IRS (IRM) Voluntary Disclosure vs. Reasonable Cause Penalty Waiver
Reasonable Cause and the IRS Voluntary Disclosure Program are not the same. When a person submits to Reasonable Cause, they are asking the IRS to waive any penalties, based on the fact that the person acted without intent or reckless disregard — and deserves a break (aka penalty waiver).
Voluntary Disclosure vs. Reasonable Cause
Alternatively, when a person submits to IRS Voluntary Disclosure Program, they are acknowledging that they did something wrong, and want to fix it.
They are not making the claim that they should be spared a penalty — just that the amount of the penalty should be reduced.
The person is hoping to avoid 75% fraud penalties, FBAR and Evasion penalties…and sidestep a criminal investigation
IRS (IRM) Voluntary Disclosure vs. Reasonable Cause
The following is a summary of the two different types of programs:
IRS Voluntary Disclosure (IRM)
The traditional IRS Voluntary Disclosure Program has been on the books for many years. It can be found in the IRM (Internal Revenue Manual)
Once OVDP was introduced, individuals and businesses with foreign income (along with possible U.S. unreported income) typically preferred OVDP to the IRM Voluntary Disclosure.
Why? Because the procedures were more transparent, the penalty structure more secure, and it had a near guarantee of avoiding a criminal investigation or audit.
So while for some people the penalty amount for OVDP was severe, when the penalty amount was offset against the potential penalties for tax fraud and tax evasion (along with willful FBAR penalties and a possible jail sentence) – the penalties were not so bad.
IRS (IRM) Voluntary Disclosure Practice
Let’s focus on how the non-OVDP IRS Voluntary Disclosure Practice (program) works:
What Must Be Included in the Letter?
Instead of providing exact instructions, the IRS provides guidelines and examples. Here, the Guidelines for voluntary disclosure provide that the IRS requires that a taxpayer include the following in their disclosure:
Willingness to Cooperate
A taxpayer shows a willingness to cooperate (and does in fact cooperate) with the IRS in determining his/her correct tax liability.
The taxpayer makes good faith arrangements with the IRS to pay in full, the tax, interest, and any penalties determined by the IRS to be applicable.
The Submission Must be Timely
In order for an IRM Voluntary Disclosure submission to be timely, it must be:
Not Under Personal IRS Examination
The IRS has initiated a civil examination or criminal investigation of the taxpayer, or has notified the taxpayer that it intends to commence such an examination or investigation.
Hopefully, Nobody Snitched on You
The IRS has received information from a third party (e.g., informant, other governmental agency, or the media) alerting the IRS to the specific taxpayer’s noncompliance.
No Directly Related IRS Examination
The IRS has initiated a civil examination or criminal investigation which is directly related to the specific liability of the taxpayer.
No Criminal Action Initiated
The IRS has acquired information directly related to the specific liability of the taxpayer from a criminal enforcement action (e.g., search warrant, grand jury subpoena).
What Type of Letter is Submitted?
Unlike the pre-clearance letter in the traditional OVDP, there is no set introductory letter that is submitted for the IRM program. Rather, the Internal Revenue Manual provides examples of what a proper disclosure may consistent of.
Here are examples examples provided by the IRS:
Example 1 (Attorney Letter and Amended Returns)
A letter from an attorney which encloses amended returns from a client which are complete and accurate (reporting legal source income omitted from the original returns), which offers to pay the tax, interest, and any penalties determined by the IRS to be applicable in full and which meets the timeliness standard set forth above.
Example 2 (Barter Exchange)
A disclosure made by a taxpayer of omitted income facilitated through a barter exchange after the IRS has announced that it has begun a civil compliance project targeting barter exchanges but before it has commenced an examination or investigation of the taxpayer or notified the taxpayer of its intention to do so. In addition, the taxpayer files complete and accurate amended returns and makes arrangements with the IRS to pay in full, the tax, interest, and any penalties determined by the IRS to be applicable.
Example 3 (Tax Scheme, IRS Compliance Project)
A disclosure made by a taxpayer of omitted income facilitated through a widely promoted scheme that is the subject of an IRS civil compliance project. Although the IRS already obtained information which might lead to an examination of the taxpayer, it not yet commenced any such examination or investigation or notified the taxpayer of its intent to do so. In addition, the taxpayer files complete and accurate returns and makes arrangements with the IRS to pay in full, the tax, interest, and any penalties determined by the IRS to be applicable.
Example 4 (Unfiled Returns, IRS Notice)
A disclosure made by an individual who has not filed tax returns after the individual has received a notice stating that the IRS has no record of receiving a return for a particular year and inquiring into whether the taxpayer filed a return for that year. The individual files complete and accurate returns and makes arrangements with the IRS to pay, in full, the tax, interest, and any penalties determined by the IRS to be applicable. This is a voluntary disclosure because the IRS has not yet commenced an examination or investigation of the taxpayer or notified the taxpayer of its intent to do so and because all of the elements set forth in (3), above have been met.
What are Disqualifying Factors?
The IRS has listed various factors that will disqualify a person from successfully making an IRS Voluntary Disclosure. These factors include:
If a taxpayer expresses an interest in making a voluntary disclosure, he/she must be asked the following questions to determine if potential disqualifying factors exist:
- Are you currently the subject of a criminal investigation or civil examination? (If yes, specify)
- Has the IRS notified you that it intends to commence an examination or investigation? (If yes, specify)
- Are you under investigation by any law enforcement agency? (If yes, specify)
- Is the source of any of your income from illegal activity?
- Do you have any reason to believe that the IRS has obtained information concerning your tax liability? (If yes, specify.)
*If the taxpayer responds yes to any of the above questions, the facts and circumstances of each investigation must be clarified to determine if it is a disqualifying factor.
How Does the IRS Evaluate the Disclosure?
As with most issues that have a criminal aspect to it, it is typically the IRS Special Agents who will evaluate the submission.
As provided by the IRS:
– Special agents will evaluate disclosures to determine if the information provided is truthful and complete, and shall make a recommendation to the SAC, as to whether or not the taxpayer has met all voluntary disclosure practice criteria.
– The evaluation should be completed as expeditiously as possible, ideally within 10 working days or less from the date the complete voluntary disclosure communication from the taxpayer has been received. The SAC should be apprised if an evaluation cannot be completed within 30 days.
As part of the evaluation process special agents will query the following databases:
- The Criminal Investigation Management Information System (CIMIS)
- Integrated Data Retrieval System (IDRS)
- The Currency and Banking Retrieval System (CBRS) Database
- The National Crime Information Center Database (NCIC)
– The special agent needs to query all applicable databases during the evaluation process of the voluntary disclosure matter including a national query for criminal investigations within the CIMIS database as noted above.
– If the indices checks (or any other evaluative steps) disclose potentially disqualifying information the taxpayer should be contacted and offered an opportunity to provide an explanation.
– If a satisfactory explanation cannot be provided, this may constitute a disqualifying factor.
– If the indices checks disclose no disqualifying information, the voluntary disclosure will be referred to the SAC, with a recommendation that the matter be forwarded to SB/SE or LB&I Offshore Identification Unit.
What if You Don’t Make the Cut?
Like with any audition or tryout, not everyone makes the team, gets the part…or is accepted into IRS Voluntary Disclosure.
As provided by the IRS:
– If the SAC determines that a disclosure does not meet all IRS voluntary disclosure criteria, a letter will be sent to the taxpayer informing them of the reason(s) he/she is ineligible to participate in the IRS’s voluntary disclosure practice. It is not necessary to cite specific reasons for the rejection if it would compromise an ongoing investigative matter.
– Criminal Investigation will evaluate the criminal potential of all negative evaluations. Therefore, the assigned special agent should initiate a PI number within CIMIS. This PI number is a separate number from the voluntary disclosure number. If the matter is not acceptable for investigation, it will be forwarded to PSP for whatever action they deem appropriate.
If you were completely non-willful in your failure to disclosure and were unaware that there was any reporting requirement, then the thought of paying any penalty may sound absurd. Here are three examples in which paying any penalty for your undisclosed foreign accounts may seem unfair.
Reasonable Cause Examples
Example 1: 80-year-old Michael travels worldwide and has 3 accounts in different countries. He only uses the foreign money when he is in the foreign country at issue, he never transfers the money to the US, and there is usually a relatively small amounts of money in each account. The only issue for Michael was that at one point, Michael thought about purchasing a home overseas and left the money in the foreign account for a significant period of time (including 12/31). Foreign taxes were fully paid on the money deposited into the account and foreign taxes were paid on the income the account generated. His only mistake was that he did not report the account and/or the foreign income on his U.S. Tax Return.
Example 2: Michelle, a widow who had never been in trouble with the law, moved to the United States over 30 years ago but has a $1 million USD foreign pension from a private employer through the early 1970s. She has never accessed the account nor has she contributed (or anyone else contributed) since arriving in the United States. The account/earnings are not taxed in the US until distributed, there have been no distributions, and Michelle never reported the account on an FBAR or 8938.
Example 3: David has a foreign account, which he received as an inheritance. He never touched the money, and even though the account earns minimal annual income, there is no tax for passive income in this particular country. He has no other ties to the country and has not used any of the money. David’s son has special needs and he needs to access a large chunk of the money in a short period of time. He has not reported the account on an FBAR or 8938.
Reasonable Cause – Viable Option
As you can see from the aforementioned examples, none of these individuals had any intent whatsoever to perform tax evasion. Moreover, the amount of income earned is relatively minor compared to the outstanding amount in the foreign accounts. In addition, in the case of Michelle, the majority of her money is it a pension account which is not even taxed by the US. Thus, even under the streamlined program she would be paying $50,000 in penalties for an account in which all of the money was earned and reported timely in her foreign country and all foreign taxes were paid on the contributions.
Reasonable Cause – Process
An individual should never attempt offshore disclosure without the assistance of a qualified attorney. With that said, it is even more important to ensure that if you are even considering a reasonable cause submission, that you do so only with the help of an attorney. That is because only with an attorney do you receive the benefit of the attorney-client privilege.
Unlike the Streamlined Program or OVDP where there are strict procedures to be followed, a reasonable cause submission is different. It should be noted that a person can submit a reasonable cause application for any number of different reasons; it is not limited only to offshore money and reporting foreign accounts.
With a reasonable cause submission, the attorney will carefully evaluate and analyze the facts and circumstances of your case in detail. He or she should sit down with you either person or via teleconference if you are non-local and assess the pros and cons of the potential submission in order to determine what the benefits and detriments may be to a reasonable cause disclosure. Thereafter the attorney will amend the returns, prepare the necessary forms, and draft a persuasive Reasonable Cause Letter.
At Golding & Golding, we are Tax Attorneys (with Masters of Tax Law) and Enrolled Agents credentialed by the IRS (Highest Credential awarded by the IRS), so we handle your entire submission (Taxes, Legal, and Audit Defense) in-house, for a flat-fee.
Benefits of Reasonable Cause
The main benefit of reasonable cause is that if it is accepted by the Internal Revenue Service then there is a good chance that penalties will be waived. As a result, when you report your foreign accounts and you can show that your failure to report them prior was due to reasonable cause, you will not be penalized for un-filed forms, including:
- FBARs (FinCEN 114) – Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts
- FATCA Form 8938 – Statement Of Specified Foreign Assets
- 5471 – US Ownership of Foreign Companies.
- 8621 – US Ownership of Passive Foreign Investment Companies
- 3520 – Foreign Trust Beneficiary
- 3520-A Foreign Trust Ownership
This may result in a significant savings versus offshore disclosure – especially when you have significant unreported accounts and assets overseas and minimal income.
Detriments of Reasonable Cause
Reasonable cause does not come without its risks. If the reasonable cause statement is rejected, then you may be subject to fines and penalties that are higher than would have been issued under the Streamlined Program.
Nevertheless, if penalties are issued, then you are entitled to appeal the penalties and thereafter file with the US Tax Court if you are still unsatisfied with the appeals process. Of course, this may take a lot of time and effort – not to mention attorneys fees depending on the seriousness of the fines and the facts of your case – which is counterintuitive.
Common Questions to Consider – Reasonable Cause
Before convincing yourself that you should be spared any penalty, it’s important to look at the facts and circumstances of your case in the most objective light as possible.
Here’s a list of questions you may consider before making your decision:
- How many forms did you fail to report?
- How much unreported foreign income did you have?
- For how long did you fail to report these forms?
- Did you work with a CPA, Enrolled Agent, or Tax Accountant and prepare your returns?
- Did the CPA, Enrolled Agent, or Tax Accountant ask you about your foreign accounts or Foreign Income?
- Have you otherwise filed your U.S. tax returns timely?
- Did you pay Foreign Tax on the Foreign Earnings (unless exempt in the Foreign Country)
- Are you originally from the United States and how long have you been in the United States filing tax returns?
- How much unreported foreign income do you have?
- Did a foreign financial institution inform you of your requirement to get FATCA or IRS Tax Compliant?
- Are you prepared to go the distance and appeal the matter or even bring it the Tax Court if it is rejected?
Making an IRS Voluntary Disclosure – Use an Attorney
The voluntary disclosure material provided by the IRS indicates that the attorney should make the submission. There is no attorney-client privilege with a CPA, which means the information you discuss with your CPA may not be confidential or protected by privilege.
That also means the IRS maybe able to question a CPA about the contents of the submission. This is why you will not want to utilize a CPA to make this submission but rather an attorney to ensure you have the attorney-client privilege.
We Specialize in IRS Voluntary Disclosure
We represent all different types of clients. High net-worth investors (over $40 million), smaller cases ($100,000) and everything in-between.
We represent clients in over 60 countries and nationwide, with all different types of assets, including (each link takes you to a Golding & Golding free summary):
- Unfiled Tax Returns
- Unreported Income Penalties
- International Tax Investigations (FATCA and more)
- FBAR Investigations
- International Tax Evasion
- Structuring Investigations
- Eggshell and Reverse Eggshell Audits
- Divorce and Offshore Accounts
- Foreign Mutual Funds
- Foreign Life Insurance
- Fixing Quiet Disclosures
- Foreign Real Estate Income
- Foreign Real Estate Sales
- Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
- Subpart F Income
- Foreign Inheritance
- Foreign Pension
- Form 3520
- Form 5471
- Form 8621
- Form 8865
- Form 8938 (FATCA)
Who Decides to Enter IRS Voluntary Disclosure
All different types of people submit to IRS Voluntary Disclosure. We represent Attorneys, CPAs, Doctors, Investors, Engineers, Business Owners, Entrepreneurs, Professors, Athletes, Actors, Entry-Level staff, Students, and more.
You are not alone, and you are not the only one to find himself or herself in this situation.
Sean M. Golding, JD, LL.M., EA – Board Certified Tax Law Specialist
Our Managing Partner, Sean M. Golding, JD, LLM, EA is the only Attorney nationwide who has earned the Board Certified Tax Law Specialist credential and specializes in IRS Voluntary Disclosure and closely related matters.
In addition to earning the Certified Tax Law Certification, Sean also holds an LL.M. (Master’s in Tax Law) from the University of Denver and is also an Enrolled Agent (the highest credential awarded by the IRS.)
He is frequently called upon to lecture and write on issues involving IRS Voluntary Disclosure.
Less than 1% of Tax Attorneys Nationwide
Out of more than 200,000 practicing attorneys in California, less than 400 attorneys have achieved this Certified Tax Law Specialist designation.
The exam is widely regarded as one of (if not) the hardest tax exam given in the United States for practicing Attorneys. It is a designation earned by less than 1% of attorneys.
Our International Tax Lawyers represent hundreds of taxpayers annually in over 65 countries.
IRS Penalty List
The following is a list of potential IRS penalties for unreported and undisclosed foreign accounts and assets:
Failure to File
If you do not file by the deadline, you might face a failure-to-file penalty. If you do not pay by the due date, you could face a failure-to-pay penalty. The failure-to-file penalty is generally more than the failure-to-pay penalty.
The penalty for filing late is usually 5 percent of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that a return is late. This penalty will not exceed 25 percent of your unpaid taxes. If you file your return more than 60 days after the due date or extended due date, the minimum penalty is the smaller of $135 or 100 percent of the unpaid tax.
Failure to Pay
If you do not pay your taxes by the due date, you will generally have to pay a failure-to-pay penalty of ½ of 1 percent of your unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month after the due date that the taxes are not paid. This penalty can be as much as 25 percent of your unpaid taxes. If both the failure-to-file penalty and the failure-to-pay penalty apply in any month, the 5 percent failure-to-file penalty is reduced by the failure-to-pay penalty.
However, if you file your return more than 60 days after the due date or extended due date, the minimum penalty is the smaller of $135 or 100 percent of the unpaid tax. You will not have to pay a failure-to-file or failure-to-pay penalty if you can show that you failed to file or pay on time because of reasonable cause and not because of willful neglect.
A Penalty for failing to file FBARs
United States citizens, residents and certain other persons must annually report their direct or indirect financial interest in, or signature authority (or other authority that is comparable to signature authority) over, a financial account that is maintained with a financial institution located in a foreign country if, for any calendar year, the aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeded $10,000 at any time during the year. The civil penalty for willfully failing to file an FBAR can be as high as the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of the total balance of the foreign financial account per violation. See 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5). Non-willful violations that the IRS determines were not due to reasonable cause are subject to a $10,000 penalty per violation.
FATCA Form 8938
Beginning with the 2011 tax year, a penalty for failing to file Form 8938 reporting the taxpayer’s interest in certain foreign financial assets, including financial accounts, certain foreign securities, and interests in foreign entities, as required by IRC § 6038D. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 3520
Annual Return to Report Transactions With Foreign Trusts and Receipt of Certain Foreign Gifts. Taxpayers must also report various transactions involving foreign trusts, including creation of a foreign trust by a United States person, transfers of property from a United States person to a foreign trust and receipt of distributions from foreign trusts under IRC § 6048. This return also reports the receipt of gifts from foreign entities under IRC § 6039F. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns, or for filing an incomplete return, is the greater of $10,000 or 35 percent of the gross reportable amount, except for returns reporting gifts, where the penalty is five percent of the gift per month, up to a maximum penalty of 25 percent of the gift.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 3520-A
Information Return of Foreign Trust With a U.S. Owner. Taxpayers must also report ownership interests in foreign trusts, by United States persons with various interests in and powers over those trusts under IRC § 6048(b). The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns or for filing an incomplete return, is the greater of $10,000 or 5 percent of the gross value of trust assets determined to be owned by the United States person.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 5471
Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations. Certain United States persons who are officers, directors or shareholders in certain foreign corporations (including International Business Corporations) are required to report information under IRC §§ 6035, 6038 and 6046. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 5472
Information Return of a 25% Foreign-Owned U.S. Corporation or a Foreign Corporation Engaged in a U.S. Trade or Business. Taxpayers may be required to report transactions between a 25 percent foreign-owned domestic corporation or a foreign corporation engaged in a trade or business in the United States and a related party as required by IRC §§ 6038A and 6038C. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns, or to keep certain records regarding reportable transactions, is $10,000, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 926
Return by a U.S. Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation. Taxpayers are required to report transfers of property to foreign corporations and other information under IRC § 6038B. The penalty for failing to file each one of these information returns is ten percent of the value of the property transferred, up to a maximum of $100,000 per return, with no limit if the failure to report the transfer was intentional.
A Penalty for failing to file Form 8865
Return of U.S. Persons With Respect to Certain Foreign Partnerships. United States persons with certain interests in foreign partnerships use this form to report interests in and transactions of the foreign partnerships, transfers of property to the foreign partnerships, and acquisitions, dispositions and changes in foreign partnership interests under IRC §§ 6038, 6038B, and 6046A. Penalties include $10,000 for failure to file each return, with an additional $10,000 added for each month the failure continues beginning 90 days after the taxpayer is notified of the delinquency, up to a maximum of $50,000 per return, and ten percent of the value of any transferred property that is not reported, subject to a $100,000 limit.
Fraud penalties imposed under IRC §§ 6651(f) or 6663
Where an underpayment of tax, or a failure to file a tax return, is due to fraud, the taxpayer is liable for penalties that, although calculated differently, essentially amount to 75 percent of the unpaid tax.
A Penalty for failing to file a tax return imposed under IRC § 6651(a)(1)
Generally, taxpayers are required to file income tax returns. If a taxpayer fails to do so, a penalty of 5 percent of the balance due, plus an additional 5 percent for each month or fraction thereof during which the failure continues may be imposed. The penalty shall not exceed 25 percent.
A Penalty for failing to pay the amount of tax shown on the return under IRC § 6651(a)(2)
If a taxpayer fails to pay the amount of tax shown on the return, he or she may be liable for a penalty of .5 percent of the amount of tax shown on the return, plus an additional .5 percent for each additional month or fraction thereof that the amount remains unpaid, not exceeding 25 percent.
An Accuracy-Related Penalty on underpayments imposed under IRC § 6662
Depending upon which component of the accuracy-related penalty is applicable, a taxpayer may be liable for a 20 percent or 40 percent penalty
Possible Criminal Charges related to tax matters include tax evasion (IRC § 7201)
Filing a false return (IRC § 7206(1)) and failure to file an income tax return (IRC § 7203). Willfully failing to file an FBAR and willfully filing a false FBAR are both violations that are subject to criminal penalties under 31 U.S.C. § 5322. Additional possible criminal charges include conspiracy to defraud the government with respect to claims (18 U.S.C. § 286) and conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States (18 U.S.C. § 371).
A person convicted of tax evasion
Filing a false return subjects a person to a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $250,000. A person who fails to file a tax return is subject to a prison term of up to one year and a fine of up to $100,000. Failing to file an FBAR subjects a person to a prison term of up to ten years and criminal penalties of up to $500,000. A person convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government with respect to claims is subject to a prison term of up to not more than 10 years or a fine of up to $250,000. A person convicted of conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States is subject to a prison term of not more than five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
What Should You Do?
Everyone makes mistakes. If at some point that you should have been reporting your foreign income, accounts, assets or investments the prudent and least costly (but most effective) method for getting compliance is through one of the approved IRS offshore voluntary disclosure program.