Demystifying IRS Form 3520: A Compliance Guide

By Jason Kovan

June 27, 2024

IRS Form 3520

Form 3520, the "Annual Return To Report Transactions With Foreign Trusts and Receipt of Certain Foreign Gifts," presents a particularly perplexing challenge.

For U.S. taxpayers with international connections, navigating the intricate web of IRS regulations can feel like venturing into a labyrinth.

Failure to comply with its filing requirements can result in hefty penalties. This guide aims to unravel the mysteries of Form 3520, providing a clear roadmap for who needs to file, the information required, and strategies to ensure proper compliance.

Who Needs to File Form 3520?

Understanding whether you have a filing obligation for Form 3520 is the first crucial step. The form applies to two distinct scenarios:

Transactions with Foreign Trusts:

U.S. tax payers, encompassing citizens, residents, green card holders, and domestic trusts, with ownership, distributions from, or control over foreign trustsare mandated to report specific interactions with foreign trusts. This includes situations where you hold ownership in a foreign trust, receive distributions from one, or possess the power to control its assets.

The concept of "transactions" that triggers a Form 3520 filing requirement for foreign trusts goes beyond simply having an ownership stake.

Receipt of Substantial Foreign Gifts:

Recipients of gifts exceeding the amount stated by the IRS for that specific tax year from non-resident aliens or foreign entities (excluding close relatives).

If you receive a gift exceeding a specific threshold as stated by the IRS for that tax year; from a non-resident alien individual or foreign entity, you may be required to file Form 3520.

Understanding the nuances of this situation is crucial, as gifts from close relatives (spouse, parents, children, etc.) are typically exempt.

It's important to remember that the value of the gift is determined at the time of receipt, not necessarily its original purchase price. 

What Necessitate Filing Form 3520:

Form 3520 applies to two situations: transactions with foreign trusts and receiving large foreign gifts.

Being Treated as an Owner: Under the complexities of grantor trust rules, even if you don't directly own a foreign trust, you might be considered an owner for tax purposes if you retain certain control over its assets or income. This encompasses the power to revoke the trust, redirect distributions, or benefit from its income stream.

Distributions Received: If you receive any distribution from a foreign trust during the tax year, you generally need to file Form 3520, regardless of your ownership status in the trust.

Power to Control: Having the authority to influence the administration of the trust, such as appointing or removing a trustee, can also trigger a filing requirement. This extends to situations where you have the power to influence investment decisions or dictate how trust assets are distributed.

Form 3520 Foreign Gift Reporting: When Does the Filing Requirement Kick In?

Not all foreign gifts necessitate filing Form 3520. The focus is on gifts exceeding the annual threshold from non-resident alien individuals or foreign entities.

It's important to distinguish between these categories and understand that gifts from close relatives are typically exempt. For instance, a gift of valuable jewelry from your aunt residing in France wouldn't trigger a filing requirement, but a substantial cash gift from a foreign business partner would.


What Information Does Form 3520 Require?

The details vary but generally include:

  • Identifying information (yours, the trust/donor)
  • Foreign trust details (name, country, your relationship)
  • Financial information (trust asset value, distributions received, gift value)

The level of information required on Form 3520 varies depending on the specific situation. However, here's a general overview of the information you might need to gather:

Identifying Information: This includes basic information about yourself, the foreign trust (if applicable), and the foreign donor (if reporting a gift). Ensure accuracy in details, like Social Security numbers, Employer Identification Numbers (EINs) for trusts, and complete names of foreign donors.

Foreign Trust Details: For foreign trust transactions, you'll need to provide specifics like the trust's name, the country where it was established, and your relationship to the trust (owner, beneficiary, etc.). Gathering this information may require communication with the trust's administrator or referring to trust formation documents.

Financial Information: Depending on the situation, you may need to report the value of the trust's assets, the amount of any distributions received during the tax year, or the value of the foreign gift. Maintaining meticulous records of these financial transactions is crucial for accurate reporting.

The Price of Non-Compliance: Consequences of Skipping Form 3520

The IRS takes international tax compliance very seriously. Failing to file Form 3520 can lead to significant penalties, which can substantially impact your finances.

These penalties can be a fixed dollar amount or a percentage of the unreported amount, depending on the specific violation. Additionally, late-filing penalties may accrue, further adding to the financial burden.


Proper recordkeeping and potentially seeking professional help from an international tax specialist are crucial for ensuring Form 3520 compliance.

By understanding your filing obligations and gathering the necessary information, you can navigate the complexities of international tax regulations and avoid unwanted penalties. Remember, staying informed and proactive is key to navigating the ever-evolving landscape of international tax law.

Contact us for more information.

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