Kovel Letter (2018) – Attorney-Client Privilege when Hiring a CPA?
When it comes to IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure/Foreign Account Amnesty, confidentiality is absolutely crucial.
And, the less people involved in the preparation of your submission, the better.
Kovel Letter Attorney-Client Privilege
In order to preserve confidentiality, you will find that most experienced IRS Voluntary Disclosure Lawyers are highly-specialized Attorneys (20 years Attorney experience) who also hold an LL.M. (Master’s of Tax Law) and are either an Enrolled Agent or CPA (in addition to being an Attorney).
Why? Because the attorney will then handle both the legal and tax portion of your submission.
What is a Kovel Letter?
A Kovel Letter is used by attorneys/clients in situations in which the attorney and/or client must communicate with another non-attorney accountant such as a CPA or Enrolled Agent, but the Attorney wants to try to extend the privileged communications beyond the Attorney, and to the Tax/Accounting Professional.
What is an Attorney-Client Privilege?
The Attorney-Client Privilege is known as one of the strongest privileges that exists. The idea behind the attorney-client privilege is that for an attorney to best represent his or her client, it is important the client feels that information being provided to the attorney is confidential, so that the client can tell the “whole” story — without fear that the attorney may reveal the information at another time, and put the client’s freedom in jeopardy.
For example: In the area of IRS Voluntary Disclosure, we have clients who were willful, and/or unsure if they are willful or not. When the client is telling us his or her story, it is important that the client feels comfortable enough to reveal sufficient information so that we can provide the best advice and guidance possible.
What If There Was No Confidentiality…
If a client believes the information is not confidential, the client will be less inclined to provide the full story — and the meeting becomes about as awkward as your first date in 7th grade (you remember…Z Cavaricci’s, Timberlands and that cool Crystal Necklace hanging out of your turtleneck)…with the client doing his or her best to hope the Attorney does not judge him or her poorly.
In other words, once the truth unfolds — the prior legal advice becomes as ineffective and dated as your old wardrobe has become today.
Is there a CPA Privilege?
Generally, there is a limited privilege between a CPA and his or her client. That privilege is very limited, and does not extend to anything criminal related. Therefore, in the situation in which a person has communicated highly confidential information to the CPA, there are many instances in which the level of privilege is not sufficient to protect the confidential information.
The Purpose of A Kovel Letter
In order to bridge the the lack of confidentiality that exist between a client and a CPA coming to Kovel letter was introduced as a result of the U.S. vs. Kovel. With a Kovel Letter, the Attorney retains the Accountant, not the client. And, the Accountant is retained by the firm for the specific matter and only to with respect to providing legal advice.
A Kovel Letter Has Limitations
Inexperienced IRS Voluntary Disclosure Program Lawyers want to try to turn the Kovel Letter into a magic wand, bestowing Attorney-Client privilege to an Accountant, CPA or EA for all the work (tax returns, etc.) the tax professional prepares — which is not how a Kovel Letter works.
Just because an Attorney utilizes a 3rd party CPA or EA to perform tax services does not grant a blanket privilege to the CPA or EA for work performed that was not for the purpose of providing legal advice.
Under Kovel, the party asserting the privilege must establish that the communications or materials at issue were made for the purpose of obtaining legal advice from an attorney. [See also Schaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34, 40 (2d Cir. 2015), stating that “the purpose of the communications must be solely for the obtaining or providing of legal advice,” emphasis added.]
If the communications/materials were made for the purpose of obtaining accounting services, or if the advice sought was really the accountant’s rather than the attorney’s, no privilege exists. Accordingly, to satisfy the Kovel test, Adlman had to establish that the memoranda at issue were rendered to increase his understanding of the tax code so he could provide legal advice to Sequa.
In United States v. Adlman, 68 F.3d 1495 (2d Cir. 1995), the Court of Appeals held, in part, that communications with an accounting firm were not privileged where “[t]here [was] virtually no contemporaneous documentation supporting the view that” the accounting firm was operating a legal capacity, rather than as a non-privileged accountant. Id. at 1500.
Kovel recognized a privilege derivative of the attorney-client privilege where a third party clarifies or facilitates communication between attorney and client in confidence ‘for the purpose of obtaining legal advice’ from the attorney. [Kovel, 296 F.2d] at 922. The caveat to the Kovel rule, however, is that the advice rendered must be that of the attorney, not the agent.” Gucci Am., Inc. v. Guess?, Inc., 271 F.R.D. 58, 70-71 (S.D.N.Y. 2010).
See also McNamee v. Clemens, 09 Civ. 1647 (SJ)(CLP), 2014 WL 6606661, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2014) (“the ‘critical inquiry’ is whether the communication with the person assisting the lawyer was made in confidence and for the purpose of obtaining legal advice”) (citing Allied Irish Banks, P.L.C. v. Bank of Am., N.A., 252 F.R.D. 163, 168 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (citations omitted)); Calvin Klein Trademark Trust v. Wachner, 198 F.R.D. 53, 44 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (the privilege applies only where the third party “enabl[es] counsel to understand aspects of the client’s own communications that could not otherwise be appreciated.”)
Kovel Risk in IRS Offshore Disclosure
In IRS Offshore Disclosure, many firms are using CPAs, EAs and other Accountants improperly, and misrepresenting to clients that the communications to the CPA are protected. For example, if a firm retains a CPA for purposes of preparing Amended Returns, FBARS, or informational returns, and not to provide the lawyer with LEGAL advice, the Kovel would not be effective.
Kovel Is Even Riskier when the CPA Submits Directly to the IRS
For example, if an Attorney refers a client to a CPA to prepare a Reasonable Cause Letter, and the client provides confidential information to the CPA, the purposes of the CPA was not to provide the attorney legal advice, and the information the person provided to the CPA could be used against him or her.
This can put a client at great risk (and the Attorney), especially if the Attorney knew the client was willful, but referred him or her to a CPA to submit under Reasonable Cause — when the Attorney knew the client was willful.
Other Potentially Toxic Kovel Letter Situations
Accountant Continues Direct Representation with client
If your attorney retained an Accountant, for a specific matter, and for the purpose of the Attorney to provide related legal advice, but you continue using the CPA or EA on other matters — the Kovel Letter does not expand the attorney-client privilege to other matters, because that would defeat the purpose of the Kovel Letter.
In other words, the Kovel Letter does not provide a blanket Attorney-Client privilege between the Client and the CPA or EA.
Issuing Your Former CPA/EA a Kovel Letter
If you retain an attorney to handle the tax matter and your idea is to issue a Kovel letter to your prior CPA to suddenly magically create a retroactive attorney-client privilege…think again. You cannot suddenly create an attorney-client privilege for prior years when there was no privilege with the CPA, by having at new attorney issue the old CPA a Kovel letter.
Kovel is Not Statutory Law
The Kovel letter is a creation of a Federal Court of Appeals holding and is not statutory law. Therefore, since it is not statutory law unless the facts are absolutely identical, other courts do not necessarily have to follow the same holding. Thus, even if you meet most of the basic requirements that would appear necessary to obtain a letter, it is not a guarantee that the confidentiality will extend to the CPA.
Benefits of Using a Dual Attorney/EA or CPA
In order to best provide for protection regarding matters involving confidentiality, one of the best ways to achieve this goal is to utilize a tax attorney who is also an Enrolled Agent (EA) or CPA to handle the matter. That way, there are no third-party communications with other non-attorneys (other than agents of the dually licensed professional, which would then create and extended privilege) that could potentially lead to devastating results if for any reason the Kovel letter was not done properly, and/or if it is rejected.
While the Kovel letter may work sometimes, in limited situations, it is not bulletproof and you should consider the risk before retaining a tax attorney to handle a legal/tax matter for you.
We Specialize in IRS Voluntary Disclosure
We have successfully handled a diverse range of IRS Voluntary Disclosure cases. Whether it is a simple or complex case, safely getting clients into compliance is our passion, and we take it very seriously.
Unlike other attorneys who call themselves specialists but handle 10 different areas of tax law, purchase multiple domain names, and even practice outside of tax, we are absolutely dedicated to IRS Voluntary Disclosure.
No Case is Too Big; No Case is Too Small.
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):
- Foreign Mutual Funds
- Foreign Life Insurance
- Fixing Quiet Disclosure
- 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.
…We even represent IRS Staff with getting into compliance.
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 Certified Tax Law Specialist credential and specializes in IRS Offshore 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 60 countries.
IRS Offshore Penalty List
The following is a list of potential IRS penalties for unreported and undisclosed foreign accounts and assets:
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.
Summary of IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure
IRS Voluntary Disclosure of Foreign or Offshore Accounts is a legal method for getting into IRS Tax and Reporting compliance before the IRS finds you first. At Golding & Golding, we limit our entire tax law practice to IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure.
Why IRS Voluntary Disclosure?
With the introduction and enforcement of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) and FATCA penalties, coupled by the renewed interest in the IRS issuing FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account Form aka FinCEN 114) penalties — which are both very steep – it is typically a better strategy to be proactive and get into compliance, than to play “defense.”
FBAR penalties alone can reach ~$12,500 per account, per year (adjusted inflation from $10,000). While this is the maximum penalty, the “recommended penalty” is still $12,500 per year (usually 3-6 years).
4 Types of IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs
There are typically four types of IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure programs, and they include:
- Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP)
- Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures (SDOP)
- Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures (SFOP)
- Reasonable Cause (RC)
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.
1. OVDP (Ends on 9.28.18)
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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