If you can get away with tax cheating, is it malpractice for your CPA to make you stop?
A Massachusetts CPA firm found out a new client was using a lame old trick. The S corporation had paid out $1 million to its owner over the years without putting it on a W-2 or treating it as a distribution from the company. Instead, the company every year booked it as a “loan” to the owners – a loan with no note, no interest rate, no security, and no repayments.
This is a time-dishonored way for people who carelessly suck cash out of a corporation to try to avoid the tax consequences – though it is less common in S corporations. It normally fails if the IRS figures it out.
The CPAs told the client that the “loan” should be reclassed as “wages” on the 2002 return to clean it up. The client owner was not excited, and talked to a lawyer to see if there was another way. After the first lawyer failed to satisfy, she talked to a second lawyer, who agreed with the CPA. The client reluctantly filed an amended return, and the owner found herself with a $500,000 tax lien.
At a national firm where I once worked, an audit partner would go from one tax person to another until he found one who told him what he wanted to hear. The client here took that approach, eventually finding a practitioner willing to prepare the 2002 return the old way. That was enough to get the client to file another amended return claiming a refund and to sue the old CPA for malpractice. That might have been a bad decision, in light of this reaction from the astonished judge:
It is surprising that Plaintiffs had the temerity to bring this lawsuit. The complaint was clearly filed too late. The record, mainly as a result of Plaintiffs’ failure to file long-overdue tax returns, is utterly insufficient to demonstrate damages. Most importantly, it is clear that Plaintiffs for many years enjoyed over $1,000,000 in income without paying any taxes on it, and they accomplished this by filing a tax return that improperly characterized the monies they received as a loan. It is close to ludicrous to claim that, by advising Plaintiffs to amend the 2002 tax return to conform with what the law and good accounting practice required, Defendants were being negligent. On the contrary, they were serving their clients ethically and well.
The judge also implied that the client might have been unwise in calling attention to the matter by filing the suit:
As a result of behaving professionally, Defendants have found themselves slapped with this expensive lawsuit. That undeserved headache, at least, is now over. The court can only hope that the IRS and the state authorities will make sure that Plaintiffs now proceed to do what everyone who enjoys the privilege of living in our beloved country is required to do: pay their fair share of taxes.
In other words: come and get ‘em, IRS!
In a world full of charlatans, it can be tough out there for CPAs who try to do the right thing. When you do, it’s nice to know at least one judge has your back.