Quiet Disclosure: The Russian Roulette of FBAR Disclosures

There used to be a time when quiet disclosures with respect to offshore income and accounts were routinely recommended by accountants and even attorneys. Even as the tide turned against non-compliant U.S. taxpayers with offshore accounts in 2008-2009 with the spectacular IRS success in the UBS case and the announcement of the 2009 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, these tax professionals persisted in advising their clients to follow the “quiet” course of action. Amazingly enough, even in March of 2014, I still see clients who have been advised to conduct quiet disclosures without adequate assessment of risks that such course of action entails.

In this article, I will argue that the era of quiet disclosures is over and a non-compliant taxpayer who embarks on this course is assuming the risks comparable to engaging in a game of a Russian Roulette with the IRS.

Definition of “Quiet Disclosure”

The definition of what constitutes “quiet disclosure” has changed over time; at some point, there were tax professionals who used it in such as a broad manner as to include something that we would not consider as quiet disclosure today but rather “reasonable cause disclosures” (also known as “modified voluntary disclosures” or “noisy disclosures”).

Today, the term generally refers to disclosures where a taxpayer would file amended returns, pay any related tax and interest (oftentimes, the payment of accuracy-related penalties is included in such a disclosure) for previously unreported offshore income, and file the current year’s information returns without otherwise notifying the IRS.

Note the two critical aspects of this definition that differentiate quiet disclosures from any other types of voluntary disclosures. First and foremost – “without otherwise notifying the IRS”. This is the “quiet” aspect of the disclosure. At no point is the taxpayer notifying the IRS about his non-compliance; he just simply hopes to pay the tax with interest without attracting IRS attention to his prior non-compliance.

The second critical aspect of quiet disclosures is compliance with current year’s information returns (such as FBARs, Forms 5471, et cetera), but not prior years’ information returns. Filing prior years’ information returns would imply providing IRS with evidence of prior non-compliance and, without adequate explanation, a set of penalties may be imposed on the taxpayer. This is why, in a quiet disclosure, the non-compliant taxpayer only files the current year’s FBAR.

Current International Tax Enforcement of FBAR Compliance; Impact of FATCA

It is my argument that, in the current international tax enforcement environment, the quiet discloser strategy is likely to have a counter-productive effect and may actually lead to disastrous results later. So, what is so different about today’s world versus the one in 2007?

Two words summarize the difference: “UBS” and “FATCA”. The IRS victory in the UBS case in 2008 marked a radical change to the worldwide tax compliance and completely overthrew the traditional conception of the bank secrecy laws (at least, with respect to U.S. taxpayers). The IRS proved that it can get to U.S. taxpayers wherever they have their accounts despite the sovereign objections of other countries; most shockingly, the IRS proved it in a country the name of which was synonymous with “bank secrecy” for centuries. This is one of the reasons why the 2009 OVDP, 2011 OVDI and the current 2012 OVDP programs proved to be such a success.

If the UBS case seriously crippled the bank secrecy laws in Switzerland, the enaction of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”) by the U.S. Congress in 2010 dealt a death blow to the bank secrecy laws worldwide with far reaching consequences. FATCA not only swept away the bank secrecy considerations in Switzerland, but the great majority of other jurisdictions such as Liechtenstein, Monaco, Jersey Islands, Lebanon, Panama, the various Caribbean islands, and other places where bank secrecy laws protected non-compliant U.S. taxpayers.

Moreover, by turning foreign banks into U.S. reporting agents who voluntarily report information on all of their U.S. accountholders, the IRS is gradually achieving its long-term goal of worldwide tax compliance with only a fraction of the costs that would otherwise be necessary if the IRS were to investigate each bank in the world individually (something that the IRS simply would not have the resources to do).

In such a tax enforcement environment, it is dangerously naive to expect prior FBAR non-compliance would not be discovered by the IRS – an assumption that forms the core of the quiet disclosure strategy.

Swiss Program for Banks; Willful and Criminal Penalties

In addition to the tectonic shifts in the international tax compliance as a result of the UBS Case and FATCA, the U.S. government pushed the concept of the “voluntary compliance” to the extreme through the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks (the “Program”). In essence, this is a voluntary disclosure program for the Swiss Banks, where the Swiss Banks have to disclose information with respect to U.S. taxpayers in exchange for the DOJ”s promise not to sue them.

There is one particular aspect of the Program that I want to emphasize because of its relevance to the quiet disclosure strategy – the disclosure of U.S. accountholders goes back to August 1, 2008. This means that if a U.S. taxpayer with unreported Swiss accounts from 2008 made a quiet disclosure in the tax year 2009, his former non-compliance will be exposed by the Program.

Not only that, but, at this point, his prior non-compliance is likely to be considered willful and the prospect of gigantic willful civil and criminal penalties becomes almost imminent (especially, if his ability to enter the OVDP is hindered for one reason or another). See, for example, this passage from the FAQ instructions to OVDP: “When criminal behavior is evident and the disclosure does not meet the requirements of a voluntary disclosure under IRM, the IRS may recommend criminal prosecution to the Department of Justice” (see FAQ 16).

It is important to note that there are very good reasons to believe that the “Swiss Program for Banks” scenario is likely to be repeated elsewhere with uncertain look-back periods.

FBAR Quiet Disclosure Is Likely to Lead to Untenable Willful FBAR Non-Compliance in the Event of IRS Discovery

Now, we are approaching the core reasoning behind my earlier argument that quiet disclosure is similar to playing a Russian roulette. We have already established that the possibility of the IRS discovery of prior non-compliance has become increasingly likely under FATCA. We have also determined that willful failure to file an FBAR under the quiet disclosure strategy may lead to the imposition of willful civil and, possibly, criminal penalties. Finally, we also considered that a third-party disclosure (most likely, a bank that discloses under FATCA or the Program) is likely to prevent the taxpayer from entering the OVDP.

The effect of putting these three propositions together is obvious and explosive at the same time: engaging in a quiet disclosure policy may result in the discovery of prior FBAR non-compliance, such non-compliance is likely to be considered by the IRS as willful, and the taxpayer is likely to lose the safe harbor of the OVDP. The end result may be absolutely disastrous: FBAR willful civil penalties of up to $100,000 per account per year with potential FBAR criminal penalties (huge monetary penalties and incarceration).

The IRS has stated this openly in its FAQ instructions to the OVDP: “Taxpayers are strongly encouraged to come forward under the OVDP to make timely, accurate, and complete disclosures. Those taxpayers making ‘quiet’ disclosures should be aware of the risk of being examined and potentially criminally prosecuted for all applicable years” (see FAQ #15).

Contact Sherayzen Law Office of Professional Help With Your Offshore Voluntary Disclosure of Foreign Assets and Foreign Income

If you have undisclosed foreign account or other assets, do not fall prey to the Russian Roulette quiet disclosure solution.

Rather, you should contact the international tax law firm of Sherayzen Law Office. We are a team of experienced tax professionals who have an expertise in the voluntary disclosure of offshore assets and income. We can help you.

Contact Us to Schedule a Confidential Consultation!