Some U.S. taxpayers have used foreign accounts to hide income subject to U.S. taxes. As a result all U.S. taxpayers, and many non-U.S. financial institutions, must comply with information reporting and withholding rules related to accounts outside of the States.

Foreign Account ReportingRonald Reagan was known for quoting a Russian proverb to the Soviet leader: “Doveryai, no proveryai.” In English, “Trust, but verify.” The U.S. Treasury and the IRS have taken a similar approach when it comes to taxpayers holding accounts and transacting business outside of the United States. Those who hold accounts or send money out of the U.S. need to know about the related reporting and withholding rules or risk encountering an enforcement “bear in the woods.”

This discussion requires serving a large bowl of abbreviation alphabet soup, so we’ll make that the appetizer before we get to the main course.

FBAR: Refers to the “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts” that U.S. taxpayers file to identify financial accounts held outside of the States.

FATCA: Stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.” Enacted in 2010, fully effective in 2014, this law expands the types of foreign assets and related income that U.S. taxpayers have to report. Through a series of inter-governmental agreements (IGAs), this law also requires financial institutions in many other countries to provide information to the IRS about accounts and assets held abroad by U.S. taxpayers.

FDAP: This stands for “fixed, determinable, annual or periodic” income, which, if you think about it, is pretty much all income. It applies primarily to foreign persons and businesses earning income in the U.S. Reports that relate to FDAP are used to track payments that leave the U.S. for reasons other than investment or deposit in foreign countries.

In short, FBAR, FATCA and FDAP reporting requirements form the backbone of the “trust” end of the equation. Each of these concepts includes at least some element of self-reporting by U.S. taxpayers on payments made and corresponding withholding, amounts held in foreign accounts and income earned outside of the country. (For more information on FBAR, please see Susan Steblein’s post from July 2015.) (For more information on FDAP, please see my post from March 2015.) 

Of the three, FATCA holds down the “verify” side of the equation. Through a network of intergovernmental agreements, the U.S. has actually managed to place reporting requirements on foreign financial institutions. While those financial institutions may not be wild about the idea, they comply because they value the opportunity to do business with the U.S. and its taxpayers. As a result, many foreign financial institutions now regularly report information about assets of U.S. taxpayers that they hold. In some instances, the agreements require foreign institutions to withhold 30% of payments made to U.S.-held accounts if circumstances warrant. The IRS has gone so far as to levy penalties against some covered institutions that have failed to comply with the rules. In addition, financial institutions are now sending account holders reports with detailed account information that they have supplied to the IRS, giving a reality check to the process.

The IRS estimates that the U.S. loses approximately $450 billion per year in taxes on assets held and income generated overseas by U.S. taxpayers. With that kind of money in play, it seems pretty reasonable to expect that enforcement in this area is a high priority for the Service now and for the foreseeable future. The good news is that if you are a U.S. taxpayer who has failed to comply, there are opportunities to mitigate potential penalties by coming forward voluntarily. These voluntary disclosure programs will not last forever, and taxpayers who are audited by the IRS lose the opportunity to reduce penalties if they don’t initiate the process on their own.

If you have tax obligations in the U.S. and hold accounts or conduct business outside of the country, it’s important to make sure that you are in compliance with these rules. For help in figuring out what obligations you might have, please contact us.

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