IRS Civil Penalties and Voluntary Compliance | US International Tax Lawyer

There has been a spectacular growth in the number of the IRS civil penalties. In 1955, there were about 14 penalties in the entire Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”); on the other hand, today, there are over 150 penalties. The most recent growth in penalties has been driven mostly by offshore compliance concerns and the appearance of new requirements to address these concerns. FATCA Form 8938 is just the most recent example of this trend.

Does this growth in the IRS civil penalties mean that our tax system is shifting its focus from encouraging voluntary compliance to punishing abusive behavior? Let’s explore this issue from a historical perspective and try to answer the question.

The Stated Purpose of the IRS Civil Penalties

The US tax system is based on the taxpayers’ voluntary compliance with US tax laws. As I explained in a previous article, “voluntary compliance” really means the self-assessment of tax and the filing of tax returns by US taxpayers; the actual compliance with US tax laws is compulsory.

In other words, the Congress burdened the taxpayers with all of the hassle and complexity of US tax compliance and it still wants them to do it accurately, timely and in direct opposition to their self-interest of paying the least amount of tax. How can such a system function?

The solution lies in the creation of a system of the IRS civil penalties (a discussion of criminal penalties is outside of the scope of this article). The threat of the imposition of the IRS civil penalties during a random audit is meant to “encourage” voluntary compliance. This is the official purpose of the IRS penalties.

How exactly do the IRS civil penalties encourage voluntary compliance according to Congress? First, the penalties establish the standard of compliant behavior by defining noncompliance. Second, the penalties are meant to define the “remedial consequences” for noncompliant behavior. Finally, the IRS civil penalties impose monetary sanctions against the taxpayers and tax professionals who fail to comply with the aforementioned standard.

IRS Civil Penalties Must be Viewed as Precise and Proportional

Yet, in order to properly function and accomplish their goal of encouraging voluntary compliance, the IRS Civil Penalties must be viewed by the taxpayers as precise and proportional to the fault committed and the harm that resulted from that fault. In other words, the taxpayers must view the IRS Civil Penalties as a deterrence of improper conduct rather than punishing innocent taxpayers. If these penalties are viewed as excessive, the goal of voluntary compliance will be undermined.

Unfortunately, with respect to many IRS Civil Penalties, the taxpayers feel that they are disproportionate and imprecise. This is especially true with respect to international information tax returns, such as FBAR, Form 8938, Form 5471 and so on. The FBAR penalties are especially abhorred by the taxpayers because they apply to even non-willful conduct.
IRS Past Efforts to Change the Taxpayers’ Perspective on the IRS Civil Penalties

The IRS has been trying to battle this impression of unfairness of the IRS civil penalties, though we cannot say that it has been entirely successful in this respect.

Already in February of 1989, the IRS Commissioner’s Executive Task Force issued a “Report on Civil Tax Penalties” which emphasized the complexity and perceived unfairness of the IRS Civil Penalties. This Report remains one of the key documents which has not been substantially modified for past twenty some years.

The report established a philosophy of penalties, provided a statutory analysis of the three broad categories of penalties (filing of returns, payment of tax and accuracy of information), and proposed a list of action items to resolve the inconsistencies between civil penalties.

Among these recommendations, the IRS proposed to:

(1) develop and adopt a single-penalty policy statement emphasizing that civil tax penalties exist for the purpose of encouraging voluntary compliance;

(2) develop a single consolidated handbook on penalties for all employees. The IRS emphasized that the handbook should be sufficiently detailed to serve as a practical everyday guide for most issues of penalty administration and provide clear guidance on computing penalties;

(3) revise existing training programs to ensure consistent administration of penalties in all functions for the purpose of encouraging voluntary compliance;

(4) examine its communications with taxpayers to determine whether these communications do the best possible job of explaining why the penalty was imposed and how to avoid the penalty in the future;

(5) finalize its review and analysis of the quality and clarity of machine-generated letters and notices used in various divisions within the IRS;

(6) consider ways to develop better information concerning the administration and effects of penalties; and

(7) develop a Master File database to provide statistical information regarding the administration of penalties. That IRS envisioned that the information would be continuously reviewed for the purpose of suggesting changes in compliance programs, educational programs, and penalty design and penalty administration.

1989 IMPACT’s Effect on the IRS Civil Penalties

The IRS efforts did not go unnoticed. The Congress responded by enacting the Improved Penalty and Compliance Tax Act (“IMPACT”) as part of its Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989.

It appears IMPACT had an overall salutary effect on the IRS civil penalties with respect to domestic activities. However, IMPACT’s role in curbing the perceived unfairness with respect to US international tax penalties has been minimal.

The Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 Changed the Way the IRS Civil Penalties Are Imposed

At the end of the 1990s, the Congress made one more effort to solidify the image of fairness with respect to the imposition of the IRS civil penalties. The Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 made a valuable contribution to maintaining the focus on encouraging voluntary compliance by creating the IRC Section 6751(b). IRC Section 6751(b) states that most of the IRS Civil Penalties (other than those automatically calculated by a computer) imposed after June 30, 2001, require a written managerial approval by the immediate manager or higher-level official of the employee who initially proposed the penalty.

The idea behind Section 6751(b) is to bring some restrain in the imposition of penalties by the “trigger-happy” employees. The extra level of review is further meant to promote the image of fairness of process during the imposition of the IRS Civil Penalties.

Conclusion: Encouragement of Voluntary Compliance Remains A Priority in General but the Emphasis on Abusive Transactions Dominates International Tax Law Compliance

Now that we have analyzed the IRS Civil Penalties from a historical perspective, let’s return to the original questions that I posed at the beginning of this article: does the growth in the number of the IRS civil penalties mean that our tax system is shifting its focus from encouraging voluntary compliance to punishing abusive behavior?

Based on the IRS past efforts to improve the taxpayer’s perception of the tax system and civil penalties and the Congress’ effort to encourage voluntary compliance through laws like IMPACT, one can say that, in general, the encouragement of voluntary compliance remains the main purpose of the IRS civil penalties.

There is one area, however, where the application of civil penalties has been driven not by only voluntary compliance considerations, but also by the desire to punish certain modes of behavior. This area is international tax law and, more precisely, abusive offshore transactions.

In fact, it appears more and more that the focus of the current tax policy is on punishing abusive offshore transactions irrespective of how it may affect innocent taxpayers. Since 2001, millions of taxpayers found themselves potentially facing draconian FBAR penalties solely for not reporting their foreign accounts. Thousands of small businesses also face large penalties associated with Forms 5471 and 8865 as well as other US international information return penalties. Finally, FATCA Form 8938 created with a new array of penalties and an added compliance burden to US taxpayers.

The fact that all of these forms may be necessary is not the issue. The problem is that the application of these forms has been indiscriminate almost irrespective of the actual income tax impact and the net worth of the taxpayer. For example, small businesses now have to comply with the burden of US GAAP compliance (normally applied only to publicly-traded companies) on Form 5471 or face severe IRS civil penalties for noncompliance. One non-willfully unreported foreign account which could have produced a few dollars of interest may be subject to a $10,000 FBAR penalty.

Naturally, the disproportionate and imprecise application of the IRS civil penalties in the area of the US international tax compliance has generated a great amount of discontent and resentment among the affected US taxpayers. This is precisely what IMPACT tried to avoid in order to encourage voluntary compliance.

This is why the IRS and Congress should work together to make the application of the IRS civil penalties more precise with respect to who should be paying these penalties and more proportionate to the actual fault (i.e. the damage sustained by the US treasury).

Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law Update | International Tax Lawyer Cleveland

On December 20, 2016, the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) approved new amendments to Latvian Micro-Enterprise tax law. While the modifications to the law represented a compromise solution, the overall tax rate went up.

History of Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law

The Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law first entered into force on September 1, 2010. It primary purpose was to establish a lower tax rate for very small businesses, which were defined as businesses with turnover not exceeded 100,000 euros per calendar year. If a business qualified as a small business, under the Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law, it would pay only a 9% tax rate. This rate was included in everything – corporate income tax, social tax and personal income tax.

Changes to Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law

The December 20 changes came after an intense dispute over the best approach to the small business tax. In fact, on November 23, 2016, the Saeima first approved amendments to the law that would lower the income tax to a mere 5%, but the small business owners would have been forced to withhold social insurance contributions from each employee.

In the end, the November 23 amendments were discarded. The December 20 version of the law simply increased the micro-enterprise tax rate to 15% and eliminated the November 23 social insurance contribution withholding requirement due to the fact that it would have been excessively burdensome for small businesses.

It is important to point out, however, that the new changes to the Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law carved-out a limited one-year exception for businesses with a turnover of only 7,000 euros per year; these businesses will only pay a 12% tax rate. This reduced tax rate will only be in effect through December 31, 2017

Furthermore, the Saeima also repealed the November 23 amendment that would have terminated the Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law on December 31, 2018. Instead, the Saeima asked the Latvian Cabinet of Ministers to submit the draft new tax law for small businesses.

Latvia Remains One of the Lowest Tax Jurisdictions in the European Union

Even with the recent changes to Latvian Micro-Enterprise Tax Law, Latvia remains a jurisdiction with one of the lowest tax burdens in the European Union. This fact is often not appreciated by the West European tax professionals, often due to their cultural prejudice against doing business in Eastern Europe. This omission in Latvia may be a serious mistake on their part, depending on the client’s situation.

Sherayzen Law Office follows the development of tax laws in Latvia and believes that there are situations where these laws can offer significant advantages to the firm’s clients for tax planning purposes.

US Airspace and the Definition of the United States | US Tax Lawyers

This article is a continuation of a recent series of articles on the exploration of the definition of the United States. As it was mentioned in a prior article, the general definition of the United States found in IRC § 7701(a)(9) has numerous exceptions throughout the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”). The US airspace is another example of such exceptions. In this article, I would like to outline some of the ways in which the borders of the United States are defined in the context of the US airspace.

General Tax Definition of the United States Does Not Mention US Airspace

The general tax definition of the United States is found in IRC § 7701(a)(9). According to IRC § 7701(a)(9), the United States is comprised of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the territorial waters. There is no mention of the US airspace.

This, of course, does not mean that US airspace never constitutes part of the United States. Rather, as I had explained it in a prior article, one needs to look at the specific tax provisions and determine if there is a special definition of the United States that applies to them.

Examples of Various IRC Provisions Including and Excluding US Airspace from the Definition of the United states

Indeed, there is a rich variety of treatment of US airspace that can be found within the IRC. Here, I will just mentioned three examples that demonstrate how differently the IRC provisions define the United States with respect to its airspace.

1. There is an esoteric but important IRC § 965 which deals with the Dividends Received deduction for repatriated corporate earnings. IRS Notice 2005-64 provides foreign tax credit guidance under IRC § 965 and specifically follows the general definition of the United States with the addition of the Continental Shelf. Then, the Notice states: “the term ‘United States’ does not include possessions and territories of the United States or the airspace over the United States and these areas”. Thus, the US airspace is excluded from the tax definition of the United States under IRC § 965.

2. The treatment of the US airspace is the opposite for the purposes of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (“FEIE”). Since FEIE allows a taxpayer to exclude only “foreign” earned income, the tax definition of the United States is crucial for this part of the IRC.

In general, the courts have ruled that the airspace over the United States is included within the definition of the United States with respect to IRC § 911. This means that, if you are flying over the United States, you are considered to be within the United States for the purposes of FEIE.

3. When we are dealing with the analysis of whether an individual is a US tax resident under the Substantial Presence Test, we are again back to the same situation as in example 1 – the US airspace is not included in the definition of the United States.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Legal and Tax Help

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US International Tax Lawyer Lectures at Alliance Française on Offshore Reporting

On December 7, 2016, Mr. Eugene Sherayzen, the founder of Sherayzen Law Office and a US international tax lawyer, gave a lecture at the Minneapolis chapter of Alliance Française. The topic of the lecture was an introduction to reporting of foreign income and foreign assets for individual taxpayers in the United States. The lecture was well-attended and raised a lot of interest among the participants.

Minneapolis Tax Lawyer AF

US International Tax Lawyer Explained the US Tax Residency Requirements

Mr. Sherayzen first focused on defining the crucial term of “US tax resident”. As he explained during the lecture, the starting point for legal analysis of any US international tax lawyer is often the determination of whether his client is a US person.

During the lecture, Mr. Sherayzen covered three categories of US tax residents – US citizens, US Permanent residents and individuals who met the requirements of the Substantial Presence Test.

He also distinguished the immigration-law concept of US permanent residency (i.e. green-card holders) from the tax concept of US tax residency. The US international tax lawyer also discussed certain exceptions to the Substantial Presence Test, focusing on F-1 and J-1 visas.

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US International Tax Lawyer Emphasized Worldwide Income Reporting Requirement

Then, Mr. Sherayzen explained to the audience that US tax residents are required to disclose and pay US taxes on their worldwide income, even if this income was already disclosed on foreign tax returns.

At that point, the US international tax lawyer observed that the worldwide income reporting requirement is one of the most violated laws. Mr. Sherayzen distinguished three groups of US tax residents who are not in compliance with this law.

The first group consisted of US tax residents who were born overseas and were not aware of the worldwide income compliance requirement due to their prior experiences in their home countries (especially those which adopted the territorial model of taxation).

The second group was described as a small group of persons who were aware of the requirement and willfully violated it.

Finally, Mr. Sherayzen distinguished a third group of individuals who knew about the worldwide income reporting requirement, attempted to comply with it to the best of their ability, but failed to do so due to their lack of sufficient knowledge of US tax laws. The US international tax lawyer specifically referenced the Assurance Vie accounts as a representative case for such violations due to huge differences between the US and the French tax treatment of these accounts.

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US International Tax Lawyer Described Top Three Reporting Requirements with Respect to Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts

The third part of the presentation was devoted to the discussion of the FBAR, Form 8938 and Form 8621 (PFIC) requirements with respect to reporting foreign bank and financial accounts. The discussion concerned the types of accounts that needed to disclosed, the reporting thresholds, the due dates and how the forms needed to be filed. Some history of the forms was provided; due to time limitations, however, only a limited introduction to FATCA was provided to the audience.

This discussion produced a lively Q&A exchange between the US international tax lawyer and the audience.

US international tax lawyer Paris

US International Tax Lawyer Discussed the Reporting of Foreign Gifts and Inheritance

The fourth part of the discussion concentrated on the Form 3520 reporting of foreign gifts and inheritance, including the filing threshold and the penalties associated with the form. Mr. Sherayzen also explained that, in certain circumstances, Form 8938 may be applicable to foreign gifts and inheritance for the purpose of annual tax compliance.

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US International Tax Lawyer Introduced the Hypothetical to Illustrate How These Forms Might Apply in a Real-Life Situation

The final part of the presentation was devoted to the analysis of a hypothetical to demonstrate how all of these information returns could apply in a real-life situation. The focus of the hypothetical was on the French and French-Canadian issues. Mr. Sherayzen also invited the audience to participate in the legal analysis of the hypothetical which was enthusiastically welcomed by the audience.

The presentation concluded with an additional fifteen-minute Q&A session.

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First Quarter 2017 Underpayment and Overpayment Interest Rates

On December 5, 2016, the IRS announced that the First Quarter 2017 underpayment and overpayment interest rates will remain the same from the Fourth Quarter of 2016.

This means that, the First Quarter 2017 underpayment and overpayment interest rates will be as follows:

four (4) percent for overpayments (two (3) percent in the case of a corporation);
four (4) percent for underpayments;
six (6) percent for large corporate underpayments; and
one and one-half (1.5) percent for the portion of a corporate overpayment exceeding $10,000.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, the rate of interest is determined on a quarterly basis. For taxpayers other than corporations, the overpayment and underpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus 3 percentage points. Generally, in the case of a corporation, the underpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus 3 percentage points and the overpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus 2 percentage points. The rate for large corporate underpayments is the federal short-term rate plus 5 percentage points. The rate on the portion of a corporate overpayment of tax exceeding $10,000 for a taxable period is the federal short-term rate plus one-half (0.5) of a percentage point.

The rate on the portion of a corporate overpayment of tax exceeding $10,000 for a taxable period is the federal short-term rate plus one-half (0.5) of a percentage point.

The First Quarter 2017 underpayment rates are relevant not only for simple amended tax returns (with amounts due), but also for a number of other different reasons. Here, I would like to emphasize two particular reasons for the importance of the first quarter 2017 underpayment rates. First, it is used to calculate interest for the US taxpayers who participate in the OVDP or the Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures.

Second, the first quarter 2017 underpayment rates will be relevant to future PFIC interest calculation on any excess distributions (for default Section 1291 PFICs).