The IRS has announced a significant increase in enforcement actions for syndicated conservation easement transactions. This is a “priority compliance area” for the agency.

Throughout the IRS, coordinated examinations are being conducted in the Small Business and Self-Employed (SB/SE) Division, Large Business and International (LB&I) Division, and Tax Exempt and Government Entities (TE/GE) Division. The IRS Criminal Investigation (CI) Division has also been initiating investigations. The audits and investigations cover billions of dollars of potentially inflated deductions, as well as hundreds of partnerships and thousands of investors.

“We will not stop in our pursuit of everyone involved in the creation, marketing, promotion and wrongful acquisition of artificial, highly inflated deductions based on these aggressive transactions. Every available enforcement option will be considered, including civil penalties and, where appropriate, criminal investigations that could lead to a criminal prosecution,” said IRS Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Rettig. “Our innovation labs are continually developing new, more extensive enforcement tools that employ advanced techniques. If you engaged in any questionable syndicated conservation easement transaction, you should immediately consult an independent, competent tax advisor to consider your best available options. It is always worthwhile to take advantage of various methods of getting back into compliance by correcting your tax returns before you hear from the IRS. Our continued use of ever-changing technologies would suggest that waiting is not a viable option for most taxpayers,” he added.

Syndicated Conservation Easements

The IRS issued Notice 2017-10, I.R.B. 2017-4, 544, in 2016, which designated certain syndicated conservation easements as listed transactions. In these types of transactions, investors in pass-through entities receive promotional material which offer the possibility of a charitable contribution deduction worth at least two-and-a-half times their investment. The deduction taken in many transactions has been significantly higher than 250 percent of the investment.

Syndicated conservation easements were included on the IRS’s 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams to avoid.

Not only do these transactions grossly overstate the value of the easement that was purportedly donated to charity, they often also fail to comply with the basic requirements for claiming a charitable deduction for a donated easement.

Taxpayers may avoid the imposition of penalties for improper contribution deductions if they fully remove the improper contribution and related tax benefits from their returns by timely filing a qualified amended return or timely administrative adjustment request.

Enforcement Actions

The IRS has prevailed in many cases involving the charitable deduction basic requirements, and has established a body of law that it believes supports disallowance of the deduction in a significant number of pending conservation easement cases. The IRS will soon be moving the Tax Court to invalidate the claimed deductions in all cases where the transactions fail to comply with the basic requirements, leaving only the final penalty amount to be determined.

In addition to auditing participants in syndicated conservation easement transactions, the IRS is pursuing investigations of promoters, appraisers, tax return preparers and others, and is evaluating numerous referrals of practitioners to the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility. The IRS will develop and assert all appropriate penalties, including:

  • penalties for participants (40 percent accuracy-related penalty);
  • penalties for appraisers (penalty for substantial and gross valuation misstatements attributable to incorrect appraisals);
  • penalties for promoters, material advisors, and accommodating entities (penalty for promoting abusive tax shelters, and penalty for aiding and abetting understatement of tax liability); and
  • penalties for return preparers (penalty for understatement of taxpayer’s liability by a tax return preparer).

Rettig, Desmond Highlight Heightened Focus

Rettig and IRS Chief Counsel Michael J. Desmond have each highlighted the IRS’s heightened, agency-wide focus on syndicated conservations easements.

While speaking at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) 2019 National Tax Conference in Washington, D.C., Rettig and Desmond both separately underscored the IRS’s increased enforcement efforts toward abuses of certain tax-advantaged land transactions under Code Sec. 170(h).

“We appreciate the value of conservation easements,” Rettig said. “We do not appreciate the activities that have gone on with respect to the syndicated conservation easements—there are some artificial appraisals there… some fatal flaws.”

Reiterating the IRS’s tough stance on the matter, Rettig said that the IRS is not going to “stand down.” The information in IR-2019-182 issued on November 12 was “fair warning,” Rettig said.

Likewise, Desmond stressed that the challenges surrounding syndicated conservation easements are an “institutional concern” for the IRS, “one that we will be responding to,” he emphasized.