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Kelly Bullis: Hiding assets creates legal and tax problems

Kelly J. Bullis

I would bet most of you have heard advice from friends about how to hide assets from the U.S. government. Funny thing about free advice is that it usually isn’t good. Gather around the campfire, folks, while I tell you the scary story of FINCEN — the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

To put it bluntly, if you have any control over any foreign bank accounts with a cumulative balance of more than $10,000, each year, you must file a special report called a FINCEN Form 114 by June 30. This form is not difficult to fill out and must be e-filed. But failure to timely file this report could get ugly real fast.

First, the penalties for not filing the Form 114 are $10,000 immediately, and $10,000 a month until it’s filed. The maximum penalty is the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of the balance in the account at the time of the violation for each violation up to six years. But wait, there’s more. If a person is “willfully” guilty of not filing, they could be subject to criminal charges, including a multi-year prison sentence.

I recently heard about an elderly lady in Florida who inherited a foreign bank account. When she discovered she was required to file a Foreign Bank Account Report for the inherited accounts, she attempted to settle the matter with the IRS. Unfortunately, her offshore banks had already disclosed her name to the IRS. She ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion. The IRS recommended this 79-year-old woman be sentenced to more than three years in prison. Fortunately, the court didn’t go along with the IRS’ recommendations. But what is important to note here is the aggressive attitude on the part of the IRS. It’s pretty serious about enforcing this FINCEN Form 114.

A few years ago, IRS started an Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative (OVDI) which was supposed to flush out those “guilty” folks who had decided they wanted to come clean on not disclosing their foreign bank accounts.

In essence, they would have to amend eight years of back tax returns, pay the tax, interest, and 20 percent accuracy penalty and pay a fine of 27.5 percent of the highest balance of their combined foreign bank accounts and foreign assets. In return, the IRS would not recommend criminal prosecution nor assess the normal penalty mentioned above. Isn’t that kind and gentle of them?

Let’s say a person — in a 15 percent tax bracket — had a foreign bank account with a balance of $11,000 earning 2 percent ($220) for eight years and didn’t report it to the IRS, while also answering “no” to the questions at the bottom of Schedule B each year and didn’t file the FINCEN Form 114 for any of those years.

Now, this person is getting cold feet about continuing to hide this from the IRS. The penalty would be $409.66 of regular back tax, interest, and 20 percent penalty. (That’s the easy one!) Plus the 27.5 percent penalty on the $11,000 highest balance in the bank account comes to $5,500. Thus to come clean, this person would pay the IRS a total of $5,909.66. That is a heck of a lot better than paying the penalty for not filing the FINCEN Form 114 for the last six years, which would total $600,000, and possibly go to prison for five years.

Now, if you are actually one of those folks who needs to come clean on this foreign bank account issue, talk to me ASAP, or you could contact Attorney Steve Wilson in Carson City at 775-882-5545. Steve’s office specializes in helping folks resolve issues like this.

Kelly Bullis is a certified public accountant in Carson City. Contact him at 775-882-4459. He’s on the Web at BullisAndCo.com.