Taxpayers generally have four judicial avenues for resolving federal tax controversies, namely the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Federal District Courts, the U.S. Court of Claims, or the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts.
Most tax litigation is handled by the U.S. Tax Court. This is primarily due to this court allowing taxpayers to litigate their tax disputes without paying the tax liability up front. However, taxpayers are only entitled to bring suit in this court if they timely file a petition, based on the date indicated in one of the notices that the IRS sends to taxpayers.
The U.S. Tax Court is a nationwide court, with its base in Washington D.C. The court travels to larger cities several times each year to hear cases. Tax Court judges are appointed by the president and serve 15-year terms. The court divides cases between those involving a tax liability under $50,000 and those over $50,000. The rules of evidence for smaller cases are less formal. As a result, taxpayers often unsuccessfully try to represent themselves before the U.S. Tax Court.
The U.S. Federal District Courts also hear federal tax claims brought by taxpayers. However, these courts are not as frequently used because taxpayers have to first pay the tax liability assessed and sue for a refund.
The U.S. Federal District Courts are located in most urban areas across the United States. One court may serve several nearby cities. U.S. Federal District Court judges are appointed for life. They are generalists, hearing all kinds of cases (not just tax cases). Typically, criminal cases (all types of federal crimes, not just federal tax crimes) will be given priority and heard before civil cases. Therefore, civil tax litigation can often take more time in these courts than in other courts.
The rules of evidence and court formalities are strictly adhered to in U.S. District Courts. Therefore, most U.S. District Court judges will generally not allow taxpayers to try their case without the assistance of counsel.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears cases against the United States, which includes federal tax claims. Like the U.S. Federal District Courts, taxpayers must prepay their tax liability before they can bring a suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for a refund.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims is located in Washington D.C. Its judges are appointed for 15-year terms. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears specialty cases (such as customs, patent, and tax cases), which allows them to specialize in tax cases more than U.S. Federal District judges, but less than U.S. Tax Court judges.
Proceedings in this court are more formal than those held in the U.S. Tax Court but less formal than those held in the U.S. Federal District Courts.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Courts often hear federal tax matters that arise in the context of bankruptcy proceedings. Typically these cases involve liability for taxes and dischargability of tax liabilities. The intersection of our tax and bankruptcy laws creates numerous opportunities; however, the complexities of these two bodies of law requires the assistance of an experienced tax attorney.
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