Due to various waves of emigration from South Africa since early 1990s, there is a significant number of South Africans who live in the United States. Many of these new US taxpayers continue to maintain their South African bank accounts even to this very day. These taxpayers need to be aware of the potential US tax compliance requirements which may apply to these South African bank accounts. This is exactly the purpose of this article – I intend to discuss the three most common US tax reporting requirements which may apply to South African bank accounts held by US persons. These requirements are: worldwide income reporting, FBAR and Form 8938.
South African Bank Accounts: US Tax Residents, US Persons and Specified Persons
Prior to our discussion of these reporting requirements, we need to identify the persons who must comply with them. It turns out that this task is not that easy, because different reporting requirements have a different definition of “filer”.
The most common and basic definition is the one that applies to the worldwide income reporting requirement – US tax residency. A US tax resident is a broad term that covers: US citizens, US permanent residents, persons who satisfy the Substantial Presence Test and individuals who declare themselves as US tax residents. This general definition of US tax residents is subject to a number of important exceptions, such as visa exemptions (for example, an F-1 visa five-year exemption for foreign students) from the Substantial Presence Test.
FBAR defines its filers as “US Persons” and Form 8938 filers are “Specified Persons”. These concepts are fairly similar to US tax residency, but there are important differences. Both terms apply to US citizens, US permanent residents and persons who satisfy the Substantial Presence Test. The differences arise mostly with respect to persons who declare themselves as US tax residents. A common example are the treaty “tie-breaker” provisions, which foreign persons use to escape the Substantial Presence Test for US tax residency purposes.
Determination of your US tax reporting requirements is the primary task of your international tax lawyer. I strongly recommend that you do not even attempt to do this yourself or use an accountant for this purpose. It is simply too dangerous.
South African Bank Accounts: Worldwide Income Reporting
All US tax residents must report their worldwide income on their US tax returns. This means that US tax residents must disclose to the IRS on their US tax returns both US-source and foreign-source income. In the context of the South African bank accounts, foreign-source income means all bank interest income, dividends, royalties, capital gains and any other income generated by these accounts.
South African Bank Accounts: FBAR Reporting
FinCEN Form 114, the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (“FBAR”), requires all US Persons to disclose their ownership interest in or signatory authority or any other authority over South African (and any other foreign country) bank and financial accounts if the aggregate highest balance of these accounts exceeds $10,000. I encourage you to read this article (click on the link) concerning the definition of a “US Person”. You can also search our firm’s website, sherayzenlaw.com, for the explanation of other parts of the required FBAR disclosure.
The definition of “account”, however, deserves special attention here. The FBAR definition of an account is substantially broader than what this word generally means in our society. “Account” for FBAR purposes includes: checking accounts, savings accounts, fixed-deposit accounts, investments accounts, mutual funds, options/commodity futures accounts, life insurance policies with a cash surrender value, precious metals accounts, earth mineral accounts, et cetera. In fact, whenever there is a custodial relationship between a foreign financial institution and a US person’s foreign asset, there is a very high probability that the IRS will find that an account exists for FBAR purposes.
Finally, FBAR has a very complex and severe penalty system. The most feared penalties are criminal FBAR penalties with up to 10 years in jail (of course, these penalties come into effect in extreme situations). On the civil side, the most dreaded penalties are FBAR willful civil penalties which can easily exceed a person’s net worth. Even FBAR non-willful penalties can wreak a havoc in a person’s financial life.
Civil FBAR penalties have their own complex web of penalty mitigation layers, which depend on the facts and circumstances of one’s case. One of the most important factors is the size of the South African bank accounts subject to FBAR penalties. Additionally, since 2015, the IRS has added another layer of limitations on the FBAR penalty imposition. These self-imposed limitations of course help, but one must keep in mind that they are voluntary IRS actions and may be disregarded under certain circumstances (in fact, there are already a few instances where this has occurred).
South African Bank Accounts: FATCA Form 8938
Form 8938 is filed with a federal tax return and forms part of the tax return. This means that a failure to file Form 8938 may render the entire tax return incomplete and potentially subject to an IRS audit.
Form 8938 requires “Specified Persons” to disclose on their US tax returns all of their Specified Foreign Financial Assets (“SFFA”) as long as these Persons meet the applicable filing threshold. The filing threshold depends on a Specified Person’s tax return filing status and his physical residency. For example, if he is single and resides in the United States, he needs to file Form 8938 as long as the aggregate value of his SFFA is more than $50,000 at the end of the year or more than $75,000 at any point during the year.
The IRS defines SFFA very broadly to include an enormous variety of financial instruments, including foreign bank accounts, foreign business ownership, foreign trust beneficiary interests, bond certificates, various types of swaps, et cetera. In some ways, FBAR and Form 8938 require the reporting of the same assets, but these two forms are completely independent from each other. This means that a taxpayer may have to do duplicate reporting on FBAR and Form 8938.
Specified Persons consist of two categories of filers: Specified Individuals and Specified Domestic Entities. You can find a detailed explanation of both categories by searching our website sherayzenlaw.com.
Finally, Form 8938 has its own penalty system which has far-reaching income tax consequences (including disallowance of foreign tax credit and imposition of 40% accuracy-related income tax penalties). There is also a $10,000 failure-to-file penalty.
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With the US Tax Reporting of Your South African Bank Accounts
If you have South African bank accounts, you should contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help with your US international tax compliance. We have helped hundreds of US taxpayers with their US international tax issues, and We can help You!