IRS revises ethical standards for tax attorneys, accountants

Friday, December 17th 2004, 3:07 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawyers, accountants and other professionals who offer tax advice must meet stricter ethical standards under guidelines issued by the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service on Friday.

The new rules mark another step in the government's crackdown on abusive tax shelters that multiplied during the booming economy of the late 1990s.

``These new standards send a strong message to tax professionals considering selling a questionable product to clients,'' said IRS Commissioner Mark Everson. ``The new provisions give us more tools to battle abusive tax avoidance transactions and to rein in practitioners who disregard their ethical obligations.''

The new ``best practices'' clamp down on opinions that tax professionals issue to taxpayers, often wealthy investors, who want to know whether a tax-sheltering strategy could be considered illegal or abusive.

If challenged, investors often use such letters to prove they relied on professional advice and protect themselves from penalties. Tax shelters aim to minimize taxation, some legally and others illegally.

Cono Namorato, director of the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, said in an interview that the directives encourage professionals to comply voluntarily. The office, which enforces practitioner standards, has doubled its staff during the past year.

``We care as much about prevention as detection and punishment on the back end,'' Namorato said.

The new rules say the opinion letters must clearly state whether the taxpayer would be more likely than not to successfully defend the tax transaction if it's challenged by the IRS.

Lawyers, accountants and others issuing the opinion letters must rely on facts, consider all relevant facts and analyze all related federal tax laws.

The new rules also require that the attorneys, accountants and others disclose whether they have a special financial arrangement with tax professionals who recommend, promote or market a tax shelter.

Treasury Department's acting assistant secretary for tax policy, Greg Jenner, said the new regulations ``strike an appropriate balance between tightening practitioner standards and minimizing burden on everyday advice.''

A recently passed law gives the government authority to fine tax professionals who knowingly violate these best practices.