Abusive Tax Schemes: IRS Could Improve Its Reviews of Offshore Insurance Audits and Investigations

GAO-22-104180 Published: Mar 23, 2022. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Offshore insurance arrangements can be used to improperly claim tax benefits. One such arrangement that has been abused is micro-captive insurance—i.e., small insurance companies owned by the businesses they insure.

We found that IRS could improve how it reviews its audits and investigations of such arrangements. For example, IRS managers have little guidance for when an audit should have a managerial review. IRS also could improve how it records and analyzes its quality reviews of investigations.

We recommended that IRS clarify guidance on offshore micro-captive insurance audits and establish a formal review system for investigations.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

To encourage voluntary compliance with tax laws concerning offshore insurance arrangements, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses feedback from internal stakeholders and the public to review and modify applicable guidance. Offshore insurance has legitimate uses but also can be structured to hide U.S. taxpayers' assets or falsely claim tax benefits. Treasury and IRS have opportunities to better solicit public input on certain guidance, including for offshore insurance, as GAO recommended in its April 2021 report. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but GAO maintains that the recommendation remains valid.

One offshore insurance issue that IRS has prioritized with enforcement is micro-captive insurance arrangements—that is, when small insurance companies insure related business entities. For example, micro-captive insurance has been included on IRS's “Dirty Dozen” tax schemes list. To ensure micro-captive insurance audits are conducted properly, IRS generally uses two approaches:

  • Managerial reviews: These consist of various types of written reviews, including in-process case reviews and workload reviews, among others, performed by the managers overseeing the audit.
  • Quality reviews: These are conducted by independent reviewers outside of the audit work-stream to ensure that all processes meet IRS's standards.

IRS officials said that current oversight practices were sufficient to ensure that micro-captive audits were conducted accurately. For example, IRS cited that from fiscal years 2016 through 2020, the Small Business and Self Employed Division's (SB/SE) managerial reviews found that performance on attributes of micro-captive insurance audits were conducted appropriately about 97 percent of the time, compared to about 92 percent for all audits in general.

However, IRS's application of its review approaches could be enhanced. For example, SB/SE's managers have little guidance in the Internal Revenue Manual for when an audit should be subjected to managerial review and Large Business and International Division (LB&I) managers lack systems through which to record and analyze certain managerial reviews. By clarifying guidance and establishing a formal review system, SB/SE and LB&I would have better assurance that they are effectively auditing micro-captive insurance.

IRS also investigates whether promoters of micro-captive insurance schemes violate tax law. IRS's oversight of promoter investigations has no systematic method that would enable IRS to evaluate the effectiveness of its micro-captive promoter investigation program. For example, SB/SE lacks a systematic method to identify micro-captive promoter investigations for quality review. From fiscal years 2016 through 2020, LB&I did not apply quality reviews to any micro-captive insurance promoter investigations. Conducting formal reviews more systematically would better assure the quality of IRS's promoter investigations on micro-captive arrangements.

Why GAO Did This Study

Tax evasion schemes involving offshore insurance are complex and resource-intensive for IRS to pursue, making it important for IRS to conduct compliance programs effectively.

GAO was asked to review how IRS conducts enforcement on offshore insurance compliance issues. This report evaluates to what extent IRS (1) reviews its guidance on offshore insurance to ensure that the guidance has its intended effect; (2) aligns oversight of its audit activities on taxpayers who may be abusing micro-captive insurance tax shelters with IRS audit policies and guidance; and (3) reviews its investigation activities on promoters who market abuses of offshore insurance tax shelters.

GAO reviewed IRS procedures on issuing guidance and on reviews of audits and promoter investigations, reviewed files on audits related to micro-captive insurance tax schemes, interviewed IRS officials, and compared IRS procedures with IRS policies and selected federal standards for internal control.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations to improve how IRS oversees, through managerial reviews and independent quality reviews, its taxpayer audits and promoter investigations involving micro-captive insurance arrangements. IRS disagreed with the recommendations, stating that its current procedures are sufficient and citing resource constraints. However, GAO maintains that IRS's procedures should be refined and can be done so with minimal use of resources.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have SB/SE provide more specific guidance on when SB/SE should use various managerial review tools and the frequency with which such reviews should be conducted on high-priority matters such as those surrounding micro-captive insurance arrangements. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have LB&I adopt formal managerial reviews of its audits and establish methods and procedures for recording and analyzing managerial review data that allow it to isolate high-priority cases, including micro-captive insurance audits, and use the data to assess the quality of its audits. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have SB/SE and LB&I subject a sample of their micro-captive insurance audits to a formal quality review process. Based on the findings of this review, SB/SE and LB&I should take corrective action to remedy any deficiencies. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have SB/SE design and implement an identification and tracking method in EQRS to allow agency officials to readily identify and compare managerial reviews of microcaptive promoter investigations, both to other micro-captive promoter investigations, and promoter investigations generally, and use the data to assess the quality of its promoter investigations. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have LB&I adopt formal managerial reviews of micro-captive insurance promoter investigations, establish a reliable way to store and track managerial review data of promoter investigations that allows it to isolate high priority cases, issue guidance on how often and by what method such investigations should be subjected to managerial review, and use the data to assess the quality of its promoter investigations. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have SB/SE develop a method to assess the quality of promoter investigations and apply this method to micro-captive promoter investigations. Based on these reviews, SB/SE should take corrective action to remedy any deficiencies uncovered in its analysis. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should have LB&I establish and implement metrics on promoter investigation quality and subject a set of micro-captive promoter penalty investigations to formal quality review procedures to establish a baseline measure of micro-captive promoter investigation quality. Based on these reviews, LB&I should take corrective action to remedy any deficiencies uncovered in its analysis. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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