), easements (9 cases), and valuation (5 cases), with some cases involving multiple issues. For summaries of all 26 decisions, see Appendix 3, Table 8 in the Appendices to Volume One of the report.
In case we needed any reminders that litigation takes a long time, the past several months have seen a few minor developments in the litigation that grew out of the section 501(c)(4) application controversy that exploded in May 2013 (!). In no particular order:
- The Supreme Court denied certiorari in True the Vote, Inc. v. Lois Lerner, et al., No. 16-613, and a related case, rejecting the plaintiffs' attempt to get the Bivens claims against Ms. Lerner and other IRS officials reinstated. The underlying case of True the Vote, Inc. v. IRS, et al. continues in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as Civil Action No. 13-734, without the Bivens claims and so limited to injunctive and declaratory relief, along with the related case of Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, et al., Civil Action No. 13-777, in the same court. UPDATE: I should have noted in my original post that a case raising similar claims is also proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Freedom Path, Inc. v. Lerner, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-1537-D), although there have been no major developments in that case since a decision last May on the government's motion to dismiss.
- A class action lawsuit continues in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, NorCal Tea Party Patriots, et al. v. IRS, et al., Civil Action No. 13-341, after the judge in the case ruled late last year that the IRS had to continue processing the application of one of the class members (the Texas Patriots Tea Party).
- Judicial Watch announced the IRS has discovered an additional 6,924 responsive documents relating to Judicial Watch's pending FOIA lawsuit against the IRS (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 15-220); it is not clear if these documents contain any new information, and the timetable for public disclosure of the documents is uncertain.
At the same time, Republican leaders in Congress have shown no appetite for pursuing impeachment of current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen even as conservative members argue for it and the Trump administration has quietly avoided demanding Koskinen's resignation even in the face of calls to fire him. For recent coverage, see The Hill and the Washington Post. It is hard not to imagine that the Commissioner is silently counting the days until his term ends in November, however. It will also be interesting to see who will be willing to replace him in the current political environment.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Today, the IRS released complete publicly available data on the over 105,000 organizations that were approved for tax-exemption using the streamlined application process, Form 1023-EZ from its inception in July 2014 through December 2016. From the IRS news release:
The data on IRS.gov is available in spreadsheet format and includes information for approved applications beginning in mid-2014, when the 1023-EZ form was introduced, through 2016. The information will be updated quarterly, starting with the first quarter of calendar year 2017. The IRS’s Tax Exempt and Government Entities division approved more than 105,000 applications for exemption submitted on the Form 1023-EZ from 2014 through 2016.
In reviewing the data for these organizations, I noted something odd -- there was an organization approved using the streamlined process which by its name appeared to be a church. According to the Form 1023-EZ instructions and Form 1023-EZ eligibility worksheet, churches are not eligible to use Form 1023-EZ and instead must use Form 1023 to apply for a determination letter from the IRS. In particular, the eligibility worksheet states that if the applicant answers "yes" to any question on the worksheet, the applicant is not eligible to use Form 1023-EZ. Question 12 on the worksheet asks, "Are you a church . . .?" Applicants using Form 1023-EZ must attest on the form that the applicant has completed the eligibility worksheet and is eligible to use the form.
The Form 1023-EZ is filed electronically and is composed of several self-certifying statements made by the applicant to the effect that the applicant qualifies for tax-exempt status as an organization described in Section 501(c)(3). No supporting documentation is required to be submitted with the application so that the IRS can verify the applicant's qualification for tax-exemption. With over 105,000 organizations approved and no way to verify the information, I was not surprised that perhaps a few organizations not eligible to file slipped through the cracks.
However, I was curious to see just how many churches incorrectly used Form 1023-EZ to obtain an IRS determination letter. I conducted a search of the names of all of the organizations approved for exemption using Form 1023-EZ for the word "church" using the new searchable data released by the IRS. I found 623 of the approved organizations had "church" in the name. Upon closer review, not all of these organizations appeared to be churches. Some appeared to be a separately organized ministry of a church or a church foundation or an organization in a town named "Churchville." But in my cursory review of the names of these 623 organizations, I would estimate that over 90% appeared to be churches. Some of these organizations provided website addresses, and a visit to these website addresses confirmed these organizations operated as churches. Even though churches are not eligible to file Form 1023-EZ, all of these organizations attested that they had completed the eligibility worksheet and were eligible to use Form 1023-EZ.
Churches are not required to file an application for exemption to be exempt as a church described in Section 501(c)(3). However, many churches opt to apply for exemption so that the church can receive an IRS determination letter stating that the church qualifies for exemption. The IRS determination letter serves as evidence to donors that the church is recognized as being tax-exempt and contributions made to the church qualify for the charitable contribution deduction.
The churches that received an IRS determination letter using the Form 1023-EZ process may very well meet the requirements for exemption as a church described in Section 501(c)(3). But the IRS decided that it wanted to take a closer look at the applicants claiming to be churches, and thus requires them to use the normal Form 1023 process. By inappropriately using the Form 1023-EZ process, these churches have gotten the benefit of voluntarily applying for tax exemption - the IRS determination letter - without having to go through the scrutiny of the normal Form 1023 application process as the IRS requires.
Additionally, this information is but one example of the problems with the streamlined Form 1023-EZ process. A quick review of the organization's name (for example "** Baptist Church" or "** Church of Christ") should have given one pause about whether the organization was eligible to use Form 1023-EZ. This should have resulted in an inquiry to the organization about whether it planned to operate as a church, or one could have visited the organization's website provided on the form to see that the organization had regularly scheduled church services and appeared to operate as a church. The organization then should have been directed to apply using Form 1023. All of these organizations attested that they were eligible to use Form 1023-EZ, but a quick independent verification of this attestation likely would have shown the attestation to be false in a significant number of cases. This is one small example of the need to independently verify the applicant's statements made on the Form 1023-EZ, or organizations which do not meet the requirements for exemption or the eligibility requirements to use Form 1023-EZ will inappropriately be approved for exemption.
For additional examples of the need for independent verification of the information provided on Form 1023-EZ, see the Taxpayer Advocate Service 2015 Report to Congress and the Taxpayer Advocate Service 2016 Report to Congress.
Friday, February 3, 2017
...but gaining a tax deduction!
At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump stated:
It was the great Thomas Jefferson** who said, the God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Jefferson asked, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God. Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember.
Some may not know the term “the Johnson Amendment,” but I am guessing that most of the readers of this blog would be familiar with Code Section 501(c)(3)’s prohibition on election intervention (“and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”) Famously, Lyndon Johnson was somewhat irritated by negative comments made by a tax-exempt organization (note: not a church… ) during his campaign for re-election to the Senate; thus the Johnson Amendment adding the prohibition on electioneering was born in 1954
Of course, “totally destroying” statutory provisions is traditionally the prerogative of Congress, so it remains to be seen whether this change will come to pass. A bill repealing the Johnson Amendment is introduced regularly each legislative session and rarely makes any progress; query if the current political climate would give it more traction. One wonders if the change takes the form of a repeal of the Section 501(c)(3) language (which would open electioneering to all c3s) or a special exception just for churches or religious organizations. Finally, would such repeal include rules that mirror the income tax provisions that disallow deductions for membership dues allocable to lobbying? If not, I suspect that a large number of political donors of all stripes will suddenly find religion right quick.
For further discussion of these issues, please see this piece by the most awesome Ellen Aprill in the Washington Post, who has probably forgotten more about the political and lobbying rules for nonprofits than I ever hope to know.
*With apologies to R.E.M.
**cough** This is me not commenting on the fact that Trump is quoting Thomas Jefferson, author of the First Amendment. Of course, all political commentary (or non-commentary, as the case may be) is my own individually and should not be attributed to anyone else. EWW
Friday, November 18, 2016
The Federal Trade Commission & National Association of State Charities Officials announced earlier this week "Give & Take: Consumers, Contributions, and Charity", a conference exploring consumer protection issues and charitable solicitations will take place in Washington DC on March 21, 2017. Comments, research, original papers and participation are sought with submission deadline of February 17, 2017. Topics sought include: How Are Donor Solicitations Evolving in the Digital Age? What Do Donors Expect When They Contribute? What Information About Charities Do Donors Find Helpful? Discovering and Reporting Possible Deceptive Charitable Solicitations: When do Donors Act? How are Consumer Purchasing Choices Influenced by Promises of Charitable Support or Social Benefit? What are Best Practices in Terms of Charitable Solicitations, Information and Accuracy?
For more information, see https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/events-calendar/2017/03/give-take-consumers-contributions-charity?utm_source=govdelivery.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Given the uncertainty regarding the plans of both President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, I feel a bit like a sportswriter trying to rank college football teams before the season begins when I try to predict what the results of the 2016 election will be for the federal tax laws governing tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. With that caveat, here are my initial thoughts.
With respect to guidance from Treasury and the IRS, most of what appears in the most recent update of the 2016-2017 Priority Guidance Plan that is relevant to tax-exempt organizations (see especially pages 9-10 and, for section 170 guidance, page 14) appears non-controversial and so likely to eventually see the light of day. The one major exception is proposed regulations under section 501(c) relating to political campaign intervention, which project the Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly suspended and likely will continue to block until the new administration gets around to killing it altogether. Another possible exception are the final regulations under section 7611 relating to church tax inquiries and examinations, although my guess is that Congress will instead simply focus on modifying or repealing the section 501(c)(3) prohibition on political campaign intervention, consistent with the campaign promises by then candidate Trump.
Speaking of Congress, university endowments likely will see continued congressional scrutiny especially in light of President-elect Trump's mentions of the issue during his campaign. Whether such scrutiny results in actual legislation remains to be seen, however. What should perhaps be of greater concern to all charitable nonprofit organizations is the possibility that the detailed tax reform plan developed by now-retired Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp may be looked to for inspiration, especially when seeking revenue-generating provisions that could help offset tax cuts elsewhere. For a detailed overview of the many proposed changes relevant to tax-exempt organizations, see the Joint Committee on Taxation Technical Explanation of those provisions. Also relevant of course are proposed changes to the charitable contribution deduction, which are concentrated in section 1403 of the draft legislation. And of course there will also likely be effects on charitable giving from any general reduction of marginal tax rates or other broad changes, such as modification or repeal of the estate & gift tax.
For consideration of likely ramifications of the election results for nonprofits beyond just changes to federal tax law provisions, here are some early predictions from others: Devin Thorpe, Forbes Contributor (collecting thoughts from various nonprofit leaders); National Council of Nonprofits; Mark Hrywna at The NonProfit Times.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
The Philanthropy 400 is the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual ranking of charities based on private fundraising. This year, for the first time, the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund was ranked first, bypassing the United Way, in private fundraising. According to the Chronicle, it marks "the first time an organization that primarily raises money for donor-advised funds has held the top spot." Author's aside: Given the growing popularity of DAFs, wouldn't it be super if we had some regs? Just sayin'...
I happened to teach DAFs this morning in my Nonprofits class, right after having done a fairly comprehensive unit on the private foundation excise taxes. It is only after one understands the complexity and burden of Chapter 42 (even after the 2006 PPA changes) can one appreciate the simplicity of the DAFs. We went through a sample DAF agreement from a well-known community foundation, reviewing the restrictions on distributions and the private cy pres power. Even with these limitations, my class seemed pretty convinced that as compared to a private foundation, the DAF is the way to go. Happily from a teaching perspective, they were able to identify the private benefit issue with the commercial providers pretty quickly, although I had few answers on why the IRS didn't originally see it as an issue and continue not to do so.
In any event, the Chronicle has a pro/con opinion section in front of its pay-only firewall, which can be found here (pro) by Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute and here (con) by Ray Madoff of Boston College. Husock's article teases a forthcoming report by the Manhattan Foundation on donor advised fund fees and spending, which the Chronicle article says will be released this month, so more to come on that. While we wait, I think that Husock's answer to the private benefit issue is somewhat weak ("they have to be managed by someone, so why not Fidelity?' seems disingenous) but I do think that he does a better job addressing some of Prof. Madoff's DAF distribution issues.
You know what else would address some of these issues? Regulations. Just sayin'.
Monday, October 10, 2016
With the Election approaching, many are voicing their opinion on the Johnson Amendment, which denies 501(c)(3) organizations the ability to actively campaign or lobby for a political candidate. Currently, in addition to being unable to support a candidate for political office, nonprofit organizations are also unable to oppose political candidates.
Proponents of the rule fear that allowing nonprofits to advocate for candidates could create unhealthy political factions within their organizations and communities at large. A larger concern is that donations from these organizations would be tax deductible and could exacerbate the level of spending and the political power of large scale donors, heavily influencing electoral outcomes. A statement from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State exclaimed “If individual organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are, it would diminish the public’s overall trust in the sector and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community.”
Opponents of the rule, like Republican Party Nominee Donald Trump, believe that organizations have a right to voice their opinion for leaders they believe would best represent them. In a speech to Christian leaders Trump stated “if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.” Opponents also believe freeing 501(c)(3) organizations from these regulations would increase voter participation and elevate levels of political debate.
It is unlikely that this debate will be solved in the near-term, and certainly not in time to impact the nearing election. However, a fundamental change to the Johnson Amendment could drastically change the way campaigns are ran and financed.
Friday, August 12, 2016
One of the odd side stories of this crazy election season was the decision by the IRS to deny the application of the Democratic National Convention host committee for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) even though it had earlier granted the application of the Republican National Convention host committee under the same section. (Coverage: Philadelphia Inquirer.) While according to the news stories the DNC quickly had a workaround available for those donors interested in a charitable contribution deduction, the disparity in treatment was notable, particularly since the denial was apparently based on some committee activities being too political under section 501(c)(3) even though the two host committees reportedly had very similar applications. Apparently the IRS forgot its statement 10 years ago to the Campaign Finance Institute that it would monitor future host committee applications for consistent treatment (see last sentence of last bullet point).
The IRS made that statement in the context of research by the Campaign Finance Institute into the financing of the political party conventions, which focused on the 2004 and 2008 conventions. That research led CFI in 2005 to call on the IRS to revisit the tax status of host committees under either section 501(c)(3) or section 501(c)(6) in light of the apparently pervasive political activity of those committees. Perhaps inadvertently, the IRS appears to have begun that reconsideration.
(Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Academic Advisors for the Campaign Finance Institute.)
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The "Tea Party" application controversy continues to take a toll on the IRS, even as the Service implements the congressionally enacted notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. First, the IRS suffered setbacks in two of the cases pending against it that grew out of the controversy:
- In Freedom Path, Inc. v. Lerner, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas rejected the government's motion to dismiss a First Amendment claim against the IRS, finding that the plaintiff's concerns regarding future curtailment of speech was sufficient to establish injury and that the case still presented a live controversy despite changes in the Service's processing of applications. Coverage: Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report.
- In True the Vote, Inc. v. IRS and Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, decided together although argued separately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court's dismissal of actions for injunctive and declaratory relief as against the government, concluding that those claims were not moot. (The appellate court did, however, affirm the lower court's dismissal of Bivens actions and statutory claims against individual government officials and the Service.) Coverage: Wall Street Journal. For blog posts discussing the opinion, see The Surly Subgroup (Philip Hackney) and The Volokh Conspiracy (Eugene Volokh).
Second, many Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to call for the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, not satisfied with his earlier censure by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a party-line vote. (Coverage: The Hill; Politico; Roll Call.) Third, new documents relating to the controversy continue to trickle out from various sources, at a minimum providing an excuse to reassert claims against the Service and its (mostly now gone) officials. For example, see this Judicial Watch press release in the wake of it gaining access to approximately 300 pages of FBI documents relating to the FBI's investigation of the controversy.
And yet life still goes on, which in this instance means implementation of the new section 506 notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) organizations. That implementation has taken the form of Revenue Procedure 2016-41 and related final and temporary regulations (T.D. 9775). These documents detail how the notice requirement applies both to new section 501(c)(4) organizations formed after December 18, 2015 (the date of enactment for section 506) and to previously existing section 501(c)(4) organizations that had not yet either filed an application for recognition of exemption or an annual return. The required form is Form 8976, which can be submitted electronically here.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
The NY Times is running a series of articles on the influence donors, particularly large corporations, appear to have over research conducted by some prominent think tanks. As its front page articles on August 8th and August 9th detail, many researchers associated with think tanks are paid consultants or lobbyists for corporate clients, and many think tanks also receive contributions directly from corporations that have an interest in the research the think tank is conducting. Some of the think tanks identified have either admitted to lapses in oversight or adopted more stringent conflict of interest and disclosure policies, but it is not clear how widespread such admissions or changes are within the think tank community.
While in theory reaching research conclusions that are helpful to donors or clients could constitute providing prohibited private benefit on the part of the think tanks, which are generally tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), the connections detailed in the articles seem too tenuous to support such a claim. This is especially true given both that proving a solid link between a donation and research results is difficult and that the think tanks identified generally engage in a broad range of research projects, only a small portion of which may be tainted by donor influence. Similarly, while some think tanks then arrange for meetings or conferences centering on their research and attended by government policy makers that might constitute lobbying for federal tax purposes, most such events likely fall outside of the technical definition of lobbying and the few that may not are almost certainly within the limited amount of lobbying permitted for tax-exempt charitable organizations such as think tanks.
Nevertheless, the stories are troubling because they throw into question the ability of government policymakers to rely on such research, as noted by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a video the NY Times posted with these stories. In its regular Room for the Debate feature, the NY Times therefore invited a number of commentators to suggest possible ways to address the concerns raised in its stories. Suggestions ranged from greater transparency about possible conflicts (including a certification process), better internal procedures to ensure unbiased research results, greater skepticism regarding those results on the part of journalists and others who report or rely on those results, and a diversification of funding sources (including ensuring various governmental funding sources) to support such research. I frankly am skeptical of transparency, certification, and internal procedure improvement if only because it may be too difficult for busy lawmakers, much less journalists and other members of the public, to shift through various disclosures or to determine what certification schemes or particular think tanks are reliable. I believe the diversification of funding sources idea has more promise, particularly if there are (nonpartisan) ways for government agencies to provide such funding conditioned on accurate, unbiased results. Bottom line, this strikes me as not a narrow federal tax issue but a larger issue about how to incentivize truth telling in public policy research.
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
As reported by Accounting Today and Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report (subscription required), the IRS yesterday issued Revenue Procedure 2016-42 (available through Bloomberg BNA) to provide some relief for donors desiring to create a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) but frustrated because low interest rates make it difficulty to do so. The articles explain that CRATs are subject to a "probability of exhaustion" test (described in Revenue Rulings 70-452 and 77-374) that requires there be no more than a 5 percent chance that there is no remainder to go to the designated charity or charities. When interest rates are low, as they are now, it can be difficult to satisfy this requirement and also the requirement under Internal Revenue Code section 664(d) that a CRAT pay out a minimum 5 percent annuity to the trust beneficiary. The Revenue Procedure permits CRATs to include an early termination provision that ends the CRAT and causes the distribution of the remainder to the designated charity or charities when the trust corpus minus the annual payment and multiplied by a discount factor falls below 10 percent of the initial trust corpus; if the sample provision is included in a CRAT, then the probability of exhaustion test will not apply.
The Revenue Procedure will be published in Internal Revenue Bulletin 2016-34, which will be dated August 22nd.