The Foreign Bank Account Reporting form known as the FBAR is due to be filed by US persons with offshore accounts. While the Form itself is not as complex as other IRS International Reporting Forms — FBAR Instructions published by the US Government tend to be unnecessarily complex. There are various FBAR Instructions & Guides published each year for FBAR Filing, but they are oftentimes complex, convoluted, and inaccurate. The IRS and FinCEN do not see eye-to-eye on what should be included on the form. Making matters worse, the Internal Revenue Service has increased enforcement of foreign accounts compliance. For U.S. persons with unreported offshore accounts, assets and investments — they may be subject to offshore fines and penalties for noncompliance. While the threshold filing requirements are relatively low, the penalties can be high. Even though the FBAR is less complicated than many other Department of Treasury reporting forms, it can still be difficult to complete. If you are out of compliance, it is important to note that the TRS has developed various FBAR Amnesty programs, which are collectively referred to as Offshore Voluntary Disclosure.
10-Step FBAR Instruction Filing Guide
These FBAR instructions are designed to assist you with understanding the FBAR, if you are filing for the current year not out of compliance for prior years. It is not intended for you to rely (or your tax professional) in actually filing the form. The summary is basic, and there are many other factors that may impact your specific filing, especially if it is a late filing.
FBAR Instruction Step 1 – Are you a U.S. Person?
The form must be filed by U.S. persons. In order to confuse you, the IRS does not define US person to mean the same as U.S. Citizen. A US person typically falls into three categories: U.S. Citizen, Legal Permanent Resident, Foreign National who meets the IRS Substantial Presence Test (typically individuals on H-1B Visa, L-1 Visas, and E-2 Visas – although it is not a requirement to have one of these Visas).
If you are a US person, then you move on to step two.
FBAR Instruction Step 2 – Do You Meet the Threshold Requirements?
The threshold requirements are relatively simple. On any day of the year, if you aggregated (totaled) the maximum balances of all of your foreign accounts, does that total amount exceed $10,000? If it does, then you have to file the form. The most important thing to remember is you do not need to have more than $10,000 in each account; rather, it is an annual aggregate total of the maximum balances of all the accounts.
FBAR Instruction Step 3 – Identify What is an Account
This is one of the more difficult parts of the job. That is because when a person thinks of financial accounts, they typically think of a “Bank Account.” It makes sense, since the word “Bank” is included directly in the FBAR definition. Therefore, many people (understandably so) will only focus just on bank accounts. Unfortunately, you have to include all financial accounts unless it is otherwise excluded (and there are only a few exclusions).
Some examples of other accounts include:
- Stock accounts that have an Account Number
- Private Pension Accounts
- Investment Accounts
- Foreign Mutual Funds and ETF Accounts
- Foreign Life Insurance that has a Surrender Value
FBAR Instruction Step 4 – How Many Accounts Do You Have?
This is an important question, because if you have more than 25 accounts then you do not have to list all of the accounts on the actual form. Rather, you maintain your own records so that the IRS contacts you on a future date, you will have that information available.
Like most people, if you have less than 25 accounts then you would report all the accounts on the FBAR. It does not matter if your account has a zero balance, and it does not matter if the account was “dormant.” If the account is open and you are listed on the account, you have to report it.
FBAR Instruction Step 5 – What is Your relationship to the Account?
There are different sections of the FBAR. The sections are broken down into three main categories, which include ownership of the Account, co-ownership or joint ownership of the account, and signature authority and/or no monetary interest in the account.
The latter category typically includes people who may have been included on the account in emergency when a parent or elderly individual is getting on age. Also, if you are an employee and you have signature authority, that is included as well.
FBAR Instruction Step 6 – Categorize the Different Accounts
It is important that you prepare separate categories to identify each different type of account. That is to make sure that, for example, you do not report an account you have signature authority in this section that is labeled account ownership, because then the IRS and U.S. government will believe that the money listed is your own money — as opposed to money for which you may have no ownership over.
FBAR Instruction Step 7 – Determine the Maximum Balance
You are not required to search for the holy Grail of maximum balances. In other words, you should do the best you can. If you have bank statements for each month, then you would use each month statement to determine what the maximum value is. Likewise, if you have a passport account passbook account and you only get it updated when you enter the bank, then you will have to use the best value you can.
Thereafter, make sure you have identified the maximum balance available for each account.
FBAR Instruction Step 8 – Exchange Rates
You are not required to use any specific exchange rate, but it has to be reasonable. Both the Department of Treasury and the IRS each publish their own annual exchange rates and feasibly, either exchange-rate would be okay to use.
It is important to make sure that you use the respective exchange rate for the year at issue. Sorry for those of you with euros, rupees or rubles who want to use current exchange rates for prior years.
If you are submitting to one of the offshore disclosure programs or a reasonable cause statement and have to go back six years, then you will have to use the rate that was available six years ago and not today’s rate for filing prior forms.
FBAR Instruction Step 9 – Complete the FBAR
The FBAR is a relatively simple from a preparation standpoint. In other words, for each account, you will identify the name of the institution, the address and the maximum balance. There’s not much more needed beyond this information.
If you are unable to access the maximum balance or even come up with your best estimate, you can mark off maximum balance unknown for each account of which this is applicable.
Keeping in mind, that the more you marked off “maximum balance unknown” the higher the chance that the FBAR might be further scrutinized. If you are in this type of situation, please be sure to speak with an experienced Offshore Disclosure Lawyer first.
FBAR Instruction Step 10 – Filing a Late FBAR(s)
At our International Tax Law Firm (Golding & Golding), offshore disclosure is all we do, and this includes Late FBAR Filings, and FATCA Compliance.
Filing a late FBAR outside of the offshore disclosure programs is typically considered a Quiet Disclosure and can land you in some real trouble. If you happen to have zero unreported income (that means zero unreported income from abroad and not zero tax liability) you may be able to qualify for the delinquency procedures, which results in a penalty waiver and a relatively simple submission procedure.
If you have any unreported income, you can still make a reasonable cause submission but it is different. Most individuals prefer to enter one of the approved programs such as streamlined filing compliance procedures or traditional OVDP — you may have multiple options available to you.
Depending on which program you qualify for, and/or which program you prefer to enter, you may qualify for reduced penalty for even a penalty waiver.
We do not recommend making any submission to the Internal Revenue Service regarding any foreign or offshore accounts without at least speaking with an experienced offshore disclosure lawyer first to evaluate and assess your facts.
Bonus: What if I Made a Mistake on the FBAR?
It depends on the type of mistake. For example, was it a mistake in reporting the balance or were accounts completely missed? If it was inaccurate reporting, then the level of the inaccuracy may determine what steps the filer should take to resolve the inaccuracy. For missed accounts, the filer will generally have to go back and resolve the issue with one of the FBAR Amnesty Programs.
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