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IRS Unopened Mail Backlog is Gone, Says Rettig

IRS Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Rettig told Congress on February 23 that the backlog of 20 million unopened pieces of mail is gone.

“There were trailers in June filled (with unopened paper returns). There are none today,” Rettig said in an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee Financial Services Subcommittee.

When there was a delay in getting to a return, Rettig said that a taxpayer was credited on the date the mail was received, not the day the payment was processed.

The IRS leader stated that virtual currency, which is designed to be anonymous, has probably significantly increased the amount of money taxpayers owed but have not paid since the last formal figure of $381 billion was estimated in 2013.

To close the gap between money owed and money paid, Rettig said there has to be an increase in guidance as well as enforcement. “The two go together,” said Rettig, who pointed out that the IRS must support the people who are working to get their tax payments right as well as working against those who are trying to thwart the agency’s efforts.

Rettig cited high-income/high-wealth taxpayers, including high-income non-filers, as high enforcement priorities. “We have not pulled back enforcement efforts for higher income individuals during the pandemic. We can be impactful,” said Rettig. He added that the IRS is using artificial intelligence and other information technology (IT) advances to catch wealthy tax law and tax rule breakers. “Our advanced data and analytic strategies allow us to catch instances of tax evasion that would not have been possible just a few years ago,” said the IRS leader.

Rettig contended that the agency’s IT improvement efforts are being hampered by a shortage of funding. According to Rettig, three years into a six-year business modernization plan, the IRS has received half of the money it requested from Congress for the initiative.

One of the impacts of the pandemic on the IRS and the taxpayers and tax professionals it serves, said Rettig, is the average length of phone calls has risen to 17 minutes from 12 minutes because the issues have been more complex.

On another issue related to COVID-19, Rettig said the IRS has been diligently working to alert taxpayers and tax professionals to scams related to COVID-19, especially calls and email phishing attempts tied to the Economic Impact Payments (EIPs). He said people can reduce the chances of missing their EIP payments through lost, stolen or thrown-away debit cards by filing their tax returns electronically.

The Commissioner told the panel that the delay in starting the tax filing season this year will not add to any additional delays to refunds on returns claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC).

Rettig also noted that taxpayers who interact with an IRS representative now have access to over-the-phone interpreter services in more than 350 languages.

Cash Rewards for Money Order, Debit Card Purchases Included in Income

The Tax Court ruled that rewards dollars that a married couple acquired for using their American Express credit cards to purchase debit cards and money orders—but not to purchase gift cards—were included in the taxpayers’ income. The court stated that its holdings were based on the unique circumstances of the case.


During the tax years at issue, each taxpayer had an American Express credit card that was part of a rewards program that paid reward dollars for eligible purchases made on their cards. Card users could redeem reward dollars as credits on their card balances (statement credits). To generate as many reward dollars as possible, the taxpayers used their American Express credit cards to buy as many Visa gift cards as they could from local grocery stores and pharmacies. They used the gift cards to purchase money orders, and deposited the money orders into their bank accounts. The husband occasionally purchased money orders with one of the American Express cards.

The taxpayers also occasionally paid their American Express bills through a money transfer company. Using this method, they paid the American Express bill with a reloadable debit card, and the money transfer company would transmit the payment to American Express electronically. The taxpayers used their American Express cards to purchase reloadable debit cards that they used to pay their American Express bills, and the purchase of debit cards and reloads also generated reward dollars.

All of the taxpayers’ charges of more than $400 in single transactions with the American Express cards were for gift cards, reloadable debit cards, or money orders. On their joint tax returns, the taxpayers did not report any income from the rewards program.

The IRS determined that the reward dollars generated ordinary income to the taxpayers. When a payment is made by a seller to a customer as an inducement to purchase property, the payment generally does not constitute income but instead is treated as a purchase price adjustment to the basis of the property ( Pittsburgh Milk Co., 26 TC 707, Dec. 21,816; Rev. Rul. 76-96, 1976-1 CB 23). The IRS argued that the taxpayers did not purchase goods or property, but instead purchased cash equivalents—gift cards, reloads for debit cards, and money orders—to which no basis adjustment could apply. As a result, the reward dollars paid as statement credits for the charges relating to cash equivalents were an accession to wealth.

Rebate Policy; Cash Equivalency Doctrine

The Tax Court observed that the taxpayers’ aggressive efforts to generate reward dollars created a dilemma for the IRS which was largely the result of the vagueness of IRS credit card reward policy. Under the rebate rule, a purchase incentive such as credit card rewards or points is not treated as income but as a reduction of the purchase price of what is purchased with the rewards or points ( Rev. Rul. 76-96; IRS Pub. 17). The court observed that the gift cards were quickly converted to assets that could be deposited into the taxpayers’ bank accounts to pay their American Express bills. According to the court, to avoid offending its long-standing policy that card rewards are not taxable, the IRS sought to apply the cash equivalence concept, but that concept was not a good fit in this case.

The court stated that a debt obligation is a cash equivalent where it is a promise to pay of a solvent obligor and the obligation is unconditional and assignable, not subject to set-offs, and is of a kind that is frequently transferred to lenders or investors at a discount not substantially greater than the generally prevailing premium for the use of money ( F. Cowden, CA-5, 61-1 ustc ¶9382, 289 F2d 202). The court found that the three types of transactions in this case failed to fit this definition.

The court ruled that the reward dollars associated with the gift card purchases were not properly included in income. The reward dollars taxpayers received were not notes, but instead were commitments by American Express to allow taxpayers credits against their card balances. The court found that American Express offered the rewards program as an inducement for card holders to use their American Express cards.

However, the court upheld the inclusion in income of the related reward dollars for the direct purchases of money orders and the cash infusions to the reloadable debit cards. The court observed that the money orders purchased with the American Express cards, and the infusion of cash into the reloadable debit cards, were difficult to reconcile with the IRS credit card reward policy. Unlike the gift cards, which had product characteristics, the court stated that no product or service was obtained in these uses of the American Express cards other than cash transfers.

As the court noted, the money orders were not properly treated as a product subject to a price adjustment because they were eligible for deposit into taxpayers’ bank account from acquisition. The court similarly found that the cash infusions to the reloadable debit cards also were not product purchases. The reloadable debit cards were used for transfers by the money transfer company, which the court stated were arguably a service, but the reward dollars were issued for the cash infusions, not the transfer fees.

Finally, the court stated that its holdings were not based on the application of the cash equivalence doctrine, but instead on the incompatibility of the direct money order purchases and the debit card reloads with the IRS policy excluding credit card rewards for product and service purchases from income.

Lenders Notified to File Corrected Forms 1099-MISC to Exclude Subsidized Loan Payments

The IRS has announced that lenders who had filed or furnished Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Information, to a borrower, reporting certain payments on loans subsidized by the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (Administrator) as income of the borrower, must file and furnish corrected Forms 1099-MISC that exclude these subsidized loan payments.

On January 19, 2021, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS issued, Notice 2021-6, I.R.B. 2021-6, pursuant to section 279 of the COVID Relief Act, to waive the requirement for lenders to file with the IRS, or furnish to a borrower, a Form 1099-MISC reporting the payment of principal, interest, and any associated fees subsidized by the Administrator under section 1112(c) of the CARES Act ( P.L. 116-136). The filing of information returns that include these loan payments could result in IRS correspondence to borrowers regarding underreported income, and the furnishing of payee statements that include these loan payments to borrowers could cause confusion.

The Service further announced that if a lender has already furnished to borrowers Forms 1099-MISC that report these loan payments, whether before, on, or after December 27, 2020, the lender must furnish to the borrowers corrected Forms 1099-MISC that exclude these loan payments. In addition, if a lender has already filed with the IRS Forms 1099-MISC that report these loan payments, whether before, on, or after December 27, 2020, the lender must file with the IRS corrected Forms 1099-MISC that exclude these loan payments. Directions for how to file corrected Forms 1099-MISC are included in the 2020 Instructions for Forms 1099-MISC and 1099-NEC and the 2020 General Instructions for Certain Information Returns. If a lender described in this announcement furnishes corrected payee statements within 30 days of the furnishing deadline, it will have reasonable cause for any failure-to-furnish penalty imposed under Code Sec. 6722. A lender described in this announcement must file corrected information returns by the filing deadline in order to avoid Code Sec. 6721 failure-to-file penalties.