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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.

Contact Us Today to Schedule Your Confidential Consultation!

El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program | International Tax Lawyer & Attorney

On October 10, 2017, the Salvadorian Congress enacted the Legislative Decree No. 804, “La Ley Transitoria para el Cumplimiento Voluntario de Obligaciones Tributarias y Aduaneras”. After noting the experience of the past El Salvador voluntary disclosure options, the Decree announced a three-month long El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program. Let’s briefly explore the main contours of this new El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program.

The Duration of El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program

The Decree specifies that the program will become effective on October 27, 2017 and it will end on January 27, 2018.

The Terms of El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program

El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program basically allows El Salvadorian taxpayers to voluntarily come forward, correctly declare their income and pay any undeclared or understated taxes. In return for doing so, all penalties, charges and interest will be waived by the tax authorities of El Salvador, la Dirección General de Impuestos Internos. This Salvadorian voluntary disclosure program compares very favorably with the IRS OVDP (which is not really an amnesty program and imposes a significant penalty for prior noncompliance).

The El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program is also very broad. The voluntary disclosure program is applicable to all taxpayers with outstanding tax liabilities that were due prior to October 27, 2017. The program covers understated taxes, undeclared taxes, withholding taxes, VAT, real estate transfer taxes and basically all other situations. The program is applicable to taxpayers irrespective of whether they ever filed their tax returns. El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program will even allow the taxpayers to simply pay their tax liability without any penalties, even if the income was already declared and taxes assessed.

Only a narrow category of taxpayers is not eligible to participate in El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program: the taxpayers already under a criminal investigation initiated by la Dirección General de Impuestos Internos and la Dirección General de Aduanas.

US Taxpayers May Participate in El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program and US Voluntary Disclosure at the Same Time

If you are a US taxpayer who has not declared his Salvadorian income in the United States and El Salvador, you may be eligible to participate in the voluntary disclosure programs of both countries at the same time.

It is important to remember, however, that these voluntary disclosures should be coordinated by your US and Salvadorian lawyers. The main reason for this coordination is a concern that an information disclosed under El Salvador Tax Amnesty Program may be automatically disclosed to the IRS by la Dirección General de Impuestos Internos, leading to an investigation that may prevent you from going through a voluntary disclosure in the United States.

Happy New Year 2017! | International Tax Attorney Minneapolis

Sherayzen Law Office, PLLC wishes a very Happy New Year 2017 to all of our clients and readers of our blog! We wish you great health, happiness and prosperity in this New Year 2017! And, to stay in full compliance with US tax laws!

Twin Cities international tax lawyer

The New Year 2017 is going to be a complicated one when it comes to international tax compliance. Let us focus today on two primary updates.

The first notable novelty of the New Year 2017 is the shift in the FBAR deadline; from now on, the FBAR is going to be due on April 15. At this point, the IRS guidance is that this deadline is set for April 15 irrespective of whether it falls on a Saturday, Sunday or a holiday. Hence, it is important to remember that the 2016 FBAR will be due on April 15, 2017, even though US tax returns will be due on April 18, 2017. Please, look for additional articles on this issue in January of 2017.

Second, for the first time ever, FATCA Form 8938 will apply to domestic corporations, partnerships and trusts that hold specified foreign financial assets if the total value of those assets exceeds $50,000 on the last day of the tax year or $75,000 at any time during the tax year. The IRS has been threatening this expansion of the application of Form 8938 since 2011. Now, in the New Year 2017, US domestic entities will need to comply with these new requirements on their 2016 US tax returns. Sherayzen Law Office will be providing additional updates on this issue throughout this year’s tax season.

There are many New Year 2017 updates made to various forms by the IRS. Some of these updates are fairly specific to certain classes of taxpayers, whereas other updates are more general in nature. Our professional legal and tax team at Sherayzen Law Office closely follows these IRS updates and developments to make sure that we provide our clients with the highest quality of service.

As in prior years, if you are a client of Sherayzen Law Office in this New Year 2017, you can rest assured that your US tax compliance is in good hands and you have an intelligent advocate of your interests on your side.

Hence, enjoy the New Year 2017 celebrations and contact Sherayzen Law Office during this year’s tax season for the high-quality professional legal and tax help!

Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard | International Tax Lawyer

Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard is a requirement that is present, explicitly or implicitly, in all reasonable cause defenses. In this article, I would like to explain what Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard means and what are the main factors for analyzing whether a taxpayer met the burden of proof required under the Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard.

Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard: General Requirements

The ordinary business care and prudence standard is an objective standard. There is no precise definition of this standard, because its application is fact-dependent. Nevertheless, the standard is generally satisfied as long as the taxpayer acted prudently, reasonably and in good faith (taking that degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise) and still could not comply with the relevant tax requirement. IRM 20.1.1.3.2.2 (02-22-2008) adds that “ordinary business care and prudence includes making provisions for business obligations to be met when reasonably foreseeable events occur”.

Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard: Common Factors

While the determination under the ordinary business care and prudence standard is highly fact-dependent, there are certain common factors that the IRS will take into account. IRM 20.1.1.3.2.2 (02-22-2008) specifically lists four factors that must be reviewed by the IRS, but states that all available information should be considered. Let’s explore these common factors:

1. Compliance History

The main issue here is to see if this is the first failure to comply with US tax laws by the taxpayer or whether he already violated in the past the tax law provision in question IRM 20.1.1.3.2.2 (02-22-2008) states that “the same penalty, previously assessed or abated, may indicate that the taxpayer is not exercising ordinary business care”. The IRM urges the IRS agents to check at least three preceding tax years for payment patterns and the taxpayer’s overall compliance history.

If the violation was the first time a taxpayer exhibited noncompliant behavior, this will be a positive factor that will be considered with other reasons the taxpayer provided for reasonable cause. While a first-time noncompliance does not by itself establish reasonable cause, taxpayers who violated the same provision more than once will find it more difficult to establish that their behavior satisfied the ordinary business care and prudence standard.

2. Length of Time

At issue here is the time between the event cited as the reason for the initial tax noncompliance and subsequent compliance actions. IRM 20.1.1.3.2.2 (02-22-2008) requires the IRS agents to consider: “(1) when the act was required by law, (2) the period of time during which the taxpayer was unable to comply with the law due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control, and (3) when the taxpayer complied with the law.”

Obviously, if the taxpayer did not discover his noncompliance until one year later and immediately tried to remedy the situation, it will add significant force to his argument that his behavior satisfied the ordinary business care and prudence standard. On the other hand, an unexplained delay between the time the taxpayer discovered his noncompliance and the time he attempted to remedy it will have a negative impact on the overall taxpayer’s argument.

Another highly important factor that plays a crucial role in offshore voluntary disclosures is whether, after discovering his prior noncompliance, the taxpayer voluntarily complied prior to being contacted by the IRS. In a voluntary disclosure context, if the IRS initiates an examination and contacts the taxpayer first, his voluntary disclosure options may be entirely foreclosed. On the other hand, the fact that a taxpayer voluntarily contacted the IRS with his amended tax return that corrected his prior tax noncompliance may play a highly positive role in convincing the IRS that the taxpayer’s prior behavior was consistent with the ordinary business care and prudence standard.

Hence, it is highly important for the taxpayer to explain what happened during the time between his prior noncompliance and his current effort to remedy the situation.

3. Circumstances Beyond the Taxpayer’s Control

The crucial issue here is whether the taxpayer could have anticipated the event that caused the noncompliance. If he could have done it, then his case might be materially weakened. On the other hand, if the taxpayer could not have anticipated the event, then, it might play a very important role in convincing the IRS that his behavior satisfied the ordinary business care and prudence standard.

A lot of sub-factors play a very important role here: the taxpayer’s education, his tax advisors, whether he has been previously subjected to the tax at issue, whether he has filed the tax forms in question before, whether there were any changes to the tax forms or tax law (which the taxpayer could not reasonably be expected to know), and so on. The level of complexity of the issue in question is also an important additional sub-factor.

The “circumstances beyond control” factor is necessarily tied to the “length of time” factor described above, because a taxpayer’s obligation to meet the tax law requirements is ongoing. Ordinary business care and prudence standard generally requires that the taxpayer continue to meet the requirements, even if is he late.

4. Taxpayer’s Reason for Prior Noncompliance

The taxpayer must provide and the IRS agent must consider an actual reason for the prior tax noncompliance whatever it may be and this reason must address the specific penalty imposed. It is the combination of this taxpayer’s reason together with other factors, including the common factors described above, that will form the basis for the taxpayer’s argument that his behavior satisfied the ordinary business care and prudence standard.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office to Contest IRS Penalties based on Reasonable Cause and Ordinary Business Care and Prudence Standard

Since 2005, Sherayzen Law Office has saved its clients millions of dollars in potential IRS penalties. If you wish to challenge the imposition of IRS penalties on your prior US domestic and/or international tax noncompliance, contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help. We will thoroughly review the facts of your case, determine the available defense strategies to reduce or eliminate IRS penalties (including the determination of whether your case satisfied the ordinary business care and prudence standard), implement these strategies and defend your case against the IRS.

Contact Us Today to Schedule Your Confidential Consultation!

Russian Taxation of Gifts to Nonresidents: Recent Changes

The Russian Ministry of Finance (“MOF”) recently issued Guidance Letter 03-04-06/64102 (dated October 31) regarding the taxation of gifts from Russian legal entities to nonresidents (i.e. the Russian taxation of gifts to nonresidents). This Letter will have a direct impact on the tax planning for Russians who are tax residents of the United States.

Russian Taxation of Gifts to Nonresidents: Russian-Source Gifts are Taxable

In the letter, the MOF stated that, under the Russian Tax Code Article 209, Section 2, the Russian-source income of individuals who are not tax residents of the Russian Federation is subject to the Russian income tax (the Russian tax residents are taxed on their worldwide income – i.e Russian-source and foreign-source income).

Furthermore, the MOF determined that gifts received by nonresidents from a Russian legal entity are considered to be Russian-source income. This means that these gifts are taxable beyond the exemption amount. According to Tax Code Article 217, section 28, the exemption amount is 4,000 Russian roubles per tax year. Hence, a gift from a Russian legal entity to a non-resident of Russia will be subject to the Russian individual income tax if it exceeds 4,000 rubles.

Russian Taxation of Gifts to Nonresidents: the Place of Gift Does Not Matter

It is important to emphasize that, in this situation, the sourcing of the gift is determined by the giftor – i.e. if the giftor is a Russian legal entity, the gift is considered as Russian-source income irrespective of the actual location of the place where the gift took place. For example, if a Russian legal entity gifts 10,000 rubles in Switzerland, the gift is still considered to be Russian-source income.

Russian Taxation of Gifts to Nonresidents: Tax Withholding Rules

The general rule is that the Russian legal entity who makes the gift to a nonresident is considered to be the withholding agent who is required to withhold from the gift and remit to the MOF the individual income tax due. However, the MOF specified that, if a gift is a non-monetary one or of such a nature that a tax cannot be withheld, then the entity must notify the Russian Federal Tax Service that it could not and did not withhold the tax (with the amount of the tax due). The nonresident would be responsible for the payment of the tax due in this case.

Impact of the Changes in the Russian Taxable of Gifts to Nonresidents on US Tax Residents

The Guidance Letter 03-04-06/64102 will have an important impact on the Russian tax and estate planning strategies with respect to US tax residents. One of the most common strategies for business succession and estate planning in Russia has been gifting of assets to children who were non-residents of Russia and US tax residents. The guidance letter directly impacts this strategy forcing the re-evaluation of the desirability of this entire course of action.