Since 2009, the IRS has operated an Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) for U.S. taxpayers who have failed to disclose foreign assets or report foreign income from those assets to the IRS or Treasury. The program provides reduced penalties and other benefits, thus giving taxpayers an opportunity to address their past noncompliance and “become right” with the government.
The IRS reports that 45,000 taxpayers have made voluntary disclosures since 2009 and have paid $6.5 billion in back taxes, interest, and penalties. In 2014, the IRS made important changes to the OVDP, with the expectation that the revised program will lead to a significant increase in the number of U.S. taxpayers who participate in the OVDP and report their undisclosed foreign assets.
U.S. taxpayers, including U.S. citizens living abroad, must report and pay taxes on their worldwide income, including income from foreign assets. Taxpayers must report foreign accounts on Form 1040, Schedule B; if their value exceeds certain thresholds, they must report on Form 8938, Statement of Foreign Financial Accounts. Taxpayers with accounts worth more than $10,000 must report the accounts on the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), which is filed with Treasury (not the IRS).
The IRS provided temporary OVDPs in 2009 and 2011. In 2012, it opened another OVDP that it continues to offer. Under the 2012 program, taxpayers must enter into a closing agreement with the IRS, provide updated returns for the prior eight years, and pay a penalty as high as 27.5 percent. In return, the IRS agrees not to pursue criminal penalties against taxpayers who may have willfully failed to report their foreign assets and/or income. In 2012, the IRS also unveiled a “streamlined procedures” program, with lighter penalties for U.S. taxpayers residing abroad who were nonwillful evaders.
The revised streamlined procedures program has been expanded to taxpayers living in the United States. Participants are no longer required to have an unpaid tax balance of $1,500 or less per year. Participants self-certify that their noncompliance was not willful; the IRS will review their circumstances. Taxpayers must pay taxes on any unreported income from the past three years and must file required FBAR reports for the previous six years. Participants living abroad pay no penalty, while U.S. residents pay a miscellaneous offshore penalty of five percent.
The OVDP program for potentially willful evaders has been tightened. Taxpayers must provide increased information and must pay the 27.5 percent penalty at the time of application. In light of the expanded streamlined program, the IRS eliminated reduced penalties (five and 12.5 percent) that had been offered to nonwillful OVDP participants. To increase the pressure on nonfilers, the IRS increased the penalty from 27.5 percent to 50 percent for taxpayers who used a foreign financial institution or a facilitator that the IRS or Justice Department publicly acknowledges to be under investigation.
Taxpayers are advised to consult with their tax adviser about these programs and choose carefully. A taxpayer cannot participate in both the streamlined and the OVDP programs; it is an either/or proposition. If a taxpayer is confident that his or her noncompliance was not willful, the streamlined program is a reasonable choice. However, this program provides no protection from criminal prosecution, further audits, or proposed tax increases, if the IRS decides that the taxpayer acted willfully.