There is a great confusion among international tax attorneys and Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) applicants with respect to the OVDP Offshore Penalty and how it differs from the FBAR penalties. I already described in another article the OVDP penalties. In this article, I would like to compare and contrast some of the major features of the OVDP Offshore Penalty with the FBAR penalties.
At the apex of the penalty structure are the criminal penalties that are imposed in association with a willful violation of the FBAR filing requirements under 31 U.S.C. section 5322(a), 31 U.S.C. section 5322(b), or 18 U.S.C. Section 1001. The criminal penalties may be up to 10 years in jail and $500,000 in fines.
Willful (i.e. where a person willfully fails to report an account or account identifying information) civil penalties equal to the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of the balance in the account at the time of the violation. See 31 U.S.C. section 5321(a)(5). Note, that a penalty in this case applies to each violation which is defined as each undisclosed account per year.
Even where the violation is non-willful, a person may be subject to a civil penalty of $10,000 per violation. Again, note that this is a penalty per violation – i.e. per each unreported account per each year.
For the purposes of this article, it is also important to note that the penalties apply only to “foreign financial accounts”. This term is defined broadly to include various types of accounts which are not normally associated with the word “account” (for example: a precious metals storage or a life insurance policy with a cash-surrender value). Nevertheless, the FBAR penalty would not apply to real estate or a business interest; it would apply only to foreign financial accounts – i.e. the balances on the foreign financial accounts and the number of these accounts constitute the primary penalty base for the calculation of the FBAR penalties.
OVDP Offshore Penalties
In contrast to traditional FBAR penalties, OVDP Offshore Penalty may mean a completely different penalty range and penalty base.
Offshore Penalty Range
Unlike the FBAR penalties, OVDP Offshore Penalty is a limited penalty – i.e. there is a certain penalty that you have to pay by virtue of participating into the program. It is very important to understand that most individual circumstances, willfulness, non-willfulness and reasonable case have virtually no impact on the calculation of the Offshore Penalty.
There are three tiers of the OVDP Offshore Penalty. First, there is a 5% penalty tier. There are various possibilities how one would be entitled to such a favorable treatment; a detailed discussion of the 5% penalty possibilities is described elsewhere on sherayzenlaw.com.
Second, there is a 12.5% penalty tier. An OVDP applicant would be entitled to this penalty tier only if, during each of the years covered by the OVDP, the taxpayer’s penalty base (see below for detailed explanation of what “penalty base” means) is less than $75,000.
Finally, if neither 5% nor 12.5% penalty tiers apply, the default penalty of 27.5% of the penalty base will apply.
As important as the penalty range, it pales in comparison to the determination of the OVDP Offshore Penalty base, because these calculations can be vastly different from the FBAR penalties.
First, the Offshore Penalty is imposed only once on the highest amount of the penalty base during the Voluntary Disclosure period (i.e. years covered by the OVDP which sometimes can be quite tricky to figure out).
Second, the base for the Offshore Penalty includes a wide variety of assets including foreign bank accounts, the fair market value of assets in undisclosed offshore entities, and the fair market value of any foreign assets that were either acquired with improperly untaxed funds or produced improperly untaxed income. The general rule is that the offshore penalty is intended to apply to all of the taxpayer’s offshore holdings that are related in any way to tax non-compliance, regardless of the form of the taxpayer’s ownership or the character of the asset.
This means that the Offshore Penalty may include such assets as business ownership interests, stocks, artwork, automobiles, patents, trademarks, and (very important) real estate. Even ownership of U.S. businesses acquired with tainted funds may be open to the Offshore Penalty.
In other words, the penalty base of the OVDP Offshore Penalty may include a much greater variety of assets in addition to the assets already covered by the FBAR.
Penalty Differences Between FBARs and OVDP Should Influence Your Voluntary Disclosure Options
Given the tremendous differences in the range of penalties and the calculation of the penalty base, it is highly important (and I cannot stress this point enough) to properly analyze the potential tax liabilities under both methods before making the decision on whether to enter the OVDP or pursue a reasonable cause (so-called “noisy” or “modified”) voluntary disclosure. It is highly important that the client understands the differences in the calculations and the potential risks of pursuing either option.
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With the Disclosure of Your Foreign Financial Accounts
If you have undisclosed foreign financial accounts or other offshore assets, contact Sherayzen Law Office for legal help. Our experienced international tax law firm will thoroughly analyze your case, calculate your potential tax liabilities, present you with a range of options, and implement your voluntary disclosure plan (including preparation of all tax forms and legal documents).