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How Private Letter Rulings are Useful to Tax Pros

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The private letter ruling (PLR) is a fact-specific, written determination by the IRS responding to a written request by a particular taxpayer. Individuals, corporations, exempt organizations, all kinds of taxpayers get rulings on all kinds of tax issues. Here's what tax pros need to know about them.

Oct 6th 2021
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While not precedential, private letter rulings (PLRs) are often an important element in one’s tax research for a particular client. 

There are many issues that the IRS will not address in a private letter ruling. These are usually tax technical or factual in the nature. The taxpayer asking for the ruling needs to be identified to the IRS. 

As guidance to other taxpayers, PLRs do not have the importance of published rulings. 

“A private letter ruling, or PLR, is a written statement issued to a taxpayer that interprets and applies tax laws to the taxpayer's specific set of facts. A PLR is issued to establish with certainty the federal tax consequences of a particular transaction before the transaction is consummated or before the taxpayer's return is filed….” (.Understanding IRS Guidance – A Brief Primer,” IRS.gov,   https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/understanding-irs-guidance-a-brief-primer).

The IRS goes on to explain the analysis is made public but in a manner that maintains confidentiality, and that it isn’t to be “relied on as precedent by other taxpayers or IRS personnel.”(Ibid)

A technical advice memorandum is distinguished but has some similarities, such as the steps aimed at maintaining taxpayer confidentiality. The TAM is public but focuses more on guidance for questions raised within the government concerning a closed transaction.  It is “a final determination of the position of the IRS, but only with respect to the specific issue in the specific case in which the advice is issued….” (Ibid).

A state may have its own distinct but similar procedures.  ((See California’s “Chief Counsel Corner, April 2018 Tax News,” Jozel Brunett, ftb.ca.gov.  See also the Illinois statute on our topic.  Admin. Code tit. 2 § 1200.110, which includes this language: “Prior rulings are considered in responding to future inquiries with similar fact situations.”

PLRs are nevertheless much cited and their analysis further analyzed. At a minimum, they are frequently useful trails of how the rules are interpreted and applied within carefully laid-out particulars.

They are serious, often much discussed elements of tax research, yet, it is often stressed that they are something less than “official guidance.” (Contrast “Tax Code, Regulations, and Official Guidance,” IRS.gov).

The procedures and user fees for obtaining a private ruling are set forth in each year’s first revenue procedure.  See Revenue Procedure 2021-1, and the usually not-small user fees laid out in its Appendix.  There is a Section 6 dealing with areas where rulings won’t be issued.  A difficulty within our work, and taxes in general, can be seen in that some topics are described as ones in which rulings will “ordinarily not” be issued.

The how-to-do-research sources, of course, discuss how to cite private letter rulings issued by the Office of the Chief Counsel.  The citation process is just basically “PLR: followed by its 7 digit number.  The first two digits reflect the year (or some citation styles reflect the year as four digits).   The citation may end with the date in brackets. A typical citation might be,  e.g., PLR 9826005 (12/18/1998),   or PLR 202047004.

The IRS will occasionally issue tips on requesting PLRs on a specific topic.  An example is “Tips for Requesting Private Letter Rulings on Actuarial Issues,” IRS.gov;  https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/tips-for-requesting-a-private-lette....

Unlike published rulings, private letter rulings are not published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin (See also the New York University Law Library web page, “Federal Tax Research: Treatises including BNA Portfolios, and “Federal Tax Research: Letter Rulings,” https:/nyulaw.libguides.com/). Publishers may include PLRs as important elements of their tax research offerings. 

One can also find PLRs on the IRS site. The site has a very useful search engine. See generally “FOIA Library” and click “Non-precedential Rulings & Advice” and “IRS Written Determinations” – private letter rulings, technical advice memorandum, and Chief  Counsel advice (See https://apps.irs.gov/app/picklist/list/writtenDeterminations.html).    

The IRS Manual on policies and procedures for issuing PLRs has many general details. Examples include: areas of refusal, deferral, timing as to effective date, caveats as to the facts and circumstances (See Part 32. Published  Guidance and Other Guidance to Taxpayers. Chapter 3. Letter Rulings, Information Letters and Closing Agreements.  Section 2. Letter Rulings.”  IRS.gov.   https://www.irs.gov/irm/part32/irm_32-003-002).

So, PLRs are indeed private, yet public as to facts (sans taxpayer identification) and IRS rationale. Obtaining private letter rulings for a particular taxpayer can often be worthwhile, particularly when the amounts are large and guidance critical, or even determinative of what will be done. 

There are benefits to rulings specific to one’s particulars.  Law and CPA firms often have significant resources devoted to helping taxpayers in this manner. There are many tax professionals whose focus is obtaining such rulings.

The IRS PLR library grows and grows, issue by issue, taxpayer by (undisclosed) taxpayer.  The importance of our topic is to some extent indicated by the magnitude.  The PLR total on the IRS site on October 5, 2021, was 68,652 (https://www.irs.gov/privacy-disclosure/foia-library). In short, while PLRs are important, this aspect of the tax professional’s research is done with a view that it isn’t binding precedent.   

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