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Rohrabaugh v. United States

decided: December 18, 1979.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. IP 78-282-C-S. Hugh Dillin, Judge .

Before Castle, Senior Circuit Judge, and Swygert and Pell, Circuit Judges.

Author: Pell

This is an appeal by the defendant Government from a summary judgment granted the plaintiff taxpayer in which the defendant was directed to refund the plaintiff the amount of the penalty assessed against her for a late filing of a federal estate tax return. The facts are not in dispute and are as follows.

John T. Lemen died on March 25, 1976. On March 29, 1976, his widowed daughter, Merian C. Rohrabaugh, qualified as administratrix of the estate and employed James T. Robison, an attorney, to handle the administration. Taxpayer is a high school graduate but has had no college or other advanced education. She was employed as a receptionist/telephone operator at the local hospital and was inexperienced in business matters. Robison had been practicing in the area of probate law since 1947. His firm had prepared tax returns for the taxpayer's father for many years and taxpayer was familiar with the good reputation of the firm in the area of estates and taxation.

Taxpayer had no previous experience as a personal representative of an estate and relied completely on her attorney to prepare for her signature and properly file all necessary papers, including the return in question. Taxpayer made full disclosure of all relevant facts and papers to her attorney and frequently discussed with him the progress and status of the probate proceedings. Assurances were consistently received from her attorney as to the progress and propriety of all estate matters; however, taxpayer was never informed nor made aware that an estate tax return was due on December 27, 1976, nine months after Lemen's death.

On March 24, 1977, when the taxpayer's attorney was preparing for filing the Indiana State Inheritance Tax Schedule,*fn1 he realized for the first time that the federal estate tax return had not yet been filed and was overdue. Taxpayer was informed at that time of the error, and the attorney freely admitted that the failure timely to file the estate tax return was an oversight on his part.

The administration of this estate apparently encountered difficulties from the outset. A principal source was a strained relationship between some of the estate heirs which was not reduced by the problem arising from the fact that the principal asset of the estate was 162 acres of farm land with liabilities substantially in excess of the small amount of liquid assets. The heirs attempted unsuccessfully to divide the real estate in kind and to borrow on mortgages in a sufficient amount to pay the estate expenses. Several months before the due date of the federal estate tax return, Robison made a special trip to Indianapolis to secure the appropriate tax form to pay the estate tax over a period of years so the farm would not have to be sold. Division in kind and mortgages did not work out and other solutions to the problem were considered but also failed to find agreement. In December 1976, a decision was reached to sell the farm land. In the Inventory and Appraisement of the estate filed in the state probate court on December 7, 1976, the appraised value of real property was $261,020. All other assets totalled approximately $8,000. At about this same time the Robison firm became heavily involved in the preparation of farm income tax returns. In county seats in farming areas this time is the busiest of the year for general practitioners who must add the income tax load to their regular practice.

The farm land was sold in March 1977 for $322,000. At about this time the failure to file the federal estate tax return was discovered. The return thereupon was promptly prepared and filed on March 28, 1977. The tax was paid at the same time with the money therefor having been borrowed pending the final closing of the real estate transaction. If the estate tax return had been timely filed, the value of the real estate would have been understated by more than $61,000 necessitating a later amended return which presumably would not have resulted in any penalty. Neither the taxpayer nor Robison received any notice from the Internal Revenue Service that the return was overdue.

The return was filed three months and one day after its due date. Inasmuch as the one day constituted a fractional part of another month, a penalty for late filing based upon four months was assessed in the total amount of $10,764.87. This amount was paid plus interest and a claim for refund was filed. By letter of March 30, 1978, taxpayer was notified that the claim was disallowed because she had "failed to establish reasonable cause for the late filing." Suit was filed in the district court which entered summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff. This appeal followed.

The decision to deny the taxpayer's claim was "based on the provisions of the Internal Revenue law and regulations." The pertinent section of the statute, 26 U.S.C. ยง 6651, reads as follows:

(a) Addition to the tax. In case of failure (1) to file any return . . . on the date prescribed therefor . . ., unless it is shown that such failure is due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect, there shall be added to the amount required to be shown as tax on such return 5 percent of the amount of the tax if the failure is not for more than 1 month, with an additional 5 percent for each month or fraction thereof during which such failure continues, not exceeding 25 percent in the aggregate . . .

The pertinent section of the regulations, 26 C.F.R. 301.6651-1(c), reads as follows:

If the district director, . . . determines that the delinquency was due to a reasonable cause and not to willful neglect, the addition to the tax will not be assessed. If the taxpayer exercised ordinary business care and prudence and was nevertheless unable to file the return within the prescribed time, then the delay is due to a reasonable cause.

If we were considering this case on an A priori basis solely on the basis of the foregoing, we would have slight difficulty in affirming the district court. Here an inexperienced taxpayer wholly unaware of the time requirements for filing a federal estate tax return selected a competent tax expert, supplied him with all the necessary and relevant information, requested him to prepare all necessary documents including tax returns, relied upon his doing so, but nevertheless maintained contact with him from time to time during the administration of the estate. This would seem on any reasonable standard to be exercising ordinary business care and prudence under the circumstances here involved. We address ourselves only to the matter of "reasonable cause" as we can see no basis for a claim that there was "willful neglect," nor does it appear that the Government is really claiming there is such basis.

Further, on the matter of reasonable cause, we think the type of tax would have a bearing on the matter of ordinary business care and prudence. Section 6651 covers other types of taxes. The situation might be entirely different if filing an income tax return were involved. A taxpayer might have considerable difficulty in demonstrating an unawareness of the due date on an annual income tax return, if, for no other reason, because of the repeated media references to the deadline date. Indeed, reference often appears to the fact that a line will be forming at post offices as midnight of the final day approaches. The tax with which we are concerned, however, has a floating due date keyed to the timing of the death of a particular decedent. Everyone, except fiscal year taxpayers, has the same income tax deadline.

Our ease in reaching a decision would not be diminished by consulting earlier case law. Thus, in Haywood Lumber & Mining Co. v. Commissioner, 178 F.2d 769, 771 (2d Cir. 1950), a distinguished panel of the Second Circuit, overruling the Tax Court, held that when a taxpayer had selected a competent tax expert, supplied him with all necessary information and requested him to prepare proper tax returns, the taxpayer had done all that ordinary business care and prudence could reasonably demand. The court also disagreed with the Tax Court's characterization of the taxpayer as merely waiting passively because he had affirmatively requested the preparation by the consultant of proper returns. To have required him to inquire specifically would have nullified the very purpose of consulting an expert. The court also repudiated the rationale of one of its own earlier cases, Berlin v. Commissioner, 59 F.2d 996 (2d Cir. 1932), Cert. denied, 287 U.S. 642, 5 ...

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