ILNews

IBA: The Corporate Veil Wears Thin with the IRS

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
By Adam D. Christensen, Dutton Legal Group LLC
 

christensen-adam-mug.jpg Christensen

The legal metaphor “corporate veil” is doubly a tantalizing legal term of art and an effective marketing tool to illustrate to potential clients the benefits of corporate formation.

But attorneys and their clients should not rely on this emblematic security blanket because the country’s most notorious creditor, the Internal Revenue Service, can slice it to shreds with devastating ease.

Section 6672 of the Internal Revenue Code authorizes the IRS to assess the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (“TFRP”) against any responsible owner, officer, or other party responsible for collecting, accounting, or paying taxes held in trust by a business. The most common corporate trust fund taxes are employment taxes – withholdings and employee shares of Medicare and FICA – excise taxes, and sales taxes.

The amount of the TFRP is equal to the total trust taxes the business collected but willfully failed to turn over to the IRS. Depending on how far behind the business was on its trust fund taxes, the assessment can easily reach six figures or more.

As is the case with most IRS penalty assessments, “willfulness” is broadly defined to include truly nefarious actions (absconding to Tahiti with the taxes) and comparatively innocuous ones (using the taxes to pay other business liabilities such as wages themselves).

To review, the concept behind the “corporate veil” is that owners and officers of an incorporated entity (Inc., LLC, LLP, etc.) can shield themselves from personal liability for even the business’s willful actions, including contract defaults, most torts, and failure to pay debts, including taxes. When a lawsuit is filed against the business that includes its owners/officers as individual defendants, the daunting burden to “pierce the corporate veil” lies with the plaintiff. This burden is so great that, realistically, only plaintiffs with means or evidence of owner/officer malfeasance will be able to keep the individual defendants from being dismissed.

However, the IRS does not have to overcome this burden to assess the TFRP. This could mean massive personal liability assessments against owners, officers, and even accountants and corporate counsel, who exert control over the taxes held in trust by the business. Here is where the “corporate veil” unravels quickly.

When a business fail to pay its trust fund tax liabilities, an IRS Revenue Officer can be assigned to investigate in as little as 60 days. Once contacted by the Revenue Officer, the business will have a brief opportunity to pay its debts in full, usually 30 days. If it cannot, the Officer will move forward with TFRP assessment.

First, interviews are held between the Revenue Officer and any person involved in the operations of the business. Typically, this includes all business owners and officers. However, the IRS will also seek to assess the TFRP against in-house accountants and attorneys who exhibit “significant control” over the business’s finances. Indeed, in sole proprietorships and closely-held business, the IRS may demand to interview owner/officer spouses, even if the spouse is not affiliated with the business.

Though counsel may represent any individual at the TFRP interview, the IRS will insist on a face-to-face or telephone interview with the alleged responsible party. If the individual fails to agree to this arrangement, the IRS will use its summons authority to compel the individual’s participation.

If the Revenue Officer finds sufficient evidence to assess the TFRP against one or more individuals, the IRS will issue Letter 1153, giving the parties 90 days to petition the United States Tax Court to appeal the assessment. If no appeal is filed, the TFRP is assessed on day 91.

To be clear, no new liability is assessed by the TFRP. Rather, a portion of the business’s liability is shifted to the responsible individuals. However, to the blindsided business owner, this is small comfort given the federal tax liens that may be filed and the potential for IRS levy and garnishment actions. Even if the business closes, the TFRP remains. What’s more, the TFRP, unlike some personal income tax debts, is not dischargeable in a bankruptcy.

Despite the veil’s assumed protections, the only cure for the TFRP is to negotiate a payment plan with the IRS collections department to pay the underlying debt as well as the penalty, a painful process without a catchy metaphor.•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

ADVERTISEMENT