Welcome to CPA at Law, helping individuals and small businesses plan for the future and keep what they have.

This is the personal blog of Sterling Olander, a Certified Public Accountant and Utah-licensed attorney. For over thirteen years, I have assisted clients with estate planning and administration, tax mitigation, tax controversies, small business planning, asset protection, and nonprofit law.

I write about any legal, tax, or technological information that I find interesting or useful in serving my clients. All ideas expressed herein are my own and don't constitute legal or tax advice.

How Certain Organizations Can Self-Declare Tax-Exempt Status

There are dozens of tax-exempt organizations under the Internal Revenue Code; the IRS has a list of these on its website, along with the application form that each one files (usually Form 1023 or Form 1024). However, most of these organizations are not actually required to submit an exemption application to the IRS: "[Certain] organizations may self-declare their tax exempt status by operating within the requirements of the applicable code section and filing the required annual returns or notices." In other words, the tax-exempt status of a new organization can often be established simply by filing its first tax return.

Self-declaration is available to cooperative associations, social and recreation clubs, and business leagues, to name a few of the more popular ones. A 501(c)(9) and 501(c)(17) organization may not self-declare. While a 501(c)(4) organization is still not required to file an application (historically with Form 1024 but now with Form 1024-A), a 501(c)(4) can no longer simply self-declare by filing the first tax return. In a future post, I will describe how to form a 501(c)(4) organization. Finally, some 501(c)(3) organizations do not need to file an application or self-declare, whereas all others with gross receipts in excess of $5,000 generally may not self-declare and must apply for exemption.

Self-declaring tax-exempt status has its downsides, most notably that the organization will not receive a determination letter from the IRS. This means that, among other things, the organization will not be publicly recognized as tax-exempt and may not be able to qualify as exempt from certain state taxes. If a self-declared tax-exempt organization does not operate within the requirements of the applicable section of the Internal Revenue Code, it could be vulnerable to an audit by the IRS. Thus, another significant benefit of formally applying for tax-exempt status is giving the IRS notice of how the organization intends to operate and providing an opportunity for the IRS to notify the organization that it is not operating as required by the Code.

Establishing tax-exempt status by self-declaration is generally only advisable for small organizations, such as those eligible to file the Form 990-N (e-Postcard) version of the Form 990. After forming a nonprofit entity under state law and obtaining an EIN from the IRS, a representative of the organization must call the IRS at 877-829-5500 and ask that the organization be allowed to file Form 990-N and then file the form. This is all that is required for a small, eligible organization to be classified as tax-exempt.

50 States' Free Individual Income Tax Return E-Filing

Tax season is coming up, and most people in the U.S. will file a federal and state income tax return. Federal income tax returns can be e-filed for free through the IRS website. While most people do not use this option, all of the popular tax preparation services offer free federal and, in many cases, free state income tax e-filing for lower income families.

If you don't meet the income limitations, however, finding a way to e-file your return for free, particularly your state income tax return, is more difficult. One new option that includes free e-filing for federal and state tax returns is creditkarma.com; however, it is not as robust as other services, as this review has noted.

Fortunately, the department of revenue of many states allows free e-filing directly from the department's website. Since most state income tax returns rely heavily on the taxpayer's federal return, you will need to have already completed your federal return in order to use these services. Linked below are state government websites where state individual income tax returns can be e-filed. This post will be updated as better sources become available; please comment below if you come across broken links or better options than what I currently have:

 Alabama  Illinois  Montana^  Rhode Island^
 Alaska*  Indiana^  Nebraska  South Carolina^ 
 Arizona^  Iowa^  Nevada*  South Dakota*
 Arkansas^  Kansas  New Hampshire#  Tennessee#
 California  Kentucky^  New Jersey  Texas*
 Colorado  Louisiana  New Mexico  Utah
 Connecticut  Maine  New York^  Vermont
 Delaware  Maryland  North Carolina^  Virginia^
 District of Columbia^   Massachusetts^  North Dakota^  Washington*
 Florida*  Michigan^  Ohio  West Virginia^
 Georgia^  Minnesota^  Oklahoma^  Wisconsin
 Hawaii  Mississippi  Oregon  Wyoming*
 Idaho^  Missouri^  Pennsylvania   

* State does not have an income tax
^ State does not offer free online filing directly through the state revenue department's website
# State has an investment income tax in lieu of a traditional income tax

Utah Property Taxes and Amendment B

Like all states, Utah imposes a tax on real property but provides certain exemptions from taxation. Real property in Utah is exempt from taxation if it is owned, for example, by a nonprofit organization or by the state or a local government. Utah Code § 59-2-1101(3)(a).

In last Tuesday's election, Utahns rejected Constitutional Amendment B, which would have created a new tax exemption for real property not owned by a state or a local government but rather leased by the state or a local government from a private owner. While this amendment was presented as a way to simplify government in a revenue neutral manner, the reality is that property owners could have reasonably expected to experience a small property tax increase if the amendment had passed.

As I opined for KUTV 2News, "When a piece of real property is exempt from real property taxes, the neighboring real property owners necessarily subsidize the taxes that would otherwise have been collected in respect to the exempt real property. Because Amendment B creates a new category of real property that is exempt from property taxes, all else being equal, I would expect real property owners to experience a property tax increase to offset the decrease in property tax revenue."

Amendment B was also presented as not being a giveaway to property owners who lease to a government entity because the exemption was only to be available where the state or local government was responsible for paying the property taxes directly due to a triple net lease. However, it would seem that property owners would be able to charge higher rent knowing their tenant had an exemption from taxation.

Leases by a private owner to a charity or government entity have long raised these kinds of issues; as one court held over a century ago:
"[I]f the private owner of the land allows his land to be used for [exempt] purposes and charges no rent and derives no personal benefit from the land, the land is exempt from taxation, because the land is then devoted exclusively to such a use... For in such cases the owner contributes the use of his land to public or quasi-public use... and derives no gain or profit for himself...

But on the contrary, when the owner leases his land to the public for a public use... and applies the rents derived from the land to his own personal advantage, he contributes nothing to the public or to charity, he loses nothing by the use, he is not a benefactor to any one, but he stands before the law in exactly the same light as any one else who leases his land for any other purpose, and... his property is not exempt. State ex rel. Hammer v. MacGurn, 187 Mo. 238, 86 S.W. 138, (1905)
I believe that Utahns were right to reject Constitutional Amendment B.

Lobbying by a 501(c)(3) Organization

In my prior post, I provided an introduction to forming a 501(c)(3) organization. Such organizations must have charitable purposes and can not have a primary purpose of lobbying, or attempting to influence legislation. A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a private foundation is subject to excise taxes on all of its lobbying activities as well as political campaign activities under section 4945 of the Internal Revenue Code.

A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a public charity, however, may engage in some lobbying, but only to a limited extent. If a "substantial part" of a charity's activities includes attempting to influence legislation, it risks losing its 501(c)(3) status or not qualifying at the outset. The "substantial part" test is a facts-and-circumstances test; the IRS considers factors such as time and expenditures devoted to lobbying to determine whether the lobbying is substantial.

Because there is inherent uncertainty in any facts-and-circumstances test, a public charity that intends to engage in some lobbying has the option under 501(h) of the Internal Revenue Code to elect to be subject to a test that is based entirely on expenditures. Making this election is accomplished by filing IRS Form 5768. By so doing, a public charity can engage in lobbying by utilizing between 20% and 5.9% (depending on the organization's size, but in no case exceeding $1,000,000) of its exempt purpose expenditures on lobbying.

While the 501(h) election is not for every public charity (and some public charities such as churches are ineligible to make the election), this election can be a good option for charities that wish to devote a small part of their activities to influencing legislation.

Introduction to Forming a 501(c)(3)

While there are many different types of organizations that are exempt from federal income taxation, the best known is the 501(c)(3) organization. There are also many different types of 501(c)(3) organizations, which I summarized in a prior post. By default, a 501(c)(3) organization is a private nonoperating foundation unless it can qualify as a public charity by, for example, achieving certain levels of public support. Anyone can form a public charity, and many have chosen to do so in recent years.

The first step in establishing a 501(c)(3) organization is to create a legal entity under state law. While a trust and a limited liability company can be used, it usually makes the most sense to form a nonprofit corporation. Such an entity must have a charitable purpose that is recognized as such by the IRS; this link contains a description of the exempt purposes for which an organization can be organized and achieve 501(c)(3) status.
After the legal entity is formed, its directors need to appoint officers, adopt bylaws and a conflict of interest policy, and apply for an employer identification number. The next and most difficult step is completing IRS Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and the accompanying exhibits. This step in particular is the one where it makes the most sense to work with an adviser who is familiar with nonprofit organizations because the IRS will scrutinize the exemption application.

Once the application for exemption is approved, the IRS will send a determination letter notifying the organization that it is exempt from federal income taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and that donors can make donations to the organization and take a federal tax deduction for such donations. A copy of Wikimedia Foundation's determination letter appears on the right.

A few final steps and ongoing requirements are worth noting. Prior to soliciting the public for donations, the organization will need to ensure that it has completed the charitable solicitation registration process that most states require. The organization will also need to file some version of IRS Form 990 each year; small charities can file the 990-N postcard version online. Finally, the organization will need to ensure that it keeps its corporate entity in good standing, typically by filing an annual report with the state.

Update to Utah Probate Code

An update to the Utah Uniform Probate Code, H.B. 402 Probate Code Amendments, is effective May 8, 2018. It makes changes relating to guardianships, conservatorships, and powers of appointment, but since I recently discussed the provisions relating to probate proceedings at an NBI seminar, that is the focus of this post.

As I wrote in April, since 2013 the Utah Code allows the appointment of a personal representative or special administrator beyond three years after a decedent’s death. Since that time, a number of amendments to the probate code have been enacted to clarify what is allowable in the case of an appointment of a personal representative more than three years after death, and H.B. 402 is no exception.

By way of background, a surviving spouse and/or minor children are generally entitled to a homestead allowance of $22,500; an exempt property allowance of $15,000 worth of household furniture, automobiles, furnishings, appliances, and personal effects; and a family allowance of up to $27,000 for their maintenance during the period of administration. Such allowances generally have priority over all unsecured claims against the estate.

H.B. 402 clarifies that the homestead allowance, exempt property allowance, family allowance, support allowance, elective share of a surviving spouse, and a claim other than for an expense of administration may not be presented against the estate, even though a personal representative was appointed, if the appointment occurred more than three years after death. While not a significant change, this amendment further clarifies the nature of such an appointment proceeding.

Important New Probate Law in Utah

Earlier this week, Utah S.B. 241, Chapter 443, "Medical Benefits Recovery Amendments," was signed into law. By way of background, the Utah Office of Recovery Services seeks reimbursement for Medicaid expenses the state has paid on behalf of an individual from that individual's estate after death in order to supplement medical assistance programs and limit tax burdens. This law is intended to improve the state's ability to recover medical assistance it has provided.

The law does this in part through the enactment of new section 75-3-104.5 of Utah's probate code, which is effective as of May 8, 2018.  This section requires a petitioner or personal representative to send copies of pleadings relating to any "action" under Chapter 3, Probate of Wills and Administration, to the Office of Recovery Services. Such pleadings must be sent by certified mail within 30 days after the filing of the action. Failure to do so "tolls all limitations concerning the state's presentation or enforcement of a lien or claim" under the estate and trust recovery statute. This new law applies to all actions involving a decedent who was 55 or older.

The address to which pleadings must be sent is:
Office of Recovery Services
Bureau of Medical Collections
PO Box 45025
Salt Lake City, UT 84145-0025

The law is notable for requiring all pleadings for all actions filed under Chapter 3 to be provided to the Office of Recovery Services, when presumably the only information really needed to protect the state's interests is the identifying information of the decedent. Furthermore, only certified mail is effective to avoid the tolling of the statute of limitations. It will be interesting to see if these provisions are relaxed in the near future.

Time Limit for Probating a Will in Utah

In Utah, except in rare circumstances, a will cannot be the subject of a probate proceeding more than three years after the death of the testator. Accordingly, because the "the presumption of intestacy is final" after three years, any devisee under a will who receives a devise that is greater then their statutory share as an heir will want to ensure that the will is probated within this timeframe.

Until a few years ago, no proceeding to appoint a personal representative of a decedent's estate could generally be commenced more than three years after the death of the decedent. However, this changed with Utah H.B. 327, Chapter 364 (2013) and Utah H.B. 265, Chapter 134 (2014).

H.B. 327 "allows the appointment of a personal representative or special administrator beyond three years after a decedent’s death when the will was not previously probated." Specifically, the statute providing for the three-year limit was changed as follows: "No informal probate or appointment proceeding or formal testacy or appointment proceeding... may be commenced more than three years after the decedent's death..."

The bill also added "appoint a personal representative or special administrator to administer the decedent's estate" to the list of things that the court expressly has continuing jurisdiction to do.

H.B. 265 "makes technical and clarifying changes." Specifically, it deleted the provision previously found in Utah Code 75-3-301 that required appointment applications to state that "three years or less have passed since the decedent's death", which before the change was inconsistent with the changes made by H.B. 327. This bill also clarified that a court has continuing jurisdiction to appoint a personal representative formally or informally, notwithstanding the three-year limit found in Utah Code 75-3-107(1).

These new laws are not well understood. The form for an application for appointment of a personal representative provided by the Utah courts contains the statement that "not more than three years have passed since the person died" even though the form is specific to intestacy. Moreover, some courts in Utah still reject applications for appointment just because more than three years have passed since the decedent's death. Hopefully this post helps provide clarity.

Alert: Fixing Problems with Online IRS EIN Applications

This post is an update to a prior post, with updated information about fixing rejected online EIN applications submitted on the IRS's website. Apparently, the IRS no longer allows entities to be the responsible party for an EIN application. According to the latest instructions for IRS Form SS-4, "Unless the applicant is a government entity, the responsible party must be an individual (i.e., a natural person), not an entity."

Previously, it was possible for an entity that had not obtained its EIN online to be the responsible party for a new entity's online EIN application. In recent months, I have become aware that many IRS online EIN applications are resulting in an error page that doesn't include a reference number. The cause of this error page could be identifying an entity as the responsible party. Unless you are a government entity, you'll need to list an individual with a social security number as the responsible party for all online IRS EIN applications. Thanks to Joel in New Jersey for bringing this to my attention.

Opening a Utah Probate Matter; Formal v. Informal

In my previous post, I discussed some of the basics of the probate process. In Utah, a key decision to be made when beginning the probate process is whether informal or formal proceedings will be utilized. That decision, and the existence or non-existence of a last will, dictate the assertions that need to be made in the initial petition or application filed with the court. The following chart summarizes the assertions that a probate petition or application must contain:

Informal Probate of Will Informal Appointment Only (no will)Formal Probate of WillFormal Appointment Only (no will)
Proceeding commences with application directed to Registrar; must be verified to be accurate and complete to the best of the applicant's knowledge  X(1)  X

Proceeding commences with petition directed to Court

 X(2) X
Requests an order as to the testacy of the decedent in relation to the will and determining the heirs

Requests an order that the decedent left no will, determining the heirs, and whether supervised administration is sought

Statement of interest of applicant X(5) X X(6) X(7)
Decedent’s name, date of death, age, and the county and state of domicile at time of death; names and addresses of the decedent’s spouse, children, heirs, and devisees and the ages of any who are minors X(8) X  X(9)  X(10)
Statement of venue, if the decedent was not domiciled in the state at the time of death  X(11) X  X(12)  X(13)
Address of any personal representative appointed whose appointment has not been terminated  X(14)  X  X(15)  X(16)
Whether applicant has received a demand for notice or is aware of any demand for notice of any probate or appointment proceeding concerning the decedent  X(17)  X  X(18)  X(19)
Original of decedent’s will is (i) is in possession of court; (ii) was filed electronically with court and is in possession of the applicant or attorney; or (iii) is an authenticated copy of a will probated in another jurisdiction...  X(20)
Whether original of will is in the possession of the court, accompanies the petition, or was filed electronically with court and is in possession of the applicant or attorney (if no original, state the contents of the will and indicate that it is lost, destroyed, or otherwise unavailable)  X(21)
Applicant believes the will to have been validly executed  X(22)  X(23) 
Applicant is unaware of any instrument revoking the will and believes that subject of the application is the decedent's last will  X(24)  X(25) 
Three years or less have passed since the decedent's death  X(26)   
Describe will by date of execution; state the name, address and priority for appointment of the person whose appointment is sought; state whether bond is required, and, if so, unless specified by the will, state the estimated value of the estate and income generated therefrom  X(27)  X(28) 
Applicant is unaware of any unrevoked testamentary instrument relating to property having a situs in this state, or, a statement why any such instrument is not being probated  X(29)     X(30)
The priority of the person whose appointment is sought and the names of any other persons having a prior or equal right to the appointment  X(31)     X(32)
If bond is required, the estimated value of the estate and income generated therefrom   X(33)     X(34)

1. Utah Code § 75-3-301(1)
2. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)
3. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(a)
4. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
5. Utah Code § 75-3-301(2)(a)
6. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
7. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
8. Utah Code § 75-3-301(2)(b)
9. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
10. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
11. Utah Code § 75-3-301(2)(c)
12. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
13. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
14. Utah Code § 75-3-301(2)(d)
15. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
16. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
17. Utah Code § 75-3-301(2)(e)
18. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
19. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
20. Utah Code § 75-3-301(3)(a)
21. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(c)
22. Utah Code § 75-3-301(3)(b)
23. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
24. Utah Code § 75-3-301(3)(c)
25. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
26. Utah Code § 75-3-301(3)(d)
27. Utah Code § 75-3-301(4)
28. Utah Code § 75-3-402(1)(b)
29. Utah Code § 75-3-301(5)(a)
30. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
31. Utah Code § 75-3-301(5)(b)
32. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)
33. Utah Code § 75-3-301(5)(c)
34. Utah Code § 75-3-402(3)

Introduction to Probate Proceedings

One of the primary purposes of the probate process is to provide an efficient system for liquidating the estate of a decedent and making distributions to his or her successors in interest. When someone passes away with assets titled in their name, a system must be in place to deal with those assets and transfer them to the proper party. State courts oversee the probate process and have jurisdiction over (1) the estates of decedents who were domiciled in that state at death and (2) property located in that state belonging to decedents who were domiciled elsewhere. Venue for a probate proceeding is in the county where the decedent was domiciled at death or, if they lived elsewhere at death, in any county where property of the decedent was located.

If a decedent owned property in a state other than the one where the probate case is opened, an "ancillary" probate proceeding may be commenced in the other state. The personal representative accomplishes this by filing in the court of the ancillary jurisdiction authenticated copies of his or her appointment order or other certification of authority.

All property of a decedent devolves to persons named in their last will or, if there is none, to the decedent's heirs at law. In order "to be effective to prove the transfer of any property or to nominate a personal representative, a will must be declared to be valid" by a court. Thus, contrary to popular belief, a will does not avoid probate, it merely provides instructions to the probate court. Regardless of whether the decedent left a will or not, certain probate property can be distributed without a probate proceeding pursuant to a small estate affidavit.

Probate proceedings in Utah can be formal or informal. The key distinction in the commencement of a formal proceeding is that a court hearing is required before a court will appoint a personal representative. While no hearing is required to commence an informal proceeding (making it less costly and faster at the outset) the downside of informally probating a will is that any heir or devisee, even if they didn't object to the informal probate of the will, can subsequently petition the court to set aside the informal probate of the will.

In summary, the four primary types of probate proceedings are (1) informal probate in intestacy (no will), (2) informal probate of a will, (3) formal probate in intestacy, and (4) formal probate of a will. If all heirs will affirmatively agree on the key aspects of the probate proceeding and there is no will, informal probate will likely suffice. If such agreement cannot be obtained and there is a will, formal proceedings should be considered.