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Tax Compliance: Qualified Intermediary Program Provides Some Assurance That Taxes on Foreign Investors Are Withheld and Reported, but Can Be Improved.

GAO-08-99 December 19, 2007

U.S. source income flows to recipients offshore through foreign financial institutions and U.S. withholding agents. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) established the Qualified Intermediary (QI) program to improve tax withholding and reporting on such income. QIs are foreign financial institutions that contract with IRS to withhold and report U.S. tax. GAO was asked to (1) describe program features, (2) assess whether weaknesses exist in the U.S. withholding system for U.S. source income, and (3) identify any weaknesses in QI external reviews and IRS's use of program data. GAO interviewed agency officials and private practitioners and reviewed the latest IRS data on U.S. source income flowing offshore.

The QI program provides IRS some assurance that tax on U.S. source income sent offshore is properly withheld and reported. For example, QIs, located overseas, are more likely to have a direct working relationship with customers who claim tax benefits, such as reduced withholding, and agree to have independent parties review a sample of accounts and report to IRS. However, a low percentage of U.S. source income sent offshore flows through QIs. For tax year 2003, about 12.5 percent of the $293 billion in U.S. income flowed through QIs. The rest or about 87.5 percent flowed through U.S. withholding agents. While QIs are required to verify account owners' identities, U.S. withholding agents can accept owners' self-certification of their identity at face value. IRS does not measure the extent to which withholding agents rely on self-certification and use this data in its compliance efforts. In addition, U.S. persons may evade taxes by masquerading as foreign corporations. In 2003, 68.4 percent of U.S. income flowed through foreign corporations whose ownership is not reported to IRS. GAO's analyses showed that U.S. withholding agents and QIs reported billions of dollars in funds flowing to undisclosed jurisdictions and unknown recipients in 2003. Lacking proper identification, U.S. withholding agents and QIs should withhold taxes at the 30 percent rate. GAO found that withholding on these accounts was much lower than 30 percent. The contractually required independent reviews of QIs' accounts help provide assurance that taxes are properly withheld. However, the external auditors are not required to follow up on indications of fraud or illegal acts, as would reviews under U.S. Government Auditing Standards. As a result, IRS has less information on whether QIs are adequately preventing fraud or illegal acts. Further, while IRS obtains considerable data from information returns, it does not effectively use it to ensure proper withholding and reporting. IRS has not consistently entered data from paper information returns into a database and matched the data to tax returns to identify inappropriate disbursal of tax benefits. IRS could require electronic filing by QIs whenever possible.

Categories: Tax Policy and Administration, Auditing standards, Data collection, Data integrity, Federal taxes, Financial institutions, Noncompliance, Program evaluation, Reporting requirements, Tax administration, Tax evasion, Tax law, Tax return audits, Tax returns, Tax violations, Taxes, Withholding taxes, IRS Qualified Intermediary program
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Publication:General Accounting Office Reports & Testimony
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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