Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Our Tax Exemption Was Revoked - Now What?

We recently received an inquiry from a small nonprofit organization that learned that the Internal Revenue Service had revoked its tax exemption for failure to file required notices. Among other consequences, this meant that the organization would be liable for corporate income tax, could face additional tax penalties, and would be unable to provide donors with a tax deduction for their gifts.

If your organization has received similarly discouraging news, take heart. Organizations who have had their exemption revoked can regain their tax-exempt status by re-filing IRS Form 1023.

As part of this process, your organization can apply to have its exemption retroactively reinstated. In most cases, the organization must include a reasonable cause statement (as outlined in IRS procedures) to establish that it exercised ordinary business care in attempting to comply with the annual reporting requirements.

While your application is pending, the Council of Nonprofits advises that you should be transparent with donors, staff, and board members about the loss of tax exemption, keep good records, and be patient with the lengthy IRS process.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Powers of Attorney: Protecting Yourself from Abuse

As part of the estate planning process, we often ask our clients to consider signing a durable power of attorney. This document gives another person (the “attorney-in-fact”) the power to do a variety of things on your behalf, such as access financial accounts, transfer property, or defend legal actions.

An “attorney-in-fact” acting under a power of attorney owes fiduciary duties to the individual who executed the power of attorney. This means an attorney-in-fact must act solely in the best interest of the principal and is required to act with good faith, care, and loyalty on behalf on the principal. Acts of self-dealing which benefit the attorney-in-fact are prohibited.

Although most attorneys-in-fact act in the interest of the grantor, these powers are sometimes abused, even by family members. Often, this abuse targets the elderly or others who are unable to care for themselves. For example, instead of using the principal’s funds to pay for long-term care expenses, the wrongdoer may instead withdraw money for a personal vacation trip.

Improper use of powers of attorney is a serious violation of law. An individual who abuses a power of attorney can be subject to a variety of legal claims including fraud, misrepresentation, conversion, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty.

What can you do to protect yourself? First, if you are granting a power of attorney, you must be absolutely sure that you select a trusted attorney-in-fact who will act in your interest and carry out your wishes. Second, if needed, the document granting a power of attorney should specifically outline those wishes – and any limitations. It is also advisable to revisit the power every few years, particularly if the relationship situation or dynamics have changed. Conversely, if you have been granted a power of attorney, use your power with good faith in the principal’s interest, and watch for signs of abuse by others.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Supreme Court Rules on Securities Fraud Class Actions

A United States Supreme Court decision near the end of its last term makes it more difficult for investors to pursue class action suits alleging securities fraud, but it does not effectively prevent such actions altogether.

The case involved a challenge to Basic Inc. v. Levinson, a 1988 decision in which the Court adopted a “fraud on the market” theory in securities fraud class action suits. In these securities fraud cases, a presumption arises that a company’s false statements improperly inflated the share prices and that investors relied on that inflated price when they bought. This presumption helps plaintiffs fulfill the requirements for a class action suit of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, particularly the need for “questions of law or fact common to the class.”

In the June decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, the Court held that companies can rebut this presumption during the class certification stage of litigation with evidence showing that the stock price was not inflated. Prior law prevented this evidence until the merits of the case were at issue, thus encouraging earlier settlements.

The impact of the ruling is unclear. Although the court did not abolish the “fraud on the market” presumption altogether, it did allow corporate defendants to offer contrary evidence earlier in the litigation process.

The New York Times has a summary of the decision, and Forbes and the Wall Street Journal have full discussions of the potential impact of the ruling.