Three Precedent Setting Cases in International Information Reporting (“IIR”) in 6 Weeks: * Aroeste, * Bittner, and * Farhy: all Interconnected via Title 26, Title 31 and U.S. Income Tax Treaties
In just over six weeks, there have been three key judicial precedents favorable to international individuals. These cases have helped clarify the requirements of individuals and the limitations on the powers of the IRS in assessing IIR penalties. These IIR decisions relate to –
- Title 31 penalties for Foreign Bank Account Reports (“FBARs”),
- Title 26 IIR penalties specific to reporting of ownership interests in foreign companies [and “reportable events” with foreign trusts], and
- How these two federal statutory regimes of Title 31 and 26 crossover into international law as set forth in U.S. income tax treaties negotiated with different countries around the world.
Each of these three cases are interconnected and have significant impact to individuals with global lives, global assets, multi-national family members and those who have businesses or accounts in different parts of the world.
- Aroeste v. United States
First, on February 13th, 2023, the Southern District of California District Court (the “District Court”) made a key determination in a Joint Discovery Motion decision in Aroeste. The District Court concluded in Aroeste that the IRS/DOJ could not ignore the U.S.-Mexico income tax treaty (“Treaty”) and its application to a Mexican national who has resided almost all of his life in Mexico City and has maintained a “green card” for immigration purposes in the United States. It is a non-willful FBAR case. The District Court applied the interconnected statutes and regulations of Titles 31 and 26 to help determine who qualifies as a “United States person”; specifically with reference to international law and obligations set forth in the Treaty. The key question in that case that remains to be answered is who (specifically Mr. Aroeste and by extension to a pool of millions of green card individuals residing outside the United States who are not citizens) must file FBARs?
Second, on February 28th, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) resolved in Bittner, that the applicable non-willful FBAR penalty is not measured by every foreign account of the individual as the Service has argued for years. That case also dealt with non-willful filing of FBARs and the SCOTUS concluded the IRS cannot impose penalties of $10,000 on each and every account held; but rather the penalty is “per report” that was not correctly filed. Hence, the total maximum penalty per year is $10,000. A maximum penalty of $50,000 (x5 years) applied per the SCOTUS versus the IRS determined amount of US$2.7M+.
- Farhy v. Commissioner
Lastly, on April 3rd, 2023, the United States Tax Court (the “Tax Court”) issued a decision in Farhy, stating that the IRS does not have statutory authority to assess IIR penalties under section 6038(b). The IIR that is required by this statute is IRS Form 5471, which includes multiple filing categories. This has far reaching implications about how the government will be able to collect the IIR penalties the Service administratively determines are owed. The Taxpayer Advocate previously issued a report on point titled: The IRS’s Assessment of International Penalties Under IRC §§ 6038 and 6038A Is Not Supported by Statute, and Systemic Assessments Burden Both Taxpayers and the IRS In that report, the Taxpayer Advocate identified more than $310M of penalties just for the tax year 2014 the IRS “assessed” under Sections 6038 and 6038A. We now know these “assessments” were invalid.
 See, footnote 19 regarding United States Tax Court’s Order in the case of Alberto Aroeste & Estela Aroeste vs. Commissioner.
 No. 22-cv-682-AJB-KSC, 2023 BL 46094 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2023).
 The “IRS” or the “Service” are used as shorthand for the Internal Revenue Service; and the Department of Justice; Tax Division is referred to as the “DOJ.”
 See, the Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics – Estimates of the Lawful Permanent Resident Population in the United States and the Subpopulation Eligible to Naturalize: 2015-2019. According to the report, more than 1 million individuals become LPRs each year and 4.8 million are estimated to have died and/or emigrated. The authors have extrapolated from these estimates in the report to conclude that more than 3 million of these individuals have emigrated and left the United States. The millions of individuals do not reside in the U.S. of which Mr. Aroeste is one of these individuals; although a tax treaty must exist in the country of residence for the analysis of the District Court in Aroeste v. United States to be applicable.
 No. 31—1195 (U.S. Feb. 28, 2023); 598 U. S. ____ (2023); The majority opinion by Justice Gorsuch cited to the ACTEC amicus brief (where Patrick W. Martin, the author of tax-expatriation.com and a fellow of ACTEC worked on the drafting of the brief) and concluded:
“Best read, the BSA treats the failure to file a legally compliant report as one violation carrying a maximum penalty of $10,000, not a cascade of such penalties calculated on a per-account basis.” The ACTEC brief was cited by the majority opinion- “ We see evidence, too, that the point of these reports is to supply the government with information potentially relevant to various kinds of investigations, criminal and civil alike. But what we do not see is any indication that Congress sought to maximize penalties for every nonwillful mistake (whether a late filing, a transposed account number, or an out-of-date bank address). See Brief for American College of Trust and Estate Counsel as Amicus Curiae 5–7.”
 160 T.C. No 6 (April 3, 2023).
 See, Patrick W. Martin, Megan L. Brackney, Robert Horowitz, and Javier Diaz de Leon Galarza: Problems Facing Taxpayers with Foreign Information Return Penalties, November 12, 2020.
 See, Annual Report to Congress 2020 (pp 119-131), citing – Robert Horwitz, Can the IRS Assess or Collect Foreign Information Reporting Penalties? TAX NOTES TODAY (Jan. 31, 2019) 301-305; Erin Collins and Garrett Hahn, Foreign Information Reporting Penalties: Assessable or Not? TAX NOTES TODAY (July 9, 2018) 211-213 and 2 Frank Agostino and Phillip Colasanto, The IRS’s Illegal Assessment of International Penalties, TAX NOTES TODAY (Apr. 8, 2019) 261-269.
 Id., See, Figures 1.8.1, Systemic Assessments of IRC §§ 6038 and 6038A Penalties & 8.2, Manual Assessments of IRC §§ 6038 and 6038A Penalties.