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Monday, May 27, 2013
IRS to Pursue "Quiet" Disclosure of Foreign Income
US taxpayers have different reasons for not disclosing their foreign bank accounts (by filing FBARs). While some taxpayers are intentionally hiding foreign income to avoid paying US taxes, many just don't know that they are required to disclose their account and pay taxes on the interest income. Some of these individuals are foreign born US citizens maintaining a bank account in their country of origin. Others are US citizen living overseas. Uninformed or not, during the last few years the US government has made it a priority to crack down on offshore tax evasion.
As part of this effort, the US enacted the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act which requires foreign financial institutes to report to the IRS information about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers. As a result of this enactment, the risk of an audit for individuals with foreign bank accounts increased substantially.
In 2009, the IRS introduced its first Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) to encourage individuals to voluntarily disclose their foreign bank accounts. As part of the deal offered by the program, the IRS agreed not to audit or criminally prosecute these individuals in exchange for the payment of taxes, penalties and interest on any undisclosed income and a one time 20% penalty on the highest balance in the foreign bank account (lower penalties are available if special circumstances are met). Due to the success of the first OVDP, the IRS reintroduced the OVDP in 2010 with a 25% highest balance penalty and in 2011 with a 27.5% penalty.
As the penalties under the OVDP increase each year, more taxpayers are opting to instead come clean through a "quiet" disclosure. A "quiet" disclosure" means that taxpayers amend their past tax returns and FBARS without actually coming forward under the OVDP and paying the penalty on the highest balance. As a result, the government misses out on billions of dollars in revenue.
This month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the "congressional watchdog," issued a report urging the IRS to pursue those taxpayers making "quiet" disclosures. The report, titled Offshore Tax Evasion. IRS Has Collected Billions of Dollars, but May be Missing Continued Evasion, found that as of December 2012, the OVDP programs have resulted in over 39,000 disclosure and over $5.5 billion in revenue. Furthermore,while the IRS has also detected some taxpayers trying to avoid paying taxes, interest and penalties, many attempts have been missed. The GAO found many more potential "quiet" disclosures than the IRS detected by analyzing amended returns from 2003-2008 and matching them to available information about taxpayer offshore activities. The GAO concluded that the act of "amending past returns or reporting on current returns previously unreported offshore accounts, results in lost revenue and undermines the programs' effectiveness."
The GAO recommended that in addition to identifying and educating taxpayers about their reporting requirements, the IRS should "explore options for employing a methodology to more effectively detect and pursue 'quiet' disclosures." The IRS has agreed to adopt these recommendations.
Currently, in the OVDP question and answer section, the IRS urges taxpayers who have already made a "quiet" disclosure to take advantage of the penalty framework provided by the OVDP. The IRS warns that those taxpayers making a "quiet" disclosure should be aware of the risk of being examined and potentially criminally prosecuted for all applicable years (question #15).
Although it is uncertain what methodology the IRS will adopt to ferret out "quiet" disclosures, it is likely that the risks may no longer be worth taking.
This content is not intended as legal advice, and cannot be relied upon for any purpose without the services of a qualified professional.