Personal Representative Liability for Failure to Pay Probate Estate Taxes

MN Probate TaxesAn important case was issued recently out of the Western District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, United State v. Stiles, No. 2:13-cv-00138.

This case provides and excellent explanation for why people should not administer estates (especially large ones) without the help of a lawyer.

Facts of the Case

Julia Stiles died in 2002.  Her son was appointed executor (personal representative) of her estate (it is not clear whether he did so with the use of an attorney or not).

The tax return for the estate was not filed until June of 2008. On June 9, 2008, a representative of the Secretary of the Treasure Internal Revenue Service of the United States (IRS) assessed federal income taxes, interest, and penalties against the estate in the amount of $2,093,091.  That is a lot of money in taxes.

The real property in the state of Delaware was sold in August 2002, for $379,000.  Once the property was sold, the proceeds were distributed to the heirs shortly after the sale.  The IRS did not receive any proceeds from the sale of the property.

Between 2002 – 2005, the son distributed approximately $775,000 from the estate to himself, and $425,000 to each of his two sisters.  At the start of April 2008, the estate’s investment account was worth $1,787,660.  In April of 2008, David Stiles distributed $110,635 from the estate to the Delaware Division of Revenue.

The IRS can Charge Interest on Late Payments

The IRS presented evidence to the court that interest was owed on unpaid income taxes.  Interest on the income tax assessments is assessed under 26 U.S.C. 6601(a) and (b) from the date that the Stiles’ tax liabilities became due at a rate set forth in 26 U.S.C. 6621(a).  Penalties are also allowed by federal law.

The law on failing to pay estate taxes

The IRS in this case filed for a summary judgment.  In essence, this means that the IRS felt that the Stiles had not cognizable defense.  The court agreed.

In seeking to foreclose its tax lien on the estate, the IRS argued in its summary judgment motion that there was a prima facie assumption of tax liability.  Therefore, since the government had arguably met its burden, the Stiles had to file a responsive statement of facts.  They did not do so – ostensibly because they did not appear to be represented by counsel.

Personal Representative Liability Law

The personal representative of the estate also argued that the estate was now insolvent and therefore the IRS could not foreclose in its tax lien.

The IRS argued that, because the personal representative of the estate was a fiduciary that it could hold him personally liable for the tax debt.  The IRS cited law which provided that:

“Personal liability can attach, to the extent of the distribution, if the government establishes three elements: (1) the fiduciary distributed assets of the estate; (2) the distribution rendered the estate insolvent; and (3) the distribution took place after the fiduciary had actual or constructive knowledge of the liability for unpaid taxes.” United States v. Tyler, No. 10-1239, 2012 WL 848239, at *10 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 13, 2012). “

The court agreed with the IRS’s argument and found the personal representative liable for a tax debt in the amount of

What is even more confounding is that the personal representative admitted that he knew about the tax liability:

David Stiles admitted, through testimony, that he knew in 2002 about the estate’s federal tax liabilities. (ECF No. 35 ¶ 17); see Estate of Stiles, 2011 WL 5299295, at *6 (“[David] Stiles testified at trial that he knew as of 2002 that estate taxes would have to be paid in addition to the yearly fiduciary income taxes, but he made no affirmative efforts to pay those taxes or learn of the deadlines by which they should have been paid.”). On June 18, 2003, during a telephone call with his lawyer, David Stiles was informed that the estate’s tax returns were late. Estate of Stiles, 2011 WL 5299295, at *6. Based on the record before the court, David Stiles knew about the estates’ tax liability, at the latest, on June 18, 2003. David Stiles continued to distribute assets out of the estate through 2006.3 (ECF No. 35 ¶ 19.) The record before the court shows that David Stiles had knowledge of the estate’s tax liability and continued to distribute assets out of the estate rendering it insolvent. See Tyler, 528 F. App’x, at 200-02.

Finally, it appears that the personal representative was relying on a defense of bad legal advice.  The court also did not find this argument compelling, providing that:   “Relying on the poor advice from an attorney is not a defense. It is unfortunate that the Stiles received poor legal advice; however, poor advice does nothing to mitigate their liability for the decisions David Stiles made in managing the estate.”

Seek out competent legal counsel

Having experienced, competent probate attorneys for a Minnesota probate is a must.  Personal liability is very real and must be taken seriously by all potential personal representative.

For further information, contact Joseph M. Flanders at 612-424-0398.

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