Confidentiality, Privilege, and Taxes

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

August 22, 2014

Pretty much anybody that watches crime shows on television knows about attorney-client privilege.  This is how murderers can admit the details of their crimes to their attorneys and the communication is protected from discovery by the courts.

But what about tax related communications with your accountant?  Unfortunately, there are not a lot of television shows featuring taxpayers admitting the gory details to their accountants on how they swindled the IRS.  That said, prime time dramas are probably not the best place to learn about the legal and accounting world anyway!

Misinformed people will sometimes think they can sit down with their CPA and contrive ways to scheme the IRS, or that they can openly discuss all the income they took in under the table and did not report.  Communications with a CPA are confidential due to professional standards, but they usually do not qualify for evidentiary confidentiality privilege in a court of law.  This means the CPA should not disclose the information to other parties without your permission, but if questioned in a court of law, the information would have to be disclosed.  The other problem a CPA would have knowing the skeletons in your closet, is that a CPA (or any preparer) cannot knowingly file a false return.

So you may think you should hire a tax attorney to prepare your returns in order to get privilege.  That actually won’t work either.  One of the main tenets of attorney-client privilege is that if you do not treat the information as confidential and you disclose it to a third-party other than your attorney and his or her associates, then you have lost your privilege.  Since tax returns are inherently a third-party communication for disclosure to the taxing authorities, it has been ruled that tax preparation services are not afforded attorney-client privilege.  In fact, there have been interesting cases where attorneys have lost their attorney-client privilege because they included estate tax preparation as part of their engagement with the client.

Tax advice, however, is a different story.  For engagements that strictly involve tax advice, and not tax preparation, attorney-client and accountant-client privilege is extended.  Accountant-client privilege has more limitations than attorney-client privilege as defined in Internal Revenue Code section 7525.  Most notably is that accountant-client privilege does not extend to criminal matters before the IRS or Federal courts, nor does it apply to tax shelters designed for tax evasion.

As previously discussed, the disclosure of information to a third-party generally waives the attorney-client privilege.  An exception to this rule is if the attorney needs the assistance of another professional (such as an accountant) in order to render legal advice to the client.  A Kovel letter (based on the 1961 case) can be drafted and signed by the accountant and attorney which essentially extends the attorney-client privilege to the accountant.  The accountant is then, in essence, working for the attorney and not the ultimate client.  This does provide additional protections, but it still would not provide protections for tax return preparation.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

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