Interesting Court Cases: When Your Friend Tells You Not To File an FBAR!
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Clients tell me many times about how they heard about disclosing their foreign bank accounts because their friends were doing it. It is funny when I am asked why should they disclose their foreign bank accounts when their friends are not doing that. I am reminded of those times when as kids we would ask our parents for permission to something mundane, and be subjected to an inquisition! The fun is because I get to say something most Indian kids grow up listening to their mom say it many times when , "Would you go jump in a well if your friend did it?" The angst is lost in translation but you get me, don't you?
Something along similar lines must have happened with the Horowitzes. Peter and Susan Horowitz were US Citizens living in Saudi Arabia between years 1984 to 2001 and they opened a bank account in Switzerland with UBS. The Horowitz's never closed the account on their return to the US. By 2008, the account had grown to $2 million. Towards the end of 2008, Peter closed the account and tried to open a joint account with his wife at a bank named Finter. But the bank did not add her on because she was not present, hence the account remained in Peter's name only till 2009 when Susan traveled to Switzerland and her name was added to it.
The Horowitzes' tax returns were filed using tax summaries sent to their US tax preparers. Peter never asked his tax preparers if he needed to disclose this bank account. Their tax returns were filed every year with the questions on Schedule B asking if they have foreign bank accounts being answered with a "No".
A long story short, the IRS held that willfulness penalty applied with respect to both taxpayers for 2007 and with respect to Peter for 2008.
The Horowitzes testified that they had conversations with other expatriates living in the United States and they believed that income earned in Saudi Arabia was only subject to taxes in Saudi Arabia. Peter said he did not believe he had FBAR filing requirements for 2007 and 2008, Susan said she did not know what an FBAR was. The tax accountants never asked them if they had accounts overseas nor did they explain the Schedule B questions regarding the foreign account questions. The Horowitzes argued that their friends told them they did not need to pay taxes on interest in their foreign accounts.
The Court argued that it did not have any information from which the court could assess whether it was reasonable for them to accept what their friends said as legally correct. Their friends' views did not override the clear instructions on Schedule B. It was also deemed that the very fact that the Horowitzes were having conversations with their friends about the taxability of interest on their foreign accounts meant that they were aware about their compliance needs. They should have had the same conversation with their accountants! The Court inferred based on these facts willful blindness could be inferred.
Moral of the story: If you have foreign bank accounts, please have conversations with your tax professionals on HOW TO disclose the accounts not conversations with your friends on HOW NOT TO. If your tax professionals are not aware of your compliance needs, find an Enrolled Agent on the NAEA Find a Tax Expert Directory who is an expert at expatriate taxation. And definitely do not try to do this yourself.
Bibliography: Horowitz, (DC MD 1/18/2019) 123 AFTR 2d ¶2019-362
Consult with a Circular 230 Tax Professional for your unique tax needs. Please read my disclaimer here. If you have any questions regarding this issue or other tax matters, all of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.