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IRS Position on Willfulness in FBAR Penalty Case Not Taxpayer-Friendly


July 19, 2018
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The IRS Recently Clarified Its Position on Willfulness in FBAR Penalty Cases and It Is Not Taxpayer-Friendly

Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. 5314(a) and 31 C.F.R. 1010.350, a United States person is required to annually report financial accounts in which it has a financial interest or signature authority over to the Internal Revenue Service on a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Form (FBAR). If a taxpayer fails to timely submit its FBAR, 31 U.S.C. 5321(a)(5) allows the government to impose penalties on the taxpayer up to the greater of $100,000 or half the value of the account balance at the time of the violation when the failure to file is considered “willful”.

IRS Position on Willfulness in FBAR Penalty Case Not Taxpayer-Friendly

The IRS has recently released internal documentation in which it outlines its views on the standard for “willfulness” in assessing FBAR penalties against taxpayers. It also sets forth its belief in the burden of proof required to establish that a taxpayer acted willfully.

According to the IRS, willfulness is more than just ignoring a known obligation. The IRS has determined that for FBAR violation purposes, the term “willful” includes not only a knowing failure to file, but also when the taxpayer is “reckless” or “willfully blind” in its failure to file.

Courts have held that recklessness exists when a taxpayer “(1) ought to have known know that (2) there was a grave risk [in not complying with the law] and if (3) he was in a position to find out for certain very easily.” United States v. Vespe, 868 F.2d 1328, 1335 (3d Cir. 1989).

Willful blindness exists when a taxpayer makes “a conscious effort to avoid learning about reporting requirements.” United States v. Williams, 489 Fed.Appx. 655, 659-660 (4th Cir. 2012). The Internal Revenue Manual also indicates that “willful blindness may be present when a person admits knowledge of, and fails to answer questions concerning, his interest in or signature or other authority over financial accounts at foreign banks on Schedule B of his Federal income tax return.” I.R.M. 4.26.16.6.5.1.

Thus, the IRS could attempt to assess a willfulness penalty even if you were not aware of your FBAR filing obligation. Although the IRS initially believed in the internal guidance that the IRS would need to prove willfulness under the clear and convincing standard, case law has indicated that a lower burden – merely a preponderance of the evidence – is all that is required to assess an FBAR penalty against a taxpayer. Thus, the IRS needs only to prove that you were more likely than not willful in failing to file your FBAR.

If you have questions, please contact us

To determine whether you should be concerned about a willful FBAR violation, it is advisable to work with an experienced New Jersey tax attorney who can review your options. At Scarinci Hollenbeck, our seasoned professionals stand ready to assist. If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Jeffrey Pittard, at 201-806-3364.

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