Back in the past, I asked the FBAR group at the IRS whether or not poker sites needed to be reported. In January 2009, they told me they did have to be reported. In prior years, the FBAR group said they did not have to. Thus, FBARs (then, Form TD F 90-22.1) were sent to FINCEN with poker accounts.
Come early 2011, FINCEN issued new regulations. These regulations made it clear at the time that poker accounts would no longer be considered reportable foreign financial accounts. However, yesterday a judge disagreed.
In United States v. Hom defendant Hom was charged with violating the Bank Secrecy Act for not reporting three accounts at FirePay, PokerStars, and Party Poker.
In the case, the Court decided:
Section 5312(a)(2) lists 26 different types of entities that may qualify as a “financial institution.” Based on the breadth of the definition, our court of appeals has held that “the term ‘financial institution’ is to be given a broad definition.” United States v. Dela Espriella, 781 F.2d 1432, 1436 (9th Cir. 1986). The government claims that FirePay, PokerStars, and PartyPoker are all financial institutions because they function as “commercial bank[s].” Section 5312(a)(2)(B). The Fourth Circuit in Clines found that “[b]y holding funds for third parties and disbursing them at their direction, [the organization at issue] functioned as a bank [under Section 5314].” Clines, 958 F.2d at 582 (emphasis added).
The biggest problem that I see for the defendant is that he had an account at FirePay. FirePay was a United Kingdom-based third-party payment processor similar to Skrill (Moneybookers) and Neteller. FirePay was absolutely a foreign financial account: It issued credit cards, debit cards, and had functions that almost anyone would say are akin to what banks offer.
In this case, the defendant argued that all of his accounts were not foreign financial institutions. He did not separate out the poker sites from the third-party payment processor in his arguments. He was almost certainly doomed on the FirePay account. Still, the Court ruled that PokerStars and Party Poker were banks. What does this mean for individuals who have poker accounts?
1. As of now, plan on reporting these accounts for both FBAR (Form 114) and Form 8938 purposes. When in doubt, report is a good rule of thumb.
2. Do poker accounts need to be reported? As of now, yes.
3. Do prior year FBARs need to be filed and/or amended for poker accounts? This is unclear, but the answer is probably so. The statute of limitations on FBARs is six years from the due date. Given the FBAR is due on June 30th of the year following, the statute is about to run out on 2008. (In any case, for calendar years 2008 and 2009 poker sites were considered foreign financial accounts.) However, I would think that 2010 and 2011 FBARs would need to be filed or amended.
4. Do tax returns need to be amended to note the presence of foreign financial accounts if you have an FBAR filing requirement for poker accounts? Almost certainly they do for any tax years open (2011 – 2013).
5. Also note that tax returns may need to be amended just by the presence of a foreign financial account. The IRS now asks on Schedule B whether you have a foreign financial account. Anyone with money at PokerStars in 2011 would need to answer yes.
I have sent questions to the IRS on this issue. (The FBAR group at the IRS is one of the few groups that accepts emails.) I have asked whether they want such accounts to be reported; whether back FBARs/amended FBARs should be filed; and whether tax returns should be amended. I will both post on the response I receive and update this post when I do receive the response.
A few other things to note about the decision. This is not a precedential decision; it is a decision of a District Court Judge. A Court of Appeals has not ruled on this. The defendant lumped an account that was clearly a foreign financial account with accounts that might not be. The Court looked at them in toto rather than individually. I suspect that if Mr. Hom appeals this decision, he will also argue that the poker accounts should be looked at differently than the third-party payment processor.
I am troubled by the Department of Justice looking at poker accounts as a foreign financial account. Still, there are some other issues regarding this decision that are unclear. FBAR charges are rarely brought in isolation. I don’t know what caused these charges to be brought.
In the end, this is not a good decision for poker players or tax accountants who service the poker world. Lots more useless paper will end up being generated as a result of this decision. (Well, electrons as FBARs now must be electronically filed.) Still, the old adage of better safe than sorry holds. As of today, reporting poker sites as foreign financial accounts is back on.