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June 18, 2015
  Ibrahim v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue
Headline Eighth Circuit panel holds that a "separate return" means "married filing separately" and does not include a tax return claiming "head of household" status

Area of Law Tax

Issue(s) Presented Whether the Tax Court properly determined that a tax return claiming "head of household" status constitutes a separate return under the Internal Revenue Code, thus prohibiting a taxpayer from changing their status in certain circumstances.

Brief Summary Appellant is a married Somalian immigrant who speaks limited English. Using a tax service to assist in the preparation of his tax return, he mistakenly claimed "head of household" status. This was not proper because Appellant was married. Appellant received a notice of deficiency, and petitioned the Tax Court to change his status to "married filing jointly." This change in status would have resulted in a credit and tax refund to Appellant. However, the Internal Revenue Code (the "Code") prohibits the filing of a joint return after a taxpayer has already filed a "separate return," received a deficiency notice, and filed a petition. 26 U.S.C. ยง 6013(b). The Tax Court held that "head of household" returns are "separate returns," and thus Appellant was prohibited from changing his status to "married filing jointly."

On appeal, a panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed the Tax Court's ruling in a two-to-one decision. The Code section at issue, Section 6013(b), does not define "separate return." To determine its meaning, the Eighth Circuit looked to the language of the statute as a whole. It concluded that "separate return" appears numerous times in the statute, and in each case means "married filing separately." In fact, where the Code does not expressly define "separate return," the Commissioner has issued guidance that "separate return" means "married filing separately." Relying on these findings, the Eighth Circuit applied the normal rule of statutory construction, that identical words used in different parts of the same statute are intended to have the same meaning, to conclude that for purposes of Section 6013(b), "separate return" exclusively means "married filing separately." The Eighth Circuit noted that the legislative history of Section 6013(b) also supports this definition.

Because Appellant's "head of household" filing was not a "separate return" within the meaning of Section 6013(b), he should not have been prohibited from amending his status to "married filing jointly" and receiving a refund.

Circuit Judge Bye dissented from the opinion, believing that the Tax Court reasonably construed any non-joint return, including "head of household" returns, as a "separate return" for purposes of Section 6013.

The full text of the opinion may be found at http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/15/06/142070P.pdf

Panel Circuit Judges Beam, Benton, and Bye

Date of Issued Opinion June 10, 2015

Decided Reversed and remanded

Docket Number 14-2070

Counsel Frank DiPietro for Appellant and Teresa McLaughlin for Appellee

Author Circuit Judge Benton

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor
Joelle Larson, University of Minnesota Law School

    Posted By: Joelle Larson @ 06/18/2015 11:29 AM     8th Circuit  

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