A friend contacted me recently. He was calling to discuss the tax issues of expatriating. As background, there are two types of expatriation. The first is renouncing citizenship, which he is not considering. The second is simply living outside the United States. One remains an American, but one lives elsewhere.
It is not as easy as it used to be.
I have, for example, been quite critical of Treasury and IRS behavior when it comes to Americans with foreign bank accounts. If you or I moved overseas, one of the first things we would do is open a bank account. As soon as we did, we would immediately be subject to the same regime as the U.S. government applies to the uber-wealthy suspected of stashing money overseas.
Some aspects of the regime include:
(1) Having to answer questions on your tax return about the existence of foreign accounts. By the way, lying is a criminal offense, although filing taxes is generally a civic matter.
(2) Having to complete a schedule to your tax return listing your foreign financial and other assets. Move here from a society that has communal family ownership of assets and you have a nightmare on your hands. What constitutes wealthy for purposes of this schedule? Let’s start at $50,000, the price of a (very) nice pickup truck.
(3) Having to file a separate report with the Department of Treasury should you have a foreign bank account with funds in excess of $10,000. The reporting also applies if it is not your account but you nonetheless have authority to sign: think about a foreign employer bank account. It should be fun when you explain to your foreign employer that you are required to provide information on their account to the IRS.
(4) Requiring foreign banks to both obtain and forward to the IRS information about your accounts. Technically the foreign banks have a choice, but fail to make the “correct” decision and the IRS will simply keep 30% of monies otherwise going to them.
To add further insult, all this reporting has some of the harshest penalties in the tax Code. Fail to file a given tax form, for example, and take a $10,000 automatic penalty. Fail to file that report with the Treasury Department and forfeit half of your account to the government.
Now, some of this might be palatable if the government limited its application solely to the bigwigs. You know the kind: owners of companies and hedge fund managers and inherited wealth. But they don’t. There cannot be ten thousand people in the country who have enough money overseas to justify this behavior, so one is left wondering why the need for overreach. It would be less intrusive (at least, to the rest of us 320 million Americans) to just audit these ten thousand people every year. There is precedence: the IRS already does this with the largest of the corporations.
Did you know that – if you fail to provide the above information – the IRS will deem your tax return to be “frivolous?” You will be lumped in there with tax protestors who believe that income tax is voluntary and, if not, it only applies to residents of the District of Columbia.
There is yet another penalty for filing a frivolous return: $5,000. That would be on top of all the other penalties, of course. It’s like a party.
Many practitioners, including me, believe this is one of the reasons why record numbers of Americans overseas are turning-in their citizenship. There are millions of American expats. Perhaps they were in the military or foreign service. Perhaps they travelled, studied, married a foreign national and remained overseas. Perhaps they are “accidental” Americans – born to an American parent but have never themselves been to the United States. Can you imagine them having a bank close their account, or perhaps having a bank refuse to open an account, because it would be too burdensome to provide endless reams of information to a never-sated IRS? Why wouldn’t the banks just ban Americans from opening an account? Unfortunately, that is what is happening.
So I am glad to see the IRS lose a case in this area.
The taxpayer timely filed his 2011 tax return. All parties agreed that he correctly reported his interest and dividend income. What he did not do was list every interest and dividend account in detail and answer the questions on Schedule B (that is, Interest and Dividends) Part III. He invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and he wrote that answering those questions might lead to incriminating evidence against him.
Not good enough. The IRS assessed the penalty. The taxpayer in response requested a Collections Due Process Hearing.
Taxpayer said he had an issue: a valid Fifth Amendment claim. The IRS Appeals officer did not care and upheld the penalty.
Off to Tax Court they went.
And the Court reviewed what constitutes “frivolous” for purpose of the Section 6702 penalty:
(1) The document must purport to be a tax return.
(2) The return must either (i) omit enough information to prevent the IRS from judging it as substantially correct or (ii) it must clearly appear to be substantially incorrect.
(3) Taxpayer’s position must demonstrate a desire to impede IRS administration of the tax Code.
The first test is easy: taxpayer filed a return and intended it to be construed as a tax return.
On to the second.
Taxpayer failed to provide the name of only one payer. All parties agreed that the total was correct, however. The IRS argued that it needed this information so that it may defend the homeland, repair roads and bridges and present an entertaining Super Bowl halftime show. The Court asked one question: why? The IRS was unable to give a cogent reply, so the Court considered the return as filed to be substantially correct.
The IRS was feeling froggy on the third test. You see, the IRS had previously issued a Notice declaring that even mentioning the Fifth Amendment on a tax return was de facto evidence of frivolousness. Faciemus quod volumus , thundered the IRS. The return was frivolous.
The Court however went back and read that IRS notice. It brought to the IRS’ attention that it had not said that omitting some information for fear of self-incrimination was frivolous. Rather it had said that omitting “all” financial information was frivolous. You cannot file a return with zeros on every line, for example, and be taken seriously. That however is not what happened here.
The IRS could not make a blanket declaration about mentioning the Fifth Amendment because there was judicial precedence it had to observe. Previous Courts had determined that a return was non-frivolous if the taxpayer had disclosed enough information (while simultaneously not disclosing so much as to incriminate himself/herself) to allow a Court to conclude that there was a reasonable risk of self-incrimination.
The Court pointed out the following:
(1) The taxpayer provided enough information to constitute an accurate return; and
(2) The taxpayer provided enough information (while holding back enough information) that the Court was able to conclude that he was concerned about filing an FBAR . The questions on Schedule B Part III could easily be cross-checked to an FBAR. Given that willful failure to file a complete and accurate FBAR is a crime, the Court concluded that the taxpayer had a reasonable risk of self-incrimination.
The Court dismissed the penalty.
The case is Youssefzadeh v Commissioner, for the at-home players.
I am of course curious why the taxpayer felt that disclosure would be self-incrimination. Why not just file a complete and accurate FBAR and be done with it? Fair enough, but that is not the issue. One would expect that an agency named the Internal “Revenue” Service would task itself with collecting revenue. In this instance, all revenue was correctly reported and collected. With that backdrop, why did the IRS pursue the matter? That is the issue that concerns me.
 Latin for “we do what we want”
 Editor's Footnote: FBAR: From the IRS's website page, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) - "If you have a financial interest in or signature authority over a foreign financial account, including a bank account, brokerage account, mutual fund, trust, or other type of foreign financial account, exceeding certain thresholds, the Bank Secrecy Act may require you to report the account yearly to the Department of Treasury by electronically filing a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR)."
About the author
Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.