Has The Burden Of Proof Shifted To The IRS In Captive Insurance Cases – The RVI Guaranty Case – Part 2
When you think of legal catch-phrases in America, what comes to mind? If you enjoy watching police detective shows, you may be thinking, “You have the right to remain silent…anything you say may be used against you in a court of law.” And, here is another legal phrase anchored firmly in the Constitution and the U.S. legal tradition: “Innocent until proven guilty.”
It’s very easy to take this fundamental right of presumed innocence for granted. Nevertheless, our rights as citizens are turned on their heads when it comes to tax law and civil disputes with the IRS. You may or may not be aware that taxpayers are not presumed innocent in court when the IRS has determined via audit that the taxpayer underpaid taxes. When the Service issues a Notice of Deficiency, the burden of proof falls on the taxpayer to demonstrate their innocence or compliance with U.S. tax laws.
The burden of proof determines who wins the case in the absence of evidence. Said another way, if the IRS has issued a Notice of Deficiency after an audit, the case goes to tax court, and neither the IRS nor the taxpayer offer up any factual evidence to the court, the IRS automatically wins. In the absence of proof the government wins, hence the “burden of proof” is on the taxpayer.
However, when it comes to insurance companies, the tax court seems (thanks to the RVI case) to be on the verge of adopting a shifting burden of proof, thus making things more challenging for the IRS going forward.
Last week, we reported that the IRS lost what is at least its third major insurance case in two years in U.S. Tax Court. The case is titled R.V.I. GUARANTY CO., LTD. & SUBSIDIARIES, Petitioner v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, Respondent.
To, to read the RVI Guaranty case in its entirety, CLICK HERE.
While RVI Guaranty was not a captive insurance company, this decision has significant bearing on the captive insurance industry, as discussed in last week’s report. But, perhaps the most significant and most under-appreciated (so far) import of the court’s ruling in the RVI case was the court’s explicit reliance on the determinations of state regulators as to the definitions of “insurance” and “insurance company”. This reliance was so extensive and so consistent that, once the taxpayer made out a prima facie case that the arrangement qualifies as “insurance” under state laws, or that a given insurance company is recognized and regulated as such under state laws, the court seemingly shifted the burden of proof to the IRS to prove the contrary.
For instance, in resolving question of whether the RVI policies transferred enough risk to RVI to be treated as a true insurance arrangement under Federal tax law, the court said:
“[The IRS’s expert witness] was aware of no instance in which an insurance regulator had determined that the risk of loss on a policy of direct insurance was too ‘remote’ for the product to be treated as ‘insurance’. And [the IRS] offers no plausible metric by which a court could make this assessment.”
This quote is enlightening because, in its Notice of Determination, the IRS had already made the determination that insufficient risk was transferred and that the arrangement was not therefore “insurance”. And, because the burden of proof in such matters is on the taxpayer, that determination should be deemed correct unless the taxpayer offers up sufficient proof to the contrary. The Service was under no obligation to “offer [the court a] plausible metric by which the court could make this assessment”, and yet the court chastised it for failing to do so. Why?
Time and again, on issue after issue, the court seemingly accepted the findings of state insurance regulators, offered up by the taxpayer, as sufficient to meet the taxpayer’s initial burden of proof on the contested matters. Once state insurance regulators contradicted the Notice of Determination, the court no longer gave it deference by presuming its findings correct. In fact, the court began insisting that, to win, the IRS must overcome the determinations of state insurance regulators by offering up compelling evidence of its own. When it failed to do so, the taxpayer won.
True, the taxpayer offered up lots of proof other than just the findings of state insurance regulators, and the court took that other evidence into account, but it usually did so only to the extent needed to contradict the limited and inconsistent evidence offered by the IRS. The flow of the court’s analysis was:
Court: In the absence of additional evidence, IRS wins.
Taxpayer: Judge, here’s uncontested evidence that state insurance regulators deemed this to be a legitimate insurance arrangement.
Court: IRS, the taxpayer is right, and since the states are empowered to regulate insurance, I’m inclined to rule for the taxpayer. The burden is now on you to prove state regulator’s wrong. What say you?
IRS: Judge, state regulators are wrong on this because of X, Y, and Z.
Court: Taxpayer, what say you to that?
Taxpayer: Judge, X is not X, Y is not Y, and Z is not Z. The IRS’ evidence is therefore insufficient to overcome the presumption that the state insurance regulators are correct and this is real insurance.
Court: I agree. Taxpayer wins.
The ruling by the Court in RVI is broadly worded and appears to have shifted the burden of proof from the taxpayer to the IRS in circumstances where state insurance regulators have determined that legitimate insurance exists. In future tax court cases involving issues of defining insurance and insurance companies, it may be sufficient for taxpayers to point to the determinations of state insurance regulators in these matters, thus establishing a rebuttable presumption of legitimacy that the IRS must overcome with significant contrary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, the taxpayer is likely to win.
In addition to licensing captive insurance companies, approving business plans and approving all insurance policies written, many domiciles also regulate, examine or approve risk distribution pools (re-insurance arrangements) often employed by smaller captives to achieve risk distribution. Industry pundits have suggested the IRS might attack risk distribution pools using many of the same theories rejected by the tax court in RVI. If the thesis of this article is correct, the IRS will have its work cut out for it when it seeks to attack pools that have been specifically vetted and found legitimate by state insurance regulators.