FBAR Filing Penalty (2018) – IRS Offshore Foreign Account Penalties
FBAR Filing Penalty (2018) – IRS Offshore Foreign Account Penalties
Once a person finds out that they had an FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account form) reporting responsibility that they did not meet – they typically freak out a bit; we understand.
The stress compounded by the fact that there is a bunch of horrific information online, which is typically inaccurate – and completely embellishes what an FBAR is – and how penalties are typically issued.
You will see the same terms over and over again, including words like “ Draconian” and in phrases such as “five years in prison.”
At Golding & Golding our entire International tax law practice focuses on IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure, with a large portion of it dedicated to FBAR and FATCA.
We have helped thousands of clients in our career and not a single client has been put in prison for FBAR non-compliance.
FBAR Filing Penalty
The IRS is authorized to issue pretty heavy penalties against individuals who are out of compliance. The IRS is also authorized to, waive penalties, reduced penalties, and mitigate the total amount due – when a person can show they had reasonable cause or that they were not willful.
*Non-willful is used by the IRS very loosely and still does not include a concrete definition of what the term non-willful means, except that it means a person was… “not willful.”
FBAR Filing Penalty Ranges
The FBAR filing penalty ranges from a penalty waiver, all the way up to a 100% penalty in a situation in which a person was willful, and involved in a multiyear audit.
Willful vs. Non-Willful
One of the main distinctions between the level of penalty and amount of mitigation of the penalty the IRS offers to reduce is based on whether the person is Willful or Non-Willful.
The IRS has the authority to penalize you upwards of $10,000 per violation, per account for violations that were non-willful. In other words, if you didn’t even know you were supposed to file the form and report your annual maximum balance on an FBAR statement, the IRS can still penalize you upwards of $10,000 per account, per year. That does not mean they will penalize that amount, it just means they can.
Sounds absurd, right?
Take this Example: David is a Legal Permanent Resident (Green Card recipient) who relocated to the United States for work when he was 42 years old. David was transferred by his company to the United States initially on an L-1 visa due to his proficiency in science and management. David earned several million dollars during the first 20 years of his career, which he staggered over seven different accounts. These accounts earn about $50,000 a year in passive income.
Under the current state of the law, David could be penalized upwards of $70,000 per year for the six years of unreported FBARs – that is a whopping $420,000 penalty solely because he was unaware of the rule. He will also have to pay taxes, fines and penalties on the unreported income — along with additional fines for unreported FATCA form 8938.
*The reason it is six (6) years instead of three (3) years is due to a nuance in the law statute of limitations which states that when a person has more than $5000 of unreported foreign income, the statute of limitations is expanded from three (3) years to six (6) years.
**The FBAR is only one of several forms David did not file which can lead to additional penalties, including FATCA 3520, 3520-A, 5471, 8621, and FATCA Form 8938.
If the IRS reserves the power to penalize you $10,000 per violation, per account, per year for a non-willful violation – would you like to take a guess at what the penalty would be if they think you were fraudulent?
Answer: The penalty can reach $100,000 or 50% of the account value – whichever is greater.
Therefore, in a multiyear audit, you could easily be penalized 100% value of the account balances. But, at least you can take some solace in the fact that the IRS has reduced the maximum penalty from 300% down to 100%. In other words, using the six-year statute of limitations explained above, in prior years, the IRS could penalize you 300% value (50% per year, for a total of six years). At least now, the penalty is limited to everything you have…and nothing more.
What is the Legal Standard for Willful and Non-Willful?
Despite the fact that the IRS can levy obscene-level penalties against you, it is also good to know that the IRS has not established a set, bright-line rule (clearly defined test) that you can use to determine whether you are willful or non-willful.
There are not as many cases as you would think that have referenced Willful and Non-Willful with respect to FBARs, but there are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Willful does NOT mean Intent or Knowledge
In other words, in order for the IRS to prove willfulness, the IRS does not need to show that you knew you were required to file the FBAR. That would make it too difficult for the IRS – therefore, the IRS has essentially lowered the threshold for themselves to prove Willfulness. This begs the question — what else qualifies as Willful?
Willfulness Can Mean Willful Blindness
What does Willful Blindness even mean? It means that if you knew that you should have known you were required to file an FBAR, then you could be held to a willful standard.
Here is an example of Willful Blindness:
* Let’s say you were minding your own business and an individual walked up to you and told you they will give you $1 million if you drove their vehicle past a known DEA drug point. Without any question as to why they are offering to pay you this much money to essentially drive a car, you accept the offer and drive the vehicle up-to the checkpoint. Unfortunately, you are unlucky and the car is checked, and the cops discover 200 pounds of uncut cocaine was in the car. You could not argue that you did not know there were drugs in the car (no knowledge), because who pays another person $1,000,000 to drive their car past a drug checkpoint? In other words, you should’ve known there was something amidst… and by not asking, you are willfully blind.
Unlike willful blindness, reckless disregard appears to be an even lower standard of willfulness. At least with willful blindness, you should’ve known to ask, but you knowingly didn’t ask…because you didn’t want to know. With reckless disregard, according to the IRS, while you may have believed you didn’t have a filing requirement, your belief was so “ridiculous” that the IRS would never believe you are so stupid. Talk about a walking contradiction…
In a recent California District Court decision (Which could still go up on appeal — U.S. vs. Bohanecs) the court relied upon the reckless disregard standard in making its decision – which can be found here. It is important to note that in the Bohanecs, the facts reflected that the Bohanecs were pretty sophisticated…in addition to “stupid.”
**One very important thing to takeaway from the Bohanecs case, is not just that the threshold to prove willfulness does not require “actual knowledge,” but just as important is that even though willful FBAR penalties are essentially criminal nature, since they are not being enforced in a criminal setting, the government was not required to meet the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
In other words, if the IRS wants to issue you criminal level penalties in a civil setting, they do not have to reach the level or burden of proof required in a criminal setting — and the standard essentially boils down to someone being…stupid.
Put it this way: With the way the IRS is always increasing enforcement of international tax related matters, it is safe to say that if the IRS believes in any way, shape or form that you knew, should’ve known, intentionally blind-to-the-fact, or were just stupid to the fact that you should have been reporting the FBAR, you are probably in for a dogfight with the IRS — because they will presumably try to enforce willful penalties against you.
How Can I Get Into FBAR Filing Compliance?
If you are already out of compliance and worried about being hit with an FBAR Filing Penalty, your best option is typically to enter one of the approved IRS offshore voluntary disclosure programs – using an experienced offshore disclosure attorney.
There are only a handful of Law Firms that focus their entire tax practice on IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure (We are one of them). We have represented several hundred clients in OVDP, Streamlined and Offshore Disclosure.
You will want to make sure you use an OVDP Attorney who has:
- Litigation Experience
- IRS Audit Experience
- At Least 15-20 years of Attorney Experience
- An advanced Master’s of Tax Law Degree (LL.M.); and
- Either a CPA or Enrolled Agent (EA) license.
Why? Because you never know how the OVDP or Streamlined submission will go. Sometimes, a person is already under IRS investigation and may not know it. Then, when the person submits to OVDP they are rejected. In this type of situation, you need an Attorney with all the above required experience.
Using a CPA or Junior Attorney with no real experience, is not going to help (and you will then realize why the fees they charged were so low). We know this, because each year we receive many inquiries from clients seeking to retain our services after their initial OVDP or Streamlined junior tax attorney (without the experience mentioned above) flubbed their submission and made numerous mistakes in the submission process.
Alternatively, once you are in OVDP, you may want to:
- Make an MTM Election
- Argue a FAQ 55 Penalty Reduction
As a result, for this highly specialized area of law, you need an OVDP Attorney who is experienced specifically in OVDP, but also has the background and experience to fight on your behalf.
Ready to Hire an OVDP Attorney?
Once you are ready to hire an OVDP Attorney, it is very important to separate fact from fiction. Here is a recent article involving the different pitfalls, scams and sales pitches you need to watch out for: Attorney Fees for OVDP – Separating Fact From Fiction.