IRS Guides for the Field Summarize U.S. Withholding Agent Responsibilities and Confuse Issue Related to U.S. Source Gross Transportation Income

[UPDATE: LB&I revised the practice unit “FDAP Payments – Source of Income” on July 15.  The link below now accesses the updated version, which removes the statement regarding transportation income described in this article.  For our discussion of the change and images of the original and updated language, see this article.]

The Large Business and International division of the IRS released two new practice units (slide presentations) that can serve as a guide to U.S. withholding agents with respect to several key compliance issues.  The first practice unit, “FDAP Withholding Under Chapter 3,” serves as a quick summary of U.S. withholding agents’ obligations under Chapter 3 and the risks of noncompliance (i.e., penalties), while the second practice unit, “FDAP Payments – Source of Income,” can help U.S. withholding agents determine the source of income for purposes of deciding whether Chapter 3 applies.

One issue that U.S. withholding agents have struggled with relates to whether withholding is required  for payments of U.S. source transportation income to foreign persons.  Generally, Sections 1441 and 1442 require withholding agents to withhold 30% on payments subject to the 30% gross tax under Sections 871 and 881 (i.e., FDAP income).  However, payments of gross transportation income that is U.S. source because the transportation begin or ends (not both) in the United States are subject to a 4% excise tax under Section 887 that is self-imposed by the payee, unless an exception applies.  Section 887(c) provides that the 30% gross tax applicable to most U.S. source income of foreign persons (other than income effectively connected with a U.S. trade or business) does not apply to transportation income.

The issue that has arisen is that neither Section 1441 or 1442 explicitly reference Sections 871 and 881 as a basis for the withholding.  However, it seems illogical to require 30% withholding on U.S. source gross transportation income given that such income is only subject to the 4% excise tax.  To this end, IRS Publication 515 provides that such amounts are not subject to Chapter 3 withholding under Section 1441 or 1442.  Nonetheless, various large taxpayers have had examiners raise the issue on audit asserting that such amounts are subject to Chapter 3 withholding notwithstanding the inapplicability of the underlying tax that Chapter 3 is intended to collect although the examiners have ultimately retreated with respect to the issue.  As a result, U.S. withholding agents have struggled to determine their withholding obligations with respect to such payments, and the IRS has ignored repeated requests from the IRS Information Reporting Program Advisory Committee (IRPAC) (for example, see the 2013 IRPAC report) and others to provide formal guidance in this area.

The “FDAP Payments – Source of Income” practice unit confuses the issue further by definitively stating that transportation income is not FDAP income.  Because Chapter 3 applies only to payments of FDAP income, the 30% withholding for payments subject to Chapter 3 would not apply to payments of transportation income.  Although this might seem like welcome news, the conclusion is puzzling given that FDAP income is generally defined very broadly to include all income, except gains derived from the sale of real or personal property and items of income excluded from gross income.  This broad definition would seemingly include U.S. source gross transportation income, which is a payment for a service paid in an amount known ahead of time or calculable.  Moreover, this is not the basis given in Publication 515 for excluding such amounts from withholding.  Thus the conclusion in the practice unit would seem incorrect and suggests that the document was not reviewed for accuracy by the Chief Counsel attorneys in Branch 8, the international withholding branch.

The pronouncement of law contained in the practice unit continues a worrying trend toward informal guidance in frequently asked questions, publications, comments at conferences, and on the IRS website.  Taxpayers are not permitted to rely on informal guidance, but have often been left without any formal guidance upon which to rely.  Until the IRS issues formal guidance, taxpayers are left to navigate an issue that could arise on audit but truly should not be an issue in most cases.  It would be preferable if the IRS issued a notice announcing the IRS and Treasury intend to amend the Section 1441 regulations to preclude withholding on U.S. source gross transportation income that is subject to the 4% excise tax under Section 887.