The OVDP – An Alternative to Criminal Prosecution and/or Financial Ruin for U.S. Taxpayers with Undisclosed Offshore Bank Accounts

By Mark Wisniewski
March 15, 2016
Businessman being talked to about documents

A 2008 Senate report revealed an annual revenue loss of $100 billion attributable to the use of undisclosed offshore bank accounts by U.S. taxpayers for purposes of evading U.S. taxes. That same year, the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) launched an aggressive enforcement campaign to combat the use of foreign accounts to evade U.S. taxes and reporting requirements. Since 2008, the DOJ has prosecuted numerous holders of undisclosed foreign bank accounts, as well as foreign persons who encouraged and assisted such U.S. account holders in establishing and maintaining such accounts for purposes of evading their U.S. tax obligations. In 2009, and as amended in 2011, 2012, and 2014, an Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”) was implemented by the IRS to encourage U.S. taxpayers to disclose the existence of their offshore accounts in exchange for a substantially diminished likelihood of criminal prosecution – NOT unequivocal immunity – and the application of a relatively ‘taxpayer-friendly’ penalty regime when compared to the penalty regime applicable to taxpayers who are detected on IRS audit or otherwise ‘outside’ the OVDP. Impetus to participate in the OVDP increased in August of 2013 when the DOJ announced the Swiss Bank Program (“SBP”), pursuant to which Swiss banks, in exchange for non-prosecution agreements, came forward and admitted to helping U.S. taxpayers conceal foreign bank accounts, and disclosed the names of thousands of U.S. account holders to the DOJ. In October of 2015, the IRS revealed there had been more than 54,000 voluntary disclosure under the OVDP, which resulted in the collection of greater than $8 billion in taxes, penalties, and interest. The DOJ has since expanded its offshore enforcement initiative well beyond Switzerland, moving into many different jurisdictions including, but not limited to, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, India, Israel, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands and Panama. Taxpayers desiring to participate in the OVDP are first required to complete preliminary forms disclosing information pertaining to their undisclosed offshore bank accounts. Based on that information, the IRS Crimi9nal Investigation Division (“CID”) determines whether the taxpayers is already under IRS audit or being investigated by the DOJ in connection with one or more undisclosed offshore accounts. If the answer is yes, then the taxpayer is not allowed to participate d in the OVDP. If the answer is no, then the taxpayers is preliminarily cleared into the OVDP pending the provision of additional and more detailed account information. After CID receives the second submission of required information from the taxpayer and formally clears the taxpayer to participate in the OVDP, the bulk of the account and other required financial information is submitted to the IRS and forwarded to a central location where it is processed and analyzed by a special IRS OVDP division. All required payments under the OVDP are made contemporaneously with this final “bulk” submission. In addition to back taxes, civil penalties, and interest, participating taxpayers are subjected to an “Offshore Penalty” for failing to file a “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts” (“FBAR”) with the U.S. Government. The Offshore Penalty under the current version of the OVDP is generally 27.5% of the highest aggregate account balance of the undisclosed offshore bank account during the eight-year OVDP ‘covered period.’ In situations where one or more of the OVDP participant’s undisclosed offshore bank accounts are held by a financial intuition on the Treasury’s “BlackList”, i.e., a list of institutions whose personnel were found to have actively aided and abetted U.S. taxpayers in establishing such accounts, the Offshore Penalty is increased to 50% of the highest aggregate account balance. If a taxpayer’s non-compliance were discovered by the IRS ‘outside’ the OVDP, several additional penalties could apply such as the civil fraud penalty (75% of the unpaid tax), the FBAR penalty (can be as high as the greater of $100,000 or fifty percent (50%) of the total balance of the foreign bank account per violation), and penalties for failure to file certain information returns, e.g., Form 5471, Form 8938, Form 3520, Form 3520-A, etc. (generally $10,000 per year each). A willful failure to file an FBAR can also result in criminal prosecution; that is, a person who willfully fails to file an FBAR is subject to up to five years in prison and/or a maximum fine of $250,000. In all cases, each failure to file for a particular tax year is a separate violation. In addition to the DOJ’s offshore enforcement initiatives, the U.S. Treasury has recently entered into a series of bi-lateral ‘intergovernmental agreements’ (“IGAs”)with a legion of countries under which the party countries have agreed to share information concerning holders of bank accounts on their respective soil that are citizens or tax residents of the other party. The rollout of the information exchanges under many of these IGAs is imminent. Last year the DOJ hired more than 80 new attorneys, and has developed and implemented an international enforcement training series to ensure their attorneys are conversant with offshore enforcement practices and procedures. The takeaway from all of this for U.S. taxpayers holding undisclosed offshore bank accounts is that there is simply nowhere to hide anymore. You will eventually get caught! The failure to take advantage of the relative safe harbor of the OVDP prior to detection by the IRS and/or the DOJ is likely to result in criminal prosecution and/or financial ruin.