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IRS Offshore Tax Crackdown Opens With 30% Penalties for Banks

The year is 2014 and we are into a new era of transparency where the IRS is getting information on U.S. taxpayers from foreign banks and the IRS is taking action by examining and investigating taxpayers who are not reporting their worldwide income nor disclosing their foreign accounts.

Many people thought that forever they can keep their foreign accounts a secret – not just from their creditors and spouses but also from the IRS.  But we are in a new era.  

Starting July 1, 2014, the IRS is imposing a 30% withholding tax on many overseas payments to foreign financial institutions that do not share information with the IRS.   That means that any non-compliant foreign bank which invests in the U.S. will be getting a 30% haircut on distributions and income from U.S. investments.

This new burden has frustrated overseas banks and U.S. expatriates. It’s also created a new standard of global bank-to-government information sharing designed to throw light on often difficult-to-trace accounts.

FATCA – New Law Of The Land

Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”), the U.S. is allowed to scoop up data from more than 77,000 financial institutions and 80 governments about overseas financial activities of U.S. persons.

What led to the enactment of FATCA in 2010 was the inability of federal tax authorities to obtain clear information about financial accounts that U.S. persons have outside the country. That’s especially important for the U.S., because unlike many other countries, the U.S. taxes its taxpayers on their worldwide income regardless of where they actually live.

In establishing FATCA, Congress and President Obama in effect threatened to cut off banks and other companies from easy access to the U.S. market if they didn’t pass along such information. The U.S. was able to leverage its status as a financial center to demand action from governments and banks in other countries. The proposal was barely debated when Congress in 2010 passed it as a budgetary offset to a tax credit for hiring. It was projected to raise $8.7 billion in revenue over a decade.

Withholding Tax

Under FATCA, U.S. banks and other companies making certain cross-border payments — such as interest and dividends — to foreign financial institutions must withhold 30% of such payments as a tax if the recipient isn’t providing information about its U.S. account holders. Later phases of the law will apply to a broader set of cross-border payments, such as gross proceeds from stock sales. Many non-financial companies will be affected, too.

FATCA prompted more than 77,000 foreign financial institutions to register for the program to avoid the withholding tax. As a result of that compliance, the IRS doesn’t expect to collect much direct revenue from the 30% levy. But the IRS expects to collect a lot more from U.S. taxpayers.

Direct Disclosure

In most cases, the law isn’t being implemented as written, because foreign banks said direct disclosure to the IRS would violate their local laws. But foreign laws have no impact on FATCA’s withholding tax on U.S. payers so this has spurred negotiations between the U.S. and foreign governments.  Additionally other countries saw the potential benefits of reciprocal information exchange so that they too can make sure their citizens are not evading taxes.

So far, the U.S. has reached final or provisional agreements with more than 80 jurisdictions, allowing for government-to-government information exchange or streamlined business-to-government exchanges.

The list includes jurisdictions that often are labeled as tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Guernsey. It also includes most of the world’s major economies, such as Germany, France, Japan, Canada and the U.K.  This list continues to grow as more countries and business are accepting and even embracing FATCA.

U.S. Prosecutions Also Serving As A Source For Information

Even without FATCA in place, the U.S. has used prosecutions against Credit Suisse, UBS and other major foreign banks to glean information on Americans hiding overseas accounts.

Prosecutors have charged more than 70 U.S. taxpayers and three dozen bankers, lawyers and advisers in their crackdown on offshore tax evasion. Those charged include H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies plush toys; Igor Olenicoff, a billionaire real estate developer; and Brad Birkenfeld, a former UBS banker who blew the whistle on the bank.

FATCA is here to stay.  IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has put the implementation of FATCA on the top of his agency’s list.  

We are in a new era.  Whether you are a big fish or a small fish, the IRS intends to catch you.  And so it is time for you to come forward before it is too late.

What Should You Do?

If you have never reported your foreign investments on your U.S. Tax Returns or even if you have already quietly disclosed or in 2012 OVDI, you should seriously consider participating in the IRS’ 2014 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”). Once the IRS contacts you, you cannot get into this program and would be subject to the maximum penalties (civil and criminal) under the tax law. Taxpayers who hire an experienced tax attorney in Offshore Account Voluntary Disclosures should result in avoiding any pitfalls and gaining the maximum benefits conferred by this program.

Protect yourself from excessive fines and possible jail time. Let the tax attorneys of the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and elsewhere in California qualify you for OVDP.

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