Abusive Insurance, Welfare Benefit, and Retirement Plans
Directory March 2011
The IRS has various task forces auditing all section 419, section 412(i), and other plans that tend to be abusive. Most insurance agents sell these plans. The IRS is looking to raise money and is not looking to correct plans or help taxpayers. The IRS calls accountants, attorneys, and insurance agents “material advisors” and also fines them the same amount, again unless the client’s participation in the transaction is reported. An accountant is a material advisor if he signs the return or gives advice and gets paid. More details can be found on www.irs.gov and vebaplan.org.
Bruce Hink, who has given me written permission to use his name and circumstances, is a perfect example of what the IRS is doing to unsuspecting business owners. What follows is a story about how the IRS fines him each year for being in what they called a listed transaction. Listed transactions can be found at www.irs.gov. Also involved are what the IRS calls abusive plans or what it refers to as substantially similar. Substantially similar to is very difficult to understand, but the IRS seems to be saying, “If it looks like some other listed transaction, the fines apply.” Also, I believe that the accountant who signed the tax return and the insurance agent who sold the retirement plan will each be fined as material advisors. We have received many calls for help from accountants, attorneys, business owners, and insurance agents in similar situations. Don’t think this will happen to you? It is happening to a lot of accountants and business owners, because most of theses so-called listed, abusive, or insurance agents are selling substantially similar plans. Recently I came across the case of Hink, a small business owner who is facing thousands in IRS penalties for 2004 and 2005 because of his participation in a section 412(i) plan. (The penalties were assessed under section 6707A.)
In 2002 an insurance agent representing a 100-year-old, well-established insurance company suggested the owner start a pension plan. The owner was given a portfolio of information from the insurance company, which was given to the company’s outside CPA to review and give an opinion on. The CPA gave the plan the green light and the plan was started. Contributions were made in 2003. The plan administrator came out with amendments to the plan, based on new IRS guidelines, in October 2004. The business owner’s insurance agent disappeared in May 2005, before implementing the new guidelines from the administrator with the insurance company. The business owner was left with a refund check from the insurance company, a deduction claim on his 2004 tax return that had not been applied, and no agent.
It took six months of making calls to the insurance company to get a new insurance agent assigned. By then, the IRS had started an examination of the pension plan. Asking advice from the CPA and a local attorney (who had no previous experience in these cases) made matters worse, with a “big name” law firm being recommended and over ,000 in additional legal fees being billed in three months. To make a long story short, the audit stretched on for over 2 ½ years to examine a 2-year-old pension with four participants and the 8,000 in contributions. During the audit, no funds went to the insurance company, which was awaiting formal IRS approval on restructuring the plan as a traditional defined benefit plan, which the administrator had suggested and the IRS had indicated would be acceptable.In March 2008 the business owner received a private e-mail apology from the IRS agent who headed the examination, saying that her hands were tied and that she used to believe she was correcting problems and helping taxpayers and not hurting people.
Could you or one of your clients be next?
To this point, I have focused, generally, on the horrors of running afoul of the IRS by participating in a listed transaction, which includes various types of transactions and the various fines that can be imposed on business owners and their advisors who participate in, sell, or advice on these transactions. I happened to use, as an example, someone in a section 412(i) plan, which was deemed to be a listed transaction, pointing out the truly doleful consequences the person has suffered. Others who fall into this trap, even unwittingly, can suffer the same fate.
Now let’s go into more detail about section 412(i) plans. This is important because these defined benefit plans are popular and because few people think of retirement plans as tax shelters or listed transactions. People therefore may get into serious trouble in this area unwittingly, out of ignorance of the law, and, for the same reason, many fail to take necessary and appropriate precautions. The IRS has warned against the section 412(i) defined benefit pension plans, named for the former code section governing them. It warned against trust arrangements it deems abusive, some of which may be regarded as listed transactions. Falling into that category can result in taxpayers having to disclose the participation under pain of penalties. Targets also include some retirement plans.
One reason for the harsh treatment of some 412(i) plans is their discrimination in favor of owners and key, highly compensated employees. Also, the IRS does not consider the promised tax relief proportionate to the economic realities of the transactions. In general, IRS auditors divide audited plan into those they consider noncompliant and other they consider abusive. While the alternatives available to the sponsor of noncompliant plan are problematic, it is frequently an option to keep the plan alive in some form while simultaneously hoping to minimize the financial fallout from penalties.
The sponsor of an abusive plan can expect to be treated more harshly than participants. Although in some situation something can be salvaged, the possibility is definitely on the table of having to treat the plan as if it never existed, which of course triggers the full extent of back taxes, penalties, and interest on all contributions that were made – not to mention leaving behind no retirement plan whatsoever. Another plan the IRS is auditing is the section 419 plan. A few listed transactions concern relatively common employee benefit plans the IRS has deemed tax avoidance schemes or otherwise abusive. Perhaps some of the most likely to crop up, especially in small-business returns, are the arrangements purporting to allow the deductibility of premiums paid for life insurance under a welfare benefit plan or section 419 plan. These plans have been sold by most insurance agents and insurance companies.
do insurance agents and companies handle untruths on behalf of their clients?
The incontestability clause was originally designed to manage situations wherein an applicant fails to mention something that is relevant to a life insurance policy and how it is approved and issued. In the case of these omissions, the clause can be used to contest payout of the policy if the applicant dies within two or three years of the issuance.
If a smoker, for example, dies outside of the contestability period and is denied a death claim for misrepresenting his smoker status - generally the insurance company cannot void the contract after the contestability period ends.
Our forum members discussed this issue, and noted that if caught within two years of the policy issue, a revocation of the policy might occur. After two years, the death benefit would be paid in full, unless the state courts had allowed another way to rescind the policy. But whether the insurance company includes a fraud provision or not, the state does not provide an escape clause in the case of fraud against an insurance company.