Thursday, November 19, 2015

Your Field Guide To Foreign Account Disclosure Programs- Which Is Your Pick?

There is a lot of buzz going around these days about FBARs, foreign accounts, foreign corporations, IGAs, tax treaties, more & more Swiss banks on the roll-call list, you name it and they cry "FATCA"! Confusion all-around, fear mongers are having a field day, may be rightfully so, fines are high and penalties higher. People are ready to hit the panic button. Or so one would think! 

To quote my favorite Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh here, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” 

If you are wondering what a Thich Nhat Hanh quote is doing on a tax blog but you have one hand hovering over the panic button, just think about it...without going into many of Buddhism's wonderful practices let me assure you, do decide to end your suffering, however first- DON'T PANIC! Second, hire yourself a good Enrolled Agent who specializes in foreign tax matters. And third, look through your options

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has offered several formal offshore voluntary disclosure programs or initiatives since 2009. These programs are for those qualifying taxpayers who would like to come forward and disclose their foreign bank accounts in exchange for reduced penalties and a promise not to be criminally investigated. This was called the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program or the OVDP.  

This was updated in June of 2014, and major changes were brought to the OVDP, some penalties were increased from 27.5% to 50%. The IRS also announced the Streamlined Compliance Filing Procedures for US Citizens living abroad and then expanded that to include US citizens living in the country. There are also some other disclosure programs that can be used if you qualify. 

In the post today, we will touch briefly on each disclosure program: 
A. The Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program {OVDP}: 

Taxpayers can avoid a long list of potential penalties by participating in the OVDP. They would have to submit to a standard, uniform penalty structure administered through the OVDP. Under the 2014 OVDP, participating taxpayers agree to pay a penalty equal to 27.5% of the highest year's aggregate value of OVDP Assets during a period that covers the past eight years, along with any applicable failure-to-file, failure-to-pay, and accuracy-­related penalties.

One has to go through a preclearance request process to determine if the taxpayer is eligible for the OVDP. Once the preclearance is received from the IRS, the taxpayer can go ahead and file the OVDP. The process of filing the OVDP is very complicated and arduous. It is not recommended you go through this as a DIY project.   

B. The Streamlined Compliance Filing Procedures:

The Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures are available to both qualifying US citizens living abroad and withing the country. The taxpayers filing under this program have to certify that their failure to report their foreign bank accounts/ financial assets and pay all tax due in respect of income from it was not due to willful conduct. 

Under this process, the $1,500 tax threshold and the risk assessment process associated with it have been eliminated. It is open to both eligible individual taxpayers and to the estates of individual taxpayers.The taxpayers or their estates must have valid Tax Identification Numbers (TINs) and they must pay any previous penalty assessments on their delinquent returns before participating under the Streamlined Compliance Procedure.   

C. Delinquent Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts or FBARs Submission Procedure:

If you have properly reported your income from your foreign financial assets and paid all tax on timely filed US tax returns, the IRS will not impose a penalty on your failure to file the delinquent FBARs. 

More detail on my recent blog post here on this procedure.  

D. Delinquent International Information Return Submission Procedures :

Taxpayers who do not qualify to use the OVDP or the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures can use this procedure if they have not filed one or more required international information returns and have a reasonable cause for not doing so in a timely manner. As a part of the reasonable cause statement under this procedure, the taxpayer must certify that any entity for which the information return is being filed did not engage in tax evasion.  Without the reasonable cause statement attached, penalties may be assessed. 

You CANNOT use any of the above programs if:

  1. The Internal Revenue Service has already initiated a civil examination or criminal investigation of the taxpayer OR 
  2. Has notified the taxpayer that it intends to begin an examination or investigation OR 
  3. If it has already received information from a third party (e.g., informant, other governmental agency, or the media) alerting it to the specific taxpayer's noncompliance OR
  4. If it has acquired information directly related to the taxpayer's specific liability from a criminal enforcement action. 

Under all the programs, the taxpayer must make good-faith arrangements to satisfy the tax, interest, and penalties determined to apply. Please consult with an Enrolled Agent who specializes in these matters to decide which of these programs would be best suited to your needs. 

Bibliography: Internal Revenue Manual;; Legal Information Institute; AICPA Resources- Tax Advisor 

As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website,

Friday, November 13, 2015

Story of a Good Citizen Who Reports Foreign Bank Accounts But Forgets FBARs! Huh?

I have to say today's blog post was triggered by a phone call a few weeks ago. The would-be client wanted to report his foreign bank accounts. Apparently, this good citizen had all his Is dotted & Ts crossed- so to speak- so what was the problem you ask? I hate to say this, but it happens more than you would think. He did not know there were additional reporting requirements involved when it came to bank accounts in foreign financial institutions. (More on FBAR thresholds in my post here)

You have to know that the IRS will not impose a penalty for the failure to file the delinquent FBARs if you "properly" reported the foreign bank accounts on your US tax returns, and paid tax on the income from these accounts and have not been contacted by the IRS for an income tax examination or a request for the delinquent returns has not been made by them. 

In which case, you can file the FBARs (electronically at FinCEN) for the previous years in which the foreign bank accounts were above the $10,000 mark, including a statement explaining why the FBARs are late. 

Simple? In essence- yes. But here's what you have to remember:

1. You should make sure you are not required to report these foreign bank accounts under the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (post here) or the Streamlined Domestic Procedures to file delinquent or amended tax returns to report and pay additional tax.

2. You cannot be under a civil examination or a criminal investigation by the IRS. 

3. You should not have already been contacted by the IRS about the delinquent FBARs.  

4. The FBARs will not be subject to audit automatically, but may be selected for audit for many other reasons that the IRS may determine. 

5. All open accounts during the disclosure period should be reported. So an account could be currently closed but if it was open during the period of disclosure, details have to be provided on the FBARs. 

If the above applies to you, know that a consultation with a knowledgeable Enrolled Agent specializing in Foreign Bank Account Regulations is a must. 

As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website.

Friday, November 6, 2015

QLACs and RMDs: Need a Break On Your Required Minimum Distribution? Read This!

I had a number of clients hit the magic RMD age this past year. RMD is an acronym for Required Minimum Distributions, if you are getting close to 70 years of age, you will be hearing that a lot. Even if that magic number is quite a ways down the road for you, this is a post you will want to read & remember. 

Read more about RMDs in detail here on my blog post.  

For a quick recap about what Required Minimum Distributions are, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines it as "Required Minimum Distributions generally are minimum amounts that a retirement plan account owner must withdraw annually starting with the year that he or she reaches 70 ½ years of age or, if later, the year in which he or she retires. However, if the retirement plan account is an IRA or the account owner is a 5% owner of the business sponsoring the retirement plan, the RMDs must begin once the account holder is age 70 ½, regardless of whether he or she is retired."

The idea of required minimum distributions at the age of 70 years has been in contention for sometime now. Many people these days are still working at that age and are not ready to draw from their retirement accounts. People also are living much longer due to many medical advances and sometimes outliving their retirement savings does become a matter of concern. 

In essence, a retiree must begin to take RMDs from his/ her qualified plans and IRAs by April 1st of the year after the year in which he or she turns 70 and a half in age. This requirement is postponed for qualified plans like the 401(k) if the taxpayer is still working and not a 50% or more owner of a business. The amount of the RMD is calculated on the account balances at the end of the previous year and life expectancy tables. 

Like I said earlier, since there were a few more clients than usual this year that hit 70 and half years in age, we heard the term "QLAC" thrown around a lot. "QLAC" stands for qualified longevity annuity contracts. The Internal Revenue Services (IRS) recognizing the above short-comings so to speak, approved QLACs to be included for use in Traditional IRAs, 401(k)s and other approved retirement plans in the middle of 2014. 

 Under the new rules: 
  • You can use up to 25% of your non-Roth retirement funds or $125,000, whichever is less, to fund a QLAC
  • You can defer funds from the QLAC for an additional 15 years or till you reach 85 years of age
  • You can lessen your RMDs
  • Since QLACs cannot include a variable, indexed or comparable component, they must be fixed annuities, hence your principal is protected. 
  • The QLAC is indexed for inflation
Do contact your Enrolled Agent or your financial advisor if this is an option for you and please make an informed decision regrading your retirement & your estate needs.

Bibliography: IRB 2014-30; Journal of Accountancy; CPA Practice Advisor

As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website,

Monday, November 2, 2015

2015: Year End - Tax Planning For Individuals, What To Expect!

It's November! I am always surprised by it's arrival & the realization that it's year-end tax planning time. The shortened day-light hours seem to  make that certain without a doubt. So let's roll-up our sleeves, get down to work and fine-tune possible last-minute strategies for lowering your 2015 tax bill. 

Tax Brackets: Let's take a quick look at the 2015 tax brackets, you will see from the table below that the top tax rate of 39.6% will apply to incomes over $$413,200 (single), $464,851 (married filing jointly and surviving spouse), $232,426 (married filing separately), and $439,000 (heads of households)

Picture Courtesy: Forbes Magazine
The 3.8% net investment income tax and/or the 0.9% Medicare surtax will also apply if you are in the high income bracket. 

The personal exemption for 2015 is $4000 each & the standard deduction amounts are as follows:

Retirement Plan Actions-Maximize Contributions: 
A. 2015 maximum employee contribution is $18,000 and $24,000 if you are 50 years of age or older. 
B. If you have a SIMPLE 401K, your maximum pre-tax contributions are $12,500 and $15,000 if 50 or older. 

C. If you qualify to contribute to a Traditional IRA, that max is $5,500. For taxpayers 50 or over but less than 70 1/2 years of age, $6,500.

D. If you have just started out on your career, the "myRA", maybe a good starter option for you. The myRA follows the same tax treatment and rules as the Roth IRA.  

E. You may want to look into whether you should convert your traditional IRAs to a Roth. 

Many other options can be discussed with regard to your existing 401Ks, 403Bs and 457 plans if you have after-tax contributions in them. Or if you have contributed more than the maximum into traditional IRAs. An Enrolled Agent will be able to guide you with the nuances. 

AMT Actions:
For 2015, the AMT rate is 26% on alternative minimum taxable income (AMTI) up to $185,400 ($92,700 for married filing separately) and 28% on AMTI over that amount. Taxpayers are allowed an AMT exemption depending on filing status, but the exemption is phased out for taxpayer's above a certain income level.

If you think you may be falling into this category, discuss with an Enrolled Agent what your options to minimize exposure are. 

American Opportunity Credit (AOC):
The AOC is available to you if you/ spouse/ dependent had qualified education expenses. The modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) to take the AOC is phased out at quite a low amount, $80,000 or more for single and $160,000 or more for joint filers. 

"Obamacare" Points to be Noted:
Note the "shared responsibility payment" penalty for not having health coverage for two or more months. Check to see if you are eligible for an exemption from the penalty. 

Tax Extender on the Health Coverage Credit means now it can be claimed for coverage through 2019. If you wish to claim this for 2014, we are still awaiting the new Form 8885.

 Child Tax Credit:
 If you are excluding foreign earned income from tax, your refundable portion of the child tax credit will be limited. 

Important Actions Other than Above:

It must be remembered that the focus for year end tax planning is not always only tax savings, the big financial picture should be kept in mind when adopting tax saving strategies. 

Income can be accelerated into 2015, if projected income for 2016 is going to be significantly higher. Options for this include, harvesting gains, converting retirement accounts, taking IRA distributions, settling insurance claims and so on. 

Income can also be deferred to 2016, if income in the coming year is going to be significantly lower. Examples for his include, taking year end bonus in January, if selling assets at a gain, doing it in 2016, or considering selling on installment if feasible, or parking investments in deferred annuities. 

The same goes for accelerating or deferring deductions to 2016.   

Important life events in the year will also effect your year-end tax planning strategy. 

One can also keep in mind the HSA balances, rentals from vacation homes, shifting income to a child and most importantly checking balances in foreign bank accounts if any. 

Call your tax professional, preferable an Enrolled Agent, to make your year-end tax planning appointment. 

Bibliography: IRS News Releases; Accounting Today; Parker Tax Publishing; Forbes Magazine; AICPA Tax Release.   

As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website,