In this article, I would like to introduce the readers to the concept of US information returns; I will also explore the differences between US information returns and US tax returns.
US Information Returns: Two Types of Returns
The US tax system is a self-assessment system where taxpayers must file certain forms or returns developed by the IRS in order to report information required by the Internal Revenue Code and the Treasury Regulations. The Internal Revenue Code specifies the due date for these returns.
There are two primary types of returns: tax returns and information returns. A tax return is a form that a taxpayer uses to compute the tax that he owes to the IRS. A tax return requires the taxpayer to set forth the relevant information and amounts for this computation.
On the other hand, the IRS requires US taxpayers to file information returns in order to obtain information on transactions and payments to taxpayers that may affect the information reflected on tax returns. In other words, the IRS uses information returns not to compute the tax liability, but to obtain information (or verification of information) to make sure that the tax returns were properly filed.
US Information Returns: Hybrid Returns
This ideal distinction between the two types of returns is often not preserved. Instead, there are many hybrid returns which possess the features of both, tax returns and information returns. For example, Part III of Form 1040 Schedule B is an information return which forms part of the overall tax return (i.e. Form 1040). Similarly, Form 8621 is a US international information return that is a hybrid return for the reporting of ownership of PFICs and calculation of PFIC tax at the same time.
US Information Returns: Domestic vs. International
The information returns are subdivided into two categories: domestic and international. The domestic information returns are usually filed by third parties with respect to US-source income or income under the supervision of a domestic financial institution. For example, US brokers provide Forms 1099-INT to report US-source interest income and foreign interest income that the taxpayer earned by investing through a domestic financial institution.
It should be mentioned that, due to the implementation of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), some foreign subsidiaries of US banks also began to issue Forms 1099 to US taxpayers with respect to foreign income from their foreign accounts. The most prominent example is Citibank. However, this is a tiny minority of foreign financial institutions at this point.
On the other hand, international information returns primarily report information concerning foreign assets, foreign income and foreign transactions; there are even information returns concerning foreign owners of US businesses. Usually, these returns are filed not by third parties, but by taxpayers directly – individuals, businesses, trusts and estates. For example, Form 5471 is an international tax return which US taxpayers must file to report their ownership of a foreign corporation, its financial statements and its certain transactions.
US Information Returns: High Civil Penalties
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of information returns are high noncompliance civil penalties. This is very different from tax returns.
The tax return civil penalties are calculate based on a taxpayer’s unpaid income tax liability. The worst case scenario is a civil fraud penalty of 75% of unpaid tax liability. This is followed by negligence, failure-to-file and accuracy penalties.
The noncompliance penalties for information returns, however, do not depend on whether there was ever any tax liability connected with the failure to file an accurate information return; in fact, many information return penalties are imposed in a situation where there is no income tax noncompliance at all. This is logical, because pure information returns would never have any income tax noncompliance directly related to them.
Hence, in order to enforce compliance with information returns, the IRS imposes objective noncompliance penalties per each unfiled or incorrect information return. This divorce between income tax noncompliance and information return penalties, however, may produce extremely unjust results. For example, failure to file a Form 5471 for a foreign corporation which never produced any revenue may result in the imposition of a $10,000 penalty.
It should be emphasized that the domestic information return penalties are much smaller in size than those imposed for noncompliance with international information returns. Again the logic is clear: since the temptation to avoid compliance with US international tax laws is much greater overseas, Congress wanted to raise the stakes for such noncompliant taxpayers in order to make the risk of noncompliance intolerable for most taxpayers.
US Information Returns: Special Case of FBAR
The IRS may impose the most severe penalties out of all information returns for a failure to file a correct FinCEN Form 114, commonly known as “FBAR”. The paradox of these penalties is that FBAR is not a tax form, but a Bank Secrecy Act information return. FBAR was created to fight financial crimes, not for tax enforcement. Its penalties were originally meant to deter and punish criminals, not induce self-compliance with US tax laws – this is precisely why FBAR penalties may easily exceed the penalties imposed with respect to any other US international information return.
So, why is the IRS able to use FBAR as a tax information return and impose FBAR penalties? The reason is that the US Congress turned over FBAR enforcement to the IRS after September 11, 2001. Since then, even though FBAR is not part of the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS has used this form as an information return for tax purposes.
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help With US International Information Return Compliance and Penalties
If the IRS imposed penalties on your noncompliance with US international information returns, contact Sherayzen Law Office for professional help.
We are a highly experienced US international tax law firm dedicated to helping US taxpayers around the world with their US international tax compliance. In particular, we have helped hundreds of US taxpayers to avoid or lower their IRS penalties with respect to virtually all types of US international information returns, including FBARs, Forms 8938, 8865, 8621, 5471, 3520, 926, et cetera. We can help you!