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Can the IRS Circumvent U.S. Law by Issuing a Treaty Request?

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Shortcuts to identifying the “soft spots” of a tax return have long tempted the IRS. Those shortcuts are generally quite controversial and have included the aggressive use of penalties to force a reasonable cause defense and the resulting disclosure of privileged materials and, as another example, transparency programs such as Schedule UTP that arguably strain the credibility of the IRS’s policy of restraint with regard to tax accrual workpapers. More recently, with the increasing prevalence of complex, cross-border transactions having multi-jurisdictional tax consequences, there is often a paper trail of tax analysis strewn around the world that is providing the IRS with a new temptation. Would the IRS be tempted to quietly make a treaty request in an attempt to circumvent U.S. privilege protections and obtain the materials without the fuss of a privilege fight? Unfortunately, the IRS and foreign taxing authorities have succumbed to this temptation, and it is something that practitioners should be aware of. The propriety of any such request must be carefully scrutinized and the appropriate interventions should be considered.

Indeed, the IRS has used treaty requests in lieu of following the administrative summons process (as well as its own internal directives) in order to bypass procedural safeguards for the taxpayer to attempt to obtain privileged and protected documents that would otherwise be unavailable to the IRS under U.S. law. This premature and improper use of treaty requests violates two core principles contained in most bilateral tax treaties, and in articles 18-26 of the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters and article 26 of the OECD Model Tax Convention and its Commentary.

First, the issuance of a treaty request to circumvent domestic law is improper and objectionable because the requested nation is not obligated to employ procedures or obtain information that is at variance with or not obtainable under the laws of either country. This means that, for example, where the U.S. issues a treaty request, the same procedural safeguards that exist in the U.S. would also effectively be available with respect to the request. Additionally, the privileges and protections that exist in the requested country also apply. Under U.S. law, the IRS has broad authority to issue a summons for the production of documents or testimony relevant to the purpose of ascertaining the correctness of a return or determining the liability of any person or any internal revenue tax. But the IRS is subject to specific limitations. Significantly, pursuant to United States v. Powell, 379 U.S. 48 (1964), a summons is not enforceable unless it is (1) issued for a legitimate purpose; (2) the material sought is relevant to that purpose; (3) the information sought is not already within the possession of the IRS; and (4) the administrative steps required by the Internal Revenue Code have been followed. Further, the IRS is limited to materials in the possession, custody, and control of the summonsed party and is not entitled to documents that are privileged or protected under U.S. law, including the attorney-client privilege, attorney work product protection, and the privilege against self-incrimination. A requested nation will not employ measures to circumvent these U.S. laws. As noted in the OECD Commentary, one nation cannot take advantage of its treaty partner’s information system merely because it is wider than its own. Thus, a treaty request at variance with the U.S. law, including those discussed above, should be denied.

Second, the issuance of a treaty request before exhausting domestic measures is a clear violation of the international authorities and is grounds for rejection of a request. Under U.S. law, a summons is not self-enforcing. Instead, if the summonsed party fails to comply with the summons, the U.S. government must bring an enforcement action in the appropriate federal district court. And, both the taxpayer and the recipient of a summons have the right to protest the enforcement of a summons by filing a petition to quash in federal district court. The administrative summons procedures thereby provide the prerequisite mechanisms for a court to review the legitimacy of the summons and/or whether the claims of privilege are well-founded. The IRS cannot circumvent a taxpayer’s privileges or right to have a court review these claims by simply pursuing the documents through a treaty request because a request made prior to exhausting the domestic administrative summons procedures should be denied.

The premature and improper issuance of a treaty request merely shifts the burden of potentially protracted and costly disputes to a foreign nation, attempting to force the foreign nation to interpret and decide U.S. law. In addition to the potentially resulting prejudice against the rights of the taxpayer, this shifting aspect is itself clearly an inappropriate imposition on a treaty partner. See article 26 of the OECD Model Tax Convention and its Commentary. Treaty partners are usually quite receptive to these arguments by the objecting taxpayer in intervention proceedings.