Voluntary Disclosure Programs: A Saving Grace

Image courtesy of iStock.

Image courtesy of iStock.

Being a good tax citizen is important for businesses. However, businesses do not always adhere to that notion in practice. When a taxpayer does business in a jurisdiction, the decision to comply with applicable tax law is many times governed by the risk of exposure. This is especially true when businesses operate in multiple jurisdictions; compliance is assessed on a case-by-case basis. The cost burden of compliance resulting from registering to do business and filing tax returns in every required state can outweigh the benefits of the activities performed in those jurisdictions. Perhaps at that point, the decision not to register or not to file is made by the taxpayer and business goes on. However, over time the risk of exposure for not filing due to tax liability and mounting interest and penalties may grow to an unacceptable level. In addition, not registering to do business may have certain legal repercussions that can interfere with operations.

The questions then become:

  • Should I start filing now?
  • Should I have started filing already?
  • If I don’t file, will the tax man come after me?
  • What if the taxing authority requires me to have registered previously?
  • What if information requested from prior years reveals additional liability?

Luckily, many states have a viable answer: Voluntary Disclosure Programs. These programs allow a taxpayer to come to the taxing authority, with hat in hand, and diminish some of the exposure. Specifics vary by state, but generally the taxpayer is forgiven of penalties in exchange for payment of tax and interest due over the applicable look-back period. Look-back periods can also vary, but most fall into a 3- to 4-year range. Other conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • Registering to do business with the appropriate department
  • Continued future compliance
  • Not having been contacted in the past by that jurisdiction
  • Not currently being under audit

A taxpayer can anonymously apply to most programs through a representative (usually their accountant or lawyer). Once accepted, the taxing authority will set forth a timeline and list of what the applicant must do in order to complete the agreement. Generally, a signed document disclosing the identity of the taxpayer and outlining required compliance must be sent. The tax returns, tax due plus interest that apply to the look-back period must also be submitted.

Voluntary disclosure programs offer a path to compliance that can limit a significant amount of exposure. If you believe that you are noncompliant and your exposure risk is too high for comfort, you should consider entering into a voluntary disclosure program via a trusted representative.