Thursday, January 7, 2016
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has submitted her 2015 Annual Report to Congress, required by section 7803(c)(2)(B)(ii) of the Internal Revenue Code. One section of the report (see pages 36-44) scathingly criticizes the review of Forms 1023-EZ (or lack thereof) by the Internal Revenue Service. The following paragraph from the Executive Summary of the report details key findings:
TE/GE’s Exempt Organization (EO) function approves 95 percent of applications submitted on Form 1023-EZ. EO’s own pre-determination review program shows that EO approves applications much less frequently — 77 percent of the time — when it reviews documents or basic information from the applicants, rather than relying only on the attestations contained in the form. EO rejects some applications simply because the applicant was not eligible to use Form 1023-EZ, but the pre-determination review also showed that almost 20 percent of Form 1023-EZ applicants, despite their attestations to the contrary, did not qualify for exempt status as a matter of law. These results are consistent with TAS’s analysis of a representative sample of Form 1023-EZ applicants that obtained exempt status, which showed that 37 percent of the organizations in the sample did not satisfy the legal requirements for exempt status. Often, a deficiency in the applicant’s organizing documents that prevented qualification as an Internal Revenue Code § 501(c)(3) organization could have easily been corrected had the applicant been advised of it.
The report recommends revising Form 1023-EZ generally to require applicants to submit to the IRS their organizing documents, a description of their actual or contemplated activities, and relevant financial information. The report further urges the IRS to determine exempt status only after reviewing the application and the recommended supporting materials.
Additional Coverage: Tax Notes Today (Electronic Cite: 2016 TNT 4-6)
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
In Memorandum SBSE-04-1215-0085, the Small Business/Self-Employed Division of the IRS has determined that the church audit procedures set forth in section 7611 of the Internal Revenue Code apply to church employment tax inquiries. Under Code section 7611, the IRS may begin a church tax inquiry only by satisfying statutory “reasonable belief requirements” and “notice requirements.”
The former is satisfied “if an appropriate high-level Treasury official reasonably believes (on the basis of facts and circumstances recorded in writing) that the church … may not be exempt, by reason of its status as a church, from tax under section 501(a), or … may be carrying on an unrelated trade or business (within the meaning of section 513) or otherwise engaged in activities subject to taxation ….”
The latter is satisfied “if, before beginning such inquiry, the Secretary [of the Treasury] provides written notice to the church of the beginning of such inquiry.” The notice must explain “the concerns which gave rise to such inquiry,” “the general subject matter of such inquiry,” and “the applicable … administrative and constitutional provisions with respect to such inquiry (including the right to a conference with the Secretary before any examination of church records), and … provisions of this title which authorize such inquiry or which may be otherwise involved in such inquiry.”
Code section 7611 also restricts the scope of church examinations and limits the period for conducting them.
Prior to the guidance in the recent memorandum, IRS examiners were instructed that Code section 7611 audit procedures do not apply to employment tax inquiries. But now examiners are instructed as follows:
Examiners should not initiate any examinations on a church. If for some reason an employment tax examiner encounters a church employment tax issue, the examiner should immediately contact the Program Manager, Exam, Programs and Review (EPR) in TE/GE Exempt Organizations Examinations.
This new guidance is effective upon issuance (12/17/2015).
Friday, December 18, 2015
The almost certain to be approved omnibus spending bill and related tax bill illustrates in a nutshell the effects of the IRS scandal that blew up after it became known that the Service had subjected some conservative groups to greater scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status under Code section 501(c)(4).
No New 501(c)(4) Guidance. The provision garnering the most media attention in this area is Division E, Section 127 of the omnibus bill. It prohibits spending on guidance relating to section 501(c)(4) organizations and locks in "the standard and definitions" relating to that status "as in effect on January 1, 2010" (shortly before the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United). While the provision only applies during the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2016, it may kill any momentum such guidance had and so have more long-term effects. But if such guidance is only paused, a possible silver lining is that this delay ensures Treasury and the IRS will not issue it until after the end of the current presidential campaign.
Section 127 also does not address guidance for other types of section 501(c) organizations, including section 501(c)(5) labor unions and section 501(c)(6) chambers of commerce and trade associations. So in theory Treasury and the IRS could still issue guidance relating to the amount and definition of political activity for these entities. But given that such guidance could not be synced with guidance for section 501(c)(4) organizations until next fall at the earliest, it seems unlikely that they will pursue this course.
(The omnibus bill also bars spending by the SEC on guidance "regarding disclosure of political contributions, contributions to tax exempt organizations, or dues paid to trade associations" (Division O, Section 707) and on the Executive Branch of the President requesting "a determination with respect to the treatment of an organization described in section 501(c)" (Division E, Section 601(a)(2).)
Changed (Better?) IRS Procedures. The tax bill, which is also Division Q of the omnibus bill, contains several procedural changes that can be traced to the scandal:
Section 402. IRS employees prohibited from using personal email accounts for official business.
Section 403. If a person whose return or return information is improperly disclosed complains to Treasury regarding that disclosure, Treasury may inform that person about whether an investigation has been initiated, whether it is open or closed, whether any such investigation substantiated the improper disclosure by any individual, and whether any action has been taken with respect to that individual. (The provision also relates to other unlawful acts by federal employees with respect to the tax laws, as listed in Code section 7214.)
Section 404. Codifies the already available administrative appeal process relating to adverse determinations of tax-exempt status under section 501(c) and certain related determinations.
Section 405. New notification requirement for section 501(c)(4) organizations with a deadline for submitting the notice of 60 days after establishment of the organization. It applies both to entities organized after the bill's enactment and existing entities that have neither filed an application nor submitted an annual return or notice previously. There also is a provision allowing such an entity to "request" that it be treated as a section 501(c)(4) organization, in response to which Treasury (and so the IRS) "may issue a determination," and another provision allowing Treasury by regulation to require additional information supporting a new group's claimed 501(c)(4) status in their first annual return.
Section 406. Extending to all organizations seeking tax-exempt status under section 501(c) the existing declaratory judgment provision currently available to organizations seeking that status under section 501(c)(3).
Section 407. Adding to the list of "deadly sins" for IRS employees "performing, delaying, or failing to perform" any official action either for "personal gain or benefit or for a political purpose."
Section 408. Exempting from the gift tax transfers to any tax-exempt organization described section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6).
Other than the gift tax provision none of these appears problematic on its face, and the expansion of declaratory judgment option to all 501(c) is a welcome change. While the gift tax provision may draw some criticism, the reality is the IRS had already abandoned this fight (and I personally think this is the right call from a tax perspective, for reasons I plan to detail in an upcoming article). The one provision that may lead to some interesting questions and so require guidance is the new notice requirement, including how it relates to the existing (optional) application process for organizations seeking section 501(c)(4) status.
Frozen Budget for the IRS . The IRS budget continues to be frozen (and so losing ground once inflation is taken into account). More specifically, Division E provides the following, all of which are the same as for last fiscal year:
- Taxpayer Services: $2.16 billion
- Enforcement: $4.86 billion
- Operations Support: $3.64 billion
- Business Systems Modernization: $290 million
It also prohibits spending on targeting citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights and on targeting groups based on their ideological beliefs.
Bottom Line. The IRS continues to pay the price for the scandal in the form of congressional micromanagement and less funding. Any hopes of significant IRS enforcement relating to tax-exempt organizations and political activity are therefore unlikely to come to fruition in the foreseeable future.
UPDATE: For more information, see the Joint Committee on Taxation Technical Explanation for the tax bill.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
The National Philanthropic Trust released its 2015 Donor-Advised Fund Report on November 9th. NPT's report indicates that gifts to DAFs grew significantly in 2014, with assets held in DAF reaching a record level of $12.5 billion dollars. NPT further indicated that that the DAFs it studied also demonstrated an increase in grants, with $12.5 billion in assets given away at a payout rate of 21.9%. As discussed in this article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, however, there is fundamental disagreement in the field on how to measure DAF payouts - the National Philanthropic Trust, Fidelity Charitable Trust and statisticians at the IRS all use different methodologies. Accordingly, we should all be wary about comparing apples to apples when looking at DAF payout rates.
Certainly, this report is good news for DAFs as it shows the popularly of DAFs as a giving vehicle; it may also have the unintended consequence of encouraging further (already heightened) scrutiny. The report is released at a time when serious discussion continues to occur regarding mandating minimum payouts for DAFs.
Correction: Thanks for the note in the comments, which indicated that total DAF assets according to the report were at $70.7 billion at the close of 2014. EWW
Monday, November 9, 2015
According to Nonprofit Quarterly, Los Angeles County has adopted new beneficial rules regarding payments to nonprofits that contract with the government to provide services, such as social service agencies.
Anyone who has worked with charities that contract with the government (or anyone else, for that matter) knows that it is often very difficult for a charity to be reimbursed for the indirect costs associated with programming, such as utilities. At the end of last year, the Office of Management and Budget recently issued a "super circular" addressing indirect cost reimbursement, clarifying issues regarding the applicability of these rules to all federally-funded grants and contracts, and reiterinat that it is not appropriate for governmental agencies to request waivers of these rights.
Of course OMB directives can only govern grants and contracts using federal funds - clearly, all federal contracts, but also state and local contracts to the extent they utilize federal funding. Strictly state-funded (or local-funded) grants, however, are not covered by the OMB guidelines. Thus, LA County's adoption of the standards is a big deal for local nonprofits, and hopefully sets a trend for other state and local jurisdictions.
H/t to Jennifer Chandler at the National Council of Nonprofits, which has been active in this area.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
In the third piece of guidance issued over the last seven days, the IRS issued proposed regulations under Section 170(f)(8) last week. On September 17, 2015, the IRS issued a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the donee reporting exception to the contemporaneous written acknowledgement requirements for charitable contributions.
Code Section 170(f)(8) requires a taxpayer claiming a Section 170 charitable contribution deduction in excess of $250 to substantiate the contribution by a contemporaneous written acknowledgement received from the charity, which must include certain designated information and be provided in a timely manner (a.k.a, contemporaneously!). You all are familiar with the “thank you for your contribution – you have received no goods and services in consideration for your contribution” letter. That letter is designed to be the “contemporaneous written acknowledgement” or “CWA” required to be sent by the charity and retained by the donor for purposes of Section 170(f)(8) substantiation.
However, the statutory language of Section 170(f)(8) contains an exception to the general rule disallowing contributions that are not substantiated by a CWA. Under Section 170(f)(8)(D), a donor’s deduction will not be disallowed if the charity files a return (on a form and in a manner set forth in Treasury Regulations) that includes the information otherwise required to be disclosed on the CWA.
Even though this statutory language exists, the preamble indicates that the IRS purposely never issued regulations implementing the donee reporting provisions of Section 170(f)(8)(D). The “goods and services” letter methodology was working out well enough, and there had been no outcry for charity reporting. Apparently, the issue has arisen in a litigation context, however, with donors who had failed otherwise to use the CWA substantiation methodology trying to save their deductions with alternative documentation – specifically (according the preamble, anyway) by having the charity file an amended Form 990.
In the proposed regulations, the IRS states that Form 990 disclosure is not adequate for a CWA substitute under Section 170(f)(3)(D). Accordingly, the proposed form to be filed by the charity would set forth all of the information required on the CWA, the name and address of the charity, and the name, address, and tax ID of the donee. The charity must send a copy of this new form to the IRS and to the donor (unlike the CWA, which just goes to the donor). In each case, must be provided by February 28th of the year following the year of contribution - which is earlier than the CWA, which is generally due by April 15th of the following year (unless the donor files his or her tax return earlier).
It's not obvious to me when a charity would elect to do this in lieu of the existing CWA letter - did the IRS make it purposefully difficult so that no charity would use it? In each case, the charity still needs to mail something to the donor – in the donee reporting case, the charity must also send the form to the IRS and sent earlier than the due date of the Form 990, so there really isn't any cost savings. As a practical matter, it seems to me that these regulations do very little other than place a road block in front of individuals trying to litigate their way around a substantiation foot fault.
If you are interested, comments are due by December 16, 2015.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Good morning all! I just got an alert in my mailbox that Treasury has issued final regulations on equivalency determinations - you may all recall the proposed regulations that were issued in 2012.
I'm in the process of printing out the final regs and comparing them to the proposed regs, so I'll update the post later today. Bloomberg BNA's blurb on it says that the final regulations "incorporate the thrust of" the 2012 rules. I'll try to get some links up as soon as I can find them in a non-subscription database, although I know you can get them in both Bloomberg BNA and Tax Analyst already if you have access. Citation is T.D. 9740, RIN 1545-BL23.
Update at 6:30 p.m., 9/23/2015
I've not gotten all the way through the final regs to give you all a complete summary, but I wanted to mention a few highlights from the preamble:
- It appears that the Regulations expand the definition of "qualified tax practitioner" for purposes of who can make equivalency determinations that can be relied upon in good faith.
- The Regulations appear to scale back the ability of a charity to rely on a good faith affidavit as the sole means of making an equivalency determination. Briefly, it appears that you can rely on the information in good faith, but there needs to be an additional showing that the evaluation of the data and the equivalency determination based on that data occurred in a manner that demonstrates a knowledge of US tax law. In theory, anyway, there are more qualified tax practitioners (including folks that may be in house at the foundation) to help with such a determination, so it shouldn't (in theory again) be a significant bar to international grant making.
- Some clarification on how long you can rely on written advice, which looks like (a) so long as there is no change in the law or otherwise for most things, except (b) two years for public charity determinations based on financials.
- It looks like there may be limited opportunity to share equivalency determinations, but it can't be foundation to foundation - it may be that the first foundation has to authorize the release of that information to a second foundation from its qualified tax practitioner because only there would there be reasonable reliance. So not quite the equivalency determination banking that the sector wanted, but it may be a step in that direction.
- Looks like donor advised funds can use these rules, at least for now, for purposes of compliance with Section 4966(d)(4).
Monday, September 21, 2015
Last week, the IRS issued Notice 2015-62 discussing the tax treatment of an investment made for charitable purposes that does not otherwise qualify for status as a “program-related investment” under Code Section 4944(c). If you are reading this blog, you probably know that Code Section 4944 imposes a prudent investor-type rule on private foundations by imposing an excise tax on investments that jeopardize a private foundation’s charitable purposes. There is an exception to this general rule under Code Section 4944(c) for program-related investments (PRIs). For an otherwise charitably-motivated investment to qualify as a program-related investment, however, no significant purpose of the investment can be the production of income or the appreciation of property (among other things...).
The news is awash with discussions of socially-responsible investing, impact investing, mission-related investing and the like - however, none of these types of investing are tax concepts. Rather, they are ways that a foundation (or other endowment-type entity) can approach investing in a manner that considers charitable outcomes. Such categories of investments do not necessarily qualify as "program-related investments." Rather, PRIs are a thing, as my students would say - a specific term of art used in the tax code for which an investment must specifically qualify. As indicated above, in order to qualify as a PRI, no significant purpose of the investment can be for the production of income or appreciation of property. Of course, many investments view charitable outcomes as one of many bottom line results, along side of the potential for profit. Such charitably-inclined investments may fall into one or more of the categories of social investing, but they are not PRIs.
Notice 2015-62 clarifies the manner in which the prudent investor standard of Code Section 4944 treats the accomplishment of charitable purposes as a relevant factor when evaluating an investment that is NOT a PRI. For many years, there was some question as to whether fiduciary standards would allow a foundation to settle for a lesser yield in order to accomplish other charitable goals – for example, universities divesting in South Africa companies during the apartheid era, the Catholic Church not investing in contraception or land mine manufacturers, or affirmative investments in emerging green energy technologies. (For more discussion on this topic, see this very awesome article by the very awesome Susan Gary: It is Prudent to Be Responsible? The Legal Rules for Charities that Engage in Socially Responsible Investing and Mission Investing).
With the adoption of UPMIFA in 2006 by NCCUSL and UPMIFA’s subsequent adoption in almost all jurisdictions (what's up with that, Pennsylvania?), it became clear that most jurisdictions would allow for the consideration of charitable goals as an appropriate factor in evaluating an investment, so long as the overall determination was reasonable. Notice 2015-62 adopts a similar standard for Section 4944, stating that “foundation managers may consider all relevant facts and circumstances, including the relationship between a particular investment and the foundation’s charitable purpose.”
This Notice is certainly good news for private foundations involved in socially-responsible, mission-related, or impact investing. Of course, the Notice does not solve all of a private foundation’s worries in this area. A private foundation must still comply with Code Section 4944’s overall requirement that foundation managers exercise ordinary business care and prudence in selecting investments. For state law purposes, UPMIFA does not necessarily cover every type of charitable organization; therefore a foundation needs to determine whether or not a different state investment standard might apply. And of course, for excise tax purposes, only a program-related investment will be treated as a qualifying distribution for purposes of Code Section 4942.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
NPR reports that the “American Red Cross is facing new criticism today as government investigators and a congressman call for independent oversight over the long-venerated charity.” NPR explains that Representative Bennie Thompson has introduced a bill called the American Red Cross Sunshine Act on the heels of the release of a report by the United States Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) that examined the charity’s operations. The GAO report, says NPR, “finds oversight of the charity lacking and recommends that Congress find a way to fill the gap.”
The “Conclusions” section of the GAO report states as follows:
The nation’s disaster response system relies to a significant extent on the nonprofit sector, which harnesses the public’s generosity to provide funding for disaster response and recovery efforts. This approach can support the nation’s efforts to assist disaster victims, but it also has limited accountability for disaster assistance. The Red Cross, the organization most responsible for providing shelter and other mass care services to disaster victims, exemplifies this tension. It has been designated by law as an instrumentality of the United States and has a critical, formalized role in coordinating and providing disaster response services across the nation. At the same time it remains a nonprofit organization that generally makes its own decisions about what services to provide. This reliance on an independent organization can be effective if government and the donating public have confidence that [the] Red Cross is providing the services that are most needed in an effective and efficient manner. Further, in disasters in which the federal government is involved, the extent and effectiveness of the Red Cross’s activities could have a direct impact on the nature and scope of the federal government’s activities.
With regard to oversight, while the Red Cross has some internal evaluation processes in place, such as after action reviews and surveys of state emergency managers and other stakeholders, Red Cross officials told us that the results of their internal evaluations are typically not made available to the general public. The absence of regular, external evaluations of its disaster services that are publicly disseminated could affect the confidence of both the donating public and the federal agencies that rely on the Red Cross. This is especially true in light of questions raised by the federal government and others in recent years about the organization’s performance in disasters. Given the Red Cross’s status as an instrumentality of the United States and the critical responsibilities assigned to it by its federal charter and by federal policies, the federal government has a clear stake and role in ensuring that proper oversight takes place.
In a section entitled “Matters for Congressional Consideration,” the GAO report further recommends legislative action:
To maintain governmental and public confidence in the Red Cross, Congress should consider establishing a federal mechanism for conducting regular, external, independent, and publicly disseminated evaluations of the Red Cross’s disaster assistance services in domestic disasters in which the federal government provides leadership or support. This mechanism might involve annual evaluations of whether the services achieved their objectives or of their impact on disaster victims. This evaluation could be performed, for example, by a federal agency such as DHS, by an IG office such as the DHS IG, or by a private research firm under contract to a federal agency.
The American Red Cross Sunshine Act, according to its preface, would “enhance oversight of the American National Red Cross by the Government Accountability Office and Inspectors General at the Departments of Homeland Security, Treasury, and State,” and would require the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a pilot program with the charity to research and develop mechanisms to improve the charity’s preparedness and response capabilities through social media.
Additional Coverage: The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Thursday, August 13, 2015
As announced Wednesday in a blog post by the head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, nine federal agencies are issuing notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) that will codify recommendations made by an advisory council to the President on "strengthening the social service partnerships the government forms with nongovernmental providers, including strengthening the constitutional and legal footing of these partnerships." The blog post further provides the overall content of the NPRMs:
The proposed rules clarify the principle that organizations offering explicitly religious activities may not subsidize those activities with direct federal financial assistance and must separate such activities in time or location from programs supported with direct federal financial assistance. For example, if a faith-based provider offers a Bible study as well as a federally supported job training program, the Bible study must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program.
The NPRMs also propose new protections for beneficiaries or prospective beneficiaries of social service programs that are supported by direct federal financial assistance. In the proposed rules, the agencies set forth a notice to beneficiaries and prospective beneficiaries that informs them of these protections. These notices would make it clear, for example, that beneficiaries may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief or be required to participate in any religious activities and advises beneficiaries that they may request an alternative provider if they object to the religious character of their current provider.
At the same time, the NPRMs assure religious providers of their equal ability to compete for government funds and of continuing protections for their religious identity like the ability of providers to use religious terms in their organizational names and to include religious references in mission statements and in other organizational documents. The NPRMs also state that the standards in the proposed regulations apply to sub-awards as well as prime awards, and set forth definitions of “direct” and “indirect” federal financial assistance. These areas have been sources of confusion for some providers.
The NPRMs are to be issued by the federal departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor and Veterans Affairs as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, and will apply to a broad range of federal programs that have involved faith-based organizations for years. These federal agencies will be requesting interested parties to submit comments over the next 60 days, which will then be considered in issuing final regulations.
Pursuant to a notice published in the Federal Register on August 10, the IRS is seeking applicants for vacancies on the Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities (ACT). The vacancies, which will occur in June 2016, include: Two (2) Employee Plans; two (2) Exempt Organizations; one (1) Federal, State and Local Governments; and one (1) Indian Tribal Governments. The notice states that ""[t]o ensure appropriate balance of membership, final selection of qualified candidates will be determined based on experience, qualifications and other expertise."
The Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has yielded a lot of commentary regarding its potential effect on tax-exempt, religious organizations, including religiously-affiliated educational organizations. The Washington Post article referenced below sets forth the IRS Commissioner's commitment to not change its stance and begin revoking the exemption of religiously-affiliated educational institutions that oppose the ruling. The second set of blog posts looks at the issue more broadly, generally making the argument that opposition from such educational and other religious institutions results in "vibrant" and essential pluralism.
After the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, religious leaders feared that religious universities, nonprofits and other institutions could lose their tax-exempt status. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has promised the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee that his agency would not go after the tax-exempt status of religious colleges and universities that oppose gay marriage.
During a hearing Wednesday conducted by the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked Koskinen whether the IRS would “not, in the absence of a directive by Congress or by the courts," take action to remove religious schools’ tax exemption.
“I can make that commitment,” Koskinen said, explaining that “we see no basis for changing our examination criteria as a result of this Supreme Court case.”
Koskinen discussed the potential for such schools’ tax exemption to go under scrutiny down the road. “If we ever did that, we would issue it for public comment. There would be no surprises,” Koskinen said. “The public would have plenty of notice and plenty of opportunity to comment, and that’s not going to happen in the next two and a half years.” [emphasis added]
PrawfsBlog, "Garnett et al. on Tax-Exempt Status and Religious (and Other) Organizations" by Paul Horwitz (Alabama)::
Should government insist that all private organizations comply with its own sense of the good? Most people, I think, still agree that the answer to this question is no. However strongly they feel that those public values are the right values, and however devoutly they may hope that all people and all groups come to share them and to act accordingly, they still believe for various reasons--not least a sense that the public-private distinction, however imperfect and vulnerable to critique, represents an important value of its own--that government should not and perhaps cannot rigorously or ruthlessly enforce what Nancy Rosenblum has called a "logic of congruence" between public and private organizations. ...
Our friend and fellow Prawfs writer Rick Garnett discusses that question in a new editorial co-written with John Inazu and Michael McConnell [see below]. The title, which I gather its writers did not choose and might not be completely comfortable with, is "How to Protect Endangered Religious Groups You Admire." They argue, in brief, that we should, at a minimum, be willing to protect religious non-profits that provide significant contributions to the public good despite their now heterodox views.
Read the whole thing. Feel free to disagree. I will add two points. I agree, in sensibility at least, with a point made by Marc DeGirolami in a recent post about the editorial: "We use the language of 'exemption' when we speak of the taxable status of nonprofits, but it would be better instead to think of their nontaxable status as marking a boundary of the government's power to tax." Reasonable disagreement is available about whether "power" is an apt word here, but for those who believe that whatever the extent of state power, it ought not lightly be exercised in a way that circumscribes civil society and a vibrant pluralism, the sensibility is right. Second, it ought not be only pluralists, and certainly not only social conservatives, who support these arguments. This is an argument that liberals ought to be taking seriously now, especially as progressive thought continues to drift in a more illiberal direction.
Christianity Today op-ed: How to Protect Endangered Religious Groups You Admire, by Richard W. Garnett (Notre Dame), John D. Inazu (Washington University) & Michael W. McConnell (Stanford):
Today, tens of thousands of religious organizations, and tens of millions of Americans, continue to believe and teach that the proper understanding of marriage is a union of one man and one woman. But they do far more than believe and teach this and other views.
They also give food, clothing, shelter, counsel, and comfort to millions of Americans in need. They offer some of the most important and desperately needed health, educational, and social services in the country. And they provide billions of dollars and thousands of full-time workers for international relief aid that serves vulnerable migrants, refugees, and persecuted minorities. The work of religious organizations has long been and continues to be central both to religious believers’ lives and to the welfare of others. Our communities—and, indeed, communities around the globe—would be much worse off without these organizations and their faith-informed good works.
Despite the crucial role that religious organizations and individuals have long played in our country, some voices now suggest that they and their work are somehow tainted because of their beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Some argue that the time has come to push religious believers out of the public square and confine them to the quiet, private realm of personal prayer and worship. This despite the Supreme Court's recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which not only required states to legally recognize same-sex marriages but also said, “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”
Nonetheless, because of their traditional views on human sexuality, religious organizations have already been threatened with heavy-handed government action. ...
[W]ithin days of the Court’s decision in Obergefell, New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer wrote that the government should eliminate tax-exempt status from “organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.”
Mr. Oppenheimer failed to acknowledge that in a pluralistic and democratic society, government routinely recognizes the tax-exempt status of organizations that differ from “settled public policy.” For example, not that long ago, the Human Rights Campaign was tax-exempt when it differed from settled policy on matters of sexuality; the same is true of organizations, like the Sierra Club, who push for changes in environmental regulation, or anti-war groups, who oppose US military policy. One of the principal purposes of civil society organizations is to challenge “settled public policy.”
Moreover, the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision in Obergefell earlier this summer made clear that “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” ...
Some members of Congress have now introduced the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) in an effort to ensure that overheated rhetoric and political opportunism do not endanger the important work of faith-based organizations. The core of FADA would require the federal government to honor its longstanding commitments to treat all such organizations with an even hand. It would prevent federal officials from attempting to strip tax-exempt status, from denying equal access to federal facilities and entitlements, or from taking adverse actions related to licensing or accreditation. ... We think the best approach is to tailor FADA to the core area of concern: religious nonprofits. That focus would serve the cause of religious freedom by making it more likely that this important legislation can move forward.
[Hat tip: TaxProfBlog]
As reported by the Daily Tax Report, the NYC Bar Association has requested that the IRS issue a revenue ruling confirming the agency's stance in two 2014 private letter rulings that the exempt organization was not required to obtain a new exemption letter upon a change of domicile or in the case of certain conversions (See PLR 201446025; PLR 201426028).
The IRS has responded that the issue will likely be addressed through a guidance project.
Friday, July 24, 2015
As previously blogged, the GAO Report to Congress (the full report is here) on the IRS processes for political activity referrals found significant deficiencies with respect to the initial allegations that triggered an audit. In some cases, no case files were found by the GAO. These deficiencies "increase the risk that EO could select exempt organizations for examination in an unfair manner - for example, based on an organization's religious, educational, political or other views." According to Bloomberg BNA, in the hearing before the Ways and Means Oversight Committee in which the GAO report was released, it was determined that for the past six years, "one person working alone at the IRS has been deciding which complaints about the political activities of exempt organizations should be followed up."
Following the above-referenced hearing, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen reported to Bloomberg BNA that final regulations on political campaign activities by exempt organizations will not be in place prior to the 2016 presidential election (see proposed regulations here). The regulations will likely not be effective until January 2017. See prior blog posts on the proposed regulations and political activity regulations generally (April 16, 2014; July 16, 2015).
Thursday, July 23, 2015
IRS Issues Memorandum on Political Activities Referral Committee while determined to be "at risk" by GAO
On July 21, the IRS released a memorandum (TEGE-04-0715-0018) that defines the operation and composition of the Political Activities Referral Committee (PARC) that is charged with reviewing referrals for exempt organization audits. According to Bloomberg BNA, the memorandum was released in advance of a hearing where the Government Accountability Office has now issued a report finding that "poor oversight" places the IRS at risk that its agents could target exempt organizations for audits based on the organization's religious, educational or political views.
The memorandum describes the basic composition of a PARC:
Effective immediately, a PARC will consist of three IR-04 managers (OPM General Schedule (GS) grade 14 equivalent) who will be selected at random. All EO Examinations and Rulings & Agreements front-line IR-04 managers are eligible for selection to a PARC. The managers who are selected to serve on a PARC will receive appropriate training, and will serve on that committee as a collateral assignment for a period of two years. The inventory volume of political activities referrals received will determine the number of PARCs established and the time commitment required by the members of a PARC.
A PARC will review and recommend referrals for audit in an impartial and unbiased manner. A PARC must identify and document to the case file that the referral and associated publicly available records establish that an organization and any relevant persons associated with that organization may not be in compliance with Federal tax law. All PARC members will use the Reporting Compliance Case Management System (RCCMS) to document their activities and conclusions for the duration of their assignment to a PARC. In order for a referral considered by the PARC to be forwarded to an EO Examination group for audit consideration, two out of three PARC members must make that forwarding recommendation (majority rule).
(More on GAO Report: Washington Post, "Watchdog: IRS at risk for unfairly auditing political groups")
Monday, July 20, 2015
As reported by the Daily Tax Report, a tax law specialist in the IRS's Exempt Organizations office commented in a recent IRS webcast that social clubs must have individual, not corporate, members to qualify for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(7). In order to meet the social interaction and recreational purposes of 501(c)(7), individuals are necessary in that "corporate members are incapable of personal contact." If individuals hold memberships sponsored by corporations, the particular country club or sports club will still qualify for tax-exempts status.
As explained by the IRS, "substantially all" of a tax-exempt social club's income must come from dues, fees, assessments or other payments for typical social functions, or facilities that the club provides to its members. The IRS reiterated that this is a key consideration for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(7). The "substantially all" rule does permit a club to receive up to 35 percent of its gross receipts from non-member sources. Within that 35 percent rule, no more than 15 percent of the organization's gross receipts can be from the use of its facilities or services by nonmembers. If the "35-15 test" is not met, the IRS will examine all facts and circumstances to determine if a 501(c)(7) determination is proper.
Pursuant to a July 14, 2015 notice published in the Federal Register, the IRS is seeking comments concerning Form 990, Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax under Section 501(c), 527, or 4947(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code. In the notice, the IRS specifically sought comments on:
- Schedule A (Form 990 or 990-EZ), Public Charity Status and Public Support, used to elicit special information from Section 501(c)(3) organizations; and
- Schedule B (Form 990, 990-EZ, or 990-PF), Schedule of Contributors, which is used by tax-exempt organizations to list contributors and allows the IRS to distinguish and make public disclosure of the contributors list within the requirements of Section 527.
The notice stated that comments should address: (i) whether the collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information shall have practical utility; (ii) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the collection of information; (iii) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; (iv) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on respondents, including through the use of automated collection techniques or other forms of information technology; and (v) estimates of capital or start-up costs and costs of operation, maintenance, and purchase of services to provide information.
Monday, July 6, 2015
In the wake of Obergefell, the Internet was a dangerous place to be as a tax lawyer. Oh, a nickel for all the posts that lamented the loss of tax-exempt status for churches that didn't perform same sex marriages forthwith! Of course, I was sure to correct them all right away, because you know, nothing on the internet can be wrong, right?
There's been a lot of coverage by the news media on this issue as we've had some more time to discuss the issues, as discussed previously here at the Nonprofit Tax Prof Blog. Here's the latest in the coverage from the Baltimore Sun, which discusses the tax exempt status of religiously-affiliated universities. The article hedges on the issue of tax-exempt status, but I think both sides of the tax argument can find some common ground in the discussion found there. Under a Bob Jones University analysis, I'm not sure that we are there yet - there being that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is so fundamentally against public policy as to cause loss of tax-exempt status. While Obergefell certain makes it a stronger case, I think we will need to see more from the other branches of government before we get to that level. That being said, I agree with the Sun article in the thought that even if we aren't there now, I think we may be within my lifetime.
I do think that it is important to point out that Bob Jones University specifically talked about racial discrimination in education as being the fundamental public policy at issue and that the case involved the tax-exempt status of a university, not a church. Note that this article only talks about colleges and universities - the question of the tax-exempt status of churches is much more complicated. I don't believe there there is a case that we know of that where a church lost its tax-exempt status on the basis of religious discrimination. Can any of my Tax Prof or Nonprofit Prof Blog colleagues think of any example?
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Skadden, Arps Requests Guidance on Taxation of Retirement Payments to Providers of Pro Bono Legal Services
As reported in Tax Notes Today (subscription required), Skadden, Arps has written the Assistant Secretary (Tax Policy) in Treasury and the IRS Chief Counsel to request inclusion in the 2015-2016 Priority Guidance Plan of published guidance addressing the tax treatment of retirement payments to retired law firm partners who provide pro bono legal services to the poor and to charitable organizations that serve them. The following paragraph of the firm's letter explains the legal issue:
[T]he question is whether pro bono services provided by retired partners constitute "services with respect to [a] trade or business carried on by [the law firm] partnership," such that the retirement payments would no longer qualify for the exception to the definition of "net earnings from self-employment." Section 1402(a)(10(A) provides that if a retirement plan meets certain requirements, any payments made pursuant to that plan are excluded from a partner's net earnings from self-employment so long as, among other things, the partner "rendered no services with respect to any trade or business carried on by such partnership . . . during the taxable year of such partnership . . . in which such amounts were received." The issue raised by the Chief Judge's pro bono initiative focusing on retired partners is whether a retired partner who is currently receiving retirement payments that otherwise qualify for the Section 1402(a)(10(A) exclusion could be treated as "rendering services with respect to any trade or business" of the law firm partnership by taking on a pro bono legal representation that is connected to the law firm, whether it involves supervision of other law firm lawyers and staff, use of law firm resources (office space, computer and other equipment), and/or coverage under the law firm's malpractice insurance.
The letter argues that “uncertainty surrounding the tax treatment of the retirement payments presents a significant impediment to the retired partner's provision of pro bono services, thereby serving to discourage important pro bono work by retired law firm partners who would not otherwise be subject to self-employment tax on their retirement payments, but for their pro bono assistance to needy underserved individuals and communities.”
Electronic Citation: 2015 TNT 121-18
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
The Washington Post reported yesterday that a coalition of community groups filed a 22 page complaint against WalMart Foundation, essentially accusing the foundation of operating for private benefit rather than the public good: From the Post article:
More than a dozen community groups filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service Monday alleging that the Walmart Foundation violated its tax-exempt status by using charitable funds to advance the retailer’s entrance into urban markets including Washington. The 22-page complaint, addressed to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, details the retailer’s marketing and lobbying activities as it sought approval to open stores in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities. The groups allege that the foundation is completely controlled by the company and that it “appears to target its donations and influence its grantees primarily to assist WalMart to achieve those expansion goals, ultimately providing Walmart more than an incidental benefit. Walmart Foundation’s activities are impermissible under the Code.”
Walmart has been forced to defend itself against allegations that its multi-billion dollar foundation has been using tax-exempt funds to help the retail chain expand into urban areas. On Monday, more than a dozen community groups filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that the WalMart Foundation violated tax code by targeting its donations to cities where the big-box giant has faced opposition to its growth plans. Data analysis of tax returns by these local nonprofits shows an uptick to the tune of millions in donations from the WalMart Foundation to organizations in Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles as WalMart pursued store openings in these cities.
What I found most curious and -- from a purist's standpoint, I suppose -- most disconcerting is the complaint's imprecise sort of casual discussion of private inurement and private benefit. Granted, I have only skimmed the complaint thus far but it seems the complainers are really just sorta casting a wide net and hoping to catch violations that might be lurking rather than making a strong case to suggest any real violations they know to exists. Sometimes premature accusations made for the purpose of attention or sensationalism do more harm than good. I can't help but wonder if this is a case in point.