Lawyers qualified in American law needed to declare foreign assets by next Wednesday.
By ELAN MILLER
With only one week left until the September 23 deadline, American expatriates are scrambling to register their Israeli bank accounts with the US Internal Revenue Service before an amnesty expires.
While it has always been illegal for US citizens not to declare foreign income and bank accounts, and companies owned abroad, this has rarely been enforced. But all that changed earlier this year when the IRS announced that after a six-month amnesty period in which Americans could make "voluntary disclosure," it would start chasing rule-breakers and punish them to the full extent of the law.
The voluntary disclosure program allows US citizens to declare records of tax evasion over the previous six years to the IRS in exchange for a significantly reduced punishment. Otherwise, the violations could potentially result in a $500,000 fine or even a custodial sentence.
Applicants to the program need to hire a tax attorney, as they are in effect taking part in a criminal proceeding, admitting to breaking US law.
Recently, Swiss banking giant UBS capitulated to intense pressure from the IRS when they reached a settlement over efforts to force disclosure of UBS accounts where the US alleged the bank had aided American citizens' tax evasion. Unofficial estimates suggest that the details of as many as 50,000 accounts may be revealed.
While the law is aimed primarily at Americans involved in money-laundering, a good many expatriates look set to get caught out come next Wednesday.
As Dave Wolf, a US and Israeli tax attorney from the capital's Hacohen Wolf Law Offices, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, "It's hard to live in Israel without an Israeli bank account - if you have an account at Bank Leumi, Hapoalim or some other Israeli bank, you stand to become listed as a criminal unless you register them with the IRS."
With the deadline nearing and the prospect of spending time in jail looming, the number of applicants getting in touch with US-qualified attorneys here is skyrocketing, and in light of the IRS's victory over UBS, Americans are becoming increasingly concerned.
"If you do not come forward, and the IRS gets hold of you, which is not too unlikely given that they forced a Swiss bank to hand over 50,000 names, and the USA is signing exchange-of-information agreements with countries such as Gibraltar, you could well find yourself suddenly a criminal," Wolf said.
He explained that the agency had announced in March that it was willing to cut a deal with income tax evaders who had offshore accounts if they came in voluntarily, before September 23, to register their offshore activity over the previous years.
The IRS made it clear then that those who came forward wouldn't receive the stiffest civil penalty for failing to report an offshore account, a fine of "up to 50 percent of the account's balance for each year a taxpayer fails to file the required disclosure form."
"Doing these things have always been illegal, but now these people have a chance to make it legal. You know what, it's like Yom Kippur!" Wolf joked before adding seriously, "It's a chance for these people to come clean."
Wolf said American-Israelis shouldn't think they're okay simply because they have filed their US tax returns.
"It's irrelevant," he told the Post. "You need to file the American tax return form and report the worldwide taxable income, in addition to filling out the FBAR form in which you declare your accounts around the world," he said, referring to the US Treasury Department's Form 90-22.1, "Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts."
The crackdown means that huge sums of money will be pumped back into the American economy.
"I have one client with $17 million in his account here," explained Wolf. "He'll have to turn over $4 million or $5m. to the IRS, but if he doesn't do it, he knows that he'll have trouble when he flies back to America, or he could lose all of his money."
Although the wealthy are sure to be concerned, the average citizen may find that he or she has inadvertently broken US tax laws.
"In addition to the regular tax return, if a person has over $10,000 in their account at any time, he is obliged to fill out another form, the FBAR," noted Wolf. "This can quite easily happen if he has a pension fund or advanced training fund or something similar from work."
Wolf advises taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts or entities to make a voluntary disclosure, as "it enables them to become compliant, avoid substantial civil penalties and generally eliminate the risk of criminal prosecution... If these Israeli-Americans don't disclose accounts, they could be hit with criminal charges such as tax evasion or [be] charged with filing false tax returns and convicted for up to 10 years.
"As such, US-qualified lawyers in Israel have found themselves inundated with calls over the last six weeks or so," Wolf went on. "There has been a dramatic increase in requests and phone calls, especially after the UBS bank settlement with the IRS last month, which showed that the IRS is very aggressive and successful in trying to get hold of foreign accounts."
He added that "the feeling in the industry is that the days of hiding your money abroad is coming to an end. After the success in the UBS case, people feel that the next countries on the list are Taiwan and Israel, where a lot of money is being held in local accounts.
"People are under the impression that this 'offshore banking business' is something to do with Switzerland, and they don't realize that it's equally applicable here. Most people don't understand that not only do you need to file your foreign income, but also any foreign bank accounts," he said.
"You have to get your name into the program before the deadline," stressed Wolf. "It might be all legitimate - but you need a US tax attorney to register you and your activities for the past six years with the voluntary disclosure program. It's serious, and it's a criminal offense, period."
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