Federal Court Of Appeals For The Third Circuit Clarifies Standard for Proving a “Willful” FBAR Violation
Not much has come out of the Courts defining that line between nonwillful and willful when it comes to not filing Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Reports (“FBAR”) but now we have a recent U.S. Federal Circuit Of Appeals case out of the Third District which has vast repercussions on anyone who has undisclosed foreign bank accounts regardless of whether they came forward in a Voluntary Disclosure Program or the Streamlined Procedures.
Bedrosian v. U.S.
In December 2018 the Federal Circuit Court Of Appeals for the Third District (the “Appeals Court”), Bedrosian v. U.S., 2018 PTC 427 (3rd Cir. 2018), on an appeal by the IRS issued its opinion determining that the taxpayer’s failure to timely file an FBAR was nonwillful. The tax law provides that U.S. citizens with accounts outside the U.S. must disclose those accounts on an FBAR if the aggregate amount is at least $10,000. 31 U.S.C. 5314. The reason the term “willful” is important is that if the failure is not willful, the penalty is set at $10,000 per violation but if the failure to disclose is considered “willful”, the penalty goes up to the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the highest account value for the year.
In the case of Arthur Bedrosian the IRS in January 2015 assessed a willful FBAR penalty for tax year 2007 of approximately $975,000, which was 50% of the undisclosed account. Mr. Bedrosian paid 1% of the penalty and then sued in Federal District Court to recover the payment as an unlawful exaction. The government counterclaimed for the full penalty amount plus interest and a late payment penalty.
Mr. Bedrosian worked in the pharmaceutical industry eventually rising to the level of CEO at Lannett Company, Inc., a company that manufactures generic medications. He had to travel abroad for business and so for convenience by 1973 had established a bank account with Swiss Credit Corporation in Switzerland (now UBS) by which he could access funds instead of paying for expenses with traveler’s checks. Eventually he started using it as a savings account and in 2005 he was approached by the bank representatives who offered him 750,000 Swiss Francs if he converts his account into an investment account. Mr. Bedrosian agreed and as a result of this transaction, another account was created under his name.
It was not until tax year 2007 that Mr. Bedrosian included, for the first time, an affirmative answer to the question on his Form 1040 Schedule B asking whether “[a]t any time during 2007, [he had] an interest in or signature or other authority over a financial account in a foreign country.” He listed Switzerland as the country. He also filed an FBAR for the first time in which he reported the existence of one of the two UBS accounts.
The IRS notified Mr. Bedrosian in April 2011 that it would be auditing his returns and he was cooperative and forthcoming in his dealings with the IRS. In the results of the audit, the IRS assessed a willful FBAR penalty for tax year 2007 of just under $1 million.
When the case was first heard by the Federal District Court, the only disputed issue was whether Mr. Bedrosian’s failure to disclose his $2 million UBS account was willful. In that case as reported in Bedrosian v. U.S., 2017 PTC 431 (E.D. Pa. 2017), the district court concluded that the IRS had failed to establish Mr. Bedrosian’s willfulness. The government appealed to the Third Circuit, arguing that the district court used an incorrect legal standard for willfulness, placed too much weight on Mr. Bedrosian’s subjective motivations, and erred in finding that Mr. Bedrosian did not know he owned a second foreign bank account.
The Court Of Appeals stated that to prove a “willful” violation with respect to the filing of an FBAR, the IRS must satisfy the civil willfulness standard, which includes both knowing and reckless conduct.
In its analysis of “willfulness,” the court considered the taxpayers’ behaviors in U.S. v. Williams, 489 Fed. Appx. 655 (4th Cir. 2012), and U.S. v. McBride, 908 F. Supp. 2d 1186 (D. Utah 2012). The court noted that unlike those taxpayers, who continued to submit inaccurate FBARs even after being targets of government investigation, or who repeatedly lied and refused to produce requested documents, Mr. Bedrosian was cooperative with the IRS during the audit process.
Upon the IRS’ urging to consider “willfulness” outside of the FBAR context, the court also reviewed Greenberg vs. U.S., 46 F.3d 239 (3d Cir. 1994). There the court had considered whether a party had willfully failed to pay certain employer withholding taxes. It was determined that willfulness depended on the individual’s knowledge that his company had not paid the taxes at the time he paid company funds to the employees and other suppliers.
Although the court here agreed that Mr. Bedrosian should have been more careful about reviewing the 2007 FBAR and in being aware of the fact that he had not one but two accounts at UBS, the court determined that it was not apparent that he submitted it knowing that it omitted the second UBS account.
Significantly, the court summarized that the only evidence supporting a finding that Mr. Bedrosian’s violation was “willful” was: (1) the inaccurate form itself, lacking reference to the second account, (2) the fact that he may have learned of the second account’s existence at one of his meetings with a UBS representative, (3) his sophistication as a businessman, and (4) his accountant’s statement to him in the mid-1990s that he was breaking the law. The court concluded that “none of these indicate ‘conduct meant to conceal or mislead’ or a ‘conscious effort to avoid learning about reporting requirements,’ even if they may show negligence”.
Accordingly the Third Circuit then remanded the case for the district court affirming that Mr. Bedrosian did not act willfully in failing to disclose the second UBS account in his 2007 FBAR filing.
What Should You Do?
Taxpayers who have entered into the Streamlined Program whose case is weak on showing nonwilfullness have a huge risk of being picked by IRS and losing the favorable status offered by the Streamlined Procedures where the IRS feels that the non-willful standard is not met. Such taxpayers will not then be able to enter into a voluntary disclosure program and can face the same battle as Mr. Bedrosian. Likewise, anyone who has not come forward in voluntary disclosure and the issue of nonwilfullness is questionable would still have the opportunity to come forward under a voluntary disclosure program. Keep in mind that any submission must be complete or else like Mr. Bedrosian, the IRS will reject the settlement and look to assess the full penalties provided by law. Let the tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), San Francisco Bay Area (including San Jose and Walnut Creek) and offices elsewhere in California get you set up with a plan that may include being qualified into a voluntary disclosure program to avoid criminal prosecution, seek abatement of penalties, and minimize your tax liability. Also, if you are involved in cannabis, check out how our cannabis tax attorneys can help you.