Legislation meant to help the U.S. government locate overseas assets of American tax cheats created little stir when it was quietly slipped into a jobs bill last year. But the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, as it is known, is now causing alarm among businesses outside the United States that fear they will have to spend billions of dollars a year to meet the greatly increased reporting burdens, starting in 2013. American expatriates also say the new filing demands are daunting and overblown.
“Congress came in with a sledgehammer,” said H. David Rosenbloom, a lawyer at Caplin and Drysdale in Washington and a former international tax policy adviser for the Treasury Department. “The Fatca story is really kind of insane.”
Congress created the act after the Justice Department’s successful pursuit in 2009 of UBS that resulted in the Swiss bank — which had encouraged American citizens to set up secret offshore accounts — paying $780 million and turning over client details to avoid criminal prosecution.
The law is meant to ensure Americans cannot use hidden trusts overseas to evade taxes, a goal that is widely applauded. But critics say that it amounts to gross legislative overreach, and that the $8 billion the Treasury expects to reap in taxes owed over 10 years pales next to the costs it will impose on foreign institutions. Those entities are being asked, in effect, to pay for the cost of tracking down American tax evaders.
The law demands that virtually every financial firm outside the United States and any foreign company in which Americans are beneficial owners must register with the IRS, check existing accounts in search of Americans and annually declare their compliance. ...
The IRS, under pressure from angry and confused financial officials abroad, has extended the deadline for registration until June 30, 2013, and is struggling to provide more detailed guidance by the end of this year.
But beginning in 2012, many American expatriates — already the only developed-nation citizens subject to double taxation from their home government — must furnish the I.R.S. with detailed personal information on their overseas assets.
American Citizens Abroad, an advocacy group, estimates the new form will add three hours to tax preparation. Considering that the law provides harsh penalties for even unintentional errors, the organization says it is “simply not realistic for a vast swath of the normally law-abiding filer community unable to afford the expensive services of a professional tax adviser.” ... “The Fatca legislation treats all Americans with overseas bank accounts as criminals, even though most of them are honest, hard-working individuals who happen to be living and working or retired abroad,” said Jacqueline Bugnion, a director of American Citizens Abroad. ...
There are also questions about whether the IRS will be ready for millions of complicated new filings each year, with critics charging that Congress failed to provide the agency with the capacity to handle the coming avalanche of data. ...
Then there is a question of reciprocity: Would the United States accept the same demands for information from the tax authorities in other countries — say Russia or China?