Criminal Tax Considerations
Individuals who do not specialize in U.S. federal tax law, often have little detailed understanding of the U.S. federal “Chapter 3” (long-standing law regarding withholding taxes on non-resident aliens and foreign corporations and foreign trusts) and “Chapter 4” (the relatively new withholding tax regime known as the “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”) rules.
Indeed, plenty of U.S. tax law professionals (CPAs, tax attorneys and enrolled agents) do not understand well the interplay between these two different withholding regimes –
- 26 U.S. Code Chapter 3 – WITHHOLDING OF TAX ON NONRESIDENT ALIENS AND FOREIGN CORPORATIONS
- 26 U.S. Code Chapter 4 – TAXES TO ENFORCE REPORTING ON CERTAIN FOREIGN ACCOUNTS
Plus, the IRS forms have been significantly modified over the years; with increasing factual representations that must be made by individuals who sign the forms under penalty of perjury. They are complex and not well understood. For instance, the older 2006 IRS Form W-8BEN for companies was one page in length and required relatively little information be provided.
The entire form is reproduced here; indicating how foreign taxpayer information was optional and generally there was no requirement to obtain a U.S. taxpayer identification number. It was governed exclusively by Chapter 3 and the regulations that had been extensively produced back in the early 2000s.
The forms were even easier before those regulations (see old IRS Form 1001). No taxpayer identification numbers were ever required and virtually no supporting information regarding reduced tax treaty rates on U.S. sources of income.
Life was simple back then – compared to today!
The one thing all of these forms have in common is that all information was provided and certified under penalty of perjury. Current day IRS Forms W-8s can typically be completed accurately by experts who understand the complex web of rules. Plus, multiple versions of W-8s exist today; most running some 8+ pages in length.
See the potpourri of current day W-8 forms –
Making certifications under penalty of perjury are more complex, the more and more factual information that is being certified. If I certify the dog I see in front of me is “white and black” that is not a complex certification, if I see the dog and see the “white and black”. If the dog also has some brown coloring, my certification would necessarily not be false.
However, if I have to certify as to the colors of each dog in a pack of 8 dogs (and each and every color that each dog is/was), that becomes a much more complicated certification.
That’s my analogy for the old IRS Forms W-8s and the current day IRS Forms W-8s.
Compare that form, of just 10 years ago, with what is required and must be certified to under current law. It can be daunting.
Now to the rub. Individuals who certify erroneously or falsely, can run a risk that the government asserts such signed certification was done intentionally. I have seen it happen in real cases; even though the individual layperson (particularly those who speak little to no English and live outside the U.S.) typically has little understanding of these rules. They typically sign the documents presented to them by the third party; usually the banks and other financial institutions.
The U.S. federal tax law has a specific crime, for making a false statement or signing a false tax return or other document – which is known as the perjury statute (IRC Section 7206(1)). This is a criminal statute, not civil. Some people are also under the misunderstanding that a false tax return needs to be filed. The statute is much broader and includes “. . . any statement . . . or other document . . . “.
Willfully makes and subscribes any return, statement, or other document, which contains or is verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury, and which he does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter; or . . .
Therefore, if a U.S. citizen living overseas (or anywhere) signs IRS Form W-8BEN (or the bank’s substitute form, which requests the same basic information), that signature under penalty of perjury will necessarily be a false statement, as a matter of law. Why? By definition, the statute says a U.S. citizen is a “United States person” as that technical term is defined in IRC Section 7701(a)(30)(A). Accordingly, IRS Form W-8BEN, must only be signed by an individual who is NOT a “United States person”; who necessarily cannot be a United States citizen. To repeat, a United States citizen is included in the definition of a “United States person.” Plus, the form itself, as highlighted at the beginning of the form, warns against any U.S. citizen signing such form.
Accordingly, if a U.S. citizen were to sign IRS Form W-8BEN which I have seen banks erroneously request of their clients, they run the risk that the U.S. federal government will argue that such signatures and filing of false information with the bank was intentional and therefore criminal under IRC Section 7206(1). See a prior post, What could be the focal point of IRS Criminal Investigations of Former U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents?
Indeed, criminal cases are not simple, and I am not aware of any single criminal case that hinged exclusively on a false IRS Form W-8BEN. However, I have seen cases, where the government has alleged the U.S. born individual must have signed the form intentionally, knowing the information was false. It’s a question of proof and of course U.S. citizens wherever they reside, should take care to never sign an IRS Form W-8BEN as an individual certifying they are not a “United States person”; even if they think they are not a U.S. person
For further background information on this topic, see a prior post: FATCA Driven – New IRS Forms W-8BEN versus W-8BEN-E versus W-9 (etc. etc.) for USCs and LPRs Overseas – It’s All About Information and More Information
Part II: “Neither Confirm nor Deny the Existence of the TECs Database”: IRS Using the TECs Database to Track Taxpayers Movements – and Assets
Part II: This is a follow-up to the federal government’s database known as “TECS” (Treasury Enforcement Communication System)that is now operated by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). The IRS uses it to track travel, trips, movement and even asset movements (e.g., wire transfers) by U.S. citizen taxpayers; including those residing outside the U.S.
This previous post described how the U.S. federal government uses the TECS to locate assets and travel patterns of U.S. citizens; specifically outside the U.S. The IRS trains their employees to (1) Not discuss TECS with taxpayers; (2) Neither confirm nor deny existence of TECS; (3) Keep in separate “Confidential” envelope; and (4) Stamp documents as “OFFICIAL USE ONLY”
The image in this post reflects a page from IRS training materials for their employees; e.g., revenue agents (those individuals who audit taxpayers and determine tax deficiencies and the like), revenue officers (those individuals who work on collecting taxes owed or alleged to be owed) and chief counsel attorneys (those individuals who litigate tax cases against taxpayers); among other IRS employees.
Frankly, there is not a lot of detailed law about how and when the IRS can use TECS or other tracking techniques of individuals and their assets. There are no tax cases (at least none that I am aware of) where the Courts have tried to impose limits on the use and methods of the federal government in collecting this type of TECS information. Indeed, there are specific provisions granting broad use of taxpayer information when the government alleges there is a “terrorist incident, threat, or activity” as that term is defined in IRC Section § 6103.
On the other hand, there are important laws about how the IRS cannot generally disclose taxpayer information. For instance, see the same code section IRC Section § 6103 for wrongful disclosures of taxpayers’ information. That statute makes it a violation (even a criminal violation in certain willful circumstances) to disclose taxpayer information in “most” (or at least many) circumstances. The statute is comprehensive and there is a lot of case law interpreting various provisions. A good overview of the statute can be found in the Criminal Tax Manual for the Department of Justice, Tax Division – Chapter 42.00
A recent case (United States v. Garrity, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66372 (D. Conn. 2016), discussed in Jack Townsend’s blog, was one where the IRS had disclosed the name of a deceased taxpayer Paul G. Garrity, Sr. regarding his foreign (non-U.S.) accounts. The disclosure included IRS investigation techniques that were disclosed as part of a FOIA request, which ultimately made it to the public. This was found to be disclosure of return information as defined by IRC Section § 6103. However, the Court there found that there was no violation of the statute by the IRS, as the taxpayer was deceased by the time the claim was brought by the estate. The government made a Title 31 FBAR penalty assessment of over US$1M including interest and penalties that is still pending.
It seems to me that the use of the TECS database by the IRS and Section 6103 are a bit like two heads of a coin. It all deals with taxpayer information and what rights, if any do taxpayers have to protect their personal and financial information – especially where it can (purposefully or inadvertently – e.g., through a data breach/hacking) be released to the public.
There are many unanswered questions as there has been little to no litigation regarding how and when the TECS database can and should be used.
Does the government have any limits on its use?
This ultimately becomes more of a policy discussion about how and to what extent can/should the federal government have and use and collect personal financial and travel information of individuals (particularly for tax purposes)?
As FATCA data collection has now allowed exchanges of millions of records, these questions in my view take on even greater importance. See 21 Dec 2015 post, Foreign Government Receives a “FATCA Christmas Gift” from IRS: 1 Gigabyte of U.S. Financial Information.
See a prior related post, 19 Jan 2014 – Should IRS use Department of Homeland Security to Track Taxpayers Overseas Re: Civil (not Criminal) Tax Matters? The IRS works with Department of Homeland Security with TECs Database to Track Movement of Taxpayers
Will U.S. Tax Law Regarding “Covered Expatriates” get Modified with Recent Government Push in International?
It is rare to have the President of the United States hold press conferences specifically dealing with international tax policy and tax enforcement. Nevertheless, this is what happened last week when President Obama announced his administration’s recent efforts in the field of international tax, anti-corruption and financial transparency.
His remarks can be watched here: President Obama’s Efforts on Financial Transparency and Anti-Corruption: What You Need to Know
Also, the White House is putting forward a series of initiatives in this area:
To date, none of the specific initiatives address current “tax expatriation law” under IRC Sections 877, 877A, et. seq.
IRS Creates “International Practice Units” for their IRS Revenue Agents in International Tax Matters
The U.S. international tax law has become increasingly complex. I am confident when I say that very few individuals in the world (including IRS revenue agents) understand the complexities of Title 26 and Title 31 as they apply to international matters such as gifts of foreign property, gifts involving U.S. intangible property, gifts to or inheritances from foreign estates with U.S citizens (USCs) or Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) beneficiaries, foreign partnerships with USCs, transfers of property to foreign trusts by USCs or LPRs residing outside the U.S., transfers of property to foreign corporations, etc.
Most USCs and LPRs who live in the U.S. certainly know and understand the basics of IRS Form 1040.
However, the type and scope of international transactions contemplated by the law can be significant and are rarely understood in any depth, even by many tax professionals. I have seen cases during my career of sophisticated individuals ranging from Nobel prize winners to U.S. Ambassadors, who had not a clue about the application of U.S. federal tax law to their lives. See, the Nov. 2, 2015 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
The lack of knowledge of these complex laws within the IRS, and the LB&I (Large Business and International group) which specializes in international matters has led to IRS “International Practice Units”. These are designed to allow IRS revenue agents who are not necessarily specialists in the international tax area to review transactions and be prepared to assess taxes and penalties against USCs and LPRs in the international context. The preamble says in part ” . . . Practice Units provide IRS staff with explanations of general international tax concepts as well as information about a specific type of transaction. . . ”
There are currently 63 different IRS “International Practice Units” all with dates from the last 12 months. Several of them focus heavily on information return filings which carry stiff penalties, even if no U.S. income taxes are owing. For instance see, Monetary Penalties for Failure to Timely File a Substantially Complete Form 5471 –Category 4 & 5 Filers.
Another interesting IRS International Practice Unit is titled – Basic Offshore Structures Used to Conceal U.S. Person’s Beneficial Ownership of Foreign Financial Accounts and Other Assets.
These IRS materials give a good perspective from where the IRS views the world; including the introduction to this particular IRS International Practice Unit where it states: “This Practice Unit focuses on a U.S. Person’s proactive steps to “conceal” their ownership of foreign financial accounts, entities and other assets for the purposes of tax avoidance or evasion, even though, there may be some situations where there are legitimate personal or business purposes for establishing such arrangements. This unit falls under the outbound face of the matrix and thus, will focus on U.S Persons living in the United States . . . Most U.S. taxpayers using an offshore entity or structure of entities to hold foreign accounts are simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service and other creditors . . .” [emphasis added]
This is a breathtaking statement from the IRS internal training manuals that “Most U.S. taxpayers using an offshore entity or structure of entities to hold foreign accounts are simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service and other creditors . . .”?
The vast majority of the USCs or LPRs who I see who renounce or abandon their citizenship or LPR status, are living outside the United States and in most cases have spent almost all (if not all) of their lives outside the U.S.
Does the IRS mean that a family living in Switzerland that have dual national family members are “. . . .simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service . . . ” if they are using, for instance, a Liechtenstein Stiftung to hold their family assets as part of an estate plan recommended to them by their Swiss legal and tax advisers?
Does the statement that this IRS International Practice Unit focuses on ” . . . U.S Persons living in the United States . . . ” give USCs and LPRs residing outside the U.S. relief from the IRS perspective of USCs simply hiding assets from the Internal Revenue Service? Will IRS revenue agents be sophisticated enough to distinguish between these two different groups; U.S. resident versus non-resident USCs and LPRs? Will the law be applied differently with respect to these resident versus non-resident U.S. taxpayers?
What role will these IRS “International Practice Units” play in forming perceptions and molding ideas of IRS revenue agents who have had little to no life experience in international affairs, multi-national families, global finance and international business operations?
More observations to come from specific IRS “International Practice Units.
U.S. District Court Flatly Denies Claims of Injury under FATCA and Title 31-FBAR Reporting Requirements: Upholds FATCA, IGAs and the FBAR Requirements to Encourage Tax Compliance and “Combat Tax Evasion”
There has been a case floating around since a complaint was filed this summer by Senator Rand Paul (current Presidential candidate) and various other current and former U.S. citizens including a Mr. Kisch who is resident in Toronto, Canada and a Mr. Crawford who lives in Albania; along with other individuals. Crawford v. United States Dep’t of the Treasury, 2015 U.S. Dist. The complaint asked for declaratory and injunctive relief.
The District Court granted neither and dismissed the case in favor of the government in a bold fashion upholding FATCA and FBAR/Title 31 reporting and information requirements. Importantly, the Court concluded by saying ” . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws, combat tax evasion, and deter the use of foreign accounts to engage in criminal activity. A preliminary injunction would harm these efforts and intrude upon the province of Congress and the President to determine how best to achieve these policy goals.”
See a prior post regarding how FATCA affects United States citizens (USCs) and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) residing outside the U.S.; as was the case of many of the complainants in the case, Part 1- Unintended Consequences of FATCA – for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S., posted August 13, 2014.
Also, the tax publication/resource, Tax Analysts summarized the original complaint (which can be read in its entirety here) as follows:
The FATCA suit makes the following claims:
- the IGAs are unconstitutional sole executive agreements because they exceed the scope of the president’s independent constitutional powers, and because they override FATCA;
- the heightened reporting requirements for foreign financial accounts deny U.S. citizens living abroad the equal protection of the laws;
- the FATCA FFI penalty, passthrough penalty, and willfulness penalty are all unconstitutional under the excessive fines clause;
- FATCA’s information reporting requirements are unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment; and
- the IGAs’ information reporting requirements are also unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.
See, complete Tax Note’s article of July 15, 2015: Sen. Paul Files Lawsuit Challenging FATCA, by William R. Davis and Andrew Velarde.
Not unsurprisingly, the District Court ruled in favor of the government and dismissed the majority of the claims by a finding that the parties lacked standing to bring the suit and that ” . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws . . .”
Some highlights of the Court’s opinion [with my emphasis added] are set out below:
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A. FATCA Statute and Regulations
Congress passed the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in 2010 to improve compliance with tax laws by U.S. taxpayers holding foreign accounts. FATCA accomplishes this through two forms of reporting: (1) by foreign financial institutions (FFIs) about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers or foreign entities in which U.S. taxpayers hold a substantial ownership interest, 26 U.S.C. § 1471; and, (2) by U.S. taxpayers about their interests in certain foreign financial accounts and offshore assets. 26 U.S.C. § 6038D.
President Obama signed FATCA into law on March 18, 2010. Senator Carl Levin, a co-sponsor of the FATCA legislation, declared that “offshore tax abuses [targeted by FATCA] cost the federal treasury an estimated $100 billion in lost tax revenues annually” 156 Cong. Rec. 5 S1745-01 (2010). FATCA became law as the IRS began its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), which since 2009 has allowed U.S. taxpayers with undisclosed overseas assets to disclose them and pay reduced penalties. By 2014, the OVDP collected $6.5 billion through voluntary disclosures from 45,000 participants. “IRS Makes Changes to Offshore Programs; Revisions Ease Burden and Help More Taxpayers Come into Compliance,” http://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Makes-Changes-to-Offshore-Programs;-Revisions-Ease-Burden-and-Help-More-Taxpayers-Come-into-Compliance (last visited Sept. 15, 2015). The success of the voluntary program has likely been enhanced by the existence of FATCA.
C. Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account
The third body of law at issue in this case pertains to the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) requirements. U.S. persons who hold a financial account in a foreign country that exceeds $10,000 in aggregate value must file an FBAR with the Treasury Department reporting the account. See 31 U.S.C. § 5314; 31 C.F.R. § 1010.350; 31 C.F.R. § 1010.306(c). The current FBAR form is FinCEN Form 114. The form has been due by June 30 of each year regarding accounts held during the previous calendar year. § 1010.306(c). Beginning with the 2016 tax year, the due date of the form will be April 15. Pub. L. No. 114-41, § 2006(b)(11). A person who fails to file a required FBAR may be assessed a civil monetary penalty. 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5)(A). The amount of the penalty is capped at $10,000 unless the failure was willful. See 5321(a)(5)(B)(i), (C). A willful failure to file increases the maximum penalty to $100,000 or half the value in the account at the time of the violation, whichever is greater. § 5321(a)(5)(C). In either case, whether to impose the penalty and the amount of the penalty are committed to the Secretary’s discretion. See § 5321(a)(5)(A) (“The Secretary of the Treasury may impose a civil money penalty[.]”) & § 5321(a)(5)(B) (“[T]he amount of any civil penalty . . . shall not exceed” the statutory ceiling). Plaintiffs seek to enjoin enforcement of the willful FBAR penalty under § 5321(a)(5). Prayer for Relief, part Q. They also ask for an injunction against “the FBAR account-balance reporting requirement” of FinCen Form 114. Prayer for Relief, part W.
The Government asserts that the information in the FBAR assists law enforcement and the IRS in identifying unreported taxable income of U.S. taxpayers that is held in foreign accounts as well as investigating money laundering and terrorism.
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Mark Crawford decries his bank’s policy against taking U.S. citizens as clients and claims the denial of his application for a brokerage account may have “impacted Mark financially,” ¶ 21, any such harm is not fairly traceable to an action by Defendants, which are not responsible for decisions that foreign banks make about whom to accept as clients. Crawford cannot establish standing indirectly when third parties are the causes of his alleged injuries. See Shearson, 725 F.3d at 592. Moreover, his discomfort with complying with the disclosures required by FATCA, see ¶23, does not establish the concrete, particularized harm that confers standing to sue. See, e.g., Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561 (requiring “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent” injury). Even if Crawford fears “unconstitutionally excessive fines imposed by 31 U.S.C. § 5321 if he willfully fails to file an FBAR,” ¶ 24, there is no allegation that he failed to file any FBAR that may have been required, much less that the Government has assessed an “excessive” FBAR penalty against him. Any harm that may come his way from imagined future events is speculative and cannot form the foundation for his lawsuit.
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None of the allegations states that Kuettel is presently being harmed by FATCA or the Swiss IGA, and neither FATCA nor the IGA apply to him as a non-U.S. citizen. See ¶¶ 51-58. His assertion of past harm because he was “mostly unsuccessful” in refinancing his mortgage due to FATCA does not convey standing. If that was a harm, it was due to actions of third-party foreign banks not those of Defendants. Regardless, having now renounced his American citizenship and obtained refinancing on terms he found acceptable, any past harm is not redressable here. See Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 210-11 (1995) (“[T]he fact of past injury . . . does nothing to establish a real and immediate threat that he would again suffer similar injury in the future.” (quotation omitted)). This leaves Kuettel’s claims concerning the FBAR requirement, in Counts 3 and 6, for which the Government concedes Kuettel has standing. Response, ECF 16, at 15, PAGEID 216.
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Donna-Lane Nelson is a citizen of Switzerland who has also renounced her U.S. citizenship. ¶ 59. She alleges that her Swiss bank “notified her that she would not be able to open a new account if she ever closed her existing one because she was an American. Fearing that she would eventually not be able to bank in the country where she lived, she decided to relinquish her U.S. citizenship.” ¶ 65. After she renounced, a Swiss bank “offered investment opportunities that were not available to her as an American.” Id. She “resents having to provide” “explanations” to Swiss banks that have requested information on her past U.S. citizenship and payments to her daughter, who lives in the United States, and she sees “threats implied by these requests which appear to be prompted by FATCA.” ¶ 68. Like other Plaintiffs, Nelson does not want to disclose financial information to the Government, and she fears willful FBAR penalties, even though no such penalty has been imposed or threatened against her. ¶¶ 69, 70. Unlike the preceding Plaintiffs, however, she adds that she fears the 30% withholding tax may be imposed against her “if her business partner,” who is now her husband, and with whom she has joint accounts, “opts to become a recalcitrant account holder.” ¶
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L. Marc Zell states that he is a practicing attorney and a citizen of both the United States and Israel who lives in Israel. He alleges that: (1) he and his firm have been required by Israeli banking institutions to complete IRS withholding forms for individuals whose funds his firm holds in trust, regardless of whether the forms are legally required, causing certain clients to leave his firm, ¶¶ 79 & 81; (2) Israeli banks have required his firm to close accounts, refused to open others, and requested conduct contrary to banking regulations, ¶¶ 79-80; and, (3) the compelled disclosure of his fiduciary relationship with clients impinges on the attorney-client relationship, ¶ 82. On request of clients, who claim their rights are violated by FATCA, Zell “has decided not to comply with the FATCA disclosure requirements whenever that alternative exists.” ¶ 83. He fears that the FATCA 30% withholding tax on pass-through payments to recalcitrant account holders could be imposed due to his refusal to provide identifying information about a client to an Israeli bank. ¶ He also has refused to provide information to his own bank and “fears that he will be classified as a recalcitrant account holder,” ¶ 85. Like the other Plaintiffs, he does not want his financial information disclosed, ¶ 86, and fears an FBAR penalty if the IRS determines that he willfully failed to file an FBAR, ¶ 87.
The majority of Zell’s allegations concern conduct of Israeli banks and his belief that the actions have been unfair to him or his clients. But conduct of third parties (even if related to the banks’ compliance with FATCA) does not confer standing to bring suit against Defendants. See, e.g., Ammex Inc. v. United States, 367 F.3d 530, 533 (6th Cir. 2004). Nor may Zell seek redress on behalf of third parties who have allegedly suffered harm, including unidentified clients. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 499 (1975). The third parties who have allegedly suffered harm are not plaintiffs, thus, alleged harm to them does not provide a basis for Zell to maintain this suit. The contention that disclosure of the identity of clients for whom Zell holds funds in trust violates the attorney-client privilege is also without merit. He gives no example of harm that has occurred or how he was harmed by disclosure of clients’ identities. He cannot raise the attorney-client privilege on his clients’ behalf, nor is the fact of representation privileged. See In re Special Sept. 1978 Grand Jury (II), 640 F.2d 49, 62 (7th Cir. 1980) (“[A]ttorney-client privilege belongs to the client alone[.]”); United States v. Robinson, 121 F.3d 971, 976 (5th Cir. 1997) (“The fact of representation . . . is generally not within the privilege.”). It is the fiduciary relationship, not the attorney-client relationship, that is the basis for the reporting requirement.
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“We begin, of course, with the presumption that the challenged statute”—FATCA—“is valid. Its wisdom is not the concern of the courts; if a challenged action does not violate the Constitution, it must be sustained[.]” INS v. Chadha, 426 U.S. 919, 944 (1983); see also National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2594 (2012) (“‘[E]very reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.’” (quoting Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895))).
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Plaintiffs decry that U.S. citizens living in foreign countries are in this manner treated differently than U.S. citizens living in the United States. According to Plaintiffs, the federal government has no legitimate interest in knowing the amount of any income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit recognized on a foreign account, whether a foreign account was opened or closed during the year, or the balance of a foreign account.
Plaintiffs contend that the “heightened reporting requirements” imposed by FATCA, the FBAR information-reporting requirements, and the Canadian, Swiss, Czech, and Israeli IGAs, violate the Fifth Amendment rights of “U.S. citizens living in a foreign country” and should be enjoined. See Complaint ¶¶ 124-130
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Plaintiffs’ equal protection claims fail because the statutes, regulations, and executive agreements that they challenge simply do not make the classification they assert. None of the challenged provisions single out U.S. citizens living abroad. Instead, all Americans with specified foreign bank accounts or assets are subject to reporting requirements, no matter where they happen to live. The provisions Plaintiffs contend discriminate against “U.S. citizens living abroad” actually apply to all U.S. taxpayers, no matter their residence.
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The distinction that the regulations do make is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The U.S. tax system is based in large part on voluntary compliance: taxpayers are expected to disclose their sources of income annually on their federal tax returns. The information reporting required by FATCA is intended to address the use of offshore accounts to facilitate tax evasion, and to strengthen the integrity of the voluntary compliance system by placing U.S. taxpayers that have access to offshore investment opportunities in an equal position with U.S. taxpayers that invest within the United States. Third party information reporting is an important tool used by the IRS to close the tax gap between taxes due and taxes paid. The knowledge that financial institutions will also be disclosing information about an account encourages individuals to properly disclose their income on their tax returns. See Leandra Lederman, Statutory Speed Bumps: The Roles Third Parties Play in Tax Compliance, 60 STAN. L. REV. 695, 711 (2007).
Unlike most countries, U.S. taxpayers are subject to tax on their worldwide income, and their investments have become increasingly global in scope. Absent the FATCA reporting by FFIs, some U.S. taxpayers may attempt to evade U.S. tax by hiding money in offshore accounts where, prior to FATCA, they were not subject to automatic reporting to the IRS by FFIs. The information required to be reported, including payments made or credited to the account and the balance or value of the account is to assist the IRS in determining previously unreported income and the value of such information is based on experience from the DOJ prosecution of offshore tax evasion. See Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations bipartisan report on “Offshore Tax Evasion: The Effort to Collect Unpaid Taxes on Billions in Hidden Offshore Accounts,” February 26, 2014; see also Cal. Bankers Ass’n v. Shultz, 416 U.S. 21, 29 (1974) (“when law enforcement personnel are confronted with the secret foreign bank account or the secret foreign financial institution they are placed in an impossible situation…they must subject themselves to time consuming and often times fruitless foreign legal process.”).
The FBAR reporting requirements, likewise, have a rational basis. As the Supreme Court noted in California Bankers, when Congress enacted the Bank Secrecy Act (which provides the statutory basis for the FBAR), it “recognized that the use of financial institutions, both domestic and foreign, in furtherance of activities designed to evade the regulatory mechanism of the United States, had markedly increased.” Id. at 38. The Government has a legitimate interest in collecting information about foreign accounts, including account balances held by U.S. citizens, for the same reason that it requires reporting of information on U.S.-based accounts. The information assists law enforcement and the IRS, among other things, in identifying unreported taxable income of U.S. taxpayers that is held in foreign accounts. Without FBAR reporting, the Government’s efforts to track financial crime and tax evasion would be hampered.
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In Count Six, Plaintiffs contend that the FBAR “Willfullness Penalty” is unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. Plaintiffs decry that 26 U.S.C. § 5321 imposes a penalty of up to $100,000 or 50% of the balance of the account at the time of the violation, whichever is greater, for failures to file an FBAR as required by 26 U.S.C. § 5314 (the FBAR “Willfulness Penalty”). 31 U.S.C. § 5321(b)(5)(C)(i). 31
Plaintiffs allege the Willfulness Penalty is designed to punish and is therefore subject to the Excessive Fines Clause. Plaintiffs further allege the Willfulness Penalty is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense.
Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims, however, are not ripe for adjudication because no withholding or FBAR penalty has been imposed against any Plaintiff . . .
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Plaintiffs have failed to establish that they are entitled to a preliminary injunction . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws, combat tax evasion,37 and deter the use of foreign accounts to engage in criminal activity. A preliminary injunction would harm these efforts and intrude upon the province of Congress and the President to determine how best to achieve these policy goals. Thus, Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction, ECF 8, is DENIED.
DONE and ORDERED in Dayton, Ohio, this Tuesday, September 29, 2015.
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For those U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents residing outside the U.S. who expected the Courts to be sympathetic to their legal arguments somehow invalidating Chapter 4/FATCA and the FBAR filing requirements under Title 31, they will surely be disappointed by the result.