In a move which should send shivers through the spines of delinquent FBAR (Foreign Bank Account Report) filers the Swiss Federal Supreme Court has granted the IRS’ request for the names of U.S persons holding “secret” Swiss bank accounts. The IRS had originally submitted a so-called group request in September 2011, but an account holder brought an appeal to the Swiss Federal Administrative Court which held that the group request was too vague and amounted to a fishing expedition. The IRS amended its group request, and the Federal Administrative Court ruled the amended request was allowable under the provisions of 1996 Convention between the United States and Switzerland for the Avoidance of Double Taxation with Respect to Taxes on Income (the “Treaty”).
Under the Treaty, the Swiss will supply information if the IRS can show a suspicion of “fraud or the like.” Since Swiss and U.S. law are very different in terms of defining tax fraud it is sometimes difficult for tax attorneys in the U.S. to understand whether a particular set of factual circumstances will be considered fraud or the like. Indeed, “mere tax evasion” is not a crime in Switzerland. The key issue in the Credit Suisse case, however, was whether a “group request” i.e. one which describes a particular set of persons by their characteristics as opposed to providing a specific name could ever be honored.
According to its press release the Swiss Federal Supreme Court held that:
[R]equests for administrative assistance in relation with fraud and the like are in principle admissible under the 1996 Double Taxation Agreement with the United States, regardless of whether the suspicion falls on one or more persons and whether the said persons are explicitly named in the request.
In another words in the future the IRS can describe a class of individuals, and a Swiss Bank will be required to turn over their bank records. It wouldn’t be a bit surprising if the IRS already has group requests in the works at other Swiss banks including those reportedly under investigation such as Julius Baer, Basler Kantonalbank, Zuercher Kantonalbank, HSBC, and Pictet.
It is hard to believe that anyone with a Swiss bank account is still laboring under the belief that their offshore accounts will remain secret from the IRS. The penalties for failure to file FBARS are very severe, and can include criminal convictions, as well as civil penalties which can reach 300% of the offshore account balances. In addition, criminal tax evasion charges could be brought by the IRS. Anyone with an offshore account needs to give serious consideration to whether or not they should enter the IRS’ Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP). With the IRS racking up continued success in obtaining the cooperation of foreign banks it could decide to close the OVDP at any time, and therefore waiting may not be an option.