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Centralized Partnership Audit Rules Finally Released

The much-anticipated regulations (REG-136118-15) implementing the new centralized partnership audit regime under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA) have finally been released. The BBA regime replaces the current TEFRA (Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982) procedures beginning for 2018 tax year audits, with an earlier “opt-in” for electing partnerships. Originally issued on January 19, 2017 but delayed by a January 20, 2017 White House regulatory freeze, these re-proposed regulations carry with them much of the same criticism leveled against them back in January, as well as several modifications. Most importantly, their reach will impact virtually all partnerships.

Under the proposed regulations, to which Congress left many details to be filled in, the new audit regime covers any adjustment to items of income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit of a partnership and any partner’s distributive share of those adjusted items. Further, any income tax resulting from an adjustment to items under the centralized partnership audit regime is assessed and collected at the partnership level. The applicability of any penalty, addition to tax, or additional amount that relates to an adjustment to any such item or share is also determined at the partnership level.

Immediate Impact
Although perhaps streamlined and eventually destined to simplify partnership audits for the IRS, the new centralized audit regime may prove more complicated in several respects for many partnerships. Of immediate concern for most partnerships, whether benefiting or not, is how to reflect this new centralized audit regime within partnership agreements, especially when some of the procedural issues within the new regime are yet to be ironed out.

Issues for many partnerships that have either been generated or heightened by the new regulations include:

  • selecting a method of satisfying an imputed underpayment;
  • designating a partnership representative;
  • allocating economic responsibility for an imputed underpayment among partners, including situations in which partners’ interests change between a reviewed year and the adjustment year; and
  • indemnifications between partnerships and partnership representatives, as well as among current partners and those who were partners during the tax year under audit.

Election out
Starting for tax year 2018, virtually all partnerships will be subject to the new partnership audit regime unless an “election out” option is affirmatively elected. Only an eligible partnership may elect out of the centralized partnership audit regime. A partnership is an eligible partnership if it has 100 or fewer partners during the year, and, if at all times during the tax year, all partners are eligible partners. A special rule applies to partnerships that have S corporation partners.

Consistent returns
A partner’s treatment of each item of income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit attributable to a partnership must be consistent with the treatment of those items on the partnership return, including treatment with respect to the amount, timing, and characterization of those items. Under the new rules, the IRS may assess and collect any underpayment of tax that results from adjusting a partner’s inconsistently reported item to conform that item with the treatment on the partnership return as if the resulting underpayment of tax were on account of a mathematical or clerical error appearing on the partner’s return. A partner may not request an abatement of that assessment.

Partnership representative
The new regulations require a partnership to designate a partnership representative, as well as provide rules describing the eligibility requirements for a partnership representative, the designation of the partner-ship representative, and the representative’s authority. Actions by the partnership representative bind all the partners as far as the IRS is concerned. Indemnification agreements among partners may ameliorate some, but not all, of the liability triggered by this rule.

Imputed underpayment, alternatives and “push-outs”
Generally, if a partnership adjustment results in an imputed underpayment, the partnership must pay the imputed underpayment in the adjustment year. The partnership may request modification with respect to an imputed underpayment only under the procedures described in the new rules. In multi-tiered partnership arrangements, the new rules provide that a partnership may elect to “push out” adjustments to its reviewed year partners. If a partnership makes a valid election, the partnership is no longer liable for the imputed underpayment. Rather, the reviewed year partners of the partnership are liable for tax, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts plus interest, after taking into account their share of the partnership adjust-ments determined in the final partnership adjustment (FPA). The new regulations provide rules for making the election, the requirements for partners to file statements with the IRS and furnish statements to reviewed year partners, and the computation of tax resulting from taking adjustments into account.

Retiring, disappearing partners
Partnership agreements that reflect the new partnership audit regime must especially consider the problems that may be created by partners that have withdrawn, and partnerships that have since dissolved, between the tax year being audited and the year in which a deficiency involving that tax year is to be resolved. Collection of prior-year taxes due from a former partner, especially as time lapses, becomes more difficult as a practical matter unless specific remedies are set forth in the partnership agreement. The partnership agreement might specify that if any partners withdraw and dispose of their interests, they must keep the partnership advised of their contact information until released by the partnership in writing.

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