Court Ruling Sheds Light on Estate’s Ability to Access Digital Information

By Monte Schatz

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a ruling on October 16, 2017 that empowers administrators of estates to access digital content of deceased persons.

Federal statutes 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 through 2712 titled The Stored Communications Act created privacy rights to protect the contents of certain electronic communications and files from disclosure by certain online service providers. If the Act applies, the online user account service provider is prohibited from disclosing the contents/files to the estate or trust representatives and family members unless there is an exception under the Act. The result of this legislation was that many digital communications and accounts of a deceased person were inaccessible

The Stored Communications Act provides for certain exceptions in § 2703 (b). One of the exception states that, “[A] provider may divulge the contents of a communication… with the lawful consent of the originator or an addressee or intended recipient of such communication.” The language of this exception did not clarify if the recipient could include a fiduciary of a trust or estate.

In Ajemian v. Yahoo, 478 Mass. 169 (2017) the administrator and siblings of a deceased brother’s estate sought to gain access to information from the son’s Yahoo email account. In that capacity, they sought access to the contents of the e-mail account. While providing certain descriptive information, Yahoo declined to provide access to the account, claiming that it was prohibited from doing so by certain requirements of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated in its decision that, “Nothing in this definition would suggest that lawful consent precludes consent by a personal representative on a decedent’s behalf. Indeed, personal representatives provide consent lawfully on a decedent’s behalf in a variety of circumstances under both Federal and common law.” The court relied on Massachusetts’ provisions in the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Act that has been adopted in 36 states including Nebraska and Iowa. This legislation provides a clear state law procedure for fiduciaries to follow to request access to or disclosure of online account contents and other digital assets.

Though the Massachusetts state court ruling isn’t binding on other states, this case will provide valuable precedent and guidance in interpreting and applying a standard that allows estate administrators to gain access to digital information of a deceased that previously was prohibited under strict interpretation of federal law by certain digital service providers.

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IRS Issues Guidance on Health Care Reporting Requirements for 2017

by Joshua A. Diveley

The IRS issued guidance October 17, 2017, indicating Forms 1040 for the 2017 tax year will not be accepted if the taxpayer does not report on the health coverage reporting requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For prior tax years, returns that did not report required ACA information were delayed for processing, but it did not prevent the return from ultimately being processed and any applicable refund from being issued.

In general, the ACA requires taxpayers to obtain minimum essential health insurance coverage for themselves and any dependents. If sufficient coverage is not obtained, the ACA imposes a penalty. Form 1040 directs taxpayers to report the existence or non-existence of essential coverage or whether an exemption from coverage applies.

The IRS guidance is available at: https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/aca-information-center-for-tax-professionals.

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The Importance of Personal Cybersecurity

Malware attacks occur regularly in the United States, costing an estimated $15 million annually. The attacks on large corporations tend to make the news, but anyone connected to the internet is at risk of becoming a victim of a cyberattack. Personal internet connections are, generally, open, and personal computers are easy to locate with scanners, making an easy target for the cybercriminal.

Roughly 64% of Americans experience a data breach and nearly 20 million people become victims of identity theft each year. Many consumers fall prey to hackers through use of social media, where Cybercriminals gain access to personal data by creating fake links that download malware to user devices when users click the link. Consumers may also suffer data loss when cyber thieves victimize companies. The companies are desirable targets for cybertheft as they often collect their customers’ addresses, names, social security numbers, and other personal information.

In response to the data breaches, security-related legislation has been enacted at both the state and federal level. This legislation requires companies to take certain measures to protect sensitive information and establishes standards for notifying consumers when a breach occurs. Depending upon the industry, such as the healthcare industry, additional rules and penalties apply. Overall, with the proliferation and advanced tactics of cyber criminals, careful planning is required, both by a business and those with devices connected to the internet.

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Federal Judge Orders IRS to Refund Tax Preparers for PTIN Fees

In 2014, tax return preparers brought a federal class action lawsuit challenging the legality of fees charged by the IRS for PTINs (Preparer Tax Identification Number). Regulations promulgated in 2010 and 2011 imposed requirements on tax return preparers including obtaining a specific PTIN and paying a fee associated with obtaining such PTIN. Currently, the application and renewal fee for a PTIN is $50.00.

The preparers in the class action argued that the fees are unlawful since tax preparers receive no special benefits from the PTIN and secondly the fee is unreasonable in comparison to the costs the IRS incurs to issue the PTIN.

On June 1, 2017, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that the IRS may continue to require PTINs but granted summary judgment in favor of the tax preparers stating, in part, that the IRS may not charge fees for issuing PTINs. Following a review of applicable case law, the Court found that PTINs are not a “service or thing of value” provided by the IRS. The IRS will be enjoined from charging fees in the future and is required to refund fees charged for the PTINs to all members of the class.

The order granting summary judgment is not yet a final judgment. Such final judgment will indicate the amount owed to each member of the class and may be subject to appeal by the IRS.

For more information, including court documents and the opinion rendered by Judge Lamberth see http://ptinclassaction.com/

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IRS’s Large Business & International Division to Implement Campaigns

The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) Large Business and International (“LB&I”) division recently announced the roll-out of thirteen campaigns as part of the IRS’s examination process.  A campaign is an issue-based compliance process that centers on focused examinations.  These campaigns cover a range of topics, including positions on related party transactions and S Corporation losses claimed in excess of basis.  Campaigns are a new approach to enforcement by the IRS that the IRS hopes will identify the most serious tax administration risks, create specific plans to move toward compliance, and effectively deploy IRS resources.  A taxpayer can be the subject of multiple campaigns during an examination.

The IRS will issue “soft letters” to some taxpayers, in which the IRS identifies the campaign issue and indicates the taxpayer’s return appears to include this position.  The letter will articulate the IRS’s legal position and ask whether the taxpayer agrees to change its position by amending the return.  Soft letters will not be released publicly.

The IRS recently informed taxpayers that the receipt of a soft letter does not mean the IRS has opened an examination.  Further, taxpayers are not required to respond to the letters.  However, failure to respond could lead to an examination.

Taxpayers should be aware that this new approach means businesses and high-net-worth individuals dealing with any of the identified issues may face increased IRS audit risk.  These taxpayers should work with their legal advisors to avoid or prepare for IRS challenges.

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IRS Issues Tax and Reporting Relief for Proposed Fiduciary Standard Consistent with Department of Labor Regulations

By Monte Schatz

There have been a significant series of regulatory announcements and rulings related to the fiduciary duty and its application to employee benefit plans.  The final fiduciary duty rule became effective on June 7, 2016, and has an applicability date of April 10, 2017. The President by Memorandum to the Secretary of Labor directed the Labor Department to examine the impact of the fiduciary duty rule.  On March 2nd the DOL published 82 FR 12319 seeking public comments about questions raised in the Presidential Memorandum.  The March 2nd notice also provided that a 60-day delay in implementation would be effective on the date of publication of a final rule

The Principal Transactions Exemptions and the accompanying Best Interest Contract provisions, included as part of the fiduciary duty rule, also have an applicability date of April 10, 2017, with a phased implementation period ending on January 1, 2018. The BIC Exemption effectively states that the fiduciary advisor must sign a “Best Interests Contract” (BIC) with the client, stipulating that the advisor will provide advice that is in the Best Interests of the client.   The Principal Transactions Exemption allows compensation for certain transactions by certain broker-dealers, insurance agents, and others that will act as investment advice fiduciaries that would otherwise violate prohibited transaction rules that trigger excise taxes and civil liability.

Most investment industry groups’ concerns regarding any non-compliance during a “gap period” of the financial fiduciary rule focused on Department of Labor and its potential civil liability enforcement provisions as outlined under ERISA.  Additional concerns were raised concerning Internal Revenue Service enforcement provisions found in Internal Revenue Code §4975 prohibited transaction rules that provides for the imposition of excise taxes for violations of that rule.

As a result of delays of the Fiduciary Standard rules, the Department of Labor published Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2017-01.  FAB 2017-01 provides that, to the extent circumstances surrounding its decision on the proposed delay of the April 10 applicability date give rise to the need for other temporary relief, including retroactive prohibited transaction relief, the DOL will consider taking such additional steps as necessary with respect to the arrangements and transactions covered by the DOL temporary enforcement policy and any subsequent related DOL enforcement guidance.

In Announcement 2017–4 the IRS stated, Because the Code and ERISA contemplate consistency in the enforcement of the prohibited transaction rules by the IRS and the DOL, the Treasury Department and the IRS have determined that it is appropriate to adopt a temporary excise tax non-applicability policy that conforms with the DOL’s temporary enforcement policy described in FAB 2017-01. Accordingly, the IRS will not apply § 4975 and related reporting obligations with respect to any transaction or agreement to which the DOL’s temporary enforcement policy, or other subsequent related enforcement guidance, would apply.

SOURCES:

http://www.asppa.org/News/Article/ArticleID/8480

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/a-17-04.pdf

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Department of Labor Delays Implementation of the Fiduciary Rule

Last year, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule, expanding the definition of a fiduciary, making many broker-dealers and insurance agents fiduciaries. This rule, issued April 2016, was set to become effective June 2016, but was then delayed until April 10, 2017, with certain provisions delayed until January of 2018. However, President Trump ordered a review of the new rule and the DOL issued another delay, of 60 days, to complete the review. With the delay, the expanded fiduciary definition will become effective June 9, 2017.

Under the rule, a person or firm that is deemed a fiduciary is required to act in the best interests of their clients. This includes an obligation to avoid conflicts of interests, or otherwise receive compensation that creates a conflict between the interests of the fiduciary and the client. The new rule poses several issues for certain professionals that will be deemed a fiduciary under the new rule. For example, sales commissions would be deemed a conflict of interest, creating an especially problematic situation for broker-dealers that engage in principal transactions with clients. However, the DOL recognized the issue and created several principal transaction exemptions, but the exemptions require additional burdensome steps. This issue, among others, are central to the review causing the rule to be delayed.

Despite this delay, and the DOL admitting the review will not be complete by June 9, 2017, the expanded definition of fiduciary will be implemented at the end of the 60-day delay. Therefore, broker-dealers, insurance agents, and others that will now be deemed a fiduciary, should be prepared for the additional requirements on June 9, 2017.

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