While tax evasion is a crime, the Supreme Court has long recognized that taxpayers have a legal right to reduce how much they owe, or avoid taxes all together, through careful tax planning. Whether that planning takes the form of an employee’s deferring income into a pension plan, a couple’s filing a joint return, a homeowner’s spreading improvement projects over several years, or a business’s spinning-off subsidiaries, so long as the actions are otherwise lawful, the fact they were motivated by a desire to lessen one’s tax burden doesn’t render them illegitimate.
The major limitation that the Court (and, since 2010, Congress) has placed on tax planning is the “sham transaction” rule (also known as the “economic substance” doctrine), which, in its simplest form, provides that transaction solely intended to lessen a commercial entity’s tax burden, with no other valid business purpose, will be held to have no effect on that entity’s income-tax assessment. The classic sham transaction is a deal where a corporation structures a series of deals between its subsidiaries, producing an income-loss on paper that is then used to lower the parent company’s profits (and thus its tax bill) without reducing the value of the assets held by the commercial entity as a whole.
We might quibble with a rule that effectively nullifies perfectly legal transactions, but a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit greatly expanded even the existing definition of “economic substance,” muddying the line between lawful tax planning and illicit tax evasion. At issue was Wells Fargo’s creation of a new non-banking subsidiary to take over certain unprofitable commercial leases. Because the new venture wasn’t a bank, it wasn’t subject to the same stringent regulations as its parent company. As a result, the holding company (WFC Holdings Corp.) was able to generate tens of millions of dollars in profits.