The Problem with PFICs! “Avoid PFICs Like the Plague”

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There are typically numerous tax issues that USCs and LPRs need to consider prior to renouncing their citizenship; or abandoning thPFIC Form 8621eir lawful permanent residency status.

One of the most confusing comes from the complex rules of a so-called “PFIC” – the acronym for a “passive foreign investment company.”   A prior post in March 2014 discussed the basics of these U.S. tax creatures – “PFICs” – What is a PFIC – and their Complications for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S.

Most USCs and LPRs with basic mutual fund investments in their country of residence have PFICs and probably don’t even know it.

The IRS and Treasury have recently spent much attention and resources to the regulation of PFICs.  In January of 2014, temporary regulations were issued regarding PFICs. See,  Regulations §1.1291–0T, et. seq.

One of the many new requirements of these regulations are annual information filing requirements.  This means that a U.S. taxpayer (e.g., U.S. citizen or LPR) residing outside the U.S., must file an annual report on IRS Form 8621.

  • When Might You have a PFIC?

Taxpayers who have simple passive investments in mutual funds based outside the U.S.. e.g., in their country of residence, almost always have PFICs.  There is no percentage ownership threshold in the foreign entity that triggers PFIC tax consequences.  An ownership interest of 0.000001% triggers the consequences if either the “income test” or “asset test” are satisfied.  Other type of investment funds in the form of a legal entity also typically qualify as a PFIC.

Specifically, a PFIC is a foreign corporation in which a U.S. person has some ownership in (without any percentage threshold requirement) if (i) at least 75% of its gross income is passive income (the “income test”), or (ii) at least 50% of its assets produce passive income (the “asset test”).  See IRC § 1297(a).

Also, many retirement funds in various countries (including both private and many government run retirement plans)  typically fall into the category of a PFIC.  For instance, the Singapore retirement fund system, Central Provident Fund (“CPF”), is actually created by the government, but Singapore taxpayers who are obligated to contribute to the retirement fund will select various mutual funds to invest in through the CPF.  Hence, these mutual fund investments are PFICs.  See also the technical paper regarding Mexican retirement funds that argues, WHY MEXICAN RETIREMENT FUNDS SHOULD NOT BE SUBJECT TO THE NEW REPORTING REQUIREMENTS UNDER IRC SECTION 1298(f).

  • Ugly Tax Consequences of a PFIC

PFICs are taxed to the U.S. taxpayer in a very complicated manner compared to taxation of U.S. based mutual funds or other U.S. based investments.   In short, the income earned from PFICs,  under the default regime, are taxed at the ordinary income rates, and for past years are typically taxed at the highest marginal ordinary income tax rate is 39.6% (even if the income would otherwise qualify for qualified dividend or long-term capital gains rates – which are taxed at no more than 20%).

There are three alternative regimes for how a U.S. investor is taxed in a PFIC: (i) the “excess distribution” regime (which is the default regime); (ii) the qualified electing fund (“QEF”) regime and (iii) the market-to-market (“MTM”) regime.   Each of these regimes will be discussed in later posts.

One key point to know is that most foreign investment funds do not keep records and account for income and expenses in a manner that even allows a U.S. taxpayer to report accurately under the QEF or MTM regime, even if such treatment provides a lower overall U.S. tax.

More on how PFICs are taxed in a later post.

  • Even Uglier Tax Reporting – Compliance Consequences of PFICs Driven by FATCA

Finally, the 2010 FATCA legislation has led to the new regulations that now require annual reporting of PFICs.  This is done on IRS Form 8621. It is a laborious form and requires extensive and detailed information.

The consequences of not reporting can lead to disastrous tax results.  See a prior post from March 2014, When the U.S. Tax Law has no Statute of Limitations against the IRS; i.e., for the U.S. citizen and LPR residing outside the U.S.

  • Why You Don’t Want to Die with a PFIC or Gift a PFIC Away (even to Your Favorite Charity or Spouse).

Lastly, a later post will explain in more detail why a USC or LPR generally wants to avoid PFICs if at all possible.  Many countries require their residents to contribute on a mandatory basis to retirement funds that invest in mutual funds, which may not allow a USC to avoid PFICs.  One of the principle reasons to avoid PFICs is the income tax that arises and is owed by the U.S. person, even if he or she tries to give the PFIC away.  A gift of a PFIC will typically cause an income tax to the donor in addition to the estate/gift tax rules.  This is true for gifts to charity and even to your own spouse.

  • Why You Should Avoid PFICs Like the Plague

At the end of the day, the above complications, mean that most USCs and LPRs residing overseas should “avoid PFICs like the plague”.

In the context of USCs who wish to renounce their U.S. citizenship, they will not be able to avoid “covered expatriate” status if they have not complied with these PFIC rules, as they will not be able to “certify under penalty of perjury that he has met the requirements of this title for the 5 preceding taxable years or fails to submit such evidence of such compliance as the Secretary may require.

The ugly consequences of PFICs can be summarized as follows:

  1. Higher income tax rate than U.S. based investments on the earnings of the investment, at least under the default method;
  2. Practically impossible to report the earnings on a more favorable MTM or QEF method;
  3. Extensive information reporting requirements annually;
  4. Open ended statute of limitations in favor of the IRS to audit all items on the tax return, for failure to properly file IRS Form 8621;
  5. Paying a U.S. income tax, even if you gift away the PFIC to charity or to your spouse;
  6. Trying to even explain effectively the consequences of a PFIC to your tax return preparer; and
  7. Being subject to the “forever taint” of being a “covered expatriate” for failure to comply with the PFIC rules.  See, The “Hidden Tax” of Expatriation – Section 2801 and its “Forever Taint.”

 

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