JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.
These cases focus upon § 6501 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, 26 U. S. C. § 6501. Subsection (a) of that statute establishes a general 3-year period of limitations "after the return was filed" for the assessment of income and certain other federal taxes.
The issue before us is the proper application of §§ 6501(a) and (c)(1) to the situation where a taxpayer files a false or fraudulent return but later files a nonfraudulent amended return. May a tax then be assessed more than three years after the filing of the amended return?
No. 82-1453. Petitioners Ernest Badaracco, Sr., and Ernest Badaracco, Jr., were partners in an electrical contracting business. They filed federal partnership and individual income tax returns for the calendar years 1965-1969, inclusive. "[F]or purposes of this case," these petitioners concede the "fraudulent nature of the original returns." App. 37a.
In 1970 and 1971, federal grand juries in New Jersey subpoenaed books and records of the partnership. On August 17, 1971, petitioners filed nonfraudulent amended returns for the tax years in question and paid the additional basic taxes shown thereon. Three months later, petitioners were indicted for filing false and fraudulent returns, in violation of § 7206(1) of the Code, 26 U. S. C. § 7206(1). Each pleaded guilty to the charge with respect to the 1967 returns, and judgments of conviction were entered. United States v. Badaracco, Crim. No. 766-71 (NJ). The remaining counts of the indictment were dismissed.
On November 21, 1977, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue mailed to petitioners notices of deficiency for each of the tax years in question. He asserted, however, only the liability under § 6653(b) of the Code, 26 U. S. C. § 6653(b), for the addition to tax on account of fraud (the so-called fraud "penalty") of 50% of the underpayment in the basic tax. See App. 5a.
Petitioners sought redetermination in the United States Tax Court of the asserted deficiencies, contending that the Commissioner's action was barred by § 6501(a). They claimed that § 6501(c)(1) did not apply because the 1971 filing of nonfraudulent amended returns caused the general 3-year period of limitations specified in § 6501(a) to operate; the deficiency notices, having issued in November 1977, obviously were forthcoming only long after the expiration of three years from the date of filing of the nonfraudulent amended returns.
The Tax Court, in line with its then-recent decision in Klemp v. Commissioner, 77 T.C. 201 (1981), appeal pending,
No. 82-1509. Petitioner Deleet Merchandising Corp. filed timely corporation income tax returns for the calendar years 1967 and 1968. The returns as so filed, however, did not report certain receipts derived by the taxpayer from its printing supply business. On August 9, 1973, Deleet filed amended returns for 1967 and 1968 disclosing the receipts that had not been reported.
Deleet paid the alleged deficiencies and brought suit for their refund in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. On its motion for summary judgment, Deleet contended that the Commissioner's action was barred by § 6501(a). It claimed that no deficiencies or additions could be assessed more than three years after the amended returns were filed, regardless of whether the original returns were fraudulent.
The Appeals. The Government appealed each case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The cases were heard and decided together. That court, by a 2-to-1 vote, reversed the decision of the Tax Court in Badaracco and the judgment of the District Court in Deleet. 693 F.2d 298 (1982). The Third Circuit's ruling is consistent with the Fifth Circuit's holding in Nesmith v. Commissioner, 699 F.2d 712 (1983), cert. pending, No. 82-2008. The Second Circuit has ruled otherwise. See Britton v. United States, 532 F.Supp. 275 (Vt. 1981), affirmance order, 697 F.2d 288 (CA2 1982). See also Espinoza v. Commissioner, 78 T.C. 412 (1982).
Our task here is to determine the proper construction of the statute of limitations Congress has written for tax assessments. This Court long ago pronounced the standard: "Statutes of limitation sought to be applied to bar rights of the Government, must receive a strict construction in favor of the Government." E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Davis, 264 U.S. 456, 462 (1924). See also Lucas v. Pilliod
We naturally turn first to the language of the statute. Section 6501(a) sets forth the general rule: a 3-year period of limitations on the assessment of tax. Section 6501(e)(1)(A) (first introduced as § 275(c) of the Revenue Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 745) provides an extended limitations period for the situation where the taxpayer's return nonfraudulently omits more than 25% of his gross income; in a situation of that kind, assessment now is permitted "at any time within 6 years after the return was filed."
Both the 3-year rule and the 6-year rule, however, explicitly are made inapplicable in circumstances covered by § 6501(c). This subsection identifies three situations in which the Commissioner is allowed an unlimited period within which to assess tax. Subsection (c)(1) relates to "a false or fraudulent return with the intent to evade tax" and provides that the tax then may be assessed "at any time." Subsection (c)(3) covers the case of a failure to file a return at all (whether or not due to fraud) and provides that an assessment then also may be made "at any time." Subsection (c)(2) sets forth a similar rule for the case of a "willful attempt in any manner to defeat or evade tax" other than income, estate, and gift taxes.
All these provisions appear to be unambiguous on their face, and it therefore would seem to follow that the present cases are squarely controlled by the clear language of § 6501(c)(1). Petitioners Badaracco concede that they filed
The weakness of petitioners' proposed statutory construction is demonstrated further by its impact on § 6501(e)(1)(A), which provides an extended limitations period whenever a taxpayer's return nonfraudulently omits more than 25% of his gross income.
Under petitioners' reasoning, a taxpayer who fraudulently omits 25% of his gross income gains the benefit of the 3-year limitations period by filing an amended return. Yet a taxpayer who nonfraudulently omits 25% of his gross income cannot gain that benefit by filing an amended return; instead, he must live with the 6-year period specified in § 6501(e) (1)(A).
We therefore conclude that the plain and unambiguous language of § 6501(c)(1) would permit the Commissioner to assess "at any time" the tax for a year in which the taxpayer has filed "a false or fraudulent return," despite any subsequent disclosure the taxpayer might make. Petitioners attempt to evade the consequences of this language by arguing that their original returns were "nullities." Alternatively, they urge a nonliteral construction of the statute based on considerations of policy and practicality. We now turn successively to those proposals.
Petitioners argue that their original returns, to the extent they were fraudulent, were "nullities" for statute of limitations purposes. See Brief for Petitioners in No. 82-1453, pp. 22-27; Brief for Petitioner in No. 82-1509, pp. 32-34. Inasmuch as the original return is a nullity, it is said, the amended return is necessarily "the return" referred to in § 6501(a). And if that return is nonfraudulent, § 6501(c)(1) is inoperative and the normal 3-year limitations period applies. This nullity notion does not persuade us, for it is plain that "the return" referred to in § 6501(a) is the original, not the amended, return.
Petitioners do not contend that their fraudulent original returns were nullities for purposes of the Code generally. There are numerous provisions in the Code that relate to civil and criminal penalties for submitting or assisting in the preparation of false or fraudulent returns; their presence makes clear that a document which on its face plausibly purports to
Zellerbach Paper Co. v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 172 (1934), which petitioners cite, affords no support for their argument. The Court in Zellerbach held that an original return, despite its inaccuracy, was a "return" for limitations purposes, so that the filing of an amended return did not start a new period of limitations running. In the instant cases, the original returns similarly purported to be returns, were sworn to as such, and appeared on their faces to constitute endeavors to satisfy the law. Although those returns, in fact, were not honest, the holding in Zellerbach does not render them nullities. To be sure, current Regulations, in several places, e. g., Treas. Reg. §§ 301.6211-1(a), 301.6402-3(a), 1.451-1(a), and 1.461-1(a)(3)(i) (1983), do refer to an amended return, as does § 6213(g)(1) of the Code itself, 26 U. S. C. § 6213(g)(1) (1976 ed., Supp. V). None of these provisions, however, requires the filing of such a return. It does not follow from all this that an amended return becomes "the return" for purposes of § 6501(a).
We conclude, therefore, that nothing in the statutory language, the structure of the Code, or the decided cases supports the contention that a fraudulent return is a nullity for statute of limitations purposes.
Petitioners contend that a nonliteral reading should be accorded the statute on grounds of equity to the repentant
The cases before us, however, concern the construction of existing statutes. The relevant question is not whether, as an abstract matter, the rule advocated by petitioners accords with good policy. The question we must consider is whether the policy petitioners favor is that which Congress effectuated by its enactment of § 6501. Courts are not authorized to rewrite a statute because they might deem its effects susceptible of improvement. See TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 194-195 (1978). This is especially so when courts construe a statute of limitations, which "must receive a strict construction in favor of the Government." E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Davis, 264 U. S., at 462.
We conclude that, even were we free to do so, there is no need to twist § 6501(c)(1) beyond the contours of its plain and unambiguous language in order to comport with good policy, for substantial policy considerations support its literal language. First, fraud cases ordinarily are more difficult to investigate than cases marked for routine tax audits. Where fraud has been practiced, there is a distinct possibility that the taxpayer's underlying records will have been falsified or even destroyed. The filing of an amended return, then, may not diminish the amount of effort required to verify the correct tax liability. Even though the amended return proves to be an honest one, its filing does not necessarily "remov[e] the Commissioner from the disadvantageous position in which he was originally placed." Brief for Petitioners in No. 82-1453, p. 12.
Second, the filing of a document styled "amended return" does not fundamentally change the nature of a tax fraud investigation. An amended return, however accurate it ultimately
Third, the difficulties that attend a civil fraud investigation are compounded where, as in No. 82-1453, the Commissioner's initial findings lead him to conclude that the case should be referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. The period of limitations for prosecuting criminal tax fraud is generally six years. See § 6531. Once a criminal referral has been made, the Commissioner is under well-known restraints on the civil side and often will find it difficult to complete his civil investigation within the normal 3-year period; the taxpayer's filing of an amended return will not make any difference in this respect. See United States v. LaSalle National Bank, 437 U.S. 298, 311-313 (1978); see also Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, Pub. L. 97-248, § 333(a), 96 Stat. 622. As a practical matter, therefore, the Commissioner frequently is forced to place a civil audit in abeyance when a criminal prosecution is recommended.
Neither are we persuaded by Deleet's argument that a literal reading of the statute "punishes" the taxpayer who repentantly files an amended return. See Brief for Petitioner in No. 82-1509, p. 44. The amended return does not change the status of the taxpayer; he is left in precisely the same position he was in before. It might be argued that Congress should provide incentives to taxpayers to disclose their fraud voluntarily. Congress, however, has not done so in § 6501. That legislative judgment is controlling here.
Petitioners contend, finally, that a literal reading of § 6501(c) produces a disparity in treatment between a taxpayer who in the first instance files a fraudulent return and one who fraudulently fails to file any return at all. This, it is said, would elevate one form of tax fraud over another.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals in each of these cases is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.
The plain language of § 6501(c)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code conveys a different message to me than it does to the
In both cases before the Court, the Commissioner assessed deficiencies based on concededly nonfraudulent returns. The taxpayers' alleged prior fraud was not the basis for the Commissioner's action. Indeed, whether or not the Commissioner was obligated to accept petitioners' amended returns, he in fact elected to do so and to use them as the basis for his assessment.
The purpose of the statute supports this reading. The original version of § 6501(c) was enacted in 1921. It was true in 1921, as it is today, that the fraudulent concealment of the facts giving rise to a claim tolled the controlling statute of limitations until full disclosure was made. Fraud did not entirely repeal the bar of limitations; rather the period of limitations simply did not begin to run until the fraud was discovered, or at least discoverable. See, e. g., Exploration Co. v. United States, 247 U.S. 435 (1918). Moreover, this Court soon ruled that if a return constitutes an honest and genuine attempt to satisfy the law, it is sufficient to commence the running of the statute of limitations. Zellerbach Paper Co. v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 172 (1934).
In light of the purposes and common-law background of the statute, as well as this Court's previous treatment of what a "return" sufficient to commence the running of the limitations period is, it seems apparent that an assessment based on a nonfraudulent amended return does not fall within § 6501(c)(1). Once the amended return is filed the rationale for disregarding the limitations period is absent. The period of concealment is over, and under general common-law principles the limitations period should begin to run.
Under this statute, the filing of a fraudulent return had no greater effect on the limitations period than the filing of no return at all. In either case, since the relevant facts had not been disclosed to the Commissioner, the proper tax could be assessed "at any time." In 1954 the statute was bifurcated; the provisions relating to a failure to file were placed into § 6501(c)(3).
The Commissioner practically concedes as much since he agrees with the ruling in Bennett v. Commissioner, 30 T.C. 114 (1958), acq., 1958-2 Cum. Bull. 3, that if the taxpayer fraudulently fails to file a return, the limitations period nevertheless begins to run once a nonfraudulent return is filed. See also Rev. Rul. 79-178, 1979-1 Cum. Bull. 435. Yet there is nothing in the history of this statute indicating that Congress intended a bifurcated reading of a simple statutory command. There is certainly no logical reason supporting such a result; the Commissioner is if anything under
Whatever the correct standard for construing a statute of limitations when it operates against the Government, see ante, at 391-392, surely the presumption ought to be that some limitations period is applicable.
However, under the Commissioner's position, adopted by the Court today, no limitations period will ever apply to the Commissioner's actions, despite petitioners' attempts to provide him with all the information necessary to make a timely assessment.
If anything, considerations of tax policy argue against the result reached by the Court today. In a system based on voluntary compliance, it is crucial that some incentive be given to persons to reveal and correct past fraud. Yet the rule announced by the Court today creates no such incentive; a taxpayer gets no advantage at all by filing an honest return. Not only does the taxpayer fail to gain the benefit of a limitations period, but at the same time he gives the Commissioner additional information which can be used against him at any time. Since the amended return will not give the taxpayer a defense in a criminal or civil fraud action, see ante, at 394,
I respectfully dissent.
"Except as otherwise provided in this section, the amount of any tax imposed by this title shall be assessed within 3 years after the return was filed (whether or not such return was filed on or after the date prescribed) or, if the tax is payable by stamp, at any time after such tax became due and before the expiration of 3 years after the date on which any part of such tax was paid, and no proceeding in court without assessment for the collection of such tax shall be begun after the expiration of such period."
"In the case of a false or fraudulent return with the intent to evade tax, the tax may be assessed, or a proceeding in court for collection of such tax may be begun without assessment, at any time."