Mr. Dewees gets Smacked! U.S. District Court Upholds Multiple $10,000 Penalties (US$120,000 – NO Forms 5471) for USC Residing in Canada
United States Citizens (“USCs”) and lawful permanent residents (“LPRs”) residing overseas should read the story of Mr. Dewees to learn what could happen if they go into the offshore voluntary disclosure program (“OVDP”); when he appears to have been a “good faith” taxpayer. The IRS issued a press release in March 2018 – IRS to end offshore voluntary disclosure program; Taxpayers with undisclosed foreign assets urged to come forward now The IRS explained that it will close the program next month on September 28, 2018. Take the story of the Dewees into consideration before rushing into the OVDP.
This is not a new case, as the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued its opinion a year ago – Dewees v. United States, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124989 (D.C. D.C. 2017). However, it is an important case if anyone is confused about whether they should go into the OVDP. See the story of the Dewees.
Mr. Dewees resided in Canada and did file U.S. income tax returns, but not all information returns. See a related previous post – Why Most U.S. Citizens Residing Overseas Haven’t a Clue about the Labyrinth of U.S. Taxation and Bank and Financial Reporting of Worldwide Income and Assets
He also did not initially pay information reporting penalties assessed by the IRS regarding his Canadian company. He resided in Canada where is business and company was located. The Court noted that he “. . . voluntarily disclosed [to the IRS] his failure to file the required informational returns . . . ” The Dewees were “rewarded” by their good faith efforts by the IRS which then turned around and ” . . . assessed a statutory penalty of $120,000, $10,000 for each year of non-compliance . . . “
The Canadian revenue authority would not refund his Canadian tax refund until the IRS penalty was paid in full. He eventually paid $120,000 of information penalties and brought a suit for refund in U.S. District Court.
The U.S. District Court first explained the obligations of USCs residing overseas with –
(i) controlling interests in foreign corporations (i.e., filing obligations under IRC Section 6038 to file IRS Form 5471) – see an earlier related post Many Canadians have expressed frustration with U.S. tax policy of worldwide taxation of U.S. citizens., and
(ii) interests in foreign financial accounts (i.e., filing obligations of foreign bank account reports under Title 31) see a previous post, Nuances of FBAR – Foreign Bank Account Report Filings – for USCs and LPRs living outside the U.S.
The Court then dismissed the suit for refund on the grounds that Mr. Dewees failed to state a viable claim and the Court therefore lacked jurisdiction to hear his claims (which were “excessive fines”, “equal protection” and “due process” claims).
Here, the USC residing in Canada was apparently well intended, since the District Court said that Mr. “Dewees learned that he had failed to comply with these requirements . . . ” In another part of the opinion, the Court uses the word “neglected” to file information returns for over a decade.
“Learned” and “neglected” certainly does not sound intentional, which is probably why the IRS did not attempt to pursue Title 31 willfulness FBAR penalties.
The USC entered the OVDP on the advice of a tax specialist and then withdrew after the IRS was proposing to assess an “OVDP in-lieu of penalty” of US$185,862.
The IRS ultimately did not pursue any FBAR penalties in this case, not even the annual $10,000 per year penalty for failure to file the FBAR form.
Had Mr. Dewees lived in any other country (other than Canada) he probably would not have had the local taxman (i.e., the Canada Revenue Agency) step in to indirectly help the IRS collect the penalty amounts assessed. See an earlier post, U.S. Enforcement/Collection of Taxes Overseas against USCs and LPRs – Legal Limitations
The U.S.-Canada income tax treaty has a special “assistance in collection” provision, which provides in part as follows –
Article XXVI A
Assistance in Collection
1. The Contracting States [referring to the U.S. and Canada] undertake to lend assistance to each other in the collection of taxes
referred to in paragraph 9, together with interest, costs, additions to such taxes and civil penalties, referred to in this Article as a “revenue claim”.
I explained in an earlier post, how the “Revenue Rule” was a common law concept that generally prohibited the U.S. government from assisting in the collection of taxes of another country. Hence, the U.S. Treasury renegotiated the treaties with five countries (including Canada) that now have a specific treaty provision such as XXVI A above:
As a result of these cases and the Revenue Rule, the U.S. and Canada modified their income tax treaty to (at least in theory) allow for the international enforcement of taxes. The U.S. now has five income treaties with “mutual assistance” provisions: Canada, Sweden, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands (with a clause in the newly negotiated, but yet to go into force, Swiss treaty).
In the Dewees case, we learned that the assistance in collection provision is not merely a theoretical tool that can be used in collecting taxes. The actions of both the Canadian (CRA) and U.S. governments (IRS and District Court Judge), made the provision effective. The US$120,000 penalty, that has nothing to do with any U.S. taxes, was collected by the IRS.
Questions to ponder in this case:
- Would the USC have been better off, by getting proper advice as to how to file on a going forward basis?
- Why did the USC ever go into the OVDP program in the first place under these facts?
- Did the USC know about the “streamlined” filing procedures of the IRS for U.S. Taxpayers Residing Outside the United States?
- In this case, the program did not exist at the time the taxpayers went into the OVDP in 2009.
- Why did Dewees not simply consider (assuming he had good faith facts) filing amended tax returns to include late filed IRS Form 5471 forms?
- Why did the IRS aggressively pursue these $120,000 in information penalties (presumably because he opted out of the OVDP program and they like to make examples out of those taxpayers that leave the program)?
- Would and will the IRS assess more $10,000 per year penalties for additional companies for a good faith failure to file IRS Form 5471 forms? In other words, what if the Dewees had four Canadian companies, would the IRS have assessed US$480,000 (US$10,000 per year X 4 – per company – X 12 – the number of years the form was not filed)?
- Will the IRS have success with any other country that does not have a similar tax treaty provision on the collection of taxes as the unique U.S.-Canada provision?
- Will the aggressive actions of the IRS in this Dewee case to collect penalties backfire? Will USCs residing overseas be less likely to go into specific IRS programs for fear of being smacked down to the tune of US$120,000 (plus legal fees and costs) for merely neglecting to file information returns when no U.S. taxes are even owing?