Validity of the Assessment Against the Estate
The second paragraph of Section 228 of the Tax Code is clear and mandatory. It provides as follows:
“Sec. 228. Protesting of Assessment. —
“The taxpayers shall be informed in writing of the law and the facts on which the assessment is made: otherwise, the assessment shall be void.”
In the present case, Reyes was not informed in writing of the law and the facts on which the assessment of estate taxes had been made. She was merely notified of the findings by the CIR, who had simply relied upon the provisions of former Section 229 prior to its amendment by Republic Act (RA) No. 8424, otherwise known as the Tax Reform Act of 1997.
First, RA 8424 has already amended the provision of Section 229 on protesting an assessment. The old requirement of merely notifying the taxpayer of the CIR’s findings was changed in 1998 to informing the taxpayer of not only the law, but also of the facts on which an assessment would be made; otherwise, the assessment itself would be invalid.
It was on February 12, 1998, that a preliminary assessment notice was issued against the estate. On April 22, 1998, the final estate tax assessment notice, as well as demand letter, was also issued. During those dates, RA 8424 was already in effect. The notice required under the old law was no longer sufficient under the new law.
To be simply informed in writing of the investigation being conducted and of the recommendation for the assessment of the estate taxes due is nothing but a perfunctory discharge of the tax function of correctly assessing a taxpayer. The act cannot be taken to mean that Reyes already knew the law and the facts on which the assessment was based. It does not at all conform to the compulsory requirement under Section 228. Moreover, the Letter of Authority received by respondent on March 14, 1997 was for the sheer purpose of investigation and was not even the requisite notice under the law.
The procedure for protesting an assessment under the Tax Code is found in Chapter III of Title VIII, which deals with remedies. Being procedural in nature, can its provision then be applied retroactively? The answer is yes.
The general rule is that statutes are prospective. However, statutes that are remedial, or that do not create new or take away vested rights, do not fall under the general rule against the retroactive operation of statutes. Clearly, Section 228 provides for the procedure in case an assessment is protested. The provision does not create new or take away vested rights. In both instances, it can surely be applied retroactively. Moreover, RA 8424 does not state, either expressly or by necessary implication, that pending actions are excepted from the operation of Section 228, or that applying it to pending proceedings would impair vested rights.
Second, the non-retroactive application of Revenue Regulation (RR) No. 12-99 is of no moment, considering that it merely implements the law.
A tax regulation is promulgated by the finance secretary to implement the provisions of the Tax Code. While it is desirable for the government authority or administrative agency to have one immediately issued after a law is passed, the absence of the regulation does not automatically mean that the law itself would become inoperative.
At the time the pre-assessment notice was issued to Reyes, RA 8424 already stated that the taxpayer must be informed of both the law and facts on which the assessment was based. Thus, the CIR should have required the assessment officers of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to follow the clear mandate of the new law. The old regulation governing the issuance of estate tax assessment notices ran afoul of the rule that tax regulations — old as they were — should be in harmony with, and not supplant or modify, the law.
It may be argued that the Tax Code provisions are not self-executory. It would be too wide a stretch of the imagination, though, to still issue a regulation that would simply require tax officials to inform the taxpayer, in any manner, of the law and the facts on which an assessment was based. That requirement is neither difficult to make nor its desired results hard to achieve.
Moreover, an administrative rule interpretive of a statute, and not declarative of certain rights and corresponding obligations, is given retroactive effect as of the date of the effectivity of the statute. RR 12-99 is one such rule. Being interpretive of the provisions of the Tax Code, even if it was issued only on September 6, 1999, this regulation was to retroact to January 1, 1998 — a date prior to the issuance of the preliminary assessment notice and demand letter.
Third, neither Section 229 nor RR 12-85 can prevail over Section 228 of the Tax Code.
No doubt, Section 228 has replaced Section 229. The provision on protesting an assessment has been amended. Furthermore, in case of discrepancy between the law as amended and its implementing but old regulation, the former necessarily prevails. Thus, between Section 228 of the Tax Code and the pertinent provisions of RR 12-85, the latter cannot stand because it cannot go beyond the provision of the law. The law must still be followed, even though the existing tax regulation at that time provided for a different procedure. The regulation then simply provided that notice be sent to the respondent in the form prescribed, and that no consequence would ensue for failure to comply with that form.
Fourth, petitioner violated the cardinal rule in administrative law that the taxpayer be accorded due process. Not only was the law here disregarded, but no valid notice was sent, either. A void assessment bears no valid fruit.
The law imposes a substantive, not merely a formal, requirement. To proceed heedlessly with tax collection without first establishing a valid assessment is evidently violative of the cardinal principle in administrative investigations: that taxpayers should be able to present their case and adduce supporting evidence. In the instant case, respondent has not been informed of the basis of the estate tax liability. Without complying with the unequivocal mandate of first informing the taxpayer of the government’s claim, there can be no deprivation of property, because no effective protest can be made. The haphazard shot at slapping an assessment, supposedly based on estate taxation’s general provisions that are expected to be known by the taxpayer, is utter chicanery.
Even a cursory review of the preliminary assessment notice, as well as the demand letter sent, reveals the lack of basis for — not to mention the insufficiency of — the gross figures and details of the itemized deductions indicated in the notice and the letter. This Court cannot countenance an assessment based on estimates that appear to have been arbitrarily or capriciously arrived at. Although taxes are
the lifeblood of the government, their assessment and collection “should be made in accordance with law as any arbitrariness will negate the very reason for government itself.”
Fifth, the rule against estoppel does not apply. Although the government cannot be estopped by the negligence or omission of its agents, the obligatory provision on protesting a tax assessment cannot be rendered nugatory by a mere act of the CIR .
Tax laws are civil in nature. Under our Civil Code, acts executed against the mandatory provisions of law are void, except when the law itself authorizes the validity of those acts. Failure to comply with Section 228 does not only render the assessment void, but also finds no validation in any provision in the Tax Code. We cannot condone errant or enterprising tax officials, as they are expected to be vigilant and law-abiding.
SOURCE: [ G.R. NO. 159694, January 27, 2006 ]COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, PETITIONER, VS. AZUCENA T. REYES, RESPONDENT.[G.R. NO. 163581]
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