Posts

OVDP Closure Sets the Stage for a Dramatic Increase in IRS FBAR Audits

There has been virtually no discussion of the impact of the OVDP closure beyond how it affects the ability of willful taxpayers to settle their past noncompliance. This is very unfortunate, because there is a direct correlation between OVDP and IRS tax enforcement activities. In this article, I will discuss how the OVPD closure sets the stage for a dramatic increase in the IRS FBAR Audits as well as IRS audits of other US taxpayers with international tax exposure.

The Utility of the OVDP Program Prior to the OVDP Closure

The IRS flagship 2014 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program served various purposes prior to its closure on September 28, 2018. Let’s concentrate on its two most important roles.

First and foremost, it was an important information-gathering tool for the IRS. The taxpayers who participated in the OVDP disclosed not only their noncompliance with US tax laws, but also the identity of the persons and institutions who facilitated this noncompliance. In other words, the OVDP supplied to the IRS valuable, up-to-date information about foreign financial institutions and foreign financial advisors who participated and even set-up the various tax evasion schemes. This ever-growing mountain of evidence was later used by the IRS to target these schemes effectively and efficiently.

Second, the OVDP greatly enhanced the IRS tax enforcement activities in two different ways. On the one hand, the OVDP promoted the general awareness of FBAR requirements as well as voluntary disclosures of FBAR noncompliance by US taxpayers, thereby saving the IRS the time and resources that otherwise would have been unnecessarily spent on finding and auditing these taxpayers. On the other hand, by “weeding-out” these repentant taxpayers, the OVDP allowed the IRS to concentrate its enforcement efforts on the taxpayers who the IRS believed to be true and inveterate tax evaders.

Diminished Utility of the OVDP and the OVDP Closure in 2018

Over time, however, the IRS came to conclusion that, in precisely these two most important aspects, the OVDP had lost a substantial part of its prior utility. The full implementation of FATCA and the ever-spreading web of bilateral and multilateral information exchange treaties made the OVDP a relatively unimportant information collection tool by the end of 2017.

At the same time, due to the introduction of the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures and the fact that most willful taxpayers who wanted to take advantage of the OVDP had already done so, fewer and fewer taxpayers were entering the OVDP. In other words, by early 2018, the IRS was in the position to make the decision that the “weeding-out” process was substantially complete.

For these two reasons as well a number of other smaller reasons, the IRS decided to finally close the 2014 OVDP (which itself was a modification of the 2012 OVDP) on September 28, 2018. The OVDP closure did not happen suddenly; rather, the IRS gave a more than nine-month notice to the public that the OVDP was going to be closed. This was done very much according to the “weeding-out” concept – the IRS gave one last opportunity to certain groups of taxpayers to settle their prior US international tax noncompliance under the established terms of the OVDP program.

The Link Between the OVDP Closure and IRS FBAR Audits

At this point, after giving noncompliant US taxpayers their last chance to “peacefully” resolve their FBAR and other US tax problems, the IRS believes that it has completed its weeding-out process. The time has come for harsh IRS tax enforcement.

Based on my conversations with various IRS agents, I have identified the trend where the IRS currently encourages IRS agents to quickly close their voluntary disclosure cases and shift to doing field audits involving international tax compliance, including FBAR audits.

In other words, the OVDP closure frees up the critical resources that the IRS needs to conduct audits based on the mountains of information it has accumulated over the past decade. Some of this information came from the OVDP, the Swiss Bank Program, from FATCA and other  information exchange mechanisms.

What is worse (from the perspective of noncompliant taxpayers) is that the IRS now can justify the imposition of higher FBAR penalties since it can claim that the taxpayers had prior chances to resolve their prior FBAR noncompliance and intentionally failed to do so.

Sherayzen Law Office Predicted the Shift Toward Tax Enforcement a Long Time Ago

All of these developments – the OVDP closure and the shift toward stricter tax enforcement – were predicted years by Sherayzen Law Office ago. As early as 2013, Mr. Sherayzen made a prediction that the Swiss Bank Program and FATCA were likely to lead to higher levels of FBAR audits and FBAR litigation as well as the general shift of the IRS policy from voluntary disclosures to tax enforcement.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With FBAR Audits and Other International Tax Audits

If you are being audited by the IRS and your tax return involves any international tax issues (including FBARs), you should contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help. Our experienced international tax law firm has successfully helped hundreds of US taxpayers to settle their US tax affairs.

We possess profound knowledge and understanding of US international tax law as well as the IRS procedures. We have experience in every stage of IRS enforcement: from offshore voluntary disclosures and IRS administrative appeals to IRS audits (including FBAR audits and audits of Streamlined disclosures) and federal court litigation.

We are a leader in US international tax compliance and We Can Help You!

Contact Us Today to Schedule Your Confidential Consultation!

IRS Wins Against a Lawyer’s Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties | FBAR Tax Lawyer

On May 3, 2017, the IRS scored an important victory in United States v. Little, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67580 (SD NY 2017) by defeating a Motion to Dismiss FBAR charges made by the defendant, Mr. Michael Little. The motion was based on an argument that is often used by opponents of FBAR penalties – the unconstitutionality of the FBAR penalties based on a tax treaty and the vagueness of the FBAR requirement as applied to the defendant. While I do not intend to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Charges and the reasons for its rejection, I do wish to outline certain important aspects of the judge’s opinion.

Brief Overview of Important Facts

The Motion to Dismiss FBAR Charges was made by Mr. Little, a UK citizen and a US permanent resident. Mr. Little was a UK lawyer who also became a US lawyer and practiced in New York. During this time, he helped Mr. Harry G.A. Seggerman’s heirs hide millions in offshore accounts. For his services, he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars which were never disclosed to the IRS.

In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Little was charged with willful failure to file FBARs and his US tax returns. He was further charged with various crimes arising out of his alleged assistance to Mr. Seggerman’s heirs in a scheme to avoid the taxes due on their inheritance held in undeclared offshore accounts.

Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties Based on “Void for Vagueness” Standard

The key argument of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties was based on the so-called “Void for Vagueness” Standard. The court cited United States v. Rybicki, 354 F.3d 124, 129 (2d Cir. 2003) to define the standard as follows: “the void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

In the first part of the Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties, Mr. Little essentially argued that, in his circumstances, the application of the FBAR requirement was too vague due to the 2008 changes in the definition of the required FBAR filers, particularly with respect to exclusion of persons “in or doing business in the United States”.

The Court dismissed the argument stating that whatever was an issue with respect to “in or doing business” provision, a lawful alien resident of ordinary intelligence (whether or not he was “doing business in the United States”) would have understood that the FBAR requirement applied to him because the definition of the “United States resident” includes green card holders. Hence, the vagueness of the original FBAR definition was inapplicable to a lawful alien resident such as Mr. Little.

Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties and Other Criminal Counts: No Vagueness in Criminal Statutes Because Willfulness Must be Proven Beyond Reasonable Doubt

The Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties also contained several more “void for vagueness” arguments (related not just to FBARs, but also to Mr. Little’s failure to file US tax returns and his role as an “offshore account enabler”). Among these arguments, Mr. Little especially relied on several US-UK tax treaty provisions which led him to believe that he was not a US tax resident (in particular, he believed that he was in the United States temporarily and he interpreted the treaty as stating that he was not a US tax resident even though he had a green card).

The Court dismissed Mr. Little’s treaty-based arguments based on its interpretation of how a person of ordinary intelligence would have understood these provisions. Here, I wish to emphasize one of the most important parts of the decision – the affirmation that the worldwide income reporting requirement was not vague. The Court found that “the U.S. statutes and regulations that require alien lawful permanent residents (green card holders) to either (a) file a tax return and pay taxes on worldwide income, or (b) file a tax return reporting worldwide income and indicate that he or she is taking a particular protection under the Treaty, are not unconstitutionally vague as applied”.

The most interesting aspect of the Court’s decision, however, was in its last part. Here is where judge Castel dealt a death blow to all of Mr. Little’s void-for-vagueness arguments. The Court stated that, since a conviction can only be achieved if the government proves willfulness beyond reasonable doubt, none of the relevant criminal tax provisions (including criminal FBAR penalties) can be deemed as vague.

The reason for this conclusion is very logical – in order to prove willfulness, the government must establish that: “the defendant knew he was legally required to file tax returns or file an FBAR, and so knowing, intentionally did not do so with the knowledge that he was violating the law.” Obviously, if such knowledge and intention of the defendant are proven beyond the reasonable doubt, the defendant “cannot complain that he could be convicted for actions that he did not realize were unlawful”.

Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties Based on Vagueness Versus Non-Willfulness Arguments

It is important to emphasize that the vagueness arguments contained in Mr. Little’s Motion to Dismiss FBAR Penalties can still be utilized to establish the defendant’s non-willfulness even though the Motion to Dismiss was denied. In other words, while the void-for-vagueness arguments were insufficient to challenge the criminal tax provisions, they may be important in establishing the defendant’s subjective perception of these provisions and his non-willful inability to comply with them.

I believe that the defendant’s motion in this case was destined to be denied. In reality, the defendant might have made this motion not to win, but in order to establish the base for asserting the same arguments in a different context of undermining the government’s case for willfulness. The Court itself stated that one of the Defendant’s arguments (reliance on advice received from her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs”) was in reality a potential affirmative defense to failure to file US tax returns, not an argument against the constitutionality of the laws in question.