On November 2, 2015, new partnership audit rules, repealing existing TEFRA rules, were enacted in Section 1101 of the Bipartisan Budget Act (“BBA”).  On August 15, 2016, Treasury published temporary regulations (TD 9780, 81 FR 51795).  The BBA will become effective on January 1, 2018, although partnerships can elect into the new rules retroactively to November 2, 2015.

The new rules have created quite the excitement among certain tax professionals because they shift both the audit and the collection of partnership taxes to the partnership.  Since 1982, partnership audits have been governed by the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (“TEFRA”).  Partnerships with 10 or fewer partners (with some exceptions, such as tiered partnerships) were exempt from TEFRA rules, and were governed by the default partner-level audit regime that existed prior to TEFRA.  What that means is, such small partnership audits were of the K-1’s of the partners who owned interest in the partnership in the years under audit, and correspondingly any adjustments were paid by those “review-year” partners.  For all other partnerships, TEFRA now required that the audit be conducted at the partnership level, which means adjustments were to be made to partnership income and deductions, with amended K-1’s then issued to the review-year partners.  The regime was now partnership-level audits with partner-level assessments.  In other words, those partners whose actions caused the additional tax were the ones responsible for paying it.

In addition, under TEFRA, over-100 partner partnerships could elect to have partnership-level assessments, that is, additional tax paid not by review-year partners but by current, “audit-year” partners (under the Electing Large Partnership Audit rules that were also repealed by the BBA).  This would result in a partnership-level audit and partnership-level assessment.

Unfortunately, over the years the IRS found partner-level collection difficult, and Congress has now responded by consolidating not only the audit but also the collection of tax at the partnership level.  In other words, the collection of tax is now made from audit-year partners, or partners having interest in the partnership in the year it is being audited.  This may be fine for small static family partnerships whose partners do not change, but it is not fine for large dynamic partnerships with ever-changing ownership interests.

A partnership representative (PR), rather than TEFRA’s Tax Matters Partner (TMP), now controls the conduct of the audit at the partnership level.  Neither the IRS nor the PR is statutorily obligated to give notice or audit rights to the other partners, a response to the IRS’ desire to streamline the audit without too many administrative hurdles.

An additional change in IRS’ favor is that there is no longer an automatic exemption from the consolidated audit for under-10 partnerships.  Now the burden is on the partnership to make an annual election out of the BBA rules under Section 6221 of the Internal Revenue Code.  The election can only be made by partnerships having fewer than 100 partners and those partners have to be individuals, C corporations, S corporations, tax-exempt entities or estates of partners.  When such an election out of the BBA is made and an audit arises that year, the partnership will essentially have a pre-TEFRA audit at the partner-level (as had been the case for under-10 partnerships under TEFRA).  The catch?  If the partnership has other partnerships or trusts as partners, it cannot elect out of the BBA consolidated rules no matter its size or preference.

If a partnership cannot elect out of the BBA rules because of its size or composition of its partners, it can still elect under Section 6226 to “push-out” payments of the additional tax assessed from the audit-year to the review-year partners.  The push-out election essentially replicates the TEFRA regime of partnership-level audit and partner-level payment.

Note that the rules are not clear on whether multi-tier partnerships can push-out payment to the ultimate partners.  The IRS has indicated the push-out will not automatically reach the ultimate partners unless the partnership can provide sufficient information about the tiers of income and loss allocations.

The new rules upend the status quo, affect countless existing partnership agreements, and create additional liability for purchasers of partnership interests.  At the same time, the new rules potentially create additional leverage for controlling partners.  All these considerations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to amend existing agreements and draft robust new ones for the future under the new regime.

On June 9, 2017, the Internal Revenue Service issued Revenue Procedure 2017-34, which is effective immediately and provides a simplified method to obtain permission for an extension of time under Reg. 301.9100-3 to file Form 706 (Federal Estate Tax Return) and elect portability without the need to apply for a private letter ruling and pay the associated user fee.

Revenue Procedure 2017-34 applies to estates that are not normally required to file an estate tax return because the value of the gross estate and adjusted taxable gifts is under the filing threshold.

Portability of the estate tax exemption means that if one spouse dies and does not make full use of his or her $5,490,000 (in 2017) federal estate tax exemption, then the surviving spouse can make an election to utilize the unused exemption (deceased spousal unused exclusion (DSUE)), add it to the surviving spouse’s own exemption.  The DSUE is also available for application to the surviving spouse’s subsequent gifts during life.

In February 2014, the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2014-18 that provided a simplified method for obtaining an extension of time under the “9100 relief” provisions to make a portability election that was available to estates of decedents dying after 2010, if the estate was not required to file an estate tax return and if the decedent was survived by a spouse.  This simplified method was available only on or before December 31, 2014.

After 2014, the IRS issued “numerous letter rulings” granting an extension of time to elect portability under §2010(c)(5)(A) when the decedent’s estate was not required to file an estate tax return.

The IRS acknowledged in Revenue Procedure 2017-34 that it has determined that the “considerable number of ruling requests” for an extension of time to elect portability “indicates a need for continuing relief for the estates of decedents having no filing requirement.”   Accordingly, Revenue Procedure 2017-34 allows for use of a simplified method to obtain an extension of time under the 9100 relief provisions to elect portability (provided that certain requirements are satisfied).

The IRS has made this simplified method available for all eligible estates through January 2, 2018, or the second anniversary of the decedent’s date of death.  The simplified method provided in Revenue Procedure 2017-34 is to be used in lieu of the letter ruling process.  No user fee is required for submissions filed under this revenue procedure.

The IRS has at last issued long-anticipated proposed regulations under Code §2704.  We perceive the proposed regulations as an attempt by the IRS to curtail the use of discounts – such as minority interest and lack of marketability discounts – in valuing transfers of interests in family-controlled entities for gift and estate tax purposes.

“Family limited partnerships” – that is, family investment entities usually structured as LLCs or limited partnerships – have been a popular estate planning technique for years.  Generally speaking, a client can transfer non-voting, non-marketable interests in these types of entities to children or a trust, and claim a valuation discount due to the restrictions that apply to the interest transferred.

Code §2704 provides that certain “applicable restrictions” on ownership interests in family entities, ie, entities where the transferor and family members control the entity, should be disregarded for valuation purposes.  The statute also permits the IRS to issue regulations providing for other restrictions (as determined by the IRS) to be disregarded in determining the value of a transfer to a family member, if a restriction has the effect of reducing the value of the transferred interest but does not ultimately reduce the value of such interest to the transferee.

The proposed regulations make two overarching changes.  First, changes under Code §2704(a) create new rules relating to a lapse of a liquidating right.  These changes are less relevant, at least in our practice, as we generally do not structure entities to include liquidation or other rights that lapse.

Second, changes under Code §2704(b) create a new concept of “Disregarded Restrictions.”  Under the proposed regulations, a restriction that will lapse at any time after the transfer, or a restriction that may be removed or overridden by the transferor (or the transferor and family members acting together) will be disregarded for gift and estate tax valuation purposes.  This is the case even if the restriction on the interest is pursuant to state law rather than a governing business agreement.  There are certain exceptions – for example, an owner’s right to liquidate or “put” his or her interest to the entity and receive cash within six months is not considered a “disregarded restriction.”

The effect of this rule appears to be that it would eliminate minority interest discounts, because the holder of any interest would be deemed to be able to liquidate his or her interest in the entity without restrictions.  The effect of the proposed regulations on lack of marketability discounts is unclear, although it seems the IRS similarly could argue for a small or zero lack of marketability discount on the theory that the holder of the interest is deemed to be able to liquidate the interest.

Thus, if the proposed regulations are adopted in their current form, they likely will increase the value for gift and estate tax purposes of transfers of interests in family-controlled entities.

The proposed regulations are controversial.  Commentators already have questioned whether the Treasury has exceeded its statutory authority in issuing the proposed regulations.  The proposed regulations are (at least in this author’s opinion) complicated and ambiguous, and perhaps unfair.  For example, if a client creates an LLC to purchase and manage a commercial property, and the client transfers an interest in the LLC to his or her child, and the interest is subject to typical restrictions on sale of the interest or the ability of a member to liquidate (largely because the asset owned by the LLC is illiquid and perhaps leveraged), then it seems that the true value of the interest transferred to the child would be reduced due to these restrictions (think about what a willing buyer would really pay the child for the LLC interest); however, under the proposed regulations, the value of the LLC interest transferred would be artificially inflated for gift tax purposes.

The proposed regulations are not effective until they are finalized.  Treasury has requested written comments by November 2, 2016 and a public hearing on the regulations is scheduled for December 1, 2016.

The Supreme Court has recently struck down state bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 US ___ (2015), after previously striking down the federal exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage-related laws in US v. Windsor, 570 US ___ (2013).  The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has now followed suit to recognize same-sex marriage for all federal tax purposes, including income, estate, gift, generation-skipping, and employment tax.

On October 23, proposed regulations were published in the Federal Register, which redefine the terms “husband” and “wife” under Section 7701(17).  Both terms will now mean an individual lawfully married to another individual, and the term “husband and wife” will mean two individuals lawfully married to each other. These definitions would apply regardless of sex.  Prop Reg § 301.7701-18(a).  The IRS is accepting comments for a limited time.

However, the proposed regulations redefining marriage will not apply to domestic partnerships, civil unions or other relationships. Prop Reg § 301.7701-18(c).  The couples’ choice to remain unmarried is respected by the IRS as deliberate, for example, for purposes of preserving eligibility for government benefits or avoiding the tax marriage penalty.  Preamble to Prop Reg 10/21/2015.  In addition, a marriage conducted in a foreign jurisdiction will be recognized for federal tax purposes only if the marriage would be recognized in at least one state, possession, or territory of the United States.  Preamble to Prop Reg 10/21/2015.

In 1993, Congress enacted Section 1917(d)(4)(A) of the Social Security Act, authorizing the establishment of special needs trusts (also called first-party trusts and self-settled trusts). First-party special needs trusts enable disabled individuals to set aside their funds to pay for supplemental care while enabling those individuals to remain eligible for government benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 1396p(d)(4)(A). Following suit, the New Jersey Supreme Court has long recognized special needs trusts as effective asset protection tools which can be used “to plan for the future of a disabled minor or adult . . .” See Saccone v. Board of Trustees of Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 219 N.J. 369, 383 (2014). First-party special needs trusts are used when individuals with disabilities have assets in their own name, (e.g., due to a lawsuit settlement, direct inheritance, savings or gift), yet want to be eligible to receive government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

Unfortunately, under the current law, individuals with special needs are not authorized to establish their own special needs trusts even if they have the requisite mental capacity and despite the fact that the trust will be funded by assets belonging to them. Rather, a First-party special needs trust can only “be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian of the individual, or a court.” See 42 U.S.C. § 1396p(d)(4)(A). Accordingly, if an individual with special needs does not have a parent, grandparent or legal guardian, that individual must petition the Court to establish the first-party special needs trust, even if that individual is competent. This process can be costly and time consuming. A parent, grandparent, or legal guardian, however, can establish a first-party special needs trust for the disabled individual in a relatively short amount of time and is not beholden to the Court’s schedule. While likely a drafting oversight, requiring disabled individuals to have a parent, grandparent, legal guardian or a court to establish their first-party special needs trusts implies that all individuals with disabilities lack the requisite mental capacity to enter into a contract and handle their own affairs. This presumption, however, is unwarranted and offensive.

The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 (H.R. 670) introduced in February 2015 by Congressmen Glenn Thompson (R-Pa) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), corrects this problem by adding the individual with special needs to the list of people who can create a first party trust on his or her behalf, giving those individuals the same right to create a trust as a parent, grandparent, guardian, or court. The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 proposes to add the words “the individual” to Section 1917(d)(4)(A) of the Social Security Act, permitting disabled individuals to establish their own special needs trusts without a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, or a court. If enacted, persons with disabilities who have no close family would no longer be forced to petition a court and undergo unnecessary legal fees and delays.

On September 9, 2015, the United States Senate passed a companion version of the Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 by unanimous consent. Hopefully, there will also be swift passage in the House of Representatives.