Reasonable Cause/Good Faith Defense: Even if the taxpayer did not have substantial authority for a position and failed to make adequate disclosure, the substantial understatement penalty does not apply if the taxpayer had reasonable cause for the tax underpayment and acted in good faith [IRC Sec. 6664(c); Reg. 1.6664-4]. This defense is applied on a “facts and circumstances” basis [Reg. 1.6664-4(b)]. However, the key factor seems to be whether the taxpayer made a reasonably energetic attempt to determine the correct tax liability. For example, an honest misunderstanding of fact or law, an isolated computational error, reliance on professional tax advice, or reliance on information returns all indicate reasonable cause/good faith. However, if the taxpayer should have known better, the defense will not apply.
Observation: According to IRM 126.96.36.199, the most important factor in determining whether the taxpayer has reasonable cause and acted in good faith is the extent of the taxpayer’s effort to report the proper tax liability. For example, reliance on erroneous information reported on an information return indicates reasonable cause and good faith, provided the taxpayer did not know or have reason to know that the information was incorrect. Similarly, an isolated computational or transcription error may indicate reasonable cause and good faith. Other factors to consider are the taxpayer’s experience, knowledge, sophistication, education, mental and physical condition, and reliance on the advice of a tax advisor.
Reg. 1.6664-4(c) discusses when a taxpayer is considered to have reasonably relied in good faith upon someone else’s advice (including that of a professional tax advisor). According to the regulation, meeting the following requirements, while not guaranteeing that the accuracy-related penalty will be avoided, tends to indicate that the “reasonable reliance” and “good faith” aspects have been met:
a. The advice must be based on all pertinent facts and circumstances and the law as it relates to those facts and circumstances. For example, the advice must take into account the taxpayer’s purposes (and the relative weight of such purposes) for entering into a transaction and for structuring a transaction in a particular manner.
b. The taxpayer must inform the adviser of all facts that are known, or should be known, to be relevant to the proper tax treatment of an item.
c. The advice must not be based on unreasonable factual or legal assumptions (including assumptions about future events) and must not unreasonably rely on the representations, statements, findings, or agreements of the taxpayer or any other person. For example, the advice must not be based upon a representation or assumption that the taxpayer knows, or has reason to know, is unlikely to be true, such as the taxpayer’s purposes for entering into a transaction.
d. Reliance on the adviser may not be reasonable or in good faith if the taxpayer knew, or should have known, that the adviser lacked knowledge in the relevant aspects of federal tax law.
When taxpayers reasonably relied on the advice of an expert concerning a sham investment, the 5th Circuit Court held that the reasonable cause defense applied and stated that the taxpayers were not required to challenge the expert, seek a second opinion, or try to monitor the expert on the provisions of the Code. To require otherwise would nullify the purpose of seeking expert advice (Chamberlain).
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