The U.S. Supreme Court upheld as Constitutional the concept of citizenship based taxation in 1924 in Cook v. Tait. In that case, the U.S. citizen resided permanently and was domiciled in Mexico City with his Mexican citizen wife.
In those years, the Revenue Act of 1921 imposed a top income tax rate of 8%. The IRS made a demand against Mr. Cook to pay his tax. Mr. Cook paid it and sued for refund of the US$1,193 paid. That amount represents about US$16,893 in 2014 inflation adjusted dollars. Neither amounts are significant in current actions taken by the IRS.
As a point of reference, Mr. Zwerner was alleged to owe US$3,630,119 (on an account with a maximum value during the years at issue of apparently no more than US$1.69M) and ultimately paid about US$ 1.75M (more than he even had in his account?) per the Notice of Settlement filed with the Court referenced here:
Even in 1922 dollars when Mr. Cook was living in Mexico City, the payment by Zwerner of about US$ 1.75M in current dollars, would represent about $123,581 in those dollars. See, Why the Zwerner FBAR Case is Probably a Pyrrhic Victory for the Government – for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. (Part II)
There was no Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”) in the days of Cook in Mexico City, so it would be interesting to know how and why the audit and tax assessment collection was commenced. This was long before e-mails and internet, and there was a very different system of international travel. Communication and technology in 2014 is quite different from technology nearly 100 years ago when the first transcontinental (not transnational) telephone call was made in 1915 a few years before the tax issue arose in the case of Mr. Cook.
Now to the key point of this post. The Supreme Court in Cook vs. Tait framed the question before the Court as follows:
- The question in the case . . . as expressed by plaintiff [Mr. Cook], whether Congress has power to impose a tax upon income received by a native citizen of the United States who, at the time the income was received, was permanently resident and domiciled in the city of Mexico, the income being from real and personal property located in Mexico.
Can the United States impose worldwide taxation on U.S. citizens who permanently live overseas and who only have income from property or services outside the U.S.? Of course, the Supreme Court, said, that such a citizenship based rule was Constitutional. The rationale of the Court was explained in the opinion as follows, specific to the rights of citizenship:
- . . . the scope and extent of the sovereign power of the United States as a nation and its relations to its citizens and their relation to it.’ And that power in its scope and extent, it was decided, is based on the presumption that government by its very nature benefits the citizen and his property wherever found, and that opposition to it holds on to citizenship while it ‘belittles and destroys its advantages and blessings by denying the possession by government of an essential power required to make citizenship completely beneficial.’ In other words, the principle was declared that the government, by its very nature, benefits the citizen and his property wherever found, and therefore has the power to make the benefit complete. Or, to express it another way, the basis of the power to tax was not and cannot be made dependent upon the situs of the property in all cases, it being in or out of the United States, nor was not and cannot be made dependent upon the domicile of the citizen, that being in or out of the United States, but upon his relation as citizen to the United States and the relation of the latter to him as citizen. [emphasis added]
The Supreme Court emphasizes at several points that it is because of the benefits of citizenship and the rights conferred to the citizen of the United States, that the United States government has the Constitutional power to impose worldwide taxation.
What is the difference, if someone is NOT a U.S. citizen? How can the U.S. federal government impose worldwide taxation on property outside the U..S. when the individual is not a citizen, has no right to even enter the United States and generally has no benefits or protections afforded to a U.S. citizen? Indeed, a recent interpretation of the U.S. government in a Justice Department memo spells out the rights of certain U.S. citizens. See New York Times recent article, Court Releases Large Parts of Memo Approving Killing of American in Yemen Targeting Anwar al-Awlaki Was Legal, Justice Department Said
Back on topic, the rationale in Cook v. Tait did not extend to someone who was not a citizen. For example, the Internal Revenue in the 1920s was of course not attempting to impose taxation on Mr. Cook’s Mexican national wife who lived exclusively in Mexico.
Herein, is a most interesting problematic and possibly (maybe – probably?) unconstitutional aspect of current law under the provisions off IRC Section 7701(a)(5)(if the loss of nationality is retroactive to a date long ago in the past but the tax code/IRS is not recognizing that past date as the expatriation date.
If someone has lost all rights to U.S. citizenship years or decades ago, how can the U.S. federal government continue to impose worldwide income taxation for all of the intervening years?
How can the tax law impose a “Constitutional fiction” that a person continues to be “. . . treated as a United States citizen . . . ” simply because they did not file a paper notification with the U.S. federal government. See, Section 7701(a)(50) was adopted and has a very clear timing rule about when a person “. . . cease[s] to be treated as a United States citizen. . . ” It is not the same as for immigration law purposes. It’s a fiction in the tax law as to when one ““. . . cease[s] to be . . . a United States citizen. . . ”
The statute says ” . . . An individual shall not cease to be treated as a United States citizen before the date on which the individual’s citizenship is treated as relinquished under section 877A (g)(4). . .”
How can the U.S. federal government continue to impose U.S. worldwide income taxation on former U.S. citizens because of the provisions under Section 7701(a)(50) and 877A (g)(4)?
The U.S. Supreme Court in Cook vs. Tait found the U.S. citizenship based taxation system as Constitutional since ” . . . government by its very nature benefits the citizen and his property wherever found . . .” and because of “ . . . his relation as citizen to the United States and the relation of the latter to him as citizen. . . . ” [emphasis added]
A person who is not a citizen, obviously does not receive these benefits from the government as does a United States citizen.
In practice, the only body that can determine whether a law is Constitutional or not, is the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s not likely that this question will reach the Supreme Court any time soon; if ever. Meanwhile, the IRS generally has the duty to enforce the law as currently written.