Archive for the ‘International’ category

Are Quiet Disclosures of Offshore Accounts Becoming Even Riskier?

October 18, 2013

By Phil Karter

Is the IRS getting closer to ferreting out “quiet disclosures” by taxpayers who chose that route to address the problem of previously unreported offshore accounts rather than by participating in the Service’s offshore voluntary disclosure program (OVDP)?  That’s the conclusion of an increasing number of tax professionals and if taxpayers in this predicament weren’t already worried, they should be.

A quiet disclosure involves the filing of new or amended tax returns that report offshore income, and FBARs (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) that provide other account information regarding the taxpayer’s interest in foreign accounts.  It is a discreet disclosure intended to make a taxpayer compliant with his or her tax reporting responsibilities while avoiding penalties imposed under the IRS’s official voluntary disclosure program.

The IRS has made no secret of its distain for those who choose the quite disclosure route over participation in its voluntary disclosure program.  In its frequently asked questions and answers applicable to the most recent iteration of the OVDP, the Service has cautioned taxpayers that those who have already made quiet disclosures should “be aware of the risk of being examined and potentially criminally prosecuted for all applicable years.”  The IRS has encouraged such taxpayers to “take advantage” of the program before discovery.  The FAQs also note that detection of a quit disclosure also eliminates the possibility of reduced penalty exposure offered under the OVDP. (See FAQs 15 & 16.)

To some, the calculus about whether to participate in the OVDP, follow the quiet disclosure path, or do nothing has been viewed as another form of the audit lottery, albeit one with very high stakes in terms of potential monetary penalties and possibly criminal prosecution.  As virtually everyone should know at this point, offshore account holders can no longer rely on bank secrecy to protect them, so the issue of detecting unreported accounts has become more a question of when, not if. Although a quiet disclosure addresses the unreported account problem, either currently or retroactively, that is not necessarily the end of the story . . . or the risk.

Earlier this year, the Government Accounting Office issued a report in which it noted a dramatic increase in the number of taxpayers reporting offshore accounts, concluding that the trend may reflect attempts to minimize or circumvent taxes, penalties and interest that would be owed if not corrected before detection or even upon participation in the OVDP.  Among other things, the GAO recommended that the IRS explore methodologies to detect and pursue quiet disclosures.  Apparently, the IRS has taken the GAO’s recommendation to heart by working on new ways to identify them.  The effort, according to former Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, was to include “analysis of Forms 8938, Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets, to identify specific characteristics of the filing population and to assess filing behaviors indicating potential compliance issues.”

In predicting the effectiveness of this undertaking, it is worth noting that the IRS has a wealth of experience in implementing computer algorithms on a much larger scale to ferret out trends warranting closer scrutiny.  One need look no further than the Services’ Discriminant Function System (DIF), which is used to flag tax returns for possible audit, among the hundreds of millions filed, to appreciate that improved detection of quiet disclosures is well within the IRS’s capabilities.  Therefore, taxpayers who rely on a limited IRS resources justification to ignore the directional trend regarding quiet disclosures are likely to wish they had examined the issue relative to their own personal circumstances a lot more closely. At the very least, given the prevailing wind on this issue, it would be prudent for those who have made quiet disclosures or are contemplating one to revisit the issue with their tax adviser.

Apple’s Double Irish With A Dutch Sandwich Goes Down Easy with SEC

October 9, 2013

By Phil Karter

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) may have tried to take a bite out of Apple (AAPL) in congressional hearings last May examining the company’s overseas tax structure, calling it “the holy grail of tax avoidance.” However, it appears that more than just Irish eyes are smiling on the company these days, for in the eyes of the SEC, Apple’s efforts to minimize its tax burden are just fine thank you.  See e.g., O’Brian, Chris, “SEC reveals review of Apple’s Irish tax disclosures.” Los Angeles Times, 3 Oct. 2013, LATimes.com, 9 Oct. 2013.

But is that the happy end of the story for Apple and the many other companies such as Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT) and Oracle (ORCL) that have replicated the Double Irish structure in one form or another?  Not necessarily given the continuing threat posed by a sweeping application of the economic substance doctrine.  For example, does the creation of foreign subsidiaries for the primary purpose and intent of minimizing tax liabilities meet either or both prongs of the infamous two-prong test examining objective non-tax profitability and subjective non-tax intent?

It very well should if cases like IES v. Comm’r. 253 F. 3d 350 (8th Cir. 2001) and Compaq Computer Corp. v. U.S., 277 F.3d 778 (5th Cir. 2001) continue to represent the state of the economic substance law.  IES’s and Compaq’s transactions were pure tax arbitrage plays whose profitability was derived solely from the monetization of foreign tax credits.  Is anything conceptually different really happening here? Yes, all the fuss over the Double Irish centers around keeping profits abroad beyond the reach of U.S. tax collectors but at bottom, each situation involves ways to reduce ETR and increase after-tax net profits (presumably along with shareholder value) through effective tax structuring.  At this point, the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Gregory, v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465 (1935), comes to mind: “The legal right of a taxpayer to decrease the amount of what otherwise would be his taxes, or altogether avoid them, by means which the law permits, cannot be doubted.”

The problem is that there remains considerable uncertainty about the potential reach of the economic substance doctrine based on the plethora of less taxpayer-friendly decisions, particularly recent ones.  Moreover, uncertainty about how and when the ESD could apply – along with the new strict liability penalty under § 6662(b)(6) – has only been heightened by the enactment of a statute, § 7701(o), containing far too many undefined terms.  For example, left open under the codified doctrine are such critical questions as when the doctrine is relevant and what the threshold is for non-tax profits to be substantial relative to tax benefits.

Finally, as reflected by taxpayers’ unsuccessful litigation of leveraged lease (LILO and SILO) transactions, the imprimatur by a government agency blessing the transaction is no assurance that it will thereafter be respected by the IRS.

During his illustrious career, the legendary Steve Jobs was renowned for his prescience.  Such talents would have come in handy in foreseeing the end to this story.  For the legion of companies employing these tax strategies, the hope is for a happy ending rather than a  Tofflerian “Future Shock.”

By Appeasing the United Kingdom, Starbucks May Have Relocated Its Tax Problems Into The United States

December 12, 2012

By:  Dustin Covello

As one of many U.S. multinationals that reportedly implemented the Double Irish international tax structure, Starbucks has reportedly paid a U.K. tax rate of 2.8 percent over the last decade.  Not satisfied with this levy, last month the British Parliament called Starbucks and other U.S. multinationals before the body to discuss the structure.  Last week, in response to Parliament’s pressure, Starbucks announced that it would voluntarily forgo U.K. deductions to ensure it pays £10 million ($16 million) in tax during 2013 and 2014.  It remains to be seen whether Starbucks’ announcement will placate Parliament.  By making this gesture, however, has Starbucks caused a U.S. tax problem?  (more…)

The New Duty to Report Foreign Financial Assets on Form 8938: Demystifying the Complex Rules and Severe Consequences of Noncompliance

July 15, 2012

By Hale Sheppard

Concerned about the extent of international tax non-compliance, Congress enacted the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”).  Among other provisions found in FATCA was Section 6038D, which requires certain individuals to annually report to the IRS data about their interests in foreign financial assets.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, this seemingly straightforward obligation has been causing significant havoc for taxpayers and their advisors in 2012, as they wrestle for the first time with tricky new issues when deciding whether and/or how to complete Form 8938 (Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets).

Given the challenges associated with the current rules and the finalization in the near future of additional regulations expanding the coverage of Section 6038D, uncertainty will persist for some time.  Confusion about Section 6038D and Form 8938 can trigger a series of negative results for taxpayers, including new information-reporting penalties, increased accuracy-related penalties, criminal charges, extended assessment periods, and a fight with the U.S. government on three fronts simultaneously.  Confusion about this new international tax requirement could cause severe problems for tax advisors, too, because misinformed clients facing IRS problems tend to point their fingers (and their malpractice firms) squarely toward the trusted tax professionals on whom they relied.

In an effort to avoid these types of problems, the attached article, which was recently published in the May-June 2012 issue of the International Tax Journal, (i) contains a thorough analysis of the Form 8938 filing requirements, incorporating and digesting guidance from multiple sources, (ii) clarifies the confusing overlap between Form 8938 and the FBAR, and (iii) explains the unappreciated, severe consequences for taxpayers who fall into noncompliance.

Detection Risk Continues To Grow As The IRS Expands Its Offshore Bank Account Investigation Into Liechtenstein

June 12, 2012

By:  Dustin Covello

Late late year, we asked what’s next for foreign bank account holders after OVDI?  Although the answer to this question continues to evolve, it is becoming increasingly clear that the risks of detection have only grown – and will continue to do so.  The latest news on this front comes from Business Week, which reported Sunday that the IRS has requested account holder information from Liechtenstein’s second largest bank, LLB.  Specifically, the IRS has asked for information pertaining to accounts holding $500,000 or more anytime since 2004.  Current and former LLB account holders who continue to hold undisclosed offshore assets now have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to come into compliance before the IRS contacts them for an investigation.  By coming forward voluntarily, an account holder reduces the chance of criminal prosecution and probably qualifies for the miscellaneous 27.5% penalty in lieu of potentially significantly higher tax and FBAR penalties.

LLB’s clients are likely not the only Liechtenstein account holders at significant risk of detection.  Although the IRS’ previous investigation primarily targeted banks, there is anecdotal evidence that the IRS has also begun to pressure Liechtenstein advisors (e.g., lawyers, accountants, trust companies, and the like) to disclose their clients’ identities.  Moreover, if Switzerland is any guide, the IRS will likely expand its Liechtenstein investigation to other banks after establishing a successful precedent with LLB’s likely forthcoming disclosure.

Given the ever-expanding scope of the IRS’ investigation (not to mention FACTA’s new financial-institution withholding and individual-reporting requirements),  any person who previously chose not to disclose his or her offshore accounts should consider reexamining whether risking detection remains prudent.  As of now, OVDI and other methods of coming into compliance — including quiet disclosures and prospective compliance — may still be reasonable choices.  However, all of these options fall off the table if the IRS contacts a taxpayer before disclosure.  Taxpayers in this position should strongly consider contacting an experienced tax advisor to discuss their options.

Form 8938 – Foreign Reporting Trap for the Unwary

April 11, 2012

By Sebastien Chain and Tamara Woods

Beginning with the 2011 tax year (i.e., for returns filed April 17, 2012 or later), individual taxpayers will be required to file Form 8938 if he or she has an interest in a “specified foreign financial asset” (“SFFA”) (click for additional information on FATCA requirements) that has a value exceeding a certain threshold.  A Taxpayer has an interest in a SFFA if any income, gains, losses, deductions, credits, gross proceeds or distributions from the asset would be required to be reported on the income tax return.

The reporting thresholds differ depending on whether the taxpayer is married or single and whether the taxpayer is living inside or outside the United States.

Form 8938 Reporting Thresholds

STATUS

LIVING IN U.S.

LIVING ABROAD*

 Unmarried

OR

Married Filing Separately

>$50,000 at year end

OR

>$75,000 any time during year

>$200,000 at year end

OR

>$300,000 any time during year

Married Filing Jointly

>$100,000 at year end

OR

>$150,000 any time during year

>$400,000 at year end

OR

>$600,000 any time during year

There are certain exceptions and limitations to reporting.  Arguably, the most important limitation (other than the thresholds listed above) is whether the taxpayer reports the same assets on a separate foreign information return such as Forms 3520, 5471, 8621, 8865 or 8891 (but not Form T.D. F 90-22.1, Report of Foreign Bank Account (“FBAR”).  If so, the taxpayer is only relieved from fully completing the Form 8938.  The taxpayer is NOT relieved from filing Form 8938.

Form 8938 requires the following information:

  • Basic identification of the account/asset;
  • Name/address of financial institution where account is held (if applicable);
  • Name/address of issuer or counterparty of stock, securities or financial instruments (if applicable);
  • Information regarding whether the account/asset was acquired (opened) or disposed of (closed) during the year, the amount of income, gain, or other tax attributes recognized during the year and schedule, form or return on which reported to IRS, currency exchange rate (and source of rate, if not from Treasury’s Financial Management Service); and
  • If the SFFA is reported on another form (3520, 5471, etc.), the report type and number of such other form.

The minimum penalty for failing to file or report an asset on Form 8938 is $10,000 per year the Form 8938 is not filed.  The penalty can be increased up to a $50,000 maximum for noncompliance 90 days after receipt of an IRS notice.  It is important to note that the IRS has no discretion to reduce this penalty unless the Taxpayer “affirmatively shows the facts that support a reasonable cause claim.” It is unclear at this time what will constitute sufficient reasonable cause.  In addition to the above penalties, accuracy related penalties are increased from 20% to 40% for underpayments involving undisclosed SFFAs.

More Foreign Reporting for US Taxpayers? Absolutely says IRS

April 3, 2012

By Sebastien Chain and Tamara Woods

The Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act of 2010 (“HIRE Act”) enacted the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”).  P.L. 111-47.  FATCA greatly increases disclosure requirements and penalties on taxpayers with foreign accounts and assets.  These reporting requirements will affect individuals beginning with the 2011 tax year, and are expected to apply to certain domestic entities beginning with the 2012 tax year.

FATCA reporting is in addition to the Form T.D. F 90-22.1, Report of Foreign Bank Accounts (“FBAR”) requirements and other foreign reporting requirements such as Form 5471 (foreign corporations); Form 3520 (foreign estates and trusts); 8865 (foreign partnerships); 8621 (passive foreign investment companies); 8891 (beneficiaries of certain Canadian registered retirement plans).

These new reporting obligations apply to U.S. individuals with an interest in “specified foreign financial assets” (“SFFA”) with an aggregate value exceeding certain thresholds. SFFAs generally include:

  • Any financial account maintained by a foreign financial institution (i.e., a bank);
  • Any stock or security issued by a foreign person,
  • Any financial instrument or contract held for investment that has a non-U.S. issuer or counter-party, or any interest in a foreign entity.

It is important to note that the SFFA concept is much broader than related FBAR concepts.  Some examples include:

  • Investments by an entity that holds real estate;
  • Investments in foreign hedge funds and private equity funds;
  • Capital or profits interest in foreign partnership;
  • Foreign debt(e.g., notes, bonds, other indebtedness issued by a foreign person);
  • Interests in a foreign trust or estate;
  • Swaps, options, derivatives, etc. with a foreign counterparty; and
  • Foreign pension or deferred compensation plans.

As previously mentioned, beginning with the 2011 tax year, i.e., by April (or October if on extension) of 2012, Taxpayers with SFFAs must report these assets on new Form 8938 (click for additional information on Form 8938 ).  If a Taxpayer is required to file Form 8938, they must attach the Form to their 2011 tax return.  In contrast, the FBAR is not due until June 30th of each year and is mailed to Detroit (not with the Taxpayer’s tax return).

Can Foreign Governments Obtain Taxpayer Information From State and Local Revenue Agencies?

February 28, 2012

By Jonathan Prokup

During a course that I taught about tax treaties at last week’s TEI Houston Tax School, one audience member asked whether the exchange-of-information provisions of U.S. tax treaties apply not only to the federal government but also to state and local governments.   I had to confess that I did not know the answer of the top of my head.  However, I took a quick look at the question later in the week.

By way of background, in each income tax treaty with foreign jurisdictions, the United States negotiates an “exchange of information and administrative assistance” provision.  This provision generally obligates the governments to share information with one another “as may be relevant for carrying out the provisions of this Convention or of the domestic laws of the Contracting States concerning taxes of every kind imposed by a Contracting State….”  United States Model Income Tax Convention (“Model Treaty”), art. 26, ¶ 1 (Nov. 15, 2006). (more…)

Sporadic FBAR Notices Should Be Replaced By Clear Rules

February 27, 2012

By:  Dustin Covello

On February 14, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) issued Notice 2012-1, which extends the 2011 and 2012 FBAR filing deadline for certain individuals to June 30, 2013.  The notice extends relief previously granted by FINCEN to employees and officers with signature authority over bank accounts owned by subsidiaries of certain regulated entities (e.g., banks, commodity traders, and investment advisors).  See Notice 2012-1; Notice 2011-1; Notice 2011-2; 31 C.F.R. § 1010.350(f)(2).

For those keeping score, the government has tinkered with the FBAR filing requirements and deadlines at least seven times in the last three years, each time for different categories of FBAR filers, and each time instituting a different filing deadline.  A quick review: Prior to 2008, the FBAR filing requirements were only described thoroughly in the instructions to the FBAR form itself.  As a result, many persons obligated to file FBARs simply did not know of this obscure requirement.  In 2008, the IRS announced that it intended to enforce the FBAR fling requirement more vigorously.  However, given the obscure and ambiguous “signature authority” and “commingled fund” definitions in the FBAR instructions, filers remained confused even after the IRS publicized more vigorous enforcement.  Recognizing the ambiguity, the IRS began issuing notices that eliminated or suspended the filing requirements for certain filers for various amounts of time.  See Notice 2009-62, Notice 2010-23.  These notices targeted limited categories of filers, but separately, as part of OVDI, the IRS announced that all filers who failed to file earlier FBARs could file without penalty, provided that they owed no income tax.  Then, the IRS pushed back that deadline after Hurricane Irene. (more…)

When Bygones Aren’t Bygones: Exploring Tax Solutions for U.S. Persons with Undeclared Canadian Retirement Plans and Accounts

February 24, 2012

By Hale Sheppard

Many Canadians migrate south each year and become U.S. residents or citizens.  Along with the cold weather, they may also leave behind local retirement account, such as a Canadian registered retirement savings plan (“RRSP”) or a Canadian registered retirement income fund (“RRIF”).  Preserving this Canadian nest egg is generally a good thing.  Indeed, it is hard to find fault with financial planning for the golden years.  This egg could turn a little rotten, though, if the person fails to appreciate the relevant U.S. tax obligations.  Unfortunately, due to the disparate treatment of these Canadian retirement plans by the IRS and the Canadian Revenue Agency, coupled with the obscurity of various international tax requirements, many of our neighbors from the north lack the necessary appreciation.  In other words, they are under the common, yet mistaken, belief that bygones are bygones, at least when it comes to their retirement plans back home.  The potential consequences of this unawareness or misunderstanding include back taxes, penalties, and interest of such magnitude that many new arrivals may curse their decision to relocate to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The good news is that it is not too late to avert the problem.  The bad news is that trying to resolve the situation in an improper manner could trigger even greater troubles.  The attached article, called “When Bygones Aren’t Bygones:  Exploring Tax Solutions for U.S. Persons with Undeclared Canadian Retirement Plans and Accounts,” follows the evolving tax treatment of Canadian RRSPs and RRIFs, identifies the relevant U.S. tax requirements and the penalties for non-compliance, illustrates the problem by describing a typical scenario, and explores two major solutions, focusing on the pros and cons of each.  The article was published in the International Tax Journal.


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