It might seem odd, but it is possible to get the IRS to give you a straight-forward and binding answer to ambiguous tax positions in advance. How does this happen, you ask? The answer is through an IRS private letter ruling.
IRS private letter rulings provide many benefits, but they are not easy to obtain. There are costs, potential delays, and even then, you run the risk of not being granted a ruling. This dynamic might seem odd as the entire point of applying for a private letter ruling is to obtain certainty. If your position is weak from a tax law perspective, the government could refuse to rule on it. Alternatively, if the position you are seeking is obviously correct, the government might refuse to rule as well because they don’t like to issue “comfort rulings.” Essentially, the only way to get the government to rule is to make a request regarding a position that is in the middle.
If you believe the tax position in question lies somewhere in the middle, requesting a private letter ruling may make sense. If you are more likely one of the outliers, then requesting a tax opinion usually makes more sense. The problem is that tax opinion, unlike private letter rulings, doesn't bind the IRS.
Deciding Which Path to Take
If the relative certainty of the tax position in question doesn’t provide enough guidance, how do you decide to go after a tax opinion versus a private letter ruling? To make the choice, it helps to understand more details.
First, tax opinions can cover a broader range of topics and can be written about pretty much anything; rulings cannot. In fact, the IRS has an explicit list of subjects that it will not produce private letter rulings on (they modify it occasionally, but there’s always a list). As a result, the first step is to assess the list as this might make the choice for you.
Second, don’t request a private letter ruling unless there is a good chance you think it will be granted. For one, rulings are not cheap with fees often costing upward of $25,000 to obtain a ruling. If you get a “No” ruling against your position, you can withdraw the request to take the ruling off the books, but you may or may not get the fee back. Moreover, when you withdraw a request for a ruling, the IRS sends a notice to your local IRS field office, potentially flagging your return for audit.
Third, opinions can be quick and obtained in as little as a few days or weeks. Rulings, on the other hand, often take months. Also consider that a request for a ruling must be specific and there is little room for modification after filing. Opinions have more flexibility.
Private Letter Ruling Process
Given the specificity and consequence of requesting a ruling, there are intermediate steps to help you test the water before you go all in. Nearly all ruling requests start by initiating a discussion with the IRS to get their general view on your proposed ruling. After this, the taxpayer usually submits a brief memo covering the facts and ruling they are looking to obtain. Next, there are more meetings either in person or by phone with IRS attorneys involved. At this point, if everything looks good, you can prepare and submit the actual ruling request. If you back out at this point, you avoid triggering any fees (IRS fees – not your lawyers or accountants) or audit notices.
Benefits of a Ruling Versus an Opinion
The reason taxpayers go through the time, expense and effort to obtain rulings instead of opinions is that they have several advantages. First, rulings are binding on the IRS. Second, you don’t need to consider penalty protection. Most of all, they provide certainty. Given the difficulty in obtaining a ruling, they generally make financial sense only when a taxpayer has a seriously substantial tax position in play, or at least will over time, and he wants to protect against future audits and legal challenges.