IRS Factors for Issuing Unreported Foreign Account Penalties (2018)
IRS Factors for Issuing Unreported Foreign Account Penalties (2018)
As tax filing season begins, many people are beginning to feel overwhelmed and scared – especially on issues involving unreported/undisclosed foreign account penalties.
Oftentimes, the information that you read published online is garbage. These websites will lead you to believe that merely because you have undisclosed foreign accounts, it means you’re going to jail for five (5) years.
How come these same sites don’t also tell you that if you have no unreported income, you may avoid all offshore disclosure and simply submit FBARs or other informational returns under the “delinquent international informational return procedures” to report the foreign accounts?
Foreign Account Penalties (FinCEN 114)
Unfortunately, some individuals will get hit with the penalties for failing to properly report foreign accounts. These penalties can range anywhere from warning letter in lieu of penalty all the way up to 100% penalty in a multiyear audit situation, in which the person is found to be willful (which is not common)
Essentially, undisclosed foreign account penalties are like the wild West of the IRS. With that said, while the IRS will not tell you exactly how they were determined each person’s penalty calculation, they will provide you some idea of how the penalties are assessed.
The following is a breakdown summary from information published by the IRS:
4 Civil Penalties for FBAR Violations
Here are four civil penalties available for FBAR violations:
– 31 USC 5321(a)(6)(A).
– Pattern of negligent activity. 31 USC 5321(a)(6)(B).
– Penalty for non-willful violation. 31 USC 5321(a)(5)(A) and (B).
*Note: Although the term “non-willful” is not used in the statute, we use it to distinguish this penalty from the penalty for willful violations.
– Penalty for willful violations. 31 USC 5321(a)(5)(C).
A filing violation occurs at the end of the day on June 30th of the year following the calendar year to be reported (the due date for filing the FBAR). A recordkeeping violation occurs on the date when the records are requested by the IRS examiner if the records are not provided. A civil money penalty may be imposed for an FBAR violation even if a criminal penalty is imposed for the same violation. 31 USC 5321(d).
Practice Pointer: The June 30th Day is Outdated
It is important to note that until 2017 (when tax year 2016 FinCen 114 reporting was due), the due date for reporting foreign accounts was June 30. Currently, the reporting date is the same date as your tax return due date – and typically the IRS issues automatic extensions so that it is not due until the last day to file your tax return on extension is due (October if you reside in the U.S.0 – but you need to check this each year.
For violations occurring after October 22, 2004, a penalty, not to exceed $10,000 per violation, may be imposed on any person who violates or causes any violation of the FBAR filing and recordkeeping requirements. 31 USC 5321(a)(5)(B).
The penalty should not be imposed if:
- The violation was due to reasonable cause, and
- The person files any delinquent FBARs and properly reports the previously unreported account.
Examiners have discretion in determining the penalty amount and should use the mitigation guidelines in making their determinations.
Examiners should take the facts and circumstances of each case into account when determining if a warning letter or penalties that are less than the mitigation guidelines are appropriate. The purpose of FBAR penalties is to promote compliance with the FBAR reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
Practice Pointer: Reasonable Cause and Filing Past FBARs
This is a very important point. There is a case, Jarnagin, in which the court upheld penalties in a situation in which the individuals received bad advice from their CPA. Essentially, the CPA was not aware of the specific requirements and the court held that taxpayers cannot rely on an uninformed CPA for not filing.
Many people took this to mean that you can no longer rely on reasonable cause to get out of penalties, but as of now that is incorrect. What is important to note from that case is that the court mentioned that the main reason that the Court would not consider reasonable cause was because Jarnagin never went back to file the old FBARs.
Therefore, if you are making a reasonable cause submission, please note you still have to file the late/old FBAR(s).
Practice Pointer: The $10,000 “FinCen 114 is Outdated”
As provided by the IRS: For penalties that are assessed after August 1, 2016, whose associated violations occurred after November 2,2015, the IRS may assess an inflation-adjusted civil penalty not to exceed $12,459 per violation for non-willful violations that are not due to reasonable cause.
Recommended Penalties – Nonwillful Violations
– After May 12, 2015, in most cases, examiners will recommend one penalty per open year, regardless of the number of unreported foreign accounts. The penalty for each year is limited to $10,000. Examiners should still use the mitigation guidelines and their discretion in each case to determine whether a lesser penalty amount is appropriate.
– For multiple years with nonwillful violations, examiners may determine that asserting nonwillful penalties for each year is not warranted. In those cases, examiners, with the group manager’s approval after consultation with an Operating Division FBAR Coordinator, may assert a single penalty, not to exceed $10,000, for one year only.
– For other cases, the facts and circumstances (considering the conduct of the person required to file and the aggregate balance of the unreported foreign financial accounts) may indicate that asserting a separate nonwillful penalty for each unreported foreign financial account, and for each year, is warranted. In those cases, examiners, with the group manager’s approval after consultation with an Operating Division FBAR Coordinator, may assert a separate penalty for each account and for each year. The examiner’s workpapers must support such a penalty determination and document the group manager’s approval.
– In no event will the total amount of the penalties for nonwillful violations exceed 50 percent of the highest aggregate balance of all unreported foreign financial accounts for the years under examination.
Penalty for Willful FBAR Violations
– For violations occurring after October 22, 2004, a penalty for a willful FBAR violation may be imposed up to the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the amount in the account at the time of the violation, 31 USC 5321(a)(5)(C). For cases involving willful violations over multiple years, examiners may recommend a penalty for each year for which the FBAR violation was willful.
– After May 12, 2015, in most cases, the total penalty amount for all years under examination will be limited to 50 percent of the highest aggregate balance of all unreported foreign financial accounts during the years under examination. In such cases, the penalty for each year will be determined by allocating the total penalty amount to all years for which the FBAR violations were willful based upon the ratio of the highest aggregate balance for each year to the total of the highest aggregate balances for all years combined, subject to the maximum penalty limitation in 31 USC 5321(a)(5)(C) for each year.
Note: Examiners should still use the mitigation guidelines and their discretion in each case to determine whether a lesser penalty amount is appropriate
– Examiners may recommend a penalty that is higher or lower than 50 percent of the highest aggregate account balance of all unreported foreign financial accounts based on the facts and circumstances. In no event will the total penalty amount exceed 100 percent of the highest aggregate balance of all unreported foreign financial accounts during the years under examination. The examiner’s workpapers must support all willful penalty determinations and document the group manager’s approval.
– If an account is co-owned by more than one person, a penalty determination must be made separately for each co-owner. The penalty against each co-owner will be based on his her percentage of ownership of the highest balance in the account. If the examiner cannot determine each owner’s percentage of ownership, the highest balance will be divided equally among each of the co-owners.
Willful Penalty Mitigation
The statutory penalty computation provides a ceiling on the FBAR penalty. The actual amount of the penalty is left to the discretion of the examiner. IRS has adopted mitigation guidelines to promote consistency by IRS employees in exercising this discretion for similarly situated persons. Exhibit 4.26.16-1.
Mitigation Threshold Conditions
For most FBAR cases, if IRS has determined that if a person meets four threshold conditions, then that person may be subject to less than the maximum FBAR penalty depending on the amounts in the accounts.
For violations occurring after October 22, 2004, the four threshold conditions are:
-The person has no history of criminal tax or BSA convictions for the preceding 10 years, as well as no history of past FBAR penalty assessments.
-No money passing through any of the foreign accounts associated with the person was from an illegal source or used to further a criminal purpose.
-The person cooperated during the examination (i.e., IRS did not have to resort to a summons to obtain non-privileged information; the taxpayer responded to reasonable requests for documents, meetings, and interviews; and the taxpayer back-filed correct reports).
-IRS did not sustain a civil fraud penalty against the person for an underpayment for the year in question due to the failure to report income related to any amount in a foreign account.
Be Proactive – IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure
If you are out of compliance for one or more years, you may consider entering one of the IRS offshore voluntary disclosure programs, or making a reasonable cause submission before it is too late.
Once you are under audit or examination by the IRS you can no longer submit to the program. In addition, with more than 110 countries and more than 300,000 foreign financial institutions proactively reporting account holder information to the IRS under FATCA, the window for submission maybe closing soon.
IRS Voluntary Disclosure of Offshore Accounts
Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Tax law is very complex. There are many aspects that go into any particular tax calculation, including the legal status, marital status, business status and residence status of the taxpayer.
When Do I Need to Use Voluntary Disclosure?
Voluntary Disclosure is for individuals, estates, and businesses who are out of compliance with the IRS and the Department of Treasury. What does that mean? It means that for one or more years, you were required to file a U.S. tax return, FBAR or other International Informational Return and you did not do so timely, then you are out of compliance.
Common Un-filed IRS International Tax Forms
Common un-filed international tax forms, include:
- 1040 (Tax Returns)
- Schedule B (Ownership or Signature Authority over Foreign Accounts)
- FBAR (FinCEN 114)
- FATCA (Form 8938)
- Form 3520 (Gift from Foreign Person)
- Form 5471 (Foreign Corporations)
- Form 8621 (Foreign Investments, aka PFIC)
- Form 8865 (Foreign Partnership)
If the IRS discovers that you are out of compliance, you may become subject to extensive fines and penalties – ranging from a warning letter all the way up to tax liens, tax levies, seizures, and criminal investigations. To combat this, you can take the proactive approach and submit to IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure.
Golding & Golding – Offshore Disclosure
At Golding & Golding, we limit our entire practice to offshore disclosure (IRS Voluntary Disclosure of Foreign and U.S. Assets). The term offshore disclosure is a bit of a misnomer, because the term “offshore” generally connotes visions of hiding money in secret places such as the Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Malta, or any other well-known tax haven jurisdiction – but that is not the case.
In fact, any money that is outside of the United States is considered to be offshore; the term offshore is not a bad word. In other words, merely because a person has money offshore (a.k.a. overseas or in a foreign country) does not mean that money is the result of ill-gotten gains or that the money is being “hidden.”
It just means it is not in the United States. Many of our clients have assets and bank accounts in their homeland countries and these are considered offshore assets and offshore bank accounts.
The Devil is in the Details…
If you do have money offshore, then it is very important to ensure that the money has been properly reported to the U.S. government. In addition, it is also very important to ensure that if you are earning any foreign income from that offshore money, that the earnings are being reported on your U.S. tax return.
It does not matter whether your money is in a country that does not tax a particular category of income (for example, many Asian countries do not tax passive income). It also does not matter if you are a dual citizen and/or if that money has already been taxed in the foreign country.
Rather, the default position is that if you are required to file a U.S. tax return and you meet the minimum threshold requirements for filing a U.S. tax return, then you have to include all of your foreign income. If you already paid foreign tax on the income, you may qualify for a Foreign Tax Credit. In addition, if the income is earned income – as opposed to passive income – and you meet either the Bona-Fide Resident Test or Physical-Presence Test, then you may qualify for an exclusion of that income; nevertheless, the money must be included on your tax return.
What if You Never Report the Money?
If you are in the unfortunate position of having foreign money or specified foreign assets that should have been reported to the U.S. government, but which you have not reported — then you are in a bit of a predicament, which you will need to resolve before it is too late.
As we have indicated numerous times on our website, there are very unscrupulous CPAs, Attorneys, Accountants, and Tax Representatives who would like nothing more than to get you to part with all of your money by scaring you into believing you are automatically going to be arrested, jailed, or deported because you have unreported money. While that is most likely not the case (depending on the facts and circumstances of your specific situation), you may be subject to extremely high fines and penalties.
Moreover, if you knowingly or willfully hid your foreign accounts, foreign money, and offshore assets overseas, then you may become subject to even higher fines and penalties…as well as a criminal investigation by the special agents of the IRS and/or DOJ (Department of Justice).
Getting into Compliance
There are five main methods people/businesses use to get into compliance. Four of these methods are perfectly legitimate as long as you meet the requirements for the particular mechanism of disclosure. The fifth alternative, which is called a Quiet Disclosure a.k.a. Silent Disclosure a.k.a. Soft Disclosure, is ill-advised as it is illegal and very well may result in criminal prosecution.
5 IRS Methods for Offshore Compliance
- Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures
- Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures
- Reasonable Cause
- Quiet Disclosure (Illegal)
We are going to provide a brief summary of each program below. We have also included links to the specific programs. If you are interested, we have also prepared very popular “FAQs from the Trenches” for FBAR, OVDP and Streamlined Disclosure reporting. Unlike the technical jargon of the IRS FAQs, our FAQs are based on the hundreds of different types of issues we have handled over the many years that we have been practicing international tax law and offshore disclosure in particular.
After reading this webpage, we hope you develop a basic understanding of each offshore disclosure alternative and how it may benefit you to get into compliance. We do not recommend attempting to disclose the information yourself as you may become subject to an IRS investigation insofar as you will have to answer questions directly to the IRS, which you can avoid with an attorney representative.
If you retain an attorney, then you will get the benefit of the attorney-client privilege which provides confidentiality between you and your representative. With a CPA, there is a relatively small privilege which does provide some comfort, but the privilege is nowhere near as strong as the confidentiality privilege you enjoy with an attorney.
Since you will be dealing with the Internal Revenue Service and they are not known to play nice or fair – it is in your best interest to obtain an experienced Offshore Disclosure Attorney.
OVDP is the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program — a program designed to facilitate taxpayer compliance with IRS, DOT, and DOJ International Tax Reporting and Compliance. It is generally reserved for individuals and businesses who were “Willful” (aka intentional) in their failure to comply with U.S. Government Laws and Regulations.
The Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program is open to any US taxpayer who has offshore and foreign accounts and has not reported the financial information to the Internal Revenue Service (restrictions apply). There are some basic program requirements, with the main one being that the person/business who is applying under this amnesty program is not currently under IRS examination.
The reason is simple: OVDP is a voluntary program and if you are only entering because you are already under IRS examination, then technically, you are not voluntarily entering the program – rather, you are doing so under duress.
Any account that would have to be included on either the FBAR or 8938 form as well as additional income generating assets such as rental properties are accounts that qualify under OVDP. It should be noted that the requirements are different for the modified streamlined program, in which the taxpayer penalties are limited to only assets that are actually listed on either an FBAR or 8938 form; thus the value of a rental property would not be calculated into the penalty amount in a streamlined application, but it would be applicable in an OVDP submission.
An OVDP submission involves the failure of a taxpayer(s) to report foreign and overseas accounts such as: Foreign Bank Accounts, Foreign Financial Accounts, Foreign Retirement Accounts, Foreign Trading Accounts, Foreign Insurance, and Foreign Income, including 8938s, FBAR, Schedule B, 5741, 3520, and more.
What is Included in the Full OVDP Submission?
The full OVDP application includes:
- Eight (8) years of Amended Tax Return filings;
- Eight (8) Years of FBAR (Foreign Bank and Account Reporting Statements);
- Penalty Computation Worksheet; and
- Various OVDP specific documents in support of the application.
Under this program, the Internal Revenue Service wants to know all of the income that was generated under these accounts that were not properly reported previously. The way the taxpayer accomplishes this is by amending tax returns for eight years.
Generally, if the taxpayer has not previously reported his accounts, then there are common forms which were probably excluded from the prior year’s tax returns and include 8938 Forms, Schedule B forms, 3520 Forms, 5471 Forms, 8621 Forms, as well as proof of filing of FBARs (Foreign Bank and Financial Account Reports).
The taxpayer is required to pay the outstanding tax liability for the eight years within the disclosure period – as well as payment of interest along with another 20% penalty on that amount (for nonpayment of tax). To give you an example, let’s pick one tax year during the compliance period. If the taxpayer owed $20,000 in taxes for year 2014, then they would also have to include in the check the amount of $4,000 to cover the 20% penalty, as well as estimated interest (which is generally averaged at about 3% per year). This must be done for each year during the compliance period.
Then there is the “FBAR/8938” 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 of 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!
2. Streamlined Domestic Offshore Disclosure
The Streamlined Domestic Offshore Disclosure Program is a highly cost-effective method of quickly getting you into IRS (Internal Revenue Service) or DOT (Department of Treasury) compliance.
What am I supposed to Report?
There are three main reporting aspects: (1) foreign account(s), (2) certain specified assets, and (3) foreign money. While the IRS or DOJ will most likely not be kicking in your door and arresting you on the spot for failing to report, there are significantly high penalties associated with failing to comply.
In fact, the US government has the right to penalize you upwards of $10,000 per unreported account, per year for a six-year period if you are non-willful. If you are determined to be willful, the penalties can reach 100% value of the foreign accounts, including many other fines and penalties… not the least being a criminal investigation.
Reporting Specified Foreign Assets – FATCA Form 8938
Not all foreign assets must be reported. With that said, a majority of assets do have to be reported on a form 8938. For example, if you have ownership of a foreign business interest or investment such as a limited liability share of a foreign corporation, it may not need to be reported on the FBAR but may need to be disclosed on an 8938.
The reason why you may get caught in the middle of whether it must be filed or not is due largely to the reporting thresholds of the 8938. For example, while the threshold requirements for the FBAR is when the foreign accounts exceed $10,000 in annual aggregate total – and is not impacted by marital status and country of residence – the same is not true of the 8938.
The threshold requirements for filing the 8938 will depend on whether you are married filing jointly or married filing separate/single, or whether you are considered a US resident or foreign resident.
Other Forms – Foreign Business
While the FBAR and Form 8938 are the two most common forms, please keep in mind that there are many other forms that may need to be filed based on your specific facts and circumstances. For example:
- If you are the Beneficiary of a foreign trust or receive a foreign gift, you may have to file Form 3520.
- If you are the Owner of a foreign trust, you will also have to file Form 3520-A.
- If you have certain Ownerships of a foreign corporation, you have to file Form 5471.
- And (regrettably) if you fall into the unfortunate category of owning foreign mutual funds or any other Passive Foreign Investment Companies then you will have to file Form 8621 and possibly be subject to significant tax liabilities in accordance with excess distributions.
Reporting Foreign Income
If you are considered a US tax resident (which normally means you are a US citizen, Legal Permanent Resident/Green-Card Holder or Foreign National subject to US tax under the substantial presence test), then you will be taxed on your worldwide Income.
It does not matter if you earned the money in a foreign country or if it is the type of income that is not taxed in the country of origin such as interest income in Asian countries. The fact of the matter is you are required to report this information on your US tax return and pay any differential in tax that might be due.
In other words, if you earn $100,000 USD in Japan and paid 25% tax ($25,000) in Japan, you would receive a $25,000 tax credit against your foreign earnings. Thus, if your US tax liability is less than $25,000, then you will receive a carryover to use in future years against foreign income (you do not get a refund and it cannot be used against US income). If you have to pay the exact same in the United States as you did in Japan, it would equal itself out. If you would owe more money in the United States than you paid in Japan on the earnings (a.k.a. you are in a higher tax bracket), then you have to pay the difference to the U.S. Government.
3. Streamlined Foreign Offshore Disclosure
What do you do if you reside outside of the United States and recently learned that you’re out of US tax compliance, have no idea what FATCA or FBAR means, and are under the misimpression that you are going to be arrested and hauled off to jail due to irresponsible blogging by inexperienced attorneys and accountants?
If you live overseas and qualify as a foreign resident (reside outside of the United States for at least 330 days in any one of the last three tax years or do not meet the Substantial Presence Test), you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
Even though you may be completely out of US tax and reporting compliance, you may qualify for a penalty waiver and ALL of your disclosure penalties would be waived. Thus, all you will have to do besides reporting and disclosing the information is pay any outstanding tax liability and interest, if any is due. (Your foreign tax credit may offset any US taxes and you may end up with zero penalty and zero tax liability.)
*Under the Streamlined Foreign, you also have to amend or file 3 years of tax returns (and 8938s if applicable) as well as 6 years of FBAR statements just as in the Streamlined Domestic program.
4. Reasonable Cause
Reasonable Cause is different than the above referenced programs. Reasonable Cause is not a “program.” Rather, it is an alternative to traditional Offshore Voluntary Disclosure, which should be considered on a case by case basis, taking the specific facts and circumstances into consideration.
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