Can the IRS Put me In Jail for Undisclosed Foreign Bank Accounts?
Yes, but it is not a simple as having unreported accounts…and suddenly finding yourself in a prison cell; it’s called Due Process.
All too often, Law Firms, CPAs, Enrolled Agents and Accountants like to use fear tactics/scare tactics to get you to part with your wallet. They do this by telling you that it is a crime to have not reported your foreign accounts.
While this may be true (albeit “rare”), it is a complete and utter overstatement of offshore reporting requirements and procedures to say that just because you have unreported foreign accounts that the you are going to jail.
The following is a simple breakdown of the issue of non-compliance.
Offshore Account Reporting Compliance
It is very common for individuals seeking to avoid detection of their money to place it overseas in a tax haven such as Malta, the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, etc.
Conversely, it is just as common for individuals who are in the United States on a green card to have had foreigns account in their home country for a number of years before coming to the U.S. (it would be odd if they didn’t). Likewise, it is common for US persons who work overseas to open foreign accounts in order to have the ability to access money and local currency while overseas.
Thus, while one person may have their money overseas for criminal purposes, another person may have their money overseas for perfectly legitimate reasons.
How does the IRS Know Your Reason for the Foreign Account?
The fact of the matter is, whether it is because you committed a tax crime or it is because you have a legitimate reason for having your money overseas, the IRS does not know the difference just by looking at the account. Thus, if the foreign financial institution reports your account information to the IRS, depending on the facts and circumstances of your case you may find yourself in hot water for a potentially benign reason.
Example: David was working overseas and earning significant income. He is a US citizen and thought about purchasing a home while he remained in the foreign country. Therefore, David transferred a very large amount of money overseas for the purpose of purchasing the home. Soon thereafter, the project ended and David decided to keep the money overseas since it was earning a good return. David has never reported the account because he was unaware he was required to report to the US government.
Unless David proactively explains what happened to the IRS, if the foreign financial institution reports the account information before David has a chance to act, David may find himself in hot water, with his attorney trying to explain to the U.S. Government why he made such a large transfer overseas — and more specifically, why he did not transfer the money back to the US.
What Can I Do to Get Compliant?
The first and most important thing you can do is get into FATCA and FBAR Compliance (usually through offshore disclosure).
Offshore Disclosure provides you an opportunity to explain the facts to the US government before they have a chance to audit you. There are two main programs OVDP and the IRS Streamlined Disclosure Program (streamlined compliance procedures).
Golding & Golding has handled numerous disclosures and limits its practice to offshore compliance.
The following is a summary of the difference between these two programs:
OVDP vs. Streamlined
At Golding & Golding, we have successfully handled numerous OVDP (Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program) and IRS Streamlined Program applications for individuals and businesses around the globe with outstanding unreported foreign accounts ranging from $50,000.00 to over $35,000,000.00
Click Here to learn about some of our more recent OVDP and Streamlined accomplishments.
In order to assist you better understand the distinction between the two different IRS foreign account disclosure programs, we are providing the following summary for your reference:
If you or your business has unreported or undisclosed foreign accounts, offshore assets, or foreign income, then you may be considering whether you should enter the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) or the IRS Streamlined Offshore Disclosure Program, and what the definition of “Willful” is.
Whether or not a person enters Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) or the IRS Streamlined Offshore Disclosure Program will depend on the facts and circumstances of each taxpayer’s situation. No two tax situations are identical, and the failure to properly submit to the correct program can have serious consequences for the unsuspecting taxpayer.
Why Comply with IRS Foreign Disclosure Laws?
Because if you fail to comply with FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) as well as general IRS Foreign Disclosure Laws, the IRS has the authority to penalize you upwards of 100% of the value of your offshore assets and accounts as well as:
- Collect Taxes for prior tax years
- Collect Interest on outstanding tax liability for prior years
- Penalize you for the failure to report foreign accounts on the tax return (Schedule B and 8938)
- Penalize you for the failure to report foreign gifts (3520)
- Penalize you for the failure to report foreign Trusts (3520 and 3520A)
- Penalize you for the failure to report ownership in Foreign Corporations (5471 and 5472)
- Penalize you for the failure to report ownership in a PFIC (8621)
- Genera Negligence and Fraud Penalties
- Investigate you for Criminal Tax Fraud & Criminal Tax Evasion if you willfully failed to report your assets & foreign income.
The reason why international tax law compliance has taken center stage is because under the new FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) laws, foreign countries are actively reporting the bank and financial accounts of US citizens and US legal permanent residents to the IRS and U.S. Government.
If a foreign country is interested in working with the United States, the foreign country will enter into an “ Intergovernmental Agreement” (IGA) with the United States. These agreements are reciprocity agreements, which means that not only will the foreign country report the information to the IRS, but the IRS will also reciprocate by providing the same information to foreign country tax authorities.
Why Enter either OVDP or the Modified Streamlined Program?
Individuals and businesses who are trying to avoid 100% FBAR penalties and/or Criminal Prosecution may seek to voluntary disclose, pay a penalty (unless abated), and avoid criminal prosecution.
There are the only two approved programs by the Internal Revenue Service that can bring a taxpayer into compliance. Instead of entering the programs, a taxpayer may qualify to directly report under the reasonable cause exception, in which the taxpayer directly submits the forms with a statement explaining why they were not properly filed instead of paying a penalty.
*The IRS is not known to be sympathetic, and if you choose the “Reasonable Cause/Delinquency FBAR Submission” option and the IRS does not believe you, you may be subject to IRS Audit and/or examination, as well as being disqualified from entering either the OVDP or Streamlined Program. Worse yet, the IRS has all of your unreported and undisclosed foreign account and foreign income information – which can lead to serious fines and penalties.
**If the taxpayer submits the forms to the IRS without submitting to the FBAR Delinquency/Reasonable Cause or IRS Disclosure Programs, it can be considered a “silent disclosure” or “quiet disclosure.” If the IRS learns of the Quiet or Silent Disclosure, the IRS will penalize you heavily as well as consider initiating criminal proceedings against you. In this scenario, not only will the IRS seek to take all of your money and assets through the implementation of penalties and levies, but you may be spending the next 2 to 20 years in prison for tax evasion or tax fraud.
What is the Difference between OVDP and the Streamlined Program?
Before making a decision regarding voluntary disclosure, it is important to understand the difference between the two main programs.
OVDP (Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program Requirements)
In accordance with OVDP filing requirements, The Applicant will then be required to pay the outstanding tax, along with estimated interest, a 20% penalty on the outstanding tax, as well as an “FBAR” Penalty. The Penalty is 27.5% (or 50% if any of the foreign accounts are held at an IRS “Bad Bank”) on the highest year’s “annual aggregate total” of unreported accounts (Accounts which were previously reported are not calculated into the penalty amount).
For OVDP, the annual aggregate total is determined by adding the “maximum value” of each unreported account for each year, in each of the last 8 years. To determine what the maximum value is, the taxpayer will add up the highest balances of all their accounts for each year. In other words, for each tax year within the compliance period, the application will locate the highest balance for each account for each year, and total up the values to determine the maximum value for each year.
Thereafter, the OVDP applicant selects the highest year’s value, and multiplies it by either 27.5%, or possibly 50% if any of the money was being held in what the IRS considers to be one of the “bad banks.” When a person is completing the penalty portion of the application, the two most important things are to breathe, and remember that by entering the program the applicant is seeking to avoid CRIMINAL PROSECUTION!
When it comes to the Streamlined Program, the penalty is limited to 5% on the highest “year-end” balance for the last 6-years. The reason is that if the person was non-willful, they should not be overly-penalized if there was an artificial increase in the value of the bank accounts – such as from the sale of a home during the tax year.
(A complete breakdown of OVDP requirements can be found on our OVDP Page, by Clicking Here)
OVDP is Unfair for Non-Willful Taxpayers
Before the implementation of the modified streamlined program, it was difficult for individuals who were non-willful (no specific definition, but generally “without intent to deceive or defraud”) to become compliant. Why? Because if you are non-willful, you still had to go through the filing procedures as if you were willful, and then opt out of the penalty structure and open yourself up for audit.
Not such a big deal, except for the fact that you also had to pay 20% penalty on the outstanding taxes that you owed along with a 27.5% penalty on the highest year’s annual aggregate (unless you successfully “opted out” from the penalty structure – which came with a whole other set of headaches). As you can imagine, for individuals who simply inherited some money overseas, had no international dealings, and had no idea that they were required to report foreign passive income (Interest income) in a country that does not tax its own citizens on passive income earnings — providing this information to the IRS was a huge burden.
What is the Modified Streamlined Program?
In order to avoid “non-willful” applicants from having to go through the entire OVDP process before opting out, the IRS and Department of the Treasury modified a small program in existence, called the streamlined program, which was very limited. The IRS expanded the program to basically allow anyone who was non-willful to enter the program.
The program reduced the amount of documentation that applicants were required to file to only three years of amended tax returns and six years of FBAR (Foreign Account Reporting Statements). In addition, there was no penalty on the tax amount that was due and no penalty on the value of income generating foreign real estate that was not previously disclosed. Moreover, the 27.5% penalty was reduced down to 5%, or completely waived if the foreign residence requirements were met.
Penalty Waiver: there is a small facet of the modified streamlined program called the Modified Foreign Offshore Program. If a person qualifies for the modified stream of program (which means they acted non willfully) and they can prove they lived overseas for a total of 330 days out of the tax year in any year within the last three years, then they may qualify to have the penalty waived.
The Streamlined Programs sounds great, right? Well it is, unless you are attempting to wrongfully evade the 27.5% penalty by entering the program when you knew you were willful.
What if you are caught trying to sneak into the Streamlined Program?
I cannot stress to you enough to not try and enter the Streamlined Program if you were willful. If you knowingly enter the streamlined program and it is found that you acted willfully in your failure to disclose and report your overseas and foreign assets and income you will most likely be prosecuted by the IRS.
The IRS made this fact known in a recent public relations statement. From the IRS’ perspective, if you wrongfully enter this program in order to avoid paying the full penalty amount what you have done is stolen 27.5% or 50% of the penalty amount due to the IRS – and this does not make the IRS very happy.
Even worse is that you may be subject to criminal prosecution. And, since you have already disclosed all the foreign financial information in your Streamlined Program application, you will be in a tough position to try and defend yourself.
Why is the Modified Streamlined program in Jeopardy?
Just like in everything in life, a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. The IRS has learned that several individuals who were willful in their failure to report undisclosed foreign tax and bank information have been caught trying to sneak into the modified streamlined program in order to pay a reduced penalty – or avoid the penalty altogether This contradicts the IRS’ intention which was to modify and expand the Streamlined Offshore Disclosure Program to assist taxpayers who otherwise would be overburdened by having to enter the OVDP and opt out of the penalty structure.
There is No Reason to be Scared of the OVDP or the Streamlined Programs
The goal of this article is not to scare you. Rather, it is to warn you to just be cautious if you are entering into these programs. Way too many inexperienced and unscrupulous attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents see these programs as a way to scare individuals.
If You are going to enter a Foreign Disclosure Program, use an Attorney
While CPAs and enrolled agents (who are not also attorneys) may charge less than an attorney is important to note that you do not have an attorney client privilege with CPAs and enrolled agents. What that means, is that if it turns out you wrongfully entered the streamlined program and the IRS wants to speak with your representative, unless your representative is an attorney, there is no privilege between a CPA and Taxpayer when a Criminal Matter is at issue.
Here is a link to recent article we authored “OVDP – Frequently Asked Questions” or “Streamlined Program – Frequently Asked Questions”
Sean holds a Master's in Tax Law from one of the top Tax LL.M. programs in the country at the University of Denver. Mr. Golding's articles have been referenced in such publications as the Washington Post, Forbes, Nolo, and various Law Journals nationwide.
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