Saturday, February 29, 2020

Interesting Court Cases: Failure to File an FBAR and Interpretation of "Reasonable Cause".

Sussex, UK

It is a beautiful sunny, cold February 29th in Michigan. Us tax professionals are hurtling through tax season at break-neck speed. The days are getting longer and Spring is teasing us with a game of peek-a-boo. I am hooked on a certain streaming show about gardens in the UK and the presenter's encouraging words that could make any gardener's wildest dreams come true. I am already thinking of all the flowers and herbs I am going to plant post-tax season when the weather is warmer. 
 
However, wild dreams should not come into the picture when we are talking about foreign bank account reporting, penalties and reasonable causes. Let us go over what happened to Mr. Agrawal, a naturalized U.S. Citizen and immigrant from India in (DC WI 12/9/2019) 124 AFTR 2d ¶2019-5522. 
 
Facts About the Case: Mr. Agrawal self-prepared his 2006 and 2007 tax returns. He hired an accountant to prepare his 2008 and 2009 tax returns. In all years, he indicated, in the Foreign Accounts and Trusts part of Schedule B to Form 1040, that he did not have a foreign bank account. In all years he failed to file FBARs. But Mr. Agrawal did have a foreign bank account during those years with more than $10,000 in it.
 
The defendant testified that he told his accountant that he did not have a foreign bank account. He said he did this because a tax professional at the foreign bank told him that the income in the account was not subject to US income tax.

Mr. Agrawal was in immigrant from India, completed graduate school education in the US, and taught geophysics and math at a US technical college.

The IRS sought to impose a penalty for non-willful failure to file FBARs. While he conceded that he should have filed FBARs, Agrawal argued the reasonable cause exception should apply and that his conduct was excused because he relied on the advice of tax professionals, and because he was elderly, unsophisticated about tax law, and spoke English as a second language.
 
Quick background about reporting your foreign bank accounts: Under 31 USC § 5314(a), every person who has a financial interest in, or signature or other authority over, a financial account, or accounts, in a foreign country must report the accounts to IRS annually on a FinCEN Report 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (also known as the FBAR) if the aggregate value of the foreign financial accounts exceeds $10,000 at any time during the calendar year. 
 
31 USC § 5321(a)(5) provides the methodology how the Secretary of the Treasury may impose penalties on failure to file and also states how much the penalties depending on whether the violation of these rules were non willful {maximum $10,000} or willful {greater of $100,000 or 50% of the balance in the account at time of violation}. Under USC § 5321(a)(5)(B)(ii), the IRS may not impose a penalty if the violation was due to reasonable cause. 
 
Reasonable Cause & What It Is?: Interestingly, 31 USC § 5321 nor it's corresponding regs define the term "reasonable cause" and there has been very little development in case law either. Code Sec 6651(a) and code Sec 6664(c)(1) give some context in terms of tax compliance. The courts have found these useful in constructing a standard applicable to reasonable cause in the FBAR context. { Jarnagin, (Ct Fed Cl 2017) 120 AFTR 2d 2017-6683 } 
 
Regs under Code Sec 6651 equate the reasonable cause standard to "ordinary business care and prudence". The regs under Code Sec 6664 state the determination for reasonable cause needs to be made on a case by case basis, taking into account all pertinent facts and circumstances. It also alludes to the fact that the taxpayer is responsible to assess the taxpayer's proper liability. 
 
Decision By The Court: The district court found that the reasonable cause exception did NOT apply to Agrawal and that he was liable for the penalty.

The court held that no reasonable juror could find that Agrawal acted with ordinary business care and prudence, or that he made a reasonable effort to understand his FBAR reporting responsibilities, when he failed to file his FBARs for the years 2006-2009. By his own admission, the defendant self-prepared his 2006 and 2007 tax returns; he did not disclose the existence of a foreign financial account on Schedule B despite a direct question on the issue. 
 
According to his deposition testimony, in 2008 and 2009, Agrawal did not tell the CPA preparing his tax return of the existence of the foreign account or question the CPA's decision to leave blank the Schedule B question about foreign bank accounts.

The court said that a taxpayer acting with ordinary business care, or one making a reasonable effort to understand his responsibilities, would have sought informed advice about the reporting requirements alluded to in Schedule B; seeking such advice would necessarily involve the taxpayer notifying the advisor of the existence of the foreign account.

The court said that Agrawal's arguments that he was elderly, spoke English as a second language, and had an inexpert understanding of tax reporting requirements did not alter its reasonable cause analysis. By his own admission, Agrawal had sufficient mental acuity and technical facility with the English language to work as a math teacher and as a geophysicist, and, for that matter, to represent himself in this litigation.
 
Conclusion: Suffice it to say that it is getting to be really difficult for a taxpayer to claim that they were not aware of their responsibility to declare their foreign bank accounts since the IRS has been so vocal about this requirement since their push with FATCA in 2010. As in Mr. Agrawal's case, if you have been filing your own taxes, any over-the-counter tax software worth it's salt would ask you a question regarding the presence of foreign bank accounts and if you feign ignorance, it is not going to be a plausible excuse. 

In our practice, we have helped countless non-reporters. If you or someone you know has been delinquent with their foreign bank reporting and needs help being compliant, we can go over various options available and determine the best possible solution for you. 
 
Bibliography: (DC WI 12/9/2019) 124 AFTR 2d ¶2019-5522; FTC 2d/FIN ¶V-1813.4; United States Tax Reporter ¶60,114.06; Reg. § 310.6651-1(c)(1); Jarnagin, (Ct Fed Cl 2017) 120 AFTR 2d 2017-6683; 31 USC § 5314(a) and 5321(a)(5)
 
--
I am an Enrolled Agent and owner of MN Tax and Business Services PLLC (www.mntaxbiz.com), based in the Metro Detroit area in Michigan, USA. The firm provides Tax Preparation, Planning services to Individuals, Small Businesses, Trusts and Non-Profit Organizations. Get my latest posts by subscribing to my blog.

You can also find me tweeting @ManasaSogNadig where I have been @Forbes Top 100 Tax Tweeters for 2018, 2019 and 2020.