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.
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.