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A Fiduciary’s Lesson on IRS Pre-emption

By April 25, 2012No Comments

On April 11, 2012, the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois filed an Opinion emphasizing the importance of a fiduciary’s role in trust and estate planning. As a fiduciary, an executor or trustee typically has the responsibility to ensure items such as the estate’s value and the relevant taxes are calculated correctly and, subsequently, paid. Accordingly, it is important for individuals to select appropriate fiduciaries. It is equally important for those approached to be fiduciaries to understand the scope of duties involved and the consequences if those duties are not performed properly.  Case on point: People of Illinois v. Kole, No. 09-L-892.

The Lay of the Land

The Tax Wall

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In 1993, Anthony F. Crespo named Julius Kole as executor and successor trustee of the Anthony F. Crespo Living Trust. Crespo died in 2002 and Kole paid $127,000 in Illinois estate taxes. Kole also filed a request for an extension to file the Illinois estate tax return, which was granted.  Six months later, he filed the Illinois return reporting an approximate $81,000 estate tax liability.  The Illinois Attorney General’s office received the return and issued a “Certificate of Discharge and Determination of Tax,” stating that, based on the information provided, the estate taxes were fully paid and, therefore, the estate was clear of any liens from the State. The Certificate of Discharge also relieved Kole from any personal estate tax liability for the Crespo estate.

However, an IRS audit of the federal estate tax return reported in 2006 a revised value of the estate, increasing the value from more than $2.1M to $4.4M. This, of course, increased the Illinois state tax liability. Consequently, Illinois sued Kole, personally, seeking the additional estate tax owed plus penalties and interest, amounting to more than $300,000.

The Arguments

Kole first argued that the plain language of the Certificate of Discharge had relieved him of the obligation to pay additional taxes. The State replied that the Certificate of Discharge was routinely issued upon initial filings, which were based on the information provided at the time. So the initial issuance did not negate the need for supplemental filings if new information resulted in additional taxes owed.

Kole’s response to the State, however, was enough to cause this reader to question her eyesight: “[Kole] admitted that the estate never paid any additional tax to Illinois or filed a supplemental return, but he then objected on hearsay grounds to the contents of the IRS Report.”

Commentary and Conclusion

To use the common vernacular, “Hearsay? Really?” Kole’s argument about the Certificate of Discharge’s plain language meaning at least had some merit, but arguing that an IRS Audit Report is hearsay was quite colorable. Even non-lawyers have watched enough Law & Order to learn the public records and business records hearsay exceptions. The trial court, however, agreed with Kole’s plain language argument.

The Illinois AG appealed and the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision (see Lesson #2, infra).

Lessons

  1. Choose a fiduciary who will obtain a correct valuation and pay the appropriate taxes due – whenever they’re due;
  2. A Certificate of Discharge isn’t really final until the IRS says so; and
  3. Take great care in accepting a fiduciary role.

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