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BGBC: Court agrees with IRS that advanced client expenses are loans

January 29, 2014
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By Howard I. Gross, Steven W. Reed, Erika M. Gowan, Casey L. Higgs, and Samuel M. Pollom

An important U.S. Tax Court ruling last year may affect you and your law firm. The case settled a long-standing dispute between attorneys and the Internal Revenue Service regarding advanced client expenses for lawyers who handle cases on a contingency basis. Such lawyers routinely pay litigation expenses (e.g., court fees, medical records, expert witnesses, etc.) on behalf of their clients before ever receiving any funds from them. Whether these lawyers get reimbursed for advanced expenses depends on the agreements with their clients and the results of their particular case.

Many law firms and attorneys take the position that attorneys who work on a contingency basis should be allowed to deduct case expenses advanced to their clients in the year the expenses are paid. Their theory is that because the attorney has no assurance that advanced expenses will ever be reimbursed, a tax deduction should be allowed in the current year. The IRS position has always been that advanced expenses are actually loans to the client and should be capitalized on the books of the attorney until the case is resolved. If the client receives an award or settlement, the advanced expenses can then be deducted as case expenses. If the case is not successful, and no income is received by the lawyer, the advanced expenses can be written off the books as a bad debt.

Many cases between attorneys and the IRS have been heard on this subject, and virtually all have been decided in favor of the IRS. Arguments that lawyers are incurring an expense without the expectation of being reimbursed have been met with little to no success. However, last year a Missouri law firm challenged the IRS position on this matter in the U.S. Tax Court. Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, PC v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2013-23. The case is significant because the firm offered a well-reasoned argument for the method it used to account for advanced expenses based on real data showing its particular rates of reimbursement. The firm contended this data proved that it was really bearing the cost of expenses advanced in its contingency cases.

The Tax Court was not impressed with this argument. In fact, the court held that the data failed to demonstrate the possibility of reimbursement was remote. Rather, it found there was a significant possibility these advanced expenses would be reimbursed. The court stated that the firm screened its cases and clients, and thus had a very good opportunity to assess the merits of each case before accepting it. Since an attorney is less likely to take a case that has a low probability of success (and a low probability of being reimbursed for advanced expenses), the expectation of reimbursement is generally higher. Additionally, the court agreed with the IRS and found that such advanced expenses are in the nature of loans, not ordinary and necessary business expenses, even if there is a low likelihood of reimbursement.

This case effectively took the wind out of the sails of many law firms and attorneys that have for many years deducted advanced expenses at the time they are paid without regard to the ultimate resolution of the case to which the expenses are related. The decision in Humphrey makes it clear that this method of tax accounting will be challenged by the IRS, and the attorney will most likely lose if he or she attempts to contest the IRS in court.

To add injury to insult, the Tax Court in Humphrey ordered the firm to change its method of accounting by filing Form 3115 with the IRS, which effectively forced the firm to pay tax on the expenses it had already deducted before the related cases were resolved. The IRS considers a change from a current deduction of advanced expenses to capitalization of the expenses to be a material item requiring a change in accounting method. In the case of Humphrey, the firm was required to make a $2.7 million adjustment to its income tax.

Law firms that handle cases on a contingency fee basis should not deduct case expenses advanced on behalf of a client in the current year. Advanced expenses are to be treated as loans to contingent-fee clients. Advanced expenses should be capitalized on the firm’s books until the case is resolved. If the attorney is successful in settling a case or winning in litigation, the associated advanced expenses can then be deducted as an offset to the fees earned by the attorney. If the case is not successful, and the attorney gets no recovery in the form of fees or expense reimbursement, the attorney can then deduct the associated advanced case expenses as a bad debt expense.

If you are an attorney who handles cases on a contingency basis and are affected by this ruling, seek a seasoned tax expert who has experience working with attorneys for assistance in proper accounting treatment of advanced expenses.•

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Howard I. Gross, CPA/ABV/CFF, CFP; Steven W. Reed, CPA/ABV; Erika M. Gowan, CPA/CFF, CFE; Casey L. Higgs; CPA/CFF, CFE, CVA, and Samuel M. Pollom, JD, CPA, are with BGBC Partners LLP – Litigation, Forensic and Business Valuation. Contact BGBC at 317-633-4700 or visit www.bgbc.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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