9th Circuit: Online Poker Accounts Not Reportable on FBAR

On July 21, 2016, the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Hom, No. 14-16214 D.C. No. 3:13-cv-03721-WHA (9th Cir. 2016), determined that a taxpayer who held an online poker account with PokerStars and PartyPoker was not required to report those accounts on a FinCEN Report 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).  The taxpayer, however, was required to report his FirePay account on an FBAR.

The Ninth Circuit overturned the decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, in part, which had held that all these three accounts were reportable on an FBAR.

The key issue was whether either PokerStars, PartyPoker or FirePay was a financial institution.

The Ninth Circuit stated that:

“[F]inancial institution” is in turn defined to include a number of specific types of businesses, including “a commercial bank,” “a private banker,” and “a licensed sender of money or any other person who engages as a business in the transmission of funds.” 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a)(2).

Hom’s FirePay account fits within the definition of a financial institution for purposes of FBAR filing requirements because FirePay is a money transmitter. See 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a)(2)(R); 31 C.F.R. § 103.11(uu)(5) (2006). FirePay acted as an intermediary between Hom’s Wells Fargo account and the online poker sites. Hom could carry a balance in his FirePay account, and he could transfer his FirePay funds to either his Wells Fargo account or his online poker accounts. It also appears that FirePay charged fees to transfer funds. As such, FirePay acted as “a licensed sender of money or any other person who engages as a business in the transmission of funds” under 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a)(2)(R) and therefore qualifies as a “financial institution.” See 31 C.F.R. § 103.11(uu)(5) (2006). Hom’s FirePay account is also “in a foreign country” because FirePay is located in and regulated by the United Kingdom.See IRS, FBAR Reference Guide, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/irsfbarreferenceguide.pdf (last visited July 19, 2016) (“Typically, a financial account that is maintained with a financial institution located outside of the United States is a foreign financial account.”).

In contrast, Hom’s PokerStars and PartyPoker accounts do not fall within the definition of a “bank, securities, or other financial account.” PartyPoker and PokerStars primarily facilitate online gambling. Hom could carry a balance on his PokerStars account, and indeed he needed a certain balance in order to “sit” down to a poker game. But the funds were used to play poker and there is no evidence that PokerStars served any other financial purpose for Hom. Hom’s PartyPoker account functioned in essentially same manner.

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