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The IRS Median Offshore Penalty 580% of Tax Due For Those Who Make Honest Mistakes

Posted by William Byrnes on January 16, 2014

Published via the IRS Newswire (IR-2014-3) and on the Taxpayer Advocate website of the IRS on January 9, 2014, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson released her 2013 annual report to Congress.  The Taxpayer Advocate, replying on State Department statistics,  cited that “7.6 million U.S. citizens reside abroad and many more U.S. residents have FBAR filing requirements, the IRS received only 807,040 FBAR submissions in 2012.”{1}  The Taxpayer Advocate noted that “more than one million U.S. citizens reside in Mexico and many Mexican citizens reside in the U.S.”  The Report pointed out that most persons that worked in Mexico had to pay into a government mandated retirement account (known as a AFORES), and that this retirement account may be reportable to the IRS as a foreign trust.

Regarding individual international tax compliance initiatives, the IRS Newswire reported that “Analyzing results from the IRS’s 2009 OVD program, the Advocate found the median offshore penalty was about 381% of the additional tax assessed for taxpayers with median-sized account balances, and 580% of the tax assessed for taxpayers with the smallest account balances (i.e., the bottom 10%, with an average $44,855 account balance).  Taxpayers who “opted out” of the OVD program and agreed to subject themselves to audits fared better but still faced penalties of nearly 70% of the tax and interest.”

The Report stated: “Since 2009, the IRS has generally required those who failed to report offshore income and file one or more related information returns (e.g., the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR)) to enter into successively more punitive offshore voluntary disclosure (OVD) programs.  … The programs were punitive, charging average penalties of more than double the unpaid tax and interest associated with the unreported accounts. … On average, the IRS assessed penalties of nearly 70% of the unpaid tax and interest in the audits of those who opted out.”  The FBAR penalty of 50% of the account balance, for up to six years of non-compliance, equals a potential maximum FBAR penalty of 300% of the account itself, without regard to the actual tax due, interest thereupon, and tax penalties.

The finding that small account holding benign taxpayers paid penalties of nearly 600% of the actual tax due appears to be a miscarriage of the intent of policy makers.  This situation has also led the Taxpayer Advocate to conclude that benign actors, in particular those with small non-reported accounts, made either soft disclosures or prospectively began to comply “… without subjecting themselves to the lengthy and seemingly-unfair OVD process.”

Regarding the 2012 IRS Streamlined OVD program, the taxpayer Advocate found that as of September 2013 2,990 taxpayers had submitted returns reporting an additional $3.8 million in taxes.

{1} Report Volume 1, Page 229.

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