2016: The Offshore Year in Review

Offshore account

The year 2016 was an epic year in the offshore world due to the leaks of confidential offshore financial information known as the “Panama Papers”.  In addition, in 2016, more countries began to report offshore financial information to the IRS under FACTA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act).

Also in 2016, the IRS and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) continued to successfully attack offshore banking “secrecy”, moving beyond Switzerland to other foreign jurisdictions.  “Going offshore” for the purposes of hiding money from the IRS is now impossible.  Going offshore for asset protection from civil creditors and for tax minimization is still viable and effective, but must be tax-compliant.


Further Erosion of Offshore Bank Secrecy and Encouraging Tax Compliance

  • In 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a massive amount of once-confidential offshore information known as the “Panama Papers”.  The files included sensitive foreign banking information, including identities of owners of offshore accounts, secretive corporations and other entities established by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.  Also in 2016, ICIJ released data from the Bahamas including names of directors, shareholders and “nominees” of shell companies, trusts and foundations in the Bahamas.  These most recent breaches of offshore secrecy followed the 2013 release of information, also by ICIJ, regarding offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Singapore, the 2008 theft of banking data at HSBC in France, and the 2006 leak at LGT Bank in Liechtenstein.  The lesson, once again, is that hacking, leaks and whistle blowers are as significant a threat to banking secrecy as laws such as FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) and inter-governmental cooperation and exchange of information.  Another lesson is that offshore asset protection should not — indeed, cannot — be dependent upon “confidentiality” and “secrecy”, simply because offshore “secrecy” no longer exists.
  • During 2016, the IRS and DOJ continued to investigate and prosecute many U.S. taxpayers with undeclared offshore assets. U.S. taxpayers with undeclared foreign accounts in Switzerland, Cayman, Belize, India, Israel, Singapore, Panama and other jurisdictions have been targeted.  In 2016, the IRS collected a $100 million penalty from a U.S. taxpayer who hid his Swiss account.
  • In 2016, most Swiss banks settled with DOJ and reported accounts with a U.S. nexus.  In return for deferred prosecution, these Swiss banks are paying fines to the U.S. and revealing the identities of their American account owners.  Clients of these banks who have not already come into IRS compliance can make a voluntary disclosure of these accounts, but will pay increased penalties in return for no criminal exposure (but not if the IRS already has their names!).  Swiss banking secrecy, seriously weakened since DOJ forced UBS to disclose its U.S. clients in 2009, is now extinct.  Moreover, now the Swiss banks report to the U.S. without advance warning to their U.S. clients.  New legislation in Switzerland imposes penalties on a Swiss bank or bank employee who is aware of a U.S. request for information and then notifies the U.S. account owner prior to transfer of the requested information.
  • All reputable countries are agreeing to the exchange of tax information and banking transparency.  In 2016, Singapore implemented FATCA.  In 2015, Luxembourg began exchange of bank depositor information.   Likewise, Austria, the last remaining EU member holdout, agreed to share banking data.   During 2016, over 100 countries (and hundreds of thousands of foreign banks and other financial institutions)  have agreed to sign on to FATCA and automatically report foreign account and income data to the IRS, including: India, Cyprus, Singapore, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Barbados, Bahamas, Hong Kong, Brazil, Jersey, Guernsey, Cayman, etc.  If you have financial ties to foreign countries, you must address IRS compliance for foreign accounts and assets.  The fact that a foreign bank has no branches in the U.S. is now irrelevant.
  • The reach of the U.S. Government to foreign banks is undeniable.  In 2016, Bank Julius Baer settled with DOJ, paying a fine of $547 million.  Also in 2016, two Cayman Islands financial institutions pleaded guilty to conspiring to hide millions from the IRS in Cayman accounts.  The IRS is investigating HSBC, the Swiss Kantonal banks, Pictet, Bank HaPoalim, Mizrahi Tefahot and banks in the Caribbean.  During 2016, the IRS focused on Panama, Singapore and the Cayman Islands.  DOJ also issued summonses to U.S. banks for information on U.S. correspondent accounts used by owners of foreign accounts to access funds.  Banks in Switzerland, Israel, India, Singapore and the Caribbean are currently under investigation.  We expect more banks, in other countries, to be targeted in 2017.  Again, the fact that a foreign bank has no branches in the U.S. is now irrelevant.
  • In positive news, the IRS issued recent guidance on FBAR penalties that seems to indicate a trend toward lower penalties for both willful and non-willful failure to file the FBAR.  The new penalty structure allows for a single penalty, rather than multi-year penalties.  In addition, the penalties should not exceed the value of the foreign account.  The new guidance is applicable to cases currently in audit.
  • Recent appellate court cases all uniformly have held that foreign bank statements must be handed over to the IRS regardless of any Fifth Amendment claim against self-incrimination.  This means that the IRS can compel, via Information Document Request (IDR) or subpoena, a taxpayer or his bank to provide his offshore account records even if those records are incriminating.  Prosecutors may then use those records to prove commission of tax crimes, including failure to file bank disclosures, filing false tax returns, tax evasion and tax fraud.
  • In light of the above events, many clients have retained us to make their foreign accounts and other assets tax-compliant.  We have represented many clients in Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs (OVDP) introduced by the IRS in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014.  The 2014 OVDP is still in effect (although the IRS warns that it may close the program at any time).  We have represented clients with accounts and assets on every continent (except Antarctica), brought them into IRS compliance and avoided prosecution.  In 2014, the IRS changed the terms of its OVDP, and also began new “Streamlined” voluntary disclosure procedures for non-willful conduct.  The Streamlined procedures have greatly reduced penalties (5% for U.S. residents; 0% for non-residents).  We can advise you on which program is best for you.  The penalties within the OVDP are usually less than if the IRS discovers the foreign account via audit, investigation or information the IRS receives from a bank or foreign government.
  • Within the OVDP, the penalty is 27.5% of the highest value of the foreign asset(s).  However, this penalty increases to 50% if the foreign financial institution housing the foreign account is under investigation or is cooperating with DOJ/IRS.  There are approximately one hundred foreign banks on the so-called “naughty bank” list, most but not all in Switzerland.  On November 15, 2016, the “naughty list” increased to approximately one hundred and fifty.  The new additions are foreign “facilitators” of U.S. tax fraud, i.e., the foreign bankers, lawyers, trustees, investment advisors and other service providers who worked with U.S. clients to hide assets and income from the IRS.
  • Clients should bring their accounts into tax compliance on the state level as well.  Some states, such as New York, New Jersey and California, have formal programs for offshore accounts.  Other states, including Connecticut, had a formal program in the past, and we have been successful in applying the favorable terms of the past programs to current clients.  The IRS shares information with state governments, including that a federal tax return was amended to report foreign income.  Please contact us regarding tax compliance on the state and federal levels.
  • Against the background of the U.S. offensive against undisclosed offshore accounts, FATCA and new compliance burdens, many foreign banks have “fired” their U.S. clients and closed even compliant accounts.  In 2016, we assisted clients in keeping open their compliant foreign accounts, or locating new foreign institutions to take their business.  While many foreign banks no longer welcome U.S. account holders, we have relationships with foreign institutions which still service our clients’ tax-compliant accounts.

This year has been an unprecedented year both domestically and offshore.  We can assist you in navigating through the changing offshore world and advise you regarding offshore (and onshore) assets.

 

If You Have an Unreported Foreign Account, You Really Should Be Thinking about Tax Compliance

 

If You Have an Unreported Foreign Account,
You Really Should Be Thinking about Tax Compliance

by Asher Rubinstein, Esq.

If you have a foreign account that you have not declared to the IRS, you really should be giving thought to how to bring the foreign account into compliance now.  It will only get more difficult to keep the account open, to access your offshore funds, and to keep the IRS from discovering the account. And, when the IRS does eventually discover the account, it will only get more expensive to correct the non-disclosure and defend against a tax fraud prosecution.

Foreign Banks Are Freezing and Closing Accounts and Limiting Access to Your Money

If you don’t bring the foreign account into IRS compliance, you will have problems trying to access the funds. Many foreign banks are simply freezing the accounts of Americans until the account holders provide signed IRS Forms W-9 or otherwise demonstrate evidence of U.S. tax compliance. If you provide a W-9 to the bank, the bank will likely share your identity and your banking information with the IRS.

We have had many clients tell us that their foreign bank has frozen their account, and they request that we intervene to get the bank to release their money. While we can often assist in that regard, the larger issue is: what are you going to do about the IRS finding the account?

In addition to freezing accounts, many foreign banks are simply closing the accounts of Americans, or of foreign nationals suspected of having a U.S. address or a U.S. tax nexus. These banks do not want to deal with the IRS and with U.S. compliance burdens. These banks are concluding, as a business matter, that it makes better sense for the banks to cease offering banking services to people with a U.S. nexus.

We have assisted clients in keeping open their compliant foreign accounts, and we have assisted other clients in locating new foreign banks to take their compliant foreign funds. If you have an undeclared foreign account, and your bank is telling you to leave, you will have to anticipate the successor bank asking the same sort of “know your client” and source of funds inquiries, and asking you to sign a IRS Form W-9. It is getting harder and harder to simply leave foreign Bank A and move the account to foreign Bank B. Very few foreign banks remain willing to take your non-compliant funds.

You Will Have Difficulty Getting Your Money Back to the U.S.

Wiring the funds back to the U.S. is not advisable. A sudden wire transfer of a large dollar amount into a U.S. account would likely lead to the receiving bank asking questions about the wire transfer, the source of funds, and whether the funds are tax-compliant. Banks will not ignore their due diligence and “know your client” obligations, no matter how friendly you might be with your banker. The compliance and legal risks to the bank are too significant.

Moreover, an inbound wire transfer could cause the bank to file an SAR (Suspicious Activity Report) with the U.S. Treasury Department, and there is no requirement that the bank even let you know that it is filing an SAR. Even if you try to deposit a foreign bank check and avoid a large wire transfer, the U.S. bank will likely ask the same questions.

Finally, even assuming that you can get your foreign funds safely back into the U.S., you still have to worry about the IRS discovering the past non-compliance when the funds were offshore. As discussed below, the IRS is interested in the past history of the non-compliant foreign account, even if that account is now closed.

Your Options Are Limited as to Where to Keep the Funds Outside the U.S.

As noted above, it will not be easy for you to simply find a new foreign bank, one that will overlook the fact that your funds are not U.S. tax compliant, one that will not ask you to sign a Form W-9, one that is not concerned about FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) which will require the bank to report information to the IRS.

FATCA is a U.S. law, passed in 2010, which reaches overseas and requires all foreign banks and financial institutions to automatically report to the IRS (without IRS subpoena or request) information regarding their American client accounts. Essentially, every foreign bank becomes an agent of the IRS. If a foreign bank or financial institution does not agree to FATCA reporting, then the U.S. will penalize it by withholding significant amounts of U.S.-source income. Recently, many countries have signed on to FATCA, including Spain, Italy, Norway, Germany, Mexico, the UK, Ireland and Switzerland. Many other countries (some seventy five around the world) have announced that they are negotiating FATCA deals with the U.S., including South Africa, Singapore and Liechtenstein.

People suggest to us that foreign jurisdictions still exist which could act as shelters for non-compliant assets. We hear that certain countries are “the next Switzerland”. Since 2008, when UBS became the target of DOJ’s civil and criminal prosecution, the flow of funds exiting Switzerland for Singapore, for example, has been significant.

However, no reputable financial jurisdiction (including Singapore) would risk its financial reputation to harbor non-compliant accounts. Singapore makes a significant amount of money from legitimate international banking and would not jeopardize this by being “blacklisted” as an uncooperative tax haven, as it was a decade ago. To this end, Singapore has recently announced that it is in talks with the U.S. on a FATCA-type of agreement. In addition, a new Singapore regulation requires banks to identify all accounts that may harbor the proceeds of tax evasion, and close them. Failure to abide by this new law will result in criminal charges for the Singaporean bankers.

Virtually all reputable financial institutions around the world – – at least the credible, stable ones, i.e., places one would want to bank because of safety and stability – – will report to the IRS. Nations “off the grid” may welcome dollars, but one must ask whether depositing assets in an unsafe or unstable jurisdiction is a prudent move. Is it worth it to move money from the first world to the third world in order to avoid the IRS, if the risk of losing the money is significant?

Finally, even assuming that you find a new harbor for your foreign assets, there will almost certainly be a paper trail of where your assets went. The last bank statement from your prior account will show an outward transfer. That will be a road map for the IRS once it obtains the statement by subpoena, summons, treaty request or settlement agreement.

Closing the Account May Not be Enough

Merely closing a foreign account is not a viable solution, because DOJ and IRS never limit their investigations to only current accounts. In the case of UBS, DOJ’s John Doe Summons sought banking records back to 2000. In the case of Liechtensteinische Landesbank, DOJ requested records back to 2004. In the case of Julius Baer, the investigation goes back to 2002. DOJ’s request to Liechtenstein trust companies and other fiduciaries sought records back to 2001.

In other words, closing an account today does nothing to remedy the non-compliant past, and DOJ and the IRS focus on past non-compliance. In addition, a wire transfer or bank check from the foreign account to a U.S. account (or account elsewhere) creates an easy trail back to the foreign account, and also gives rise to due diligence, “know your client” and source of funds inquiries by the recipient bank. Using the non-compliant funds to buy real estate or other assets also creates a trail and does nothing to undo the non-compliant past, which will be the focus of the IRS investigation.

The Era of Bank Secrecy is Over

It seems that with every passing year, bank secrecy continues to decrease and the risk of discovery increases. In 2013, the following events occurred:

Switzerland agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) whereby almost all Swiss banks will begin to report bank account data to the U.S. without a need for court orders or government-to-government treaty requests.

– Liechtenstein agreed to sign a global treaty allowing for increased bank transparency and automatic exchange of tax information. It is also expected that Liechtenstein will sign on to FATCA.

– All reputable countries are agreeing to the exchange of information and banking transparency. In 2013, Luxembourg agreed to automatic exchange of bank depositor information beginning in January 2015. Likewise, Austria, the last remaining EU member holdout, agreed in 2013 to share banking data.

– The U.S. Department of Justice has sent summonses and requests for banking information to the following: Bank Julius Baer, the Liechtenstein Foundation Supervisory Authority, CIBC First Caribbean International Bank, Bank of Butterfield, HSBC and others. DOJ is investigating many Swiss banks, Israeli banks, banks in Luxembourg, the Caribbean and elsewhere. IRS and DOJ are not stopping at Switzerland. U.S. investigators are paying particular attention to “leaver accounts”, i.e., the accounts of those people who leave Swiss banks in favor of banks elsewhere, in an attempt to continue to evade the IRS. It should be noted that under the 2013 Swiss-U.S. settlement agreement discussed above, Swiss banks are required to identify “leaver accounts” specifically, and report them to DOJ.

In 2014, foreign banks will begin to report information to the IRS under FATCA.

The Window of Opportunity to Come Into Compliance Could Close Anytime

It is possible to bring your foreign assets into tax compliance by disclosing the assets to the IRS before the IRS learns of those assets, and to participate in a partial amnesty program known as the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”). If the IRS learns about your foreign assets (through any means, including from a foreign bank or foreign government, as a result of an audit or investigation, or even because of a whistle blower such as an ex-spouse or adversary), then the IRS will not accept your disclosure and the full weight of tax fraud penalties will apply, including criminal prosecution. If accepted into the OVDP, such consequences can be avoided, although back taxes, interest and penalties will be due.

However, at any time the IRS can “close the door” on the opportunity to voluntarily disclose a foreign financial asset and to participate in the OVDP. Under the most recent terms of the Voluntary Disclosure Program, the IRS merely has to announce that account holders at any specific bank under investigation are precluded from making a voluntary disclosure. The significance is that U.S. clients can no longer wait for an announcement of a DOJ summons or a treaty request before they decide to come forward. The door to come forward can be closed by the IRS much earlier and without warning. That is a new variable in the opportunity to make a voluntary disclosure. It increases the risk of prosecution and it creates more immediate pressure to come into tax compliance. Timing, once again, is everything, and the IRS can close the door at any time.

Conclusion

The common theme through all of the above is that if you have a foreign account or other asset that is not U.S. tax compliant, it will only get more difficult to keep the IRS from discovering the account, to maintain the account in a safe and secure institution, and to access your funds. Now is the time to consult with U.S. tax counsel on what to do about your offshore assets, how to minimize your exposure, how to bring the assets into compliance, and how to safely access your money.

U.S. & Switzerland Reach Agreement: Almost All Swiss Banks to Provide Account Information to IRS

We’ve written much about the ability of the IRS to discover unreported Swiss accounts, and we need not repeat warnings about criminal prosecution and onerous fines and penalties in the event that the IRS learns of undisclosed accounts.

What is new, however, is that the IRS will soon have direct, unimpeded, easy access to banking information from hundreds of Swiss banks.  In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Swiss Federal Department of Finance on August 29, 2013, both sides reached an agreement whereby almost all Swiss banks will soon report to the IRS about Swiss accounts “in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest”, including accounts owned by U.S. persons, or where U.S. persons are beneficiaries, signatories, hold powers of attorney or have other incidents of ownership.  In exchange for the provision of information to the IRS, the DOJ will not prosecute these banks as it did against UBS and Wegelin. Continue reading

Offshore Accounts Update: IRS Foreign Account Amnesty Can Close at Any Time

My new article,  “The Door to Foreign Account Amnesty Can Close at Any Time” discusses current developments in the crackdown on undeclared offshore assets.  This article will be published in a forthcoming edition of Tax Notes International. Continue reading

Offshore Update: Continued Investigation and Prosecution of Foreign Accounts Amidst a New Opportunity for Pre-emptive Disclosure

Offshore Update: Continued Investigation and Prosecution of Foreign Accounts Amidst a New Opportunity for Pre-emptive Disclosure
by Asher Rubinstein, Esq.

The U.S. government continues in its offensive against non-compliant offshore banking, targeting both the U.S. taxpayers who failed to declare foreign accounts, as well as the foreign bankers who provided non-compliant banking services.

Last month, a US taxpayer in San Francisco was indicted for failing to declare his UBS account.  Last week, a doctor and medical professor was sentenced by a federal court in New York for failing to declare his account at UBS.  Additional, non-UBS banks were also included in both cases.

At the same time, prosecutors are also charging the foreign bankers who facilitated the foreign accounts and provided foreign banking services.  Bankers at Wegelin & Co., a private Swiss bank, were indicted in early January.  Bankers at Julius Baer were indicted last October.
The indictments detail tactics such as setting up accounts using code names, sham corporate entities and having foreign relatives as the purported owners of the accounts.  The indictments also allege that the bankers told U.S. clients that their accounts were not vulnerable to discovery by the IRS because the banks did not have a U.S. presence such as a U.S. branch office.

In additional to Wegelin and Julius Baer, Credit Suisse, the local Swiss Kantonal banks, as well as banks in Israel, India and Liechtenstein are all under investigation for aiding and abetting tax fraud by US taxpayers.  The IRS and Department of Justice (DOJ) are pursuing these banks because of the purported “money trail” that left UBS as UBS prepared to surrender once-“secret” bank data to the U.S. government.  According to one recent indictment, UBS bankers suggested only transferring Swiss Francs from UBS to a local Kontonal bank in order to minimize detection.
Tracing noncompliant funds to other banks, in Switzerland and elsewhere in the world, is indicative of the expanding global scrutiny and effectiveness of the investigations.

As legal counsel to many taxpayers with foreign accounts, when we read the news reports of new tax investigations, indictments and prosecutions, we note that the names of some foreign bankers appear again and again.  We have been able to observe connections between separate clients who had common foreign bankers.  The IRS, of course, is reaching similar conclusions.  If the name of a banker appears again and again, that banker comes to be “on the radar” at the IRS and DOJ.  If the banker is then criminally charged, the banker is likely to cooperate with prosecutors and divulge bank account information as part of a negotiated settlement.  For instance, Renzo Gadola, a former UBS banker in Switzerland was charged with facilitating US tax fraud.  He pled guilty in December 2010 and has been cooperating with DOJ prosecutors.  He has provided information about U.S. clients and other Swiss bankers who assisted in hiding foreign assets.  As part of Gadola’s settlement, he must return to the U.S. annually to further assist DOJ investigations of foreign banking.

Many of our clients who came forward with timely voluntary disclosures were relieved when they later learned that their foreign bankers had been criminally charged.  If the clients had delayed in coming forward, and the bankers had shared account information with the government, then the clients would not have been accepted into the voluntary disclosure program and might have faced criminal prosecutions themselves!

At the same time that the government is going on an offensive against non-compliant offshore accounts, it is also offering yet another opportunity to come forward and declare such accounts in return for lower penalties and no criminal prosecution.

In January, 2012, the IRS announced the re-opening of the 2011 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative (OVDI), which had previously expired in September, 2011.  The 2011 OVDI followed a similar 2009 program that likewise encouraged taxpayers to bring their foreign accounts into tax compliance, in return for lower penalties and avoidance of criminal prosecution. The renewal of the OVDI presents another opportunity for taxpayers to bring their foreign accounts into tax compliance.  The terms of the program are the same as the OVDI, but the penalties have been increased.  Still, the penalties are significantly lower than the penalties that would apply if the IRS discovers the account, and criminal prosecution can also be avoided.

In light of the erosion of foreign banking secrecy, discovery of the account by the IRS is very likely.  Notwithstanding promises to its clients of banking secrecy, UBS revealed the names of almost 5,000 U.S. clients to the U.S. government, in return for the U.S. dropping a civil and criminal tax fraud prosecution against UBS.  Credit Suisse is facing similar charges and is expected to settle these charges by likewise handing over client names.  Negotiations are currently underway between the U.S. and the Swiss for a global settlement that will involve all Swiss banks, including Wegelin, Julius Baer, the Kantonal Banks, and others.  It is expected that the settlement will require the Swiss banks to reveal the names of U.S. account holders to the U.S. government.  The announcement of the re-opening of the OVDI is well-timed to allow another opportunity for such account holders to pre-emptively disclose their accounts to the IRS before the Swiss do so.

Another threat to bank secrecy comes from bank employees who divulge account details of customers, in contravention of bank policy and local (e.g., Swiss) law.  The most recent example is the case of the Central Governor of the Swiss National Bank, Philipp Hildebrand, who last week resigned following allegations of improper currency trades made by his wife.  The allegations resulted from information disclosed by an IT employee “whistle blower” at the Swiss National Bank.

Bank employees handing over supposed “secret” banking data is not new. Back in 1999, John Mathewson, the former owner of Guardian Bank and Trust, a defunct Cayman Islands Bank, was charged in the U.S. with money laundering. When Mr. Mathewson was arrested, he gave U.S. investigators bank records that contained information about American depositors at the bank who had evaded U.S. tax obligations. Mathewson gave up the banking data in return for leniency in his criminal sentencing.

In 2008, a renegade employee of LGT Bank in Liechtenstein stole data about client accounts and sold the data to the German intelligence service in return for millions of Euros.  With that data, the German government prosecuted many prominent Germans for tax fraud.  The German government also shared the data with other governments around the world.  In 2009, an employee of HSBC provided bank account data to the French government.  In 2010, Germany again purchased banking data, stolen by an employee of a Swiss bank.  The DOJ was able to successfully prosecute UBS, and then UBS clients, because of information that had been disclosed by UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld to the U.S. government.

For our prior articles on banking secrecy undermined by whistle blowers, please see here and here.

Thus, there is no bank secrecy.  The discovery of a “secret” offshore account can be the result of numerous factors:  First, internally at the bank, via whistle blowers, “snitches” and thieves.  Second, due to the vigilance of the U.S. government in pursuing foreign banks and bank accounts, demonstrated by IRS/DOJ success against UBS, and current investigations of numerous other banks (including HSBC, Credit Suisse, Wegelin, Julius Baer, Leumi, Hapoalim, Liechtensteinische Landesbank and others).

A third significant blow to foreign banking secrecy is via the newly implemented Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which imposes new offshore reporting requirements on account owners and on foreign banks.  New IRS Form 8938 requires disclosure of foreign financial assets with an aggregate value in excess of $50,000, and applies to offshore assets owned during 2011. Form 8938 will be due, along with Form 1040, by April 15, 2012.

In light of the above challenges to offshore secrecy, clearly anyone with a foreign asset that is still not tax compliant must take immediate measures to bring the asset into tax compliance.  As noted, it is widely believed that the renewal of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative is purposely timed to incentivize compliance before the next wave of banking data is released to the U.S. government.  Whether through additional prosecutions of banks and bankers, or via a settlement with Swiss banks, each outcome will lead to the revelation of the identities of account owners and other banking data to the U.S. government.  Once the U.S. government has the identities of the account owners, a pre-emptive disclosure is too late, and all penalties, including criminal prosecution, may apply.

The renewal of the OVDI presents an opportunity for those who still have not brought their offshore assets into compliance.  The new penalties are 27.5%, 2.5% greater than the 25% penalty under the 2011 OVDI, yet less than the 50% penalty that the IRS has been imposing in recent criminal tax fraud prosecutions.  In addition to lower penalties, a proper, timely voluntary disclosure can still avoid criminal prosecution.  As we’ve noted repeatedly, the IRS continues to target foreign accounts. We strongly advise taxpayers to bring non compliant foreign accounts into tax compliance, in order to avoid discovery by the IRS, higher penalties and criminal prosecution.  In this new era of international transparency, decreased banking secrecy and stronger enforcement efforts, offshore banking compliance is very highly recommended.

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