Estate of Zlotowski v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2007-203 (Jul 24, 2007)

In a probate proceeding the person primarily responsible for getting the job done right is also the person primarily liable if things go wrong: the personal representative ("PR").  When a PR hires a lawyer to advise him or her, the PR is entitled to good advice, but the mantle of ultimate responsibility/ liability for the estate remains with the PR, not the lawyer.

"Disengaged" PR

In the linked-to case an 85-year old PR (referred to as "executor") who had assumed responsibility for administering the estate of a former business partner’s widow apparently failed to recognize the gravity of his responsibilities.  The following excerpt from the linked-to opinion is how the Tax Court characterized his conduct:

Mr. Roisen testified about his administration of the estate, and, from that testimony, we draw the conclusion that he was almost completely disengaged from estate administration, relying on Mr. Ledley to do virtually all that was required of him and Mr. Helman. Specifically, we make the following findings, based on Mr. Roisen’s testimony: He agreed to serve as an executor to accommodate his old business acquaintance, decedent’s husband. He relied on decedent’s attorney for the selection of Mr. Ledley as executors’ counsel. He knew nothing about the estate and relied fully on Mr. Ledley, who, from his perspective, was in charge of the estate. Apart from signing the Form 706, he did not participate in filing it, which job, he believed, was in Mr. Ledley’s hands. He never discussed with Mr. Ledley penalties for a late-filed return. He only discussed with Mr. Ledley whether the return was going to be filed on time after it already was late.

Mr. Roisen’s almost complete disengagement from return preparation is captured by his final exchange with one of respondent’s counsel:

Q: So, essentially your testimony is that they [i.e., Mr. Ledley] took care of everything relative to the filing of the return?

A: Absolutely. That is a hundred percent correct.

Q: And you had no participation in the filing of the return?

A: No, except that they required my signature, because being the executor of the will, I had to sign it, and which I did. I had full confidence in them.

Mr. Roisen signed the estate tax return, on August 28, 2001, after it was more than 8 months overdue.

Blown estate tax filing deadline = $233,359 late penalty

When the IRS assessed a $233,359 late penalty because the PR filed the estate’s Form 706 Estate Tax Return 8 months late, the PR argued his lawyer was responsible for filing the estate tax return, and so the estate shouldn’t be held responsible for his lawyer’s mistake.  The Tax Court rejected this argument, but summarized the controlling law as follows:

In [United States v. Boyle, 469 U.S. 241, 245 (1985),] at 249-250, the Supreme Court stated:

Congress has placed the burden of prompt filing [of an estate tax return] on the executor, not on some agent or employee of the executor. * * * 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 situations.

The Court recognized that engaging an attorney to assist in probate proceedings is “plainly an exercise of the ‘ordinary business care and prudence’ prescribed by [section 301.6651-1(c)(1), Proced. & Admin. Regs.]”. Id. at 250. Nevertheless, describing the executor’s duty to file the return as an “unambiguous, precisely defined duty”, the Court cautioned that the executor’s expectation that the attorney, as his agent, would attend to the matter “does not relieve the principal of his duty to comply with the statute.” Id.