Tax Administration:

Additional Time Needed to Complete Offshore Tax Evasion Examinations

GAO-07-237: Published: Mar 30, 2007. Publicly Released: May 3, 2007.

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Much offshore financial activity is not illegal, but numerous illegal offshore schemes have been devised to hide or disguise the true ownership of income streams and assets. IRS studies show lengthy development times for some offshore cases, which suggests that time or the lack thereof could be an impediment to effectively addressing offshore schemes. GAO was asked to (1) compare offshore and nonoffshore examination cases and determine whether the 3-year statute of limitations reduces offshore assessments, (2) compare enforcement problems posed by offshore cases to those where Congress has previously granted an exception to the statute, and (3) identify possible advantages and disadvantages of an exception to the statute for offshore cases. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed IRS data, reviewed examination files and other documents, and interviewed IRS officials and others in the tax practitioner and policy communities.

Examinations involving offshore tax evasion take much more time to develop and complete than other examinations for reasons such as technical complexity and the difficulty of obtaining information from foreign sources. When examinations are completed, the resulting median assessment from an offshore examination is almost three times larger than from other types of examinations. However, due to the 3-year statute, the additional time needed to complete an offshore examination means that IRS sometimes has to prematurely end offshore examinations and sometimes chooses not to open one at all, despite evidence of likely noncompliance. Although data were not available to measure the effect of the statute on assessments, IRS agents and managers told GAO that overall assessments for offshore cases are lower than they would be if IRS had more time to work these cases. Some offshore examinations exhibit enforcement problems similar to those where Congress has granted a statute change or exception in the past. For example, Congress changed the statute for certain abusive tax shelters that involved technical complexity and dilatory tactics on the part of taxpayers. Through discussions with IRS officials and others in the tax practitioner and policy communities, GAO identified advantages and disadvantages to such an exception. Advantages included increased flexibility for IRS to direct enforcement resources to egregious cases of noncompliance and a possible deterrent to future noncompliance. Disadvantages included increased uncertainty and lack of closure for taxpayers. Our commenters also discussed design options to mitigate some of the disadvantages of a statute extension, such as making an exception apply to all taxpayers having offshore accounts/entities, and thereby, mitigating taxpayer uncertainty and lack of closure.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 18, 2010, the President signed the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, which extended to six years the statute of limitations for omissions exceeding $5,000 and 25 percent of reported gross income derived from foreign assets. The extension is effective for returns filed after the date of enactment or for any return filed on or before that date if the section 6501 assessment period for that return has not expired as of the date of enactment.

    Matter: In order to provide IRS with additional flexibility in combating offshore tax evasion schemes, Congress may wish to make an exception to the 3-year civil statute of limitations assessment period for taxpayers involved in offshore financial activity. Similar to Congress's approach to unreported listed transactions, Congress may wish to establish a process wherein IRS would identify the types of offshore activity to which a statute exception would apply.


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