WASHINGTON -- The IRS is about to get an unprecedented look at bank accounts and investments U.S. citizens hold abroad, through a law that is making it harder to hide assets from the tax collector.
On Tuesday, the government will start imposing 30 percent taxes on many overseas payments to financial institutions that don't share information with the IRS.
That new burden has frustrated overseas banks and U.S. expatriates. It's also created a new standard of global bank-to- government information sharing designed to throw light on often difficult-to-trace accounts.
No one knows yet how successful the law will be in combating tax evasion. Still, it allows the United Statwes to scoop up data from more than 77,000 financial institutions and 80 governments about its citizens' overseas financial activities.
"I don't think anything on this scale has ever been tried before," said John Harrington, a former international tax counsel at the Treasury Department who is now a partner at Dentons in Washington. "The idea that it would go off without a hitch is sort
of hard to imagine."
What led to the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, was the inability of federal tax authorities to obtain clear information about financial accounts that U.S. citizens have outside the country. That's especially important for the U.S., because unlike many other countries, it taxes citizens on their worldwide income regardless of where they actually live.
"If you had an account outside of the U.S., you were pretty much on your honor to disclose that information," said Denise Hintzke, the global tax leader for Deloitte Tax's Fatca practice.
In establishing the law, Congress and President Barack Obama in effect threatened to cut off banks and other companies from easy access to the U.S. market if they didn't pass along such information. The U.S. was able to leverage its status as a financial center to demand action from governments and banks in other countries.
The proposal was barely debated when Congress in 2010 passed it as a budgetary offset to a tax credit for hiring. It was projected to raise $8.7 billion in revenue over a decade.
Congress hasn't addressed it since then, although the Republican National Committee voted earlier this year in favor of repeal.
Under Fatca, U.S. banks and other companies making certain cross-border payments -- such as interest and dividends -- to foreign financial institutions must withhold a 30 percent tax if the recipient isn't providing information about its U.S. account holders.
Later phases of the law will apply to a broader set of cross-border payments, such as gross proceeds from stock sales. Many non-financial companies will be affected, too.
The law has been accompanied by a new set of regulations and definitions, creating a cottage industry of advisers and interpreters. It was supposed to start Jan. 1, 2013, which was put off until Tuesday to give taxpayers more time to comply.
Fatca prompted more than 77,000 financial institutions to register for the program to avoid the withholding tax. As a result of that compliance, the government doesn't expect to collect much direct revenue from the 30 percent levy, said a senior Treasury official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning for Fatca.