Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program: Advantages and Disadvantages

2012 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (2012 OVDP) now closed may offer tremendous benefits to certain types of taxpayers, but it may not be as beneficial in other circumstances. Whether to enter the 2012 OVDP is a decision that should be made by the taxpayer only after he had an opportunity to discuss this matter in depth with an experienced attorney who specializes in offshore voluntary disclosures. In this article, however, I wish to outline some of the broader considerations with respect to entering into the 2012 OVDP in order to provide some background information to the readers so that they can understand better their attorney’s advice.

Background Information

2012 OVDP was announced by the IRS barely four months after the end of the wildly-successful 2011 OVDI (Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative). However, the actual terms of the program were not announced until much later, June 26, 2012.

2012 OVDP brought in tougher terms than 2011 OVDI (for example, the highest penalty category is 27.5% instead of 25% as it was under 2011 OVDI rules), closed some 2011 OVDI loopholes and created a more complex and detailed set of rules. 2012 rules also clarified many heretofore obscure procedures and contained new features that may benefit certain classes of taxpayers, especially those who owned Canadian retirement accounts.

The basic structure of 2012 OVDP, however, remains largely similar to 2011 OVDI. It still has three penalty levels (27.5%, 12.5% and 5%), highly demanding information disclosure requirements and general rigidness with respect to its terms.

General Cost-Benefit Considerations

There are actually three general analytical steps with respect to benefits and drawbacks of entering into the 2012 OVDP. First, the extent of current liability exposure of the taxpayer outside of the 2012 OVDP. Second, the estimate of the OVDP liability of the taxpayer and comparison of OVDP versus non-OVDP exposure (here, an attorney would also explore the non-tax aspects of the OVDP disclosure such as the comfort level of the taxpayer with the invasive nature of the OVDP requirements). Finally, whether 2012 OVDP is the best route to proceed vis-a-vis alternative voluntary disclosure options.

Since the first and the third steps are outside of the scope of this article, I will concentrate on the calculation of advantages and disadvantages of entering of the 2012 OVDP versus non-OVDP exposure. It should be remembered, however, that this calculation will depend heavily on the individual circumstances of each case.

Primary Advantages of the 2012 OVDP

2012 OVDP enjoys five primary advantages over non-OVDP options. First, it is an official IRS program with a virtual certainty (though, according to the IRS, not a 100% guarantee) of elimination of criminal prosecution.

Second, 2012 OVDP provides a taxpayer with an opportunity to calculate, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the total cost of resolving all offshore tax issues at the same time. This is the case because OVDP rules assess one single Offshore Penalty with respect to all information returns – Forms 5471, 8865, 926, 3520, FBARs, et cetera. This can highly advantageous for the taxpayer, because, outside of the OVDP, he will have to deal with the penalties associated with each form.

Moreover, paying one single penalty may represent huge savings over paying penalties outside of the OVDP. The IRS provides a hypothetical example where a taxpayer would pay, outside of the 2012 OVDP, $4,543,000 (plus interest) in tax, accuracy-related penalty, and FBAR penalty on a single $1,000,000 account with the undisclosed income of $50,000 per year. This is not even counting the additional penalties and jail time in case the IRS decides to initial a criminal prosecution. On the other hand, in the same example, a taxpayer would pay only $518,000 plus interest under the 2012 OVDP rules (assuming 27.5% offshore penalty category).

Third, 2012 OVDP rules provide for a certain flexibility where the taxpayer’s attorney can look for strategies to lower the Offshore Penalty further if the circumstances of the case allow for such possibility. Therefore, despite its overall rigidness, the OVDP does take some individual circumstances into the account. However, it is important to point out that much of this flexibility is likely to be achieved only securing the agreement of the IRS agent in charge of your case, his manager and the technical analyst – this is a very hard achievement even for an experienced attorney (though, unfortunately, there are a number of cases where the taxpayers’ representatives failed to even try to achieve this goal) and it puts very strict limits on the OVDP flexibility.

Fourth, 2012 OVDP limits the taxpayer’s liability to eight years and the IRS will not look further absent extraordinary circumstances. Outside of the OVDP, the IRS does have an argument that failure to file certain information returns may keep the statute of limitations open to IRS examination with respect to affected tax returns.

Finally, 2012 OVDP provides a definite closure to the case. At the end of the OVDP process, Form 906 (the Closing Agreement) is signed by the taxpayer and the IRS by which both sides agree to the terms of the Agreement and the case is over (absent extraordinary circumstances, such as fraudulent claims by the taxpayer during the voluntary disclosure process).

Primary Disadvantages of the 2012 OVDP

2012 OVDP also has numerous disadvantages. First, this is a very rigid program with numerous requirements. The side-effect is that the OVDP process can be an expensive one for the taxpayer when it comes to legal and accounting fees.

Second, despite having some flexibility with respect to the calculation of penalties, OVDP rules are not likely to be sensitive to major circumstances of a taxpayer’s case, such as non-willfulness of his conduct. While it is never officially stated, the OVDP unofficially incorporate the assumption that the OVDP applicants acted willfully in its Offshore Penalty structure and there is no reasonable cause that can explain their failure to comply with U.S. tax laws. This often leads to a result where innocent taxpayers with smaller cases or taxpayers who live overseas (and for one reason or another do not satisfy the requirements of the 5% penalty category) can be highly penalized under the OVDP structure.

Third, related to the preceding paragraph, the OVDP penalty structure may actually impose a higher penalty on a taxpayer where IRS is not able to establish the willfulness of the taxpayer’s conduct. This is a highly complex calculation that should be made by an attorney, but, generally, the higher the chances of the taxpayer to establish non-willfulness, the less appealing the OVDP penalty structure is likely to be. This is especially true where OVDP Offshore Penalty includes the assets that would not otherwise either be subject to penalty outside of the OVDP or be subject to a much lower penalty.

Fourth, 2012 OVDP has no real appeal structure in place – in most cases, the IRS agent’s decision is final. If you do not like it, the only real recourse is to opt-out with its murky consequences (it may still be an option depending on the individual circumstances of the case, especially when the taxpayer should not have been in the OVDP program in the first place). The only exception is having a full examination of the tax return and an appeal maybe filed with respect to any tax and penalties imposed by the IRS on examination, but the IRS decisions on the terms of the OVDP closing agreement is almost never subject to an appeal. Such dependance on the good will of an IRS agent in charge of the case naturally produces certain anxiety among the OVDP applicants and constitutes a major drawback of entering into the program.

Finally, 2012 OVDP may take a fairly long time to complete (there are still some 2009 OVDP cases open in 2013). The IRS does try to process the cases as soon as possible, but it has few resources and its agents are overwhelmed with the number of cases pending on their desks. On the average, a taxpayer should expect about a fifteen to eighteen-month process between the acceptance into the OVDP and the final resolution of the case.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Help with Your Offshore Voluntary Disclosure

This article merely outlines some of the main consideration with respect to the 2012 OVDP. The actual cost-benefit calculation is much more complex and will vary wildly depending on the individual circumstances of each case.

This calculations and the probabilities with respect to each disclosure option should be done by an international tax attorney experienced in the offshore voluntary disclosures.

This is why you should contact Sherayzen Law Office for help with your voluntary disclosure. Our international tax firm is highly experienced in the voluntary disclosure process. We will thoroughly examine the circumstances of your case, assess your penalties under the various disclosure scenarios, prepare all of the required legal documents and tax forms, and rigorously represent your interests during negotiations with the IRS.

Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program 2012: Impact of Form 8938

The announcement by the IRS of the opening of the new Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) on January 9, 2012 (now closed) came as a surprise to most tax practitioners, especially since the 2011 OVDI just ended on September 9, 2011. Yet, if one analyzes the number of new developments in international tax compliance over the past several years, then the surprise of the announcement of a new offshore voluntary disclosure program is greatly reduced.

One of these latest developments is the new Form 8938, which was born out of the passage of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). In this article, I will analyze some of the key aspects of the interaction between Form 8938 and OVDP 2012.

Link between OVDP 2012 and Form 8938

In an earlier article, I already described the main features of the OVDP 2012. In announcing the OVDP 2012, IRS cited several reasons for announcing the new voluntary disclosure program for U.S. taxpayers with offshore assets, particularly the success of the previous programs and the mountain of information gathered by the IRS which would allow it to investigate (and ultimately penalize and/or prosecute) additional non-compliant U.S. taxpayers as well as Swiss bankers. Some international tax attorneys elaborated on the IRS motivation as well as added some of their own reasoning.

Yet, among all of these reasons, most international tax attorneys completely omitted even mentioning the new Form 8938. Yet, in my opinion, Form 8938 is likely to play a very important role in driving additional U.S. taxpayers toward OVDP 2012.

Form 8938’s Impact on Foreign Asset Disclosure Structure

The main reason for Form 8938‘s potentially profound impact on OVDP 2012 participation lies in the nature of Form 8938.

As I explained in an earlier article, Form 8938 is a fundamental tool for the IRS to identify the scope of international tax non-compliance of a given U.S. taxpayer. It is very important to understand the reason why Form 8938 is so useful for the IRS. It is not only because Form 8938 now requires a taxpayer to disclose more information, but, rather, because Form 8938 connects various parts of a taxpayer’s international tax compliance including the information that escaped disclosure on other forms earlier. This summary, in turn, allows the IRS to identify the overall scope of a taxpayer’s noncompliance in an efficient manner. Moreover, compliance with Form 8938 may lay the foundation for an IRS investigation of whether the taxpayer has been in compliance previously.

Compliance With Form 8938 May Force Taxpayers to Enter a Voluntary Disclosure Program

This ability by the IRS to discern whether the areas of actual or potential non-compliance in current as well as prior years puts previously non-compliant taxpayers in a highly uncomfortable position.

For example, suppose that taxpayer T was previously non-compliant with respect to reporting his foreign bank accounts because he did not know anything about the FBAR. Since Form 8938 is filed together with the tax return, T will have to go through a voluntary disclosure of some type because failure to file Form 8938 at this point is likely to turn his previous non-willful non-compliance into a willful one.

Similarly, suppose T was did not report his ownership of a business entity because he classified the entity as a partnership (assuming at this point that it is not a “controlled partnership”) instead of as a corporation. Prior to Form 8938, it was unlikely that the IRS would challenge this classification because the partnership ownership was never disclosed. However, with Form 8938, T will have to disclose his partnership ownership drawing IRS attention to the classification issue. T will have to consult Sherayzen Law Office in order to figure out what is the best course of action to deal with this dilemma.

Thus, as the examples above demonstrate, Form 8938 is likely to have a profound impact on the number and depth of voluntary disclosures as taxpayers are forced to re-evaluate their tax compliance strategies.

It is important to emphasize that the impact of Form 8938 on your particular situation should be analyzed separately by an international tax attorney. This article can only provide a very general background, because the exact strategies, including the optional enrollment into OVDP 2012, will differ from situation to situation.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Legal Help With U.S. Tax Compliance Issues

If you have any questions with respect to Form 8938, OVDP 2012, and any other international tax compliance issues, contact Sherayzen Law Office. Our experienced international tax firm will guide you through the complex web of international tax requirements, identify potential problem areas, create a plan of action to deal with these problems, and implement the plan while providing zealous ethical IRS representation.