FATCA – Does Your Foreign Bank want you to Certify your U.S. Status?
- 1 The Basics
If you recently received a letter from your foreign bank (aka FATCA Letter) asking you to certify your U.S. status, then the clock is ticking. This usually means your foreign bank has every intention of reporting your information to the IRS.
If the IRS receives information from a foreign bank showing that you have ownership or signature authority over foreign accounts, but that you have not filed the proper forms in the United States (FBAR or 8938) you may the subject to significantly high fines and penalties.
Many U.S. taxpayers (millions of them) will be receiving a FATCA Letter (Foreign Account Tax Compliance act) from their Foreign Financial Institution asking them to certify whether they are US citizen or otherwise subject to U.S. Tax (W-9 vs. W-8 BEN). If you have received one of these letters recently, it is very important to take action quickly.
That is because if the foreign bank or foreign financial institution reports you to the IRS before you have a chance get into compliance and you are audited, then you lose the right to get into IRS Tax compliance by using one of the approved disclosure methods and therefore will be subject to much higher fines and penalties then if you submit to the program.
The first step in determining whether or not you want to do offshore disclosure is to understand the process a bit better. Below please find a summary of a basic outline to help you determine the filing requirements and what your exposure may be:
Foreign Financial Account Reporting Rules
Golding & Golding is a flat-fee, full-service firm; we are lawyers who assist international clients in reporting their offshore accounts to the IRS. Most recently, many of our clients learned about Foreign Bank Account reporting requirements when they received a FATCA Letter from their Bank, asking them to certify their U.S. Status by submitting either a W-9 or W-8 BEN.
Who Has to Report?
We have represented numerous clients worldwide with issues similar to yours:
– Expats who relocated overseas and did not know they had to report their foreign accounts.
– U.S. Citizens who live overseas and may or may not earn significant income, but have accounts in a foreign country.
– Legal Permanent Residents of the United States who relocate back to a foreign country but are unaware that they are still required to report the foreign accounts.
– Non-Residents who meet the substantial presence test and therefore are required to report foreign bank and other accounts to the US government.
Please do not worry. We can assist you as we have assisted hundreds of clients in over 40 countries disclose upwards of $40 million in a single disclosure.
We are available seven days a week and provide flat-fee and full-service representation to our clients around the world.
These are the most basic rules when it comes to foreign accounts and foreign income:
If you are either a US Citizen, Legal Permanent Resident (aka Green Card holder or recently gave up your Green Card) or foreign resident who meets the substantial presence test, then you are required to report your worldwide income to the IRS. This means that even if you do not have any US-based income, you are still required to report your worldwide income (even if it is the type of income which is not taxed in your home country such as interest and dividend income in most Asian countries). And, if you have enough foreign income to meet the minimum threshold for having to file a US tax return, then you are required to do so even if it is based on your foreign income alone.
If you meet the requirement for having to report US taxes in the United States (even if you do not meet the threshold for having to file a US tax return), you are still required to file an annual FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts). The threshold is as follows: if at any time during the year, you have more than $10,000 in foreign accounts (whether the money is in one account or spread over numerous accounts), you are required to file an FBAR.
In addition, if you have significant amounts of money overseas, then you may also have to file additional forms such as an 8938 (FATCA Form) or 8621 (Passive Foreign Investment Company, which includes Foreign Mutual Funds along with as many other passive investments). There are many other forms you may have to file, but we determine those on a case-by-case basis.
Fines & Penalties
Unless you are criminal, chances are the IRS or Department of Justice will not be banging down your door to come drag you back to the United States. With that said, the fines and penalties can be very steep and depending on your particular circumstances, may include penalties upwards of 100% of the value of your foreign account. If the IRS believes you were willful (aka intentional), then they may launch a criminal investigation against you and the penalties and fines can get much worse from here, including Liens, Levies, Seizures…and worse.
Customs Holds and Passport Revocation
With the implementation of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), the United States is heavily cracking down on offshore tax evasion and unreported foreign accounts in general. The IRS and US government have the power to both revoke your passport as well as possibly hold you at the airport “customs hold” to question you on the spot (usually outside the presence of your attorney).
Getting Into Compliance
Getting into compliance should be mandatory on your “to-do” list. Even though our firm, Golding & Golding, is based in Newport Beach, we represent clients worldwide. A majority of our clients live overseas in over 40 countries. We have helped numerous clients get into compliance and are regarded as one of the top Offshore Disclosure Law Firms worldwide.
To that end, there are three main methods of compliance:
(1) Streamlined Compliance
This program is for individuals who were unaware of any requirement to file an FBAR and/or report their income on a US tax return. The penalties under the streamlined program are significantly reduced and may possibly be waived depending on whether a person qualifies under the strict definition of foreign resident for offshore disclosure purposes.
This program is mainly for individuals and businesses who were willful, aka were aware they were supposed to report their foreign accounts but intentionally hid or kept the account/income information secret.
(3) Reasonable Cause Statement
This is not a particular program; instead, it is a method for getting to compliance while attempting to avoid any penalty. There are many pros and cons to this method depending on your specific situation, which must be evaluated carefully with your attorney before making a decision.
We provide a reduced fee telephone consultation to all potential clients (excluding CPAs, Lawyers, and/or other Tax Professionals) so that we can answer your questions. All calls are strictly confidential and the information is covered under the attorney-client privilege (even if you decide not to retain our firm).
Call now; let us help you.
OVDP vs. Streamlined Program
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.
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, and has also earned the prestigious Enrolled Agent credential. Mr. Golding is also a Board Certified Tax Law Specialist Attorney (A designation earned by Less than 1% of Attorneys nationwide.)
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