How One Woman Went to Tax Court and Won Deduction
A Maryland nurse accomplished two rare feats in her battle with the Internal Revenue Service: She defended herself against the agency's lawyers and won, and she got a ruling that could help tens of thousands of students deduct the cost of an M.B.A. degree on their taxes.
The U.S. Tax Court handed Lori Singleton-Clarke her victory last month, saying the 47-year-old Bryantown, Md., woman had properly deducted nearly $15,000 in business school tuition. The Tax Court ruling should make it easier for many other professionals to deduct the expense of a Master in Business Administration degree.
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After getting word of the court decision, "I nearly yelled the roof off the house," Ms. Singleton-Clarke says. "I still can hardly believe it."
The IRS's rules on deducting work-related tuition are complicated and onerous, ultimately preventing most students from deducting their tuition. But this case clarifies the rules and will likely lead to more taxpayers taking the deduction, tax experts say.
Few taxpayers decide to go toe to toe with the IRS as Ms. Singleton-Clarke did, arguing her case without a lawyer. For good reason: In 2009, individuals won only about 10% of about 300 such cases, according to data from Tax Analysts. Ms. Singleton-Clarke fought her case in Tax Court, a venue where taxpayers don't have to pay the contested tax before going to trial. The court has a special procedure for small cases.
Some of the losers, such as several dozen tax protesters who defended the filing of frivolous returns, were tilting at tax windmills. Others were simply on the wrong side of the law, including a horse enthusiast who wanted to deduct his hobby losses, an unsuccessful comedian who tried to classify his expenses as business losses, and an attorney who claimed over $100,000 in medical deductions for his visits to prostitutes.
Of the few who did prevail against the IRS, nearly half came to court on a single issue: requests for "innocent spouse" treatment that decouples a spouse from a partner who is a tax cheat. This provision has been used mostly to protect unknowing wives against their husbands' tax misdeeds. One of the spouses granted relief last year was formerly married to an investment banker who didn't pay his taxes after his bonus didn't come though.
Ms. Singleton-Clarke's encounter with the tax system shows what it can take for one individual to prevail over the IRS against the long odds: favorable facts, obsessive organization, and fearlessness. She says she didn't have a lawyer because she couldn't afford one.
Her odyssey began in 2006, when she filed her 2005 return. It showed just over $50,000 of income, several smaller deductions, and one large one—for $14,787 of expenses for an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix, an online school. Ms. Singleton-Clarke deducted the tuition because her tax preparer told her she met the law's narrow definitions.
When the IRS audited the return in late 2006, she conceded all the IRS's challenges to her deductions but one. She dug in her heels on the tuition deduction because, after looking at a complex diagram in IRS Publication 970, she believed she qualified for it.
The audit process first involved several rounds of confusing IRS correspondence. "At one point I had three requests for the same records, each with a different contact name. I had to spend hours calling to figure out who needed what," says Ms. Singleton-Clarke, a steely but soft-spoken woman.
After that she was summoned to an IRS office in downtown Washington where she had to provide more copies of her résumé, a job description, and other records. She felt overwhelmed and intimidated.
Both the IRS's actions and her reactions are typical, says Christopher Bergin, president of Tax Analysts, a group that fights for tax-system transparency and since l972 has won a series of freedom-of-information cases against the IRS. "Without doing anything illegal, they muscled her. That's what they do. The pressure can be terrifying," he says.
A spokesman for the IRS says that it never comments on issues with specific taxpayers.
As Ms. Singleton-Clarke held fast to her conviction that she deserved the deduction, she drew on skills she developed as a nurse responsible for dealing with doctors who may have infringed hospital rules. That was why she studied for her M.B.A., she says: "I didn't want to feel outmatched by surgeons who didn't want to talk to me."
When the IRS again denied her deduction by mail after her meeting with the agent, Ms. Singleton-Clarke wound up going to Tax Court to set a trial date. But when she came to court in November 2008, it seemed that everyone else had settled their cases: "There was just me by myself at one table and the [IRS] tax team of at another in a big courtroom."
The tax team consisted of a two attorneys and several assistants or paralegals. Ms. Singleton-Clarke had been told to bring copies of her documents in triplicate, including a time line of her career. Judge Stanley Goldberg questioned her closely and complimented her on her record-keeping during the hour-long trial. "The whole time," she says: "I was thinking, here is this god-like man who is going to make an important decision for me. But he wasn't a bully. I had met with the bullies before."
Reached Friday by phone, Judge Goldberg said: "I remember the case well because Ms. Singleton-Clarke was so articulate and well-prepared. Too many taxpayers are not."
Ms. Singleton-Clarke's victory came when the ruling was issued a year later. It is unusual in that it helps not only her but others as well. Decisions in small cases aren't allowed to be cited as precedent. "But everyone uses them," says Melissa Labant, a tax expert with the American Institute of CPAs. "This case definitely provides a road map others can use, especially M.B.A. students."
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