The IRS announced on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 that it was ending its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program on September 28 of this year. It stated that they were alerting taxpayers now to give those taxpayers with undisclosed foreign income or assets a chance to come clean before then. More than 56,000 taxpayers have already done so, but the disclosures have tapered off with only 600 in 2017.
The IRS will continue its off-shore tax enforcement as a top priority. Future disclosures will proceed under the traditional Criminal Investigation voluntary disclosure program, but that program requires that all taxes AND penalties be paid and does not offer the 27 ½ % penalty available under the OVDP. Other programs, such as the Streamlined Filing Compliance Program and delinquent FBAR filings, etc. will remain in force for an indeterminate amount of time for those who may qualify. But if you have unreported off-shore income, your time is running out.
The IRS has announced two new and highly sophisticated approaches to criminal tax enforcement. The first, called the “data initiative”, sounds similar to the data analysis first used by FinCen to uncover money laundering operations. It will consist of data analysis from information provided by field offices throughout the country. This will allow the IRS to identify areas of non-compliance that have nationwide impact and use its resources to coordinate investigations and provide greater support to the field agents. It will also help to deal with decreasing personnel and resources due to budget constraints. The initial projects will focus on international tax enforcement, employment tax and SEC microcap fraud. It is also expected to identify new areas of non-compliance and start investigations in these new areas.
The second “new” program will be a specialized group of agents already experienced in international tax enforcement. Their expertise will provide specialized skills and knowledge in this area of enforcement. Their efforts, along with the Department of Justice, international tax partners and information gathered from the Bank Secrecy Act, FATCA, whistleblowers, the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs, the Panama Papers, etc., will allow them to identify, through data analysis, new or continuing non-compliance in the international area. Initially, the group will consist of 10 to 12 special agents working out of the Washington D.C. field office. Others will be located at “strategic” locations around the country.
These new programs should give further incentive to those who have yet to avail themselves of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure programs to give further serious consideration to doing so. Time continues to run out for those continuing to believe they will not be discovered.
Tax filing time is upon us again. But some taxpayers are in a tough spot. They may not have filed for prior years and are afraid that, if they do so now, their prior failure to file will come to light and lead to serious consequences, including criminal prosecution. This is known as the “snowball effect”, where one failure to file leads to another resembling a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger as each year goes by.
The consequences of not filing your tax return can be both criminal and civil. On the criminal side, if the failure is “willful”, meaning you knew you had a duty to file but chose not to, the government could charge a violation of 26 U.S.C. 7301, punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $25,000 fine for each year. In more elaborate circumstances, the government has also charged a felony violation under 26 U.S.C. 7201, the evasion statute, citing the failure to file as the method of evasion. This crime is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $100,000 fine for each year involved.
In the past 4 years, the IRS initiated 977 criminal investigations of non-filers. Of these, the IRS recommended prosecution in 712 cases. Over 751 (not all cases are completed in the same year) were convicted and sentenced. Of these, approximately 83.2 percent received prison time with an average incarceration sentence of 39.7 months (there is usually more than 1 year involved).
So how does the IRS discover non-filers? The IRS has computer programs that match information returns (1099s; W-2s; etc.) to filed returns. If there is no match because the taxpayer didn’t file, an investigation is initiated. Another computer program, called the “Stopfiler” program, which identifies those who have filed a return in the past and then stopped filing, which also results in an investigation. Add to this informants, undercover operations of return preparers and tax protest leaders. The list of informants runs the gamut of whistleblowers, motivated by hopes of an award, to disgruntled ex-employees (especially book keepers), ex-spouses, scorned lovers, jealous neighbors and business partners. Often, an audit of someone or something else can lead to you as the other party may reflect payments to you and the IRS contacts you to confirm you received the payment. With the recent enactment of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA), the IRS is now receiving information from foreign banks about their American customers, thus eliminating the former secrecy of those overseas accounts.
On the civil side, there can be other serious consequences. If you are convicted of a tax crime, there is a 75 per cent of the tax penalty. Accordingly, if you would have owed $100 in tax, now you owe $175. There are other civil penalties including a failure to file penalty that caps out at 25 percent of the tax owed. There is another failure to file penalty, called the fraudulent failure to file, which is a civil penalty but higher than the “normal” late filing penalty. It is 75 per cent of the tax due.
Another dangerous possibility is that the IRS can and does prepare what are known as 6020(B) returns or substitute for returns. They take the information received from third party payers, such as 1099s and W-2s and prepare a return for the taxpayer. Only the standard deduction and 1 exemption is used in computing the tax. This is then sent out to the last address of record of the taxpayer and, if he doesn’t respond, they assess that amount of tax against him. This is usually a much higher tax than that the taxpayer would have computed had he filed. While the IRS may reduce this assessment when returns are filed later, several courts have said it doesn’t have to do so.
So, what to do? The obvious answer is to file the returns. But there are a lot of considerations in doing so. Is the taxpayer already under investigation? Is any of his income from unlawful activities? Is any of it from off-shore entities or bank accounts? How much does he owe? What is his compliance history? Is he or a related entity under audit? The taxpayer needs to consult and retain an attorney who has experience in this area. While some accountants try to resolve these issues on their own, they do so at their and the taxpayer’s peril. This is because there is no accountant privilege in the Federal tax system in criminal cases. Accordingly, should a criminal investigation exist or arise while the accountant is working on the matter, everything a taxpayer tells that accountant must be disclosed by the accountant if he is interviewed pursuant to an IRS subpoena or a Grand Jury subpoena. Further, if such an investigation arises, the returns themselves may be exhibit “A” in the case. However, if an attorney, who has been retained by a taxpayer, in turn retains an accountant, the attorney/client work product privilege then extends to the accountant, thus preventing disclosure by the accountant without the taxpayer’s consent. This is pursuant to a case called KOVEL. Hence, the appellation, “Kovel accountant”. Further, there are considerations as to whether the filing of delinquent returns should be done by “quiet” disclosure or formal disclosure pursuant to the IRS voluntary disclosure policies for domestic and foreign disclosure.
The goal is to get the taxpayer into compliance while limiting the potential that he may be prosecuted. Understanding how the IRS deals with these types of cases is critical to accomplishing the desired result.
This year will be the first to see the implementation of new filing deadlines for many forms. The first new deadline, that will occur shortly, is for filing W-2’s, which is now January 31 instead of the previous February deadlines. March 15 is the new deadline for Form 1065 (partnership returns) and Form 1120 (S-corporation returns). This includes the K-1s. Each is extendable to September 15.
Next comes April 15. Forms 1040 continue to be due on this date, but FINCEN 114 (Report of Foreign Bank Account) is now due at the same time instead of June 30, as in the past. Form 1041 (Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts) and Form 1120 (Corporate Tax Return) are due on April 15 and are extendable to September 30 and September 15, respectively.
Other forms, such as Form 5471 (Report of Foreign –Owned Corporations), that are due at the same time as some of the income tax returns, will change their due dates to correspond to the new due dates of these returns. Caution is advised in checking all deadlines and not simply relying on past experience.
Over the past four years the IRS has blocked more than 19 million suspicious tax returns from being processed. Unfortunately, not all of the fraudulent returns filed under taxpayer’s stolen tax identification numbers have been blocked and, last year alone, 1400 criminals were prosecuted for receiving funds by filing fabricated returns and refund claims.
The IRS has been aggressively pursuing these individuals and informing the public of the risk to it of these false returns. Not only does it impact the individual whose return is involved, but it hurts all taxpayers because the government is losing money when it pays these false refunds.
To help combat these criminals, the IRS has released Publication 5027 “Identity Theft Information for Taxpayers”. It sets out the warning signs that you may be a victim, steps to follow if you become a victim and tips on how to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. The later includes:
- Don’t carry your Social Security card or papers bearing your SSN on them.
- Don’t provide a business your SSN just because they ask.
- Take steps to protect your financial information at home and on your computers.
- Check your credit report at least annually.
- Check your Social Security Administration earnings statement annually
- Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or the internet unless you initiated the contact and you know for sure who is asking for it. Note the IRS does not contact taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request this type of information.
For further information, please see the above Publication or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft and the FTC’s www.identitytheft.gov. The government has just announced another resource to help protect your identity. Please visit: Taxes. Security. Together.