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Beware of Flat-Fee Lawyers Doing Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures

Recently, I received a number of phone calls and emails from people who complained about incorrect filing of their Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures (“SDOP”) packages by lawyers who took their cases on a flat-fee basis. In this article, I would like to discuss why a flat fee is generally not well-suited for a proper SDOP preparation and why clients should critically examine all facts and circumstances before retaining flat-fee lawyers.

A small disclosure: the analysis below is my opinion and the result of my prior experience with SDOPs. Moreover, I am only describing general trends and there are certainly exceptions which may be applicable to a specific case. Hence, the readers should consider my conclusions in this article carefully and apply them only after examining all facts and circumstances related to a specific lawyer before making their final decision on whether to retain him.

Flat-Fee Lawyers versus Hourly-Rate Lawyers

The two main business models that exist in the professional tax community in the United States with respect to billing their clients are the hourly-rate model and the flat-fee model. The hourly-rate model means that an attorney’s fees will depend on the amount of time he actually worked on the case. The flat-fee model charges one fee that covers a lawyer’s work irrespective of how much time he actually spends on a case.

Both billing models have their advantages and disadvantages. Generally, the chief advantage of an hourly-rate model is potentially higher quality of work. The hourly-rate model has a built-in incentive for attorneys to do as accurate and detailed work as possible, maximizing the quality of the final work product. An hourly-rate attorney is likely to take more time to explore the documents, uncover hidden problems of the case and properly resolve them.

The disadvantage of an hourly-rate model is that it cannot make an absolutely accurate prediction of what the legal fees will ultimately be. However, this problem is usually mitigated by estimates – as long as he knows all main facts of the case, an experienced attorney can usually predict the range of his legal fees to cover the case. Only a discovery of substantial unexpected issues (that were not discussed or left unresolved during the initial consultation) will substantially alter the estimate, because more time would be needed to resolve these new issues.

The chief advantage of the flat-fee model is the certainty of the legal fee – the client knows exactly how much he will pay. A secondary advantage of this model is the built-in incentive for flat-fee lawyers to complete their cases as fast as possible.

However, this advantage is undermined by several serious disadvantages. First, the flat-fee model provides a powerful incentive for lawyers to spend the least amount of time on a client’s case in order to maximize their profits; in other words, the flat-fee model has a potential for undermining the quality of a lawyer’s work product. Of course, it does not happen in every case, but the potential for such abuse is always present in the flat-fee model.

Second, closely-related to the first problem, the flat-fee model discourages lawyers from engaging in a thorough analysis of their clients’ cases. This may later result in undiscovered issues that may later expose a client to a higher risk of an unfavorable outcome of the case. Again this does not happen in every case, but I have repeatedly seen this problem occur in voluntary disclosures handled by flat-fee lawyers and CPAs.

Finally, a client may actually over-pay for a flat-fee lawyer’s services compared to an hourly-rate attorney, because a flat-fee lawyer is likely to set his fees at a high level to make sure that he remains profitable irrespective of potential surprises contained in the case. Of course, there is a risk for flat-fee lawyers that the reverse may occur – i.e. despite being set to a high level, the fee is still too small compared to issues involved in a case.

The effective usage of either one of these billing models differs depending on where they are applied. In situations where the facts are simple and legal issues are clear, a flat-fee model may be preferable. However, where one deals with a complex legal situation and the facts cannot all be easily established during an initial consultation, the hourly-rate model with its emphasis on thoroughness and quality of legal work is likely to be the best choice.

Flat-Fee Lawyers Can Be An Inferior Choice for Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures

In my opinion and based on the analysis above, in the context of an SDOP voluntary disclosure, a flat-fee engagement is particularly dangerous because of the nature of offshore voluntary disclosure cases.

Voluntary disclosures are likely to deal with complex US international tax compliance issues and unclear factual patterns. It may be difficult to identify all legal issues and all US international tax reporting requirements during an initial consultation. There are too many facts that clients may simply not have at their disposal during an initial consultation. Moreover, additional issues and questions are likely to arise after the documents are processed. I once had a situation where I discovered that a client had an additional foreign corporation with millions of dollars only several months after the initial consultation – the corporation was already closed and the client forgot about it.

For these reasons, SDOP and offshore voluntary disclosures in general require an individualized, detailed and thorough approach as well as a hard-to-determine (during an initial consultation) depth of legal analysis which is generally ill-fit for a flat-fee engagement. A flat-fee lawyer is unlikely to accurately estimate how much time is required to complete a client’s case and, hence, unlikely to accurately set his flat fee for the case.

This can cause a huge conflict of interest as the case progresses. I have seen a number of cases where, in an attempt to remain profitable, flat-fee lawyers did their analysis too fast and failed to properly identify all relevant tax issues; as a result, the voluntary disclosures (including SDOP disclosures) done by them had to amended later by my firm. This caused significant additional financial costs and mental stress to my clients.

In my opinion, this potential conflict of interest makes the flat-fee model unsuitable for the vast majority of the SDOP cases.

Beware of Some Flat-Fee Lawyers Including Unnecessary Services Into the Flat Fee

This applies only to a tiny minority of flat-fee lawyers. I have observed several times where flat-fee lawyers included irrelevant services that the client never used to increase the flat fee for the case (for example, audit fees for years not included in the SDOP). My recommendation is that, if you decide to go with a flat-fee arrangement, you should make sure that it includes only the services that you will likely use.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures

Sherayzen Law Office is a leader in SDOP disclosures. We have helped clients from over 70 countries with their offshore voluntary disclosures, including SDOPs. Our firm follows an hourly-rate billing model, because we value the quality of our work above all other considerations. Of course, we make every effort to make our fees reasonable and competitive, but our priority is the peace of mind of our clients who know that they can rely on the creativity of our legal solutions and the high quality of our work.

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26 U.S.C. Subpart A: Taxation of Recipients of Corporation Distributions

This article is a second installment of our series of articles on corporate distributions. Today’s topic is the description of 26 U.S.C. Subpart A, which contains the most important tax provisions for our subsequent discussions of this subject.

26 U.S.C. Subpart A: Purpose

26 U.S.C Subpart A is the first part of Part I of Subchapter C, which deals with corporate distributions and adjustments. The main purpose of Subpart A is to establish the rules for taxation of recipients of corporate distributions. In other words, this section of the Internal Revenue Code deals with a situation where a corporation distributes or is deemed to have distributed something – a property, stocks, et cetera – to its shareholders. The focus here is not on the corporation, but on how its shareholders should be taxed.

26 U.S.C. Subpart A: §§301-307

26 U.S.C. Subpart A contains seven tax sections: IRC (Internal Revenue Code) §§301-307. All of these provisions are very important for both US domestic and international tax purposes.

IRC §301 establishes a general tax framework for corporate distributions and specifically deals with the distributions of property classified as dividends under IRC §316.

IRC §§302-304 describe the tax rules related to redemptions of stock (as defined in §317(b)), including some very specific situations. For example, §303 deals with distributions in redemption of stock to pay death taxes. The main provision, however, is §302 with its four tests which are highly important for determining whether a redemption of stock will be treated as a sale under §1001 or a corporate distribution under §301.

IRC §305 focuses on the special tax rules concerning stock dividends. It establishes the general rule that stock dividends are not taxable, but it also contains numerous exceptions to the general rule. More exceptions to the general rule may be found in §306.

IRC §306 deals with dispositions of “§306 stock” as defined in §306(c). §306 is very important to taxpayers because, with a few exceptions, it treats a disposition of §306 stock as ordinary income. This section also contains a loss non-recognition provision.

Finally, IRC §307 explains the calculation of cost-basis of stock received by shareholders as a result of a §305(a) distribution. This section has very important implications not only to stock dividends in general, but also to stock dividends made by a PFIC (Passive Foreign Investment Company). The calculation of PFIC tax and PFIC interest with respect to a disposition of such PFIC stock dividends are directly influenced by §307.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Tax Help Concerning Corporate Distributions

Sherayzen Law Office is an international tax law firm highly-experienced in US and foreign corporate transactions, including corporate distributions. We have helped our clients around the world not only to engage in proper US tax planning concerning cash, property and stock distributions from US and foreign corporations, but also resolve any prior US tax noncompliance issues (including conducting offshore voluntary disclosures). We can help you!

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Introduction to Corporate Distributions | US Business Tax Law Firm

This essay opens our new series of articles which focuses on corporate distributions. The new series will cover the classification, statutory structure and tax treatment of various types of corporation distributions, including redemptions of corporate stock. This first article seeks to introduce the readers to the overall US statutory tax structure concerning corporate distributions.

Corporation Distributions: Legal Philosophy for Varying Treatment

In the United States, the tax code provisions with respect to corporate distributions were written based on the belief that stock ownership bestows on its owner an inherent right to determine the right to receive distributions from a corporation.

Generally, a corporation can make distributions from three types of sources. First, a corporation can distribute funds from its accumulated earnings, to be even more precise accumulated Earnings and Profits (E&P). Second, a corporation may also distribute some or all of the invested capital to its shareholders. Finally, in certain circumstances, a corporation may distribute funds or property in excess of invested capital.

Moreover, certain corporate distributions may in reality be made in lieu of other types of transactions, such as payment for services. Additionally, some corporate distributions may be made in the form of stocks in the corporation, which may or may not modify the ownership of the corporation and which may or may not entitle shareholders to additional (perhaps unequal) future distribution of profits.

This varied nature of corporate distributions lays the foundation for their dissimilar tax treatment under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC).

Corporation Distributions: General Treatment under §301

IRC §301 generally governs the tax treatment of corporation distributions. This section classifies these distributions either as dividends, return of capital or capital gain (most likely, long-term capital gain). In a future article, I will discuss §301 in more detail.

Corporation Distributions: Special Case of Stock Dividends

The IRC treats distribution of stock dividends in a different manner than distribution of cash and property. Under §305(a), certain stock distributions are not taxable distributions. However, §305 contains numerous exceptions to this general rule; if any of these exceptions apply, then such stock distributions are governed by §301.

Moreover, additional exceptions to §305(a) are contained in §306. If a stock distribution is classified as a §306 stock, then the disposition of this stock will be treated as ordinary income. In a future article, I will discuss §§305 and 306 in more detail.

Corporation Distributions: Special Case of Stock Redemptions

Stock redemptions is a special kind of a corporate distribution. §317(b) defines redemption of stock as a corporation’s acquisition of “its stock from a shareholder in exchange for property, whether or not the stock so acquired is cancelled, retired, or held as treasury stock.”

§302 governs the tax treatment of stock redemptions. In general, it provides for two potential legal paths of stock redemptions. First, if a stock redemption satisfies any of the four §302(b) tests, then it will be treated as a sales transaction under §1001. Assuming that the redeemed stock satisfied the §1221 definition of a capital asset, the capital gain/loss tax provisions will apply.

On the other hand, if none of the §302(b) tests are met, then the stock redemption will be treated as a corporate distribution under §301. Again, in a future article, I will discuss stock redemptions in more detail.

Corporate Distributions in the Context of US International Tax Law

All of these tax provisions concerning corporate distributions are relevant to US shareholders of foreign corporations. In fact, in the context of US international tax law, these tax sections become even more complex and may have far graver consequences for US shareholders than under purely domestic tax law. These consequences may be in the form of higher tax burden (for example, due to an anti-deferral tax regime such as Subpart F rules) or increased compliance burden (for example, triggering the filing of international information returns such as Form 5471 or Form 926).

A failure to recognize these differences between the application of aforementioned tax provisions in the domestic context from the international one may result in the imposition of severe IRS noncompliance penalties.

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The Tinkov Case: Concealment of Foreign Assets During Expatriation

On March 5, 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that Mr. Oleg Tinkov was arrested in London in connection with an indictment concerning concealment of about $1 billion in foreign assets and the expatriation income in connection with these assets. Let’s discuss the Tinkov case in more detail.

The Tinkov Case: Alleged Facts

According to the indictment, Oleg Tinkov was the indirect majority shareholder of a branchless online bank that provided its customers with financial and bank services. The indictment alleges that, as a result of an initial public offering (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange in 2013, Tinkov beneficially owned more than $1 billion worth of the bank’s shares. He allegedly owned these shares through a British Virgin Island (“BVI”) structure.

The indictment further alleges that three days after the IPO, Mr. Tinkov renounced his U.S. citizenship or expatriated. Expatriation is a taxable event subject to the expatriation tax. As a an expatriated individual, Mr. Tinkov should have reported to the IRS the gain from the constructive sale of his worldwide assets and pay the expatriation tax on such a gain to the IRS. Yet, he allegedly never did it.

Instead, Mr. Tinkov filed an allegedly false 2013 tax return with the IRS that reported income of less than $206,000. Moreover, the IRS further alleges that he filed a false 2013 Initial and Annual Expatriation Statement reporting that his net worth was $300,000.

The Tinkov Case: Potential Noncompliance Penalties

If convicted, Mr. Tinkov faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison on each count. He also faces a period of supervised release, restitution, and monetary penalties. Other penalties (including Form 5471, Form 8938 and FBAR penalties) may be imposed.

The Tinkov Case: Presumption of Innocence

The readers should remember that an indictment is a mere allegation that crimes have been committed. The defendant (in this case, Mr. Tinkov) is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Tinkov Case: Lessons from This Case

The Tinkov Case offers a number of useful lessons concerning US international tax compliance, particularly U.S. expatriation tax laws. Let’s concentrate on the three most important lessons.

First, a U.S. citizen or a long-term U.S. permanent resident must carefully consider all tax consequences of expatriation. Such a taxpayer must engage in careful, detailed tax planning prior to expatriation. Mr. Tinkov did not do such planning and renounced his U.S. citizenship merely three days before the IPO. By that time, the value of his assets was already easily established beyond reasonable dispute.

Second, one must be very careful and accurate with one’s disclosure to the IRS. Mr. Tinkov’s 2013 U.S. tax return and the Expatriation Statement contained information vastly different from the one that the IRS was able to acquire during its investigation. It is no wonder that the IRS concluded that he willfully filed false returns to the IRS, especially since it does not appear that his submissions to the IRS attempted to explain the gap between the returns and the information that IRS had or acquired later during an investigation.

Finally, expatriation cases involving sophisticated tax structures, especially those incorporated in an offshore tax-free jurisdiction, are likely to face a closer scrutiny and even a criminal investigation by the IRS. We have seen the confirmation of this fact in many cases already. In this case, Mr. Tinkov’s BVI corporation, which protected his indirect ownership of his online bank, was a huge red flag. His attorneys should have predicted that this structure alone would invite an IRS investigation of his expatriation.

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If you are a U.S. taxpayer with assets in a foreign country, contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help with your U.S. international tax compliance. If you have already violated U.S. international tax laws concerning disclosure of your foreign assets, foreign income or expatriation, then you need to secure help as soon as possible to conduct an offshore voluntary disclosure to lower your IRS penalties.

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§318 Entity-Member Attribution Summary | International Tax Lawyer

In a previous article, I discussed the IRC (Internal Revenue Code) §318 sidewise attribution limitation. This limitation was the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the §318 entity-member attribution rules; now, we are ready to summarize these rules in light of this exception. This is the purpose of this article – state the §318 Entity-Member Attribution summary.

§318 Entity-Member Attribution Summary: Definition of Member

For the purpose of this §318 Entity-Member Attribution summary, I am using the word “member” to describe partners, shareholders and beneficiaries.

§318 Entity-Member Attribution Summary: Limitations

This summary of §318 entity-member attribution rules is limited only to situations where a member owns at 50% of the value of stock (in case of a corporation) and a beneficiary of a trust does not hold a remote and contingent interest in a trust. The readers need to keep these limitations in mind as they apply the summary below to a particular fact pattern.

Moreover, the readers must remember that this summary of the §318 Entity-Member attribution rules may be altered when one applies it within the context of a specific tax provision. Hence, the readers must check for any modification of these §318 attribution rules contained in that specific tax provision.

§318 Entity-Member Attribution Summary

Now that we understand the limitations above, we can state the following summary of the §318 Entity-Member attribution rules:

  1. All corporate stock is attributed to an entity from its member irrespective of whether the member owns this stock actually or constructively;
  2. If corporate stock is attributed from an entity to its member, such attribution will be done on a proportionate basis; and
  3. The following corporate stock is attributed from an entity to its member on a proportionate basis:
    (a). Corporate stock which the entity actually owns;
    (b). Corporate stock which the entity constructively owns under the option rules; and
    (c). Corporate stock which the entity constructively owns because it is a member of some other entity.

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US international tax law is incredibly complex and the penalties for noncompliance are exceptionally severe. This means that an attempt to navigate through the maze of US international tax laws without assistance of an experienced professional will most likely produce unfavorable and even catastrophic results.

This is why you should contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help with US international tax law. We are a highly experienced, creative and ethical team of professionals dedicated to helping our clients resolve their past, present and future US international tax compliance issues. We have helped clients with assets in over 70 countries around the world, and we can help you!

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