On September 23, 2016, the Tax Court vacated its prior order (from July 2, 2013) in Coffey v. Commissioner, Docket No. 30676-09, denying summary judgment to a taxpayer who claimed to have been a bona fide resident of the USVI during 2003 and 2004 and who argued that the tax returns that she filed with the USVI’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (“BIR”) for those years were tax returns that set the three-year statute of limitations under section 6501(1) running.  The ruling, granting the taxpayer’s motion for reconsideration under Tax Court Rule 161, may signal a reversal of prior Tax Court holdings providing that a taxpayer who incorrectly claimed bona fide resident status and filed a tax return with the BIR (consistent with that claim of bona fide resident status) did not begin the three-year statute of limitations if the IRS later determined that the taxpayer was, in fact, not a bona fide resident.

The taxpayer in the case, Judith Coffey, filed her 2003 and 2004 tax returns with the BIR. She took the position that she was a bona fide resident of the Islands “at the close of the taxable year” for the 2003 tax year; and “during the entire taxable year” of 2004 for purposes of IRC § 932(c)(1)(A).[1]  It was undisputed in the case that she and her husband filed their Virgin Islands returns on time and that the Commissioner did not issue a notice of deficiency for their 2003 and 2004 tax years until late in 2009, well after the usual three-year deadline had passed. See IRC § 6501(a).  In the notice of deficiency, the Commissioner specifically determined that Judith Coffey was not a bona fide resident for the 2003 and 2004 tax years.

The IRS argued that an exception to the normal three-year rule, found under section 6501(c)(3), allowed the Service to issue a notice of deficiency at any time (for example, 10 or 20 or more years later…) because Coffey had incorrectly determined that she satisfied the definition of a bona fide resident of the USVI during the years at issue.  Importantly, the Coffeys did not file returns with the IRS, but had only filed with the Virgin Islands—again, consistent with the claim of bona fide residency.  In initially ruling on the issue back in 2013, the Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s request for summary judgment in her favor.

Both the Coffeys and the Virgin Islands (as an intervenor in the litigation) timely moved for reconsideration, pointing out that the court had not considered the possibility that the Coffeys’ filing with the Virgin Islands should also be considered a filing with the IRS when one takes into consideration the information that the Virgin Islands passed on to the IRS during the period.  More recently, the court held hearings on the motion and was briefed in much more detail about the information shared by the Virgin Islands and the IRS during the periods at issue.  Following these hearings, the court issued an order granting the taxpayer’s motion for reconsideration, vacating its prior order denying summary judgment, and stating that an opinion readdressing the issues would be “forthcoming.”  The significance of the ruling remains to be seen, but it appears to signal a potential reversal of the Tax Court’s prior rulings.

Stay tuned for more developments.  For more background on related USVI litigation, see my prior article, which gives particular focus to the statute of limitations issues raised above, as well as my prior blog entries on USVI tax litigation (e.g., here).

[1] This section was amended by the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-357, § 908(c)(2), 118 Stat. at 1656, and the new rule requiring residency during the entire taxable year became effective for tax years ending after October 22, 2004

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