FBAR and Title 31
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.
Foreign Government Criticizes U.S. Government for NOT Providing FATCA IGA Information on Their Taxpayers with U.S. Accounts
This news is ironic. The U.S. government has chastised various banks and governments around the world since 2009 for not providing financial information on U.S citizens (USCs) and other U.S. taxpayers regarding their foreign bank and financial accounts. See, How Congressional Hearings (Particularly In the Senate) Drive IRS and Justice Department Behavior, posted Sept 8, 2014.
Now, it is foreign governments’ turn, to criticize the U.S. Treasury and IRS for not keeping up with its promises to provide U.S. financial and bank information on taxpayers of their countries pursuant to all of the FATCA Intergovernmental Government Agreements (IGAs) that were pushed so hard by U.S. Treasury. See, FATCA IGA with Hong Kong Signed: U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents Residing in or Around Hong Kong Need to Know, posted on Nov. 17, 2014.
The Commissioner of the Mexican IRS (SAT – Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT)), Mr. Aristóteles Núñez Sánchez just announced that the U.S. government is not holding up its side of the bargain under the U.S.-Mexico IGA. See, the Dec. 12, 2015 article en the national Mexican newspaper, El Universal, EU incumple entrega de informacion: SAT: Mexico ha hecho su parte, asegura Aristóteles Núñez
The article, which is in Spanish, explains that Mexico has complied with its obligations under the IGA by providing detailed information about U.S. taxpayers with accounts in Mexican financial institutions to the U.S. government. However, the U.S. government has not complied with its side of the bargain. The news report says no specific details were provided by Mr. Núñez about what type of information was provided.
Denial of U.S. Passports: President Obama and Congress Pass Law that will Require Department of State to Deny a U.S. Passport for a “Seriously Delinquent Taxpayer”
Entry in and out of the U.S. has just gotten more problematic under a new law for those U.S. citizens who the IRS asserts owes taxes. A new statutory concept has been added to the tax law called “seriously delinquent tax debt”; which is defined by new IRC Section 7345 as a tax that has been assessed, is greater than US$50,000, and where a notice of lien has been filed or levy made.
Prior posts have addressed current legal requirements surrounding social security numbers for U.S. federal tax compliance purposes. See, USCs without a Social Security Number (and a Passport) “Cannot?” Travel to the U.S., posted on May 17, 2015.
Other posts have focused on the dilemma facing U.S. citizens (USCs) who have no social security number (“SSN”). See an older post (23 July 2014) – Why do I have to get a Social Security Number to file a U.S. income tax return (USCs)?
The Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of the Conference provides the key provisions summary of the law as follows:
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
This post is written simply because so many U.S. citizens residing overseas are reasonably confused about the complexity of U.S. tax law. The mere requirement to file U.S. income tax returns for those overseas often comes as a great surprise. My non-U.S. born wife is an exception (as she also lives outside the U.S.) simply because I have repeatedly told her for our 20 some years of marriage.
Some in the IRS erroneously think U.S. citizens residing overseas do and should understand U.S. tax law. I posed one simple scenario to a very sophisticated IRS attorney not very long ago who specializes in the FATCA rules.
Her view is (hopefully was) that U.S. citizens throughout the world know or should know the U.S. tax laws because the instructions to IRS Form 1040 are clear.
This thought knocked me off my figurative chair onto the floor! Smack.
My surprise is based upon my own experience working with individuals and families throughout the world, in numerous countries. I have noticed a number of notions, based upon these andectodal experiences as follows:
- A minority of U.S. citizens (unless they lived most of their lives in the U.S. and recently moved overseas as an “expatriate”) have no real basic idea of how the U.S. federal tax laws work; let alone to their assets and income in their country of residence. See USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. – Key Tax and BSA Forms
- There are indeed plenty of immigrant U.S. residents (certainly less than 50% by my own experience – especially when concepts of PFICs and foreign tax credits start being discussed) who even understand the basics of U.S. international tax law.
- If they reside in an English speaking country that has relatively strong family or historical ties to the U.S. (e.g., England, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada, etc.) they are likely to have a better idea of the U.S. federal tax laws, but still the majority don’t know key concepts. See, Nuances of FBAR – Foreign Bank Account Report Filings – for USCs and LPRs living outside the U.S.
- Even those in English speaking countries that have less historical or family ties to the U.S. have a lesser understanding (e.g., New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, South Africa, India, etc.).
- Those who do not speak English know even less about U.S. tax laws and how they apply to them.
- Many individuals who learn of these requirements overseas are sometimes driven to great despair. The message they receive is not a correct one under the law in my view: as they read IRS materials (for instance, see FAQs 5, 6 and and former 51.2 from the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program Frequently Asked Questions and Answers 2014) and come to the conclusion they will soon be going to jail, criminally prosecuted or otherwise be subject to tens of thousands of dollars worth of penalties for their failure to file a range of tax forms.
- Literally, sometimes as a tax lawyer I feel more like a psychologist, when these individuals come to me saying they can’t sleep, they can’t eat, they are seeing a cardiologist for high blood pressure, etc. and even in a most extreme case they thought suicide was a solution. See, How is the offshore voluntary disclosure program really working? Not well for USCs and LPRs living overseas.
- Individuals around the world (even tax professionals) and certainly laypeople, are not commonly reading TaxAnalysts (nor would they subscribe) or other tax professional publications that explain many of the intricacies of U.S. tax laws.
- Learning and understanding U.S. tax laws, including just the basics, requires a great deal of time, aptitude for nuances and details, literacy, patience and a level of aptitude for such matters that simply escape many people around the world (most I would say). see, “PFICs” – What is a PFIC – and their Complications for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. I can relate to this personally, as I am an international tax professional (indeed I even studied a post graduate law course outside the U.S. in a non-English language), have spent my entire professional career of more than 25 years in the area, and yet only generally have a very superficial understanding of tax laws throughout the countries where I am dealing with clients. I don’t try to understand the details of those laws.
- Many people are angry and frustrated (justifiably so, in my view, in many cases) after learning they are subject to these rules. See comment above about being a psychologist. Plus, USCs and LPRs residing outside the U.S. – and IRS Form 8938. In addition, see, Taxpayer Advocate Report on Burdens of Benign Taxpayers who Make Mistakes
Back to the intelligent IRS tax attorney. My question to her was: “Why would you, as a U.S. born individual not be reviewing the tax laws, tax forms and tax instructions of the country where your parents were born prior to immigrating to the U.S.?” I asked: “Are you not reviewing those laws in the original language of your parents (not English, but the other language of your parent’s country) to understand what tax forms and returns you should be filing?”
The IRS attorney’s response was: “What: of course, I am not reviewing such tax forms or filing information or tax laws, as I would have no tax obligations in that foreign country where I have no income, no assets or no bank or financial accounts!”
My follow-up question was a simple one: “Don’t you realize that U.S. federal tax law (Title 26) and financial bank reporting laws (Title 31) do just that!”
“Hmm she paused: how can that be?” I don’t recall if she said this out loud, or just said it with her puzzled expression.
The answer of course is that through citizenship (including derivative citizenship through a U.S. parent even though the child never spent a single day of residence in the U.S., let alone received any income or assets); that same individual in the mirror position as that IRS attorney is subject to a host of U.S. federal tax and financial reporting laws. See, Sir Winston Churchill – Famous People. Did he become a U.S. citizen at birth via “derivative citizenship”? Did he file U.S. income tax returns?
Here is the big disconnect. It’s not just among the ill-informed or those lesser educated on the fine points of law. I had the pleasure this week along with my wife to host two educated, worldly and engaging individuals who have been married some 20 years together. They are well read and highly educated. Both are lawyers by training, one practices law that often pushes him fairly deeply into the tax law and his wife is a wonderful and experienced judge in the California state courts.
I asked them (as I like to ask people around the world) if they had ever heard or understood that the U.S. federal tax law imposes taxation and very detailed reporting on the worldwide income and assets of U.S. citizens who reside outside the U.S. I discussed Cook v. Tait and the U.S. Civil War a bit. See both Supreme Court’s Decision in Cook vs. Tait and Notification Requirement of Section 7701(a)(50) and The U.S. Civil War is the Origin of U.S. Citizenship Based Taxation on Worldwide Income for Persons Living Outside the U.S. ***Does it still make sense?
All of it was a great surprise to them! They were in utter shock and both are residents in the U.S., highly educated in the law and are like the vast majority of the world, including U.S. citizens who reside outside the U.S.
This is the common response for many U.S. citizens residing overseas.
IRS Attorney – Dan Price, Provides Specific Recommendations for U.S. Citizen Taxpayers Overseas at USD – Procopio International Tax Institute
Tax Analyst’s reported some of the key comments made by IRS Attorney Dan Price at the 11th Annual University of San Diego School of Law – Procopio International Tax Institute. The course panel he discussed was – Course 10: Current Practical Problems for Taxpayers in OVDP and Streamlined.
The article written by Ms. Amanda Athanasiou provided good coverage of comments from IRS Office of Chief Counsel Attorney Dan Price about the streamlined procedure. See, the complete article that was published October 27, 2015, Confusion Over Offshore Accounts Prompts IRS Response, Worldwide Tax Daily and Tax Notes Today: News Stories.
The common fact pattern is that many U.S. citizens around the world have simply not filed U.S. federal income tax returns. Many of them were unaware of the requirements and/or they thought in good faith they were not required to file since their income levels were below the “foreign earned income” exclusion amounts. See a prior post, March 24, 2014, The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is Only Available If a U.S. Income Tax Return is Filed.
The streamlined procedure for U.S. citizens residing overseas does not require that they have previously filed U.S. income tax returns. See, U.S. Taxpayers Residing Outside the United States: The following streamlined procedures are referred to as the Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures. Eligibility for the Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures
Incidentally, with a record number of citizenship renunciations reported just a few days ago (more than 1,400 in the latest quarter – Quarterly Publication of Individuals, Who Have Chosen To Expatriate, as Required by Section 6039G, Oct. 27, 2015) this is particularly important to U.S. citizens living all around the world.
One particularly salient quote regarding the streamlined procedure from Mr. Price was, “The IRS is going to presume the taxpayer was non-willful unless facts indicate otherwise.”
One of the important questions that U.S. citizens overseas face is whether their particular facts indicate they would be better off by simply filing initial or amended tax returns. There are also so-called “qualified amended returns” which will be discussed in another post.
Neither the federal tax law nor the Treasury Regulations provide that a taxpayer has an affirmative statutory duty to file an amended income tax return, as long the original return reflects a good faith effort to comply with the law at the time the tax return was originally filed. The Treasury Regulations, which are drafted by the IRS, instruct that a taxpayer “should,” within the period of limitation, amend to correct prior errors in a tax return, but not that a taxpayer “must” amend. See Treas. Reg. § 1.451-1(a).
When a taxpayer fails to file a tax return by the due date, the taxpayer may be subject to failure to file and failure to pay penalties and interest charges. See IRC Section 6561; IRC Section 6601. The real problem can be that if a taxpayer fails to file a return voluntarily, the IRS may file a substitute return for the taxpayer instead, including on the basis of information received by third parties. See IRC Section 6020. This substitute return may not give the taxpayer credit for deductions and exemptions they are entitled to. Substitute returns prepared by the IRS are valid for calculating a taxpayer’s income tax deficiencies and penalties for failure to file and failure to pay. See Holloway v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2012-137; see also Brewer v. U.S., 764 F. Supp. 309 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).
However, at the end of the day, those U.S. citizens residing overseas who were/are not aware of the U.S. federal tax law filing requirements have not committed a “mortal sin” in the vernacular of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, in these circumstances, they have probably only exposed themselves to penalties (late payment, late filing, etc.) which are based upon the amount of tax owing. Of course, the IRS does sometimes use the stick of international information reporting penalties over the head of taxpayers. See, excellent summary by the American Citizens Abroad, Delinquent FBAR and Tax Filing Penalties
The question is: “Streamlined (to be) or not Streamlined, i.e., just file returns (not to be)”?