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Higher OVDP Penalties May Affect More US Taxpayers

As of August 25, 2015, and as a result of increasing number of DOJ Swiss Bank Program Non-Prosecution agreements, 2015, higher OVDP penalties (50 %) apply to US account holders of 43 banks. Between August 1 and August 20, 2015, six more banks were added to the 50% penalty list. In this article, I would like to discuss this trend of higher OVDP penalties and analyze how it affects US taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts.

2014 OVDP Background

The 2014 IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”) is a sequel to at least six prior voluntary disclosure initiatives since 2003. In reality, 2014 OVDP most closely resembles 2012 OVDP, but there are some crucial differences between 2014 OVDP and 2012 OVDP both now closed.

2012 OVDP was a voluntary disclosure program created by the IRS to allow U.S. taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts to come forward and settle their US tax problems related to foreign accounts under specific terms. The biggest advantage to participating in the 2012 OVDP (and it remains the same for 2014 OVDP) was the reduction of civil penalties (especially in a willful situation) and avoidance of criminal liability.

Over the years, the offshore voluntary disclosure programs have gotten more and more demanding in terms of information that needed to be submitted by the participating taxpayers and penalties that needed to be paid. Since 2012 OVDP never considered the difference between willful and non-willful taxpayers, many international tax lawyers considered it unfair for non-willful taxpayers to participate in the OVDP.

Learning from these experiences, the IRS realized that it could get better and more widespread compliance if it is able to effectively process non-willful taxpayers while, at the same time, imposing harsher penalties on willful taxpayers. Hence, the IRS implemented dramatic changes to the 2012 OVDP; from these changes, the Streamlined Options and 2014 OVDP with higher OVDP penalties were born.

Higher OVDP Penalties under 2014 OVDP

Since most of the non-willful taxpayers were likely to follow the Streamlined options, the IRS felt that it could impose higher OVDP penalties on the more stubborn willful taxpayers, particularly taxpayers with undisclosed Swiss accounts who did not heed the IRS warnings and did not enter the 2014 OVDP timely.

From this desire, the dual-tier OVDP penalty system was born. The first tier imposes a regular 27.5% (of the” OVDP penalty base”) penalty if the foreign accounts of US taxpayers who entered the OVDP program were not held in the banks on the IRS list. Also, there was a limited opportunity to enter the OVDP at 27.5% penalty rate even the “listed” foreign bank accounts if the taxpayer filed the preclearance request prior to August 4, 2014.

The second tier imposes higher OVDP penalties of 50% if the taxpayer filed the preclearance request after August 4, 2014, and the foreign accounts were held at a bank which is on the IRS list of foreign banks/facilitators.

DOJ Swiss Bank Program and the Expansion of the IRS List of Foreign Banks/ Facilitators

Initially, the IRS List of Foreign Banks consisted of a dozen banks already under investigation as of June 18, 2014, which included such big names as UBS, Credit Swiss, Zurcher Kantonalbank, et cetera. This means that higher OVDP penalties were imposed on US taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts at these banks if these taxpayers did not file the preclearance request timely.

On August 29, 2013, the US Department of Justice announced an unprecedented initiative – The Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks (“Swiss Bank Program”) – which was intended to allow Swiss banks avoid DOJ prosecution in exchange for disclosure of their non-compliant US account holders and payment of monetary penalties. In essence, this was a voluntary disclosure program for Swiss banks similar to OVDP for US individuals (and, similarly to higher OVDP penalties, the Swiss Bank Program also had its own graduated scale of penalties).

More than one hundred Swiss banks decided to participate in the DOJ Swiss Bank Program and complied with December 31, 2013 filing deadline. Starting March of 2015, the Swiss Bank Program entered its final stage in which the DOJ and the Swiss banks entered into individualized Non-Prosecution Agreement.

As these banks enter into the Non-Prosecution Agreements, the IRS adds each bank to the IRS List of Foreign Banks. This directly results in higher OVDP penalties for US taxpayers who owned foreign accounts at the “listed” banks and did not file the OVDP preclearance requests prior to the relevant Non-Prosecution Agreement.

As of August 26, 2015, this list consists virtually exclusively of Swiss banks and includes 43 foreign banks:

UBS AG
Credit Suisse AG, Credit Suisse Fides, and Clariden Leu Ltd.
Wegelin & Co.
Liechtensteinische Landesbank AG
Zurcher Kantonalbank
swisspartners Investment Network AG, swisspartners Wealth Management AG, swisspartners Insurance Company SPC Ltd., and swisspartners Versicherung AG
CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank Limited, its predecessors, subsidiaries, and affiliates
Stanford International Bank, Ltd., Stanford Group Company, and Stanford Trust Company, Ltd.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited in India (HSBC India)
The Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Limited (also known as Butterfield Bank and Bank of Butterfield), its predecessors, subsidiaries, and affiliates
Sovereign Management & Legal, Ltd., its predecessors, subsidiaries, and affiliates (effective 12/19/14)
Bank Leumi le-Israel B.M., The Bank Leumi le-Israel Trust Company Ltd, Bank Leumi (Luxembourg) S.A., Leumi Private Bank S.A., and Bank Leumi USA (effective 12/22/14)
BSI SA (effective 3/30/15)
Vadian Bank AG (effective 5/8/15)
Finter Bank Zurich AG (effective 5/15/15)
Societe Generale Private Banking (Lugano-Svizzera) SA (effective 5/28/15)
MediBank AG (effective 5/28/15)
LBBW (Schweiz) AG (effective 5/28/15)
Scobag Privatbank AG (effective 5/28/15)
Rothschild Bank AG (effective 6/3/15)
Banca Credinvest SA (effective 6/3/15)
Societe Generale Private Banking (Suisse) SA (effective 6/9/15)
Berner Kantonalbank AG (effective 6/9/15)
Bank Linth LLB AG (effective 6/19/15)
Bank Sparhafen Zurich AG (effective 6/19/15)
Ersparniskasse Schaffhausen AG (effective 6/26/15)
Privatbank Von Graffenried AG (effective 7/2/15)
Banque Pasche SA (effective 7/9/15)
ARVEST Privatbank AG (effective 7/9/15)
Mercantil Bank (Schweiz) AG (effective 7/16/15)
Banque Cantonale Neuchateloise (effective 7/16/15)
Nidwaldner Kantonalbank (effective 7/16/15)
SB Saanen Bank AG (effective 7/23/15)
Privatbank Bellerive AG (effective 7/23/15)
PKB Privatbank AG (effective 7/30/15)
Falcon Private Bank AG (effective 7/30/15)
Credito Privato Commerciale in liquidazione SA (effective 7/30/15)
Bank EKI Genossenschaft (effective 8/3/15)
Privatbank Reichmuth & Co. (effective 8/6/15)
Banque Cantonale du Jura SA (effective 8/6/15)
Banca Intermobiliare di Investimenti e Gestioni (Suisse) SA (effective 8/6/15)
bank zweiplus ag (effective 8/20/15)
Banca dello Stato del Cantone Ticino (effective 8/20/15)

Possible Future Scenario: Higher OVDP Penalties for Non-Swiss Bank Accounts?

Given the success of the Swiss Bank Program, I expect that this experience maybe applied by the IRS in another country and even worldwide. If this happens, higher OVDP penalties may affect a larger percentage of US taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts outside of Switzerland. Israel, Singapore, the Caribbean islands (e.g. the Cayman Islands) and other tax shelter and low-tax jurisdictions are all good candidates for the expansion of the Swiss Bank Program.

Impact on US Taxpayers

Given the continuous expansion of the IRS List of Foreign Banks (as a result of Swiss Bank Program Resolutions), more and more US taxpayers are likely to be affected by the higher OVDP penalties. Moreover, in light of the potential expansion of the Swiss Bank Program to other countries, it is very likely that higher OVDP penalties will commence to impact more US taxpayers with non-Swiss foreign accounts. Finally, there is a possibility that the almost worldwide implementation of FATCA may lead to higher OVDP penalties in the future.

Thus, in light of these developments, US taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts should contact an experienced international tax attorney to review their offshore voluntary disclosure options. Failure to do so may lead not only to higher OVDP penalties down the road, but also to the total loss of the possibility of doing a voluntary disclosure (for example, if the IRS commences an investigation) and imposition of willful FBAR penalties.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With Your Offshore Voluntary Disclosure

This is why you should contact the experienced legal team of Sherayzen Law Office lead by the founder of the firm – Eugene Sherayzen, Esq. Mr. Sherayzen is a highly experienced international tax attorney who has helped hundreds of US taxpayers worldwide to bring their US tax affairs in full compliance with US tax laws. He can help you!

US-Switzerland Bank Program: Migros Bank, Bank Coop, Linth Bank, Berner Kantonalbank and Vontobel Holding

Several weeks ago, in another article, I detailed some of the recent developments in the US-Switzerland Bank Program, officially called The Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks (the “US-Switzerland Bank Program”) between the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the government of Switzerland, and noted that Valiant Holdings AG had officially entered the Program. Since December 9th, the deadline imposed by Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (“FINMA”) for Swiss banks to notify that authority whether they intended to enroll in the Program or not, more Swiss banks have announced that they will participate: Linth Bank, Migros Bank, Bank Coop, Berner Kantonalbank, and Vontobel Holding AG are among them.

Most Swiss banks are not listed on the stock exchange, so they not obliged to publicly disclose their intentions regarding the Program. This article will detail the further developments involving Swiss banks that have chosen to enter the US-Switzerland Bank Program, and is not intended to convey legal or tax advice. U.S. taxpayers holding Swiss accounts in any of the banks involved should pay close attention to these developments and seek the advice of professional, competent tax attorneys in these matters. The international tax expertise of Sherayzen Law Office, PLLC can assist you in all of your tax and legal needs.

Migros Bank, Bank Coop, Linth Bank, and Berner Kantonalbank

According to various news sources, Migros Bank announced it would most likely enter the Program in Category 2. Migros Bank noted that just a small portion of its 800,000 customers are U.S. persons (and most of the U.S. persons either have dual U.S.-Switzerland citizenship or have U.S. residence permits). Because of the compliance difficulties in knowing whether such persons have paid all of their U.S. taxes (a requirement), they have decided to enter the US-Switzerland Bank Program. Migros Bank also noted that it might be approved under Category 4. The bank also claimed that it never actively sought out U.S. clients.

Bank Coop (majority-owned by Basler Kantonalbank, a bank that is already under investigation by the U.S.) also stated that it would enter the US-Switzerland Bank Program in Category 2. Bank Coop noted that accounts held by U.S. persons amounted to less than 0.3% of its total managed-accounts. Like Bank Migros, Bank Coop also claimed that it did not actively seek U.S. clients.

Linth Bank also announced it was entering the US-Switzerland Bank Program to attempt to bring a swift resolution the US-Switzerland dispute.

Like Migros Bank and Bank Coop, Berner Kantonalbank AG will enter the US-Switzerland Bank Program in Category 2. Berner Kantonalbank noted that a small portion (0.2%) of its managed accounts was held by U.S. persons. Its CEO, Hanspeter Ruefenacht, was quoted in one news report stating that the bank, “never sought to do business with American clients”.

Vontobel Holding AG

Vontobel Holding AG will also enroll in the US-Switzerland Bank Program, but under a different rational than the banks mentioned above. Vontobel Holding announced it will enter the US-Switzerland Bank Program under the DOJ’s category for Swiss banks that have not committed U.S. tax-related offenses (i.e. a Category 3 bank), and are thereby exempt from penalties under the Program. The bank stated that in 2008 it proactively instituted various measures to transfer its U.S. clients to its Swiss Wealth Advisors unit (which is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission). American clients who decided not to move their assets to the advisors unit were made to leave the bank.

Impact on US Taxpayers

U.S. taxpayers who either hold or previously held undisclosed bank accounts at any of the Swiss banks eligible for the US-Switzerland Bank Program are advised to seek competent and experienced legal assistance. U.S. taxpayers will likely face substantial civil and potential criminal penalties if they continue to hold undisclosed accounts or if their cases are not handled properly.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Help With Undisclosed Swiss Accounts

The experienced international tax law firm of Sherayzen Law Office, PLLC can help with your all of your voluntary disclosure issues, including undisclosed accounts and other assets in Switzerland.