United States v. Boyle
469 U.S. 241 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Boyle, 469 U.S. 241 (1985)

United States v. Boyle

No. 83-1266

Argued October 10, 1984

Decided January 9, 1985

469 U.S. 241

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent, executor of his mother's will, retained an attorney to handle the estate. Respondent provided the attorney with all relevant information and records for filing a federal estate tax return, which under § 6075(a) of the Internal Revenue Code was required to be filed within nine months of the decedent's death. Respondent inquired of the attorney from time to time as to the preparation of the return, and was assured that it would be filed on time. But the return was filed three months late, apparently because of a clerical oversight in omitting the filing date from the attorney's calendar. Acting pursuant to § 6651(a)(1) of the Code, which provides a penalty for failure to file a return when due "unless it is shown that such failure is due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect," the Internal Revenue Service assessed a penalty for the late filing. Respondent paid the penalty and filed a suit in Federal District Court for a refund, contending that the penalty was unjustified because his failure to file the return on time was "due to reasonable cause," i.e., reliance on his attorney. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment for respondent. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The failure to make a timely filing of a tax return is not excused by the taxpayer's reliance on an agent, and such reliance is not "reasonable cause" for a late filing under § 6651(a)(1). While engaging an attorney to assist in probate proceedings is plainly an exercise of the "ordinary business care and prudence" that the relevant Treasury Regulation requires the taxpayer to demonstrate to excuse a late filing, this does not answer the question presented here. To say that it was "reasonable" for respondent to assume that the attorney would meet the statutory deadline may resolve the matter as between them, but not with respect to the respondent's obligation under that statute. It requires no special training or effort on the taxpayer's part to ascertain a deadline and ensure that it is met. That the attorney, as respondent's agent, was expected to attend to the matter does not relieve the principal of his duty to meet the deadline. Pp. 469 U. S. 245-252.

10 F.2d 1251, reversed.

Page 469 U. S. 242

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined,post, p. 469 U. S. 252.

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on whether a taxpayer's reliance on an attorney to prepare and file a tax return constitutes "reasonable cause" under § 6651(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code, so as to defeat a statutory penalty incurred because of a late filing.

I

A

Respondent, Robert W. Boyle, was appointed executor of the will of his mother, Myra Boyle, who died on September 14, 1978; respondent retained Ronald Keyser to serve as attorney for the estate. Keyser informed respondent that the estate must file a federal estate tax return, but he did not mention the deadline for filing this return. Under 26 U.S.C. § 6075(a), the return was due within nine months of the decedent's death, i.e., not later than June 14, 1979.

Although a businessman, respondent was not experienced in the field of federal estate taxation, other than having been executor of his father's will 20 years earlier. It is undisputed that he relied on Keyser for instruction and guidance. He cooperated fully with his attorney and provided Keyser with all relevant information and records. Respondent and his wife contacted Keyser a number of times during the spring and summer of 1979 to inquire about the progress of

Page 469 U. S. 243

the proceedings and the preparation of the tax return; they were assured that they would be notified when the return was due and that the return would be filed "in plenty of time." App. 39. When respondent called Keyser on September 6, 1979, he learned for the first time that the return was by then overdue. Apparently, Keyser had overlooked the matter because of a clerical oversight in omitting the filing date from Keyser's master calendar. Respondent met with Keyser on September 11, and the return was filed on September 13, three months late.

B

Acting pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6651(a)(1), the Internal Revenue Service assessed against the estate an additional tax of $17,124.45 as a penalty for the late filing, with $1,326.56 in interest. Section 6651(a)(1) reads in pertinent part:

"In case of failure . . . to file any return . . . on the date prescribed therefor . . . unless it is shown that such failure is due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect, there shall be added to the amount required to be shown as tax on such return 5 percent of the amount of such tax if the failure is for not more than 1 month, with an additional 5 percent for each additional month or fraction thereof during which such failure continues, not exceeding 25 percent in the aggregate. . . ."

(Emphasis added.) A Treasury Regulation provides that, to demonstrate "reasonable cause," a taxpayer filing a late return must show that he "exercised ordinary business care and prudence and was nevertheless unable to file the return within the prescribed time." 26 CFR § 301.6651-1(c)(1) (1984). [Footnote 1]

Page 469 U. S. 244

Respondent paid the penalty and filed a claim for a refund. He conceded that the assessment for interest was proper, but contended that the penalty was unjustified because his failure to file the return on time was "due to reasonable cause," i.e., reliance on his attorney. Respondent brought suit in the United States District Court, which concluded that the claim was controlled by the Court of Appeals' holding in Rohrabaugh v. United States, 611 F.2d 211 (CA7 1979). In Rohrabaugh, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that reliance upon counsel constitutes "reasonable cause" under § 6651(a)(1) when: (1) the taxpayer is unfamiliar with the tax law; (2) the taxpayer makes full disclosure of all relevant facts to the attorney that he relies upon, and maintains contact with the attorney from time to time during the administration of the estate; and (3) the taxpayer has otherwise exercised ordinary business care and prudence. 611 F.2d at 215, 219. The District Court held that, under Rohrabaugh, respondent had established "reasonable cause" for the late filing of his tax return; accordingly, it granted summary judgment for respondent and ordered refund of the penalty. A divided panel of the Seventh Circuit, with three opinions, affirmed. 710 F.2d 1251 (1983).

Page 469 U. S. 245

We granted certiorari, 466 U.S. 903 (1984), and we reverse.

II

A

Congress' purpose in the prescribed civil penalty was to ensure timely filing of tax returns to the end that tax liability will be ascertained and paid promptly. The relevant statutory deadline provision is clear; it mandates that all federal estate tax returns be filed within nine months from the decedent's death, 26 U.S.C. 6075(a). [Footnote 2] Failure to comply incurs a penalty of 5 percent of the ultimately determined tax for each month the return is late, with a maximum of 25 percent of the base tax. To escape the penalty, the taxpayer bears the heavy burden of proving both (1) that the failure did not result from "willful neglect," and (2) that the failure was "due to reasonable cause." 26 U.S.C. § 6651(a)(1).

The meaning of these two standards has become clear over the near-70 years of their presence in the statutes. [Footnote 3] As used here, the term "willful neglect" may be read as meaning a conscious, intentional failure or reckless indifference. See

Page 469 U. S. 246

Orient Investment & Finance Co. v. Commissioner, 83 U.S.App.D.C. 74, 75, 166 F.2d 601, 602 (1948); Hatfried, Inc. v. Commissioner, 162 F.2d 628, 634 (CA3 1947); Janice Leather Imports Ltd. v. United States, 391 F.Supp. 1235, 1237 (SDNY 1974); Gemological Institute of America, Inc. v. Riddell, 149 F.Supp. 128, 131-132 (SD Cal.1957). Like "willful neglect," the term "reasonable cause" is not defined in the Code, but the relevant Treasury Regulation calls on the taxpayer to demonstrate that he exercised "ordinary business care and prudence" but nevertheless was "unable to file the return within the prescribed time." [Footnote 4] 26 CFR § 301.6651(c)(1)(1984); accord, e.g., Fleming v. United States, 648 F.2d 1122, 1124 (CA7 1981); Ferrando v. United States, 245 F.2d 582, 587 (CA9 1957); Haywood Lumber & Mining Co. v. Commissioner, 178 F.2d 769, 770 (CA2 1950); Southeastern Finance Co. v. Commissioner, 153 F.2d 205 (CA5 1946); Girard Investment Co. v. Commissioner, 122 F.2d 843, 848 (CA3 1941); see also n. 1supra. The Commissioner does not contend that respondent's failure to file the estate tax return on time was willful or reckless. The question to be resolved is whether, under the statute,

Page 469 U. S. 247

reliance on an attorney in the instant circumstances is a "reasonable cause" for failure to meet the deadline.

B

In affirming the District Court, the Court of Appeals recognized the difficulties presented by its formulation but concluded that it was bound by Rohrabaugh v. United States, 611 F.2d 211 (CA7 1979). The Court of Appeals placed great importance on the fact that respondent engaged the services of an experienced attorney specializing in probate matters and that he duly inquired from time to time as to the progress of the proceedings. As in Rohrabaugh, see id. at 469 U. S. 219, the Court of Appeals in this case emphasized that its holding was narrowly drawn and closely tailored to the facts before it. The court stressed that the question of "reasonable cause" was an issue to be determined on a case-by-case basis. See 710 F.2d at 1253-1254; id. at 1254 (Coffey, J., concurring).

Other Courts of Appeals have dealt with the issue of "reasonable cause" for a late filing and reached contrary conclusions. [Footnote 5] In Ferrando v. United States, 245 F.2d 582 (CA9 1957), the court held that taxpayers have a personal and nondelegable duty to file a return on time, and that reliance on an attorney to fulfill this obligation does not constitute "reasonable cause" for a tardy filing. Id. at 589. The Fifth Circuit has similarly held that the responsibility for ensuring a timely filing is the taxpayer's alone, and that the taxpayer's reliance on his tax advisers -- accountants or

Page 469 U. S. 248

attorneys -- is not a "reasonable cause." Millette & Associates v. Commissioner, 594 F.2d 121, 124-125 (per curiam), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 899 (1979); Logan Lumber Co. v. Commissioner, 365 F.2d 846, 854 (1966). The Eighth Circuit also has concluded that reliance on counsel does not constitute "reasonable cause." Smith v. United States, 702 F.2d 741, 743 (1983) (per curiam); Boeving v. United States, 650 F.2d 493, 495 (1981); Estate of Lillehei v. Commissioner, 638 F.2d 65, 66 (1981) (per curiam).

III

We need not dwell on the similarities or differences in the facts presented by the conflicting holdings. The time has come for a rule with as "bright" a line as can be drawn consistent with the statute and implementing regulations. [Footnote 6]

Page 469 U. S. 249

Deadlines are inherently arbitrary; fixed dates, however, are often essential to accomplish necessary results. The Government has millions of taxpayers to monitor, and our system of self-assessment in the initial calculation of a tax simply cannot work on any basis other than one of strict filing standards. Any less rigid standard would risk encouraging a lax attitude toward filing dates. [Footnote 7] Prompt payment of taxes is imperative to the Government, which should not have to assume the burden of unnecessary ad hoc determinations. [Footnote 8]

Congress has placed the burden of prompt filing on the executor, not on some agent or employee of the executor. The duty is fixed and clear; Congress intended to place upon the taxpayer an obligation to ascertain the statutory deadline and then to meet that deadline, except in a very narrow range of

Page 469 U. S. 250

situations. Engaging an attorney to assist in the probate proceedings is plainly an exercise of the "ordinary business care and prudence" prescribed by the regulations, 26 CFR § 301.6651-1(c)(1) (1984), but that does not provide an answer to the question we face here. To say that it was "reasonable" for the executor to assume that the attorney would comply with the statute may resolve the matter as between them, but not with respect to the executor's obligations under the statute. Congress has charged the executor with an unambiguous, precisely defined duty to file the return within nine months; extensions are granted fairly routinely. That the attorney, as the executor's agent, was expected to attend to the matter does not relieve the principal of his duty to comply with the statute.

This case is not one in which a taxpayer has relied on the erroneous advice of counsel concerning a question of law. Courts have frequently held that "reasonable cause" is established when a taxpayer shows that he reasonably relied on the advice of an accountant or attorney that it was unnecessary to file a return, even when such advice turned out to have been mistaken. See, e.g., United States v. Kroll, 547 F.2d 393, 395-396 (CA7 1977); Commissioner v. American Assn. of Engineers Employment, Inc., 204 F.2d 19, 21 (CA7 1953); Burton Swartz Land Corp. v. Commissioner, 198 F.2d 558, 560 (CA5 1952); Haywood Lumber & Mining Co. v. Commissioner, 178 F.2d at 771; Orient Investment & Finance Co. v. Commissioner, 83 U.S.App.D.C. at 75, 166 F.2d at 603; Hatfried, Inc. v. Commissioner, 162 F.2d at 633-635; Girard Investment Co. v. Commissioner, 122 F.2d at 848; Dayton Bronze Bearing Co. v. Gilligan, 281 F. 709, 712 (CA6 1922). This Court also has implied that, in such a situation, reliance on the opinion of a tax adviser may constitute reasonable cause for failure to file a return. See Commissioner v. Lane-Wells Co.,321 U. S. 219 (1944) (remanding for determination whether failure to file return was due to

Page 469 U. S. 251

reasonable cause, when taxpayer was advised that filing was not required). [Footnote 9]

When an accountant or attorney advises a taxpayer on a matter of tax law, such as whether a liability exists, it is reasonable for the taxpayer to rely on that advice. Most taxpayers are not competent to discern error in the substantive advice of an accountant or attorney. To require the taxpayer to challenge the attorney, to seek a "second opinion," or to try to monitor counsel on the provisions of the Code himself would nullify the very purpose of seeking the advice of a presumed expert in the first place. See Haywood Lumber, supra, at 771. "Ordinary business care and prudence" do not demand such actions.

By contrast, one does not have to be a tax expert to know that tax returns have fixed filing dates and that taxes must be paid when they are due. In short, tax returns imply deadlines. Reliance by a lay person on a lawyer is of course common; but that reliance cannot function as a substitute for compliance with an unambiguous statute. Among the first duties of the representative of a decedent's estate is to identify and assemble the assets of the decedent and to ascertain tax obligations. Although it is common practice for an executor to engage a professional to prepare and file

Page 469 U. S. 252

an estate tax return, a person experienced in business matters can perform that task personally. It is not unknown for an executor to prepare tax returns, take inventories, and carry out other significant steps in the probate of an estate. It is even not uncommon for an executor to conduct probate proceedings without counsel.

It requires no special training or effort to ascertain a deadline and make sure that it is met. The failure to make a timely filing of a tax return is not excused by the taxpayer's reliance on an agent, and such reliance is not "reasonable cause" for a late filing under § 6651(a)(1). The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

It is so ordered.

[Footnote 1]

The Internal Revenue Service has articulated eight reasons for a late filing that it considers to constitute "reasonable cause." These reasons include unavoidable postal delays, the taxpayer's timely filing of a return with the wrong IRS office, the taxpayer's reliance on the erroneous advice of an IRS officer or employee, the death or serious illness of the taxpayer or a member of his immediate family, the taxpayer's unavoidable absence, destruction by casualty of the taxpayer's records or place of business, failure of the IRS to furnish the taxpayer with the necessary forms in a timely fashion, and the inability of an IRS representative to meet with the taxpayer when the taxpayer makes a timely visit to an IRS office in an attempt to secure information or aid in the preparation of a return. Internal Revenue Manual (CCH) § 4350, (24)

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