I have not actively written on this blog for one and a half years. There has certainly been a lot to write about in the area of taxation, expatriation, citizenship renunciation and abandonment of lawful permanent residency status in that time. I was distracted (20/20) starting in the last quarter of 2018 when my writing was suspended. At least one good distraction among others was some awesome underwater cave exploration (see cave and cenote entrance below of one just discovered last year in the Yucatán peninsula). Plus membership into the Explorer’s Club – along with a case of dengue after a cave exploration excursion in the jungle. The latter not being a good distraction. https://www.explorers.org/about/about_the_club
None of which has anything to do with tax-expatriation matters, but I will now be back to writing about new developments in the tax law.
This jump starts the Tax-Expatriation blog which has been viewed by hundreds of thousands (from around the world) since its inception. Hopefully it will have valuable information for you as you peruse its contents.
Most topics covered by this blog are civil in nature and not criminal. However, unlike Kipling’s ” . . .Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . ” federal tax law sometimes crosses over from civil to criminal. That’s the story of the recently unsealed indictment of a naturalized U.S. citizen, 52 year old Mr. Tinkov. The IRS reviewed his tax filings, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (Northern District of California) has brought an indictment for filing a false IRS Form 8854 and a false tax return, for under-reporting his net worth. The indictment charges Tinkov with two counts of filing false returns or other documents in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1). The Indictment was filed under seal and the docket can be reviewed here.
The press release of the DOJ can be reviewed here.
This is not the first time the U.S. federal government has used IRS Form 8854, required to be filed by those who “expatriate”, as part of a criminal tax case.
The twain shall meet. See, the 2016 indictment of a NY business professor discussed here: Expatriation Tax Form 8854 is Part of Criminal Tax Case
Importantly, when the taxpayer signs their U.S. federal tax return, they do so under declaration of penalty of perjury. This declaration generally applies to and includes any statements, attached forms and IRS Form 8854, Initial and Annual Expatriation Statement (in those cases where the individual is “expatriating” from a taxation perspective). This “expatriation” Form 8854 has its own signature block that must be signed under penalty of perjury. This specific declaration plays a prominent role in the indictment.
The indictment alleges Mr. Tinkov became a U.S. citizen by naturalization in 1996 and he renounced his U.S. citizenship in October 2013. Therefore, if he was a naturalized citizen, he necessarily would have become a “covered expatriate” had he met any of the three statutory tests: (a) the net worth test, (b) tax liability test, or (c) the certification test (IRC Section 877(a)(2)(C)). The government alleges he met the net worth test.
The indictment charges that he met the net worth test and IRS Form 8854 (COUNT TWO) and IRS Form 1040 (COUNT ONE) were false. False, the indictment alleges (COUNT ONE), since he did not reflect his deemed “mark to market” gains from his property that he owned in 2013 at the time he became a “covered expatriate” on his income tax return. The indictment uses “technical tax” language calling such a “gain” as arising from a “constructive sale.”
The relevant portion of the indictment as to Form 8854 (COUNT TWO: 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1) -Making and Subscribing A False Document or Statement) provides –
On or about April 15, 2014, in the Northern District of California, and elsewhere, the defendant, OLEG TINKOV, a/k/a Oleg Tinkoff, did willfully make and subscribe a Form 8854, Initial and Annual Expatriation Statement, for the calendar year 2013 (the “Expatriation Statement”), which was verified by a written declaration that it was made under penalties of perjury and which defendant TESfKOV knew was not true and correct as to every material matter. The Expatriation Statement, which was prepared, signed, and which TINKOV caused to be prepared and signed, in the Northern District of California and was filed with the IRS, (1) falsely reported on Part IV, Section A, Line 2, that TINKOV’s net worth as of his expatriation date was$300,000; (2) fraudulently failed to report any property in Part IV, Section B; and (3) falsely stated that to the best of TINKOV s knowledge and belief, the Expatriation Statement was true, correct, and complete, whereas TINKOV knew and believed his net worth as of his expatriation date was greater than $300,000, and that he was required to list property and report information related to such property on the Expatriation Statement, in violation of Title 26, United States Code, Section 7206(1).
It is curious that no further charges were brought, such as tax evasion ((26 U.S.C. § 7201) and there were no Title 18 crimes charged. The indictment alleges he under-reported his total income (not including the “mark to market” gains from the IRC § 877A(1)) and therefore it would seem to be ripe for a tax evasion charge? Interestingly, while the indictment uses the language “constructive sale” that term is found nowhere in the statute or the regulations. Instead, the statute uses the language “mark to market” and provides that –
(1) Mark to market§ 877A(1)
The term “constructive” or “deemed” (e.g., “deemed sale” or “constructive distribution” or “constructive ownership”) are terms commonly used by U.S. tax professionals and the federal tax law throughout. It refers to a “legal fiction”, since there is no actual transaction that must occur; such as a sale, distribution or some type of actual ownership. Therein lies the “legal fiction.” Importantly, nowhere is “constructive” or “deemed” used in the specific expatriation language of IRC §§ 877 or 877A. The statute uses instead the terminology “mark to market” that treats the U.S. taxpayer (i.e., the “covered expatriate”) “as if” all of their property was ” . . . sold on the day before the expatriation date for its fair market value. . . .” Herein is the legal fiction in these tax expatriation rules since no sale actually occurs.
There is important case law that supports the argument that the government cannot impose taxation until an actual sale or exchange of property occurs. For an excellent review of the 1920 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision of Eisner v. Macomber, see the article prepared by Professor Henry Ordower at Saint Louis University – School of Law –
The Expatriation Tax, Deferrals, Mark to Market, the Macomber Conundrum and Doubtful ConstitutionalityPittsburgh Tax Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2017, Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-3
Maybe the U.S. Attorney’s office did not charge tax evasion ((26 U.S.C. § 7201) in the Tinkov case, because of their concerns that the “mark to market” tax imposed by statute may not even be Constitutional? Maybe they did not want to try to pursue a criminal charge on a tax, the very essence of it, which could be challenged by applying the realization principles set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court?
Individuals who do not specialize in U.S. federal tax law, often have little detailed understanding of the U.S. federal “Chapter 3” (long-standing law regarding withholding taxes on non-resident aliens and foreign corporations and foreign trusts) and “Chapter 4” (the relatively new withholding tax regime known as the “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”) rules.
Indeed, plenty of U.S. tax law professionals (CPAs, tax attorneys and enrolled agents) do not understand well the interplay between these two different withholding regimes –
- 26 U.S. Code Chapter 3 – WITHHOLDING OF TAX ON NONRESIDENT ALIENS AND FOREIGN CORPORATIONS
- 26 U.S. Code Chapter 4 – TAXES TO ENFORCE REPORTING ON CERTAIN FOREIGN ACCOUNTS
Plus, the IRS forms have been significantly modified over the years; with increasing factual representations that must be made by individuals who sign the forms under penalty of perjury. They are complex and not well understood. For instance, the older 2006 IRS Form W-8BEN for companies was one page in length and required relatively little information be provided.
The entire form is reproduced here; indicating how foreign taxpayer information was optional and generally there was no requirement to obtain a U.S. taxpayer identification number. It was governed exclusively by Chapter 3 and the regulations that had been extensively produced back in the early 2000s.
The forms were even easier before those regulations (see old IRS Form 1001). No taxpayer identification numbers were ever required and virtually no supporting information regarding reduced tax treaty rates on U.S. sources of income.
Life was simple back then – compared to today!
The one thing all of these forms have in common is that all information was provided and certified under penalty of perjury. Current day IRS Forms W-8s can typically be completed accurately by experts who understand the complex web of rules. Plus, multiple versions of W-8s exist today; most running some 8+ pages in length.
See the potpourri of current day W-8 forms –
Making certifications under penalty of perjury are more complex, the more and more factual information that is being certified. If I certify the dog I see in front of me is “white and black” that is not a complex certification, if I see the dog and see the “white and black”. If the dog also has some brown coloring, my certification would necessarily not be false.
However, if I have to certify as to the colors of each dog in a pack of 8 dogs (and each and every color that each dog is/was), that becomes a much more complicated certification.
That’s my analogy for the old IRS Forms W-8s and the current day IRS Forms W-8s.
Compare that form, of just 10 years ago, with what is required and must be certified to under current law. It can be daunting.
Now to the rub. Individuals who certify erroneously or falsely, can run a risk that the government asserts such signed certification was done intentionally. I have seen it happen in real cases; even though the individual layperson (particularly those who speak little to no English and live outside the U.S.) typically has little understanding of these rules. They typically sign the documents presented to them by the third party; usually the banks and other financial institutions.
The U.S. federal tax law has a specific crime, for making a false statement or signing a false tax return or other document – which is known as the perjury statute (IRC Section 7206(1)). This is a criminal statute, not civil. Some people are also under the misunderstanding that a false tax return needs to be filed. The statute is much broader and includes “. . . any statement . . . or other document . . . “.
Willfully makes and subscribes any return, statement, or other document, which contains or is verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury, and which he does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter; or . . .
Therefore, if a U.S. citizen living overseas (or anywhere) signs IRS Form W-8BEN (or the bank’s substitute form, which requests the same basic information), that signature under penalty of perjury will necessarily be a false statement, as a matter of law. Why? By definition, the statute says a U.S. citizen is a “United States person” as that technical term is defined in IRC Section 7701(a)(30)(A). Accordingly, IRS Form W-8BEN, must only be signed by an individual who is NOT a “United States person”; who necessarily cannot be a United States citizen. To repeat, a United States citizen is included in the definition of a “United States person.” Plus, the form itself, as highlighted at the beginning of the form, warns against any U.S. citizen signing such form.
Accordingly, if a U.S. citizen were to sign IRS Form W-8BEN which I have seen banks erroneously request of their clients, they run the risk that the U.S. federal government will argue that such signatures and filing of false information with the bank was intentional and therefore criminal under IRC Section 7206(1). See a prior post, What could be the focal point of IRS Criminal Investigations of Former U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents?
Indeed, criminal cases are not simple, and I am not aware of any single criminal case that hinged exclusively on a false IRS Form W-8BEN. However, I have seen cases, where the government has alleged the U.S. born individual must have signed the form intentionally, knowing the information was false. It’s a question of proof and of course U.S. citizens wherever they reside, should take care to never sign an IRS Form W-8BEN as an individual certifying they are not a “United States person”; even if they think they are not a U.S. person
For further background information on this topic, see a prior post: FATCA Driven – New IRS Forms W-8BEN versus W-8BEN-E versus W-9 (etc. etc.) for USCs and LPRs Overseas – It’s All About Information and More Information
Will U.S. Tax Law Regarding “Covered Expatriates” get Modified with Recent Government Push in International?
It is rare to have the President of the United States hold press conferences specifically dealing with international tax policy and tax enforcement. Nevertheless, this is what happened last week when President Obama announced his administration’s recent efforts in the field of international tax, anti-corruption and financial transparency.
His remarks can be watched here: President Obama’s Efforts on Financial Transparency and Anti-Corruption: What You Need to Know
Also, the White House is putting forward a series of initiatives in this area:
To date, none of the specific initiatives address current “tax expatriation law” under IRC Sections 877, 877A, et. seq.
The information featured on this blog is designed to orient U.S. citizens (“USCs”) and U.S. lawful permanent residents, i.e., “green card” holders (“LPRs”) to important U.S. federal tax consequences to them. It’s primary focus relates to those USCs or LPRs who are contemplating renouncing their citizenship or abandoning their permanent residency status.
There are many complex federal tax rules that are often overlooked in the international area. One of those is the excise tax that is payable by the USC or LPR individual, not the non-U.S. insurance company, when premiums are paid to an insurance company. The IRS takes the position that the ” . . . the Service will generally seek payment of the excise tax from the U.S. person making the premium payment . . .” See, IRS Foreign Insurance Excise Tax- Audit Technique Guide.
This is a 1% excise tax on the premiums paid for each life insurance, sickness or accident insurance or contracts. See, IRC Section 4371. If you reside in London and buy life insurance with a UK life insurance carrier (or Paris with a French insurance company, Toronto with a Canadian insurance company, etc.) in your home country, you are probably not thinking that you need to pay Uncle Sam a tax on what you perceive as a “run of the mill” insurance coverage.
Indeed your life insurance company in your country of residence will not be advising that as a USC or LPR, you should be paying Uncle Sam.
If the insurance contract is a casualty policy, the excise tax is 400% greater than the 1% tax on life insurance premiums; i.e., a 4% excise tax. The payment of the tax is made on IRS Form 720, Federal Excise Tax Return.
In my experience, I never find that any individuals who are USCs and LPRs living around the world are aware of this obscure tax. When the tax is not paid the IRS has unlimited time to assess tax and penalties, including late payment penalties, late filing penalties and negligence penalties. Plus, interest that accrues on the unpaid tax and penalties can grow the amounts owing over time. See, 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., posted March 24, 2014.
The excise tax amount may not seem too significant. However, if it is not timely paid, there will be late payment and late filing penalties (e.g., for failure to file the excise tax return). This 1% or 4% excise tax is on the gross premium payment. This tax amount can certainly add up when insurance premiums are paid annually and over many decades.
Finally, be aware that the IRS is focusing on this excise tax on insurance contracts, at least within its OVDP program where IRS revenue agents are asserting that 25%, 27.5% or 50% of the value of the entire asset (e.g., the cash surrender value of the insurance policy) is subject to the “in lieu of penalty”.
IRS Creates “International Practice Units” for their IRS Revenue Agents in International Tax Matters
The U.S. international tax law has become increasingly complex. I am confident when I say that very few individuals in the world (including IRS revenue agents) understand the complexities of Title 26 and Title 31 as they apply to international matters such as gifts of foreign property, gifts involving U.S. intangible property, gifts to or inheritances from foreign estates with U.S citizens (USCs) or Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) beneficiaries, foreign partnerships with USCs, transfers of property to foreign trusts by USCs or LPRs residing outside the U.S., transfers of property to foreign corporations, etc.
Most USCs and LPRs who live in the U.S. certainly know and understand the basics of IRS Form 1040.
However, the type and scope of international transactions contemplated by the law can be significant and are rarely understood in any depth, even by many tax professionals. I have seen cases during my career of sophisticated individuals ranging from Nobel prize winners to U.S. Ambassadors, who had not a clue about the application of U.S. federal tax law to their lives. See, the Nov. 2, 2015 post, Why Most U.S. Citizens Residing Overseas Haven’t a Clue about the Labyrinth of U.S. Taxation and Bank and Financial Reporting of Worldwide Income and Assets
The lack of knowledge of these complex laws within the IRS, and the LB&I (Large Business and International group) which specializes in international matters has led to IRS “International Practice Units”. These are designed to allow IRS revenue agents who are not necessarily specialists in the international tax area to review transactions and be prepared to assess taxes and penalties against USCs and LPRs in the international context. The preamble says in part ” . . . Practice Units provide IRS staff with explanations of general international tax concepts as well as information about a specific type of transaction. . . ”
There are currently 63 different IRS “International Practice Units” all with dates from the last 12 months. Several of them focus heavily on information return filings which carry stiff penalties, even if no U.S. income taxes are owing. For instance see, Monetary Penalties for Failure to Timely File a Substantially Complete Form 5471 –Category 4 & 5 Filers.
Another interesting IRS International Practice Unit is titled – Basic Offshore Structures Used to Conceal U.S. Person’s Beneficial Ownership of Foreign Financial Accounts and Other Assets.
These IRS materials give a good perspective from where the IRS views the world; including the introduction to this particular IRS International Practice Unit where it states: “This Practice Unit focuses on a U.S. Person’s proactive steps to “conceal” their ownership of foreign financial accounts, entities and other assets for the purposes of tax avoidance or evasion, even though, there may be some situations where there are legitimate personal or business purposes for establishing such arrangements. This unit falls under the outbound face of the matrix and thus, will focus on U.S Persons living in the United States . . . Most U.S. taxpayers using an offshore entity or structure of entities to hold foreign accounts are simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service and other creditors . . .” [emphasis added]
This is a breathtaking statement from the IRS internal training manuals that “Most U.S. taxpayers using an offshore entity or structure of entities to hold foreign accounts are simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service and other creditors . . .”?
The vast majority of the USCs or LPRs who I see who renounce or abandon their citizenship or LPR status, are living outside the United States and in most cases have spent almost all (if not all) of their lives outside the U.S.
Does the IRS mean that a family living in Switzerland that have dual national family members are “. . . .simply hiding the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service . . . ” if they are using, for instance, a Liechtenstein Stiftung to hold their family assets as part of an estate plan recommended to them by their Swiss legal and tax advisers?
Does the statement that this IRS International Practice Unit focuses on ” . . . U.S Persons living in the United States . . . ” give USCs and LPRs residing outside the U.S. relief from the IRS perspective of USCs simply hiding assets from the Internal Revenue Service? Will IRS revenue agents be sophisticated enough to distinguish between these two different groups; U.S. resident versus non-resident USCs and LPRs? Will the law be applied differently with respect to these resident versus non-resident U.S. taxpayers?
What role will these IRS “International Practice Units” play in forming perceptions and molding ideas of IRS revenue agents who have had little to no life experience in international affairs, multi-national families, global finance and international business operations?
More observations to come from specific IRS “International Practice Units.
U.S citizens (USCs) and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs): Caution When Making Gifts. US Tax Court Recently Ruled a 1972 Gift by Sumner Redstone Still Open to IRS Challenge
The statute of limitations is one of the most important considerations for any individual when considering what tax consequences the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) might argue they have for years past. This can occur many years into the future as explained further below.
Former USCs and LPRs can be in a particularly precarious position, as was recently demonstrated by a U.S. Tax Court case for a gift that was made decades ago in 1972. See, Redstone vs. Commissioner (TCM 2015-237). Although this U.S. Tax Court case involving Sumner Redstone had nothing to do with renunciation of citizenship, it shows how the IRS can reach back many years and even decades in assessing taxes it claims are owing. The newly (in year 2010) added IRC Section 6501(c)(8) makes this highly likely under current revised law.
Former USCs and any U.S. beneficiaries of theirs (e.g., U.S. resident children or grandchildren who might receive gifts or bequests from the former USCs) should be cognizant of the statute of limitations. See a prior post from 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.
As this prior post noted, there are at least three basic scenarios when there is no statute of limitations for federal tax matters are as follows:
1. The former USC or LPR does not file a U.S. income tax return, when they had a requirement to so file. IRC Section 6501(c)(3). See a post from 2014, When do I meet the gross income thresholds that require me to file a U.S. income tax return?
2. There is fraud on the part of the taxpayer (e.g., the taxpayer intentionally does not report income). IRC Sections 6501(c)(1), (c)(2).
3. The USC or LPR fails to report certain foreign transactions, including inadvertently neglecting to report. IRC Section 6501(c)(8). This rule was only recently adopted as part of the “HIRE Act” which also created FATCA. The types of transactions set above in the table provides a brief summary of when transactions can give rise to an “open” statute of limitations period. In other words, as many years and decades can pass (see Redstone 1972 gift transaction) before the IRS ever has to make a proposed assessment of taxes and penalties. These include numerous ownership or economic interests in foreign (non-U.S.) companies, partnerships, foreign trusts, foreign investment accounts, among others.
This is indeed one of those areas where the IRS can argue a “gotcha moment”; simply because the former USC or LPR was not aware of the extremely complex rules of reporting assets (normally in their own country of residence outside the U.S.). The consequences to these families can go on indefinitely, per post from September 2015, Finally – Proposed Regulations for “Covered Gifts” and “Covered Bequests” Issued by Treasury Last Week (Be Careful What You Ask For!)
The U.S. Supreme Court only rarely takes tax cases for certiorari review. It is common that no more than one federal tax case is reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court during their entire annual term.
Accordingly, it was not surprising that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a decision of a Hong Kong-based flight attendant who as a U.S. citizen took the foreign earned income exclusion (“FEIE”) pursuant to IRC Section 911 on all of her income. The Treasury Regulations §1.911-3(a) have a specific rule regarding source of income and provides: “Earned income is from sources within a foreign country if it is attributable to services performed by an individual in a foreign country or countries.”
The IRS assessed tax and a 20% “negligence” penalty against the Hong Kong based flight attendant Ms. Yen-Ling K. Rogers. Judge Cohen of the U.S. Tax Court wrote the 2013 opinion, Rogers vs. Commissioner, TC Memo. 2013-77 – U.S. Tax Court
See prior posts on the FEIE; The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is Only Available If a U.S. Income Tax Return is Filed, April 21, 2014.
See also USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. – Key Tax and BSA Forms, dated March 17, 2014 that discusses in some detail IRS Form 2555.
The Court of Appeals for the District Of Columbia upheld the Tax Court and the Supreme Court let stand the Court of Appeals decision.
U.S. Citizens Overseas are Often Ill Advised to go into the (1) OVDP and sometimes even the (2) the Streamlined Filing Procedure
There have been prior posts discussing what is referred to as the offshore voluntary disclosure program (“OVDP”) and what the IRS later created – the so-called “streamlined program” filing procedure.
For more background, see, GAO Yr2014 Report on Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program Indicates Less Than 4% of Taxpayers Lived Outside the U.S., posted March 11, 2014.
Importantly, these OVDP and streamlined programs created by the IRS are not creatures of any statutory law, for instance Title 26 (the Internal Revenue Code) or Title 31 (the so-called Bank Secrecy Act); or any law for that matter. There are no court cases or Treasury Regulations that spell out the terms of these programs as part of any legal framework.
I like to say they are similar to the Hasbro rules of “Monopoly”; a game I was fond of as a child. The IRS is like Hasbro in that they can change the rules of the game as they wish, and often do in the form of publicized frequently asked questions (“FAQs”). The IRS submits these rules of their game and ask, encourage and in some cases (in my view) browbeat taxpayers, often times through their advisers, into participating. See some of the various rule changes below –
- IRS OVDP FAQs and Answers 2012
- Transition Rules: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- IRS 2011 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative
- January 8, 2010 — added Q&As 53-54
- August 25, 2009 — added Q&A 52
- July 31, 2009 — modified A6, A21 and A22
- June 24, 2009 — modified A26 and added Q&A 31-51
- May 6, 2009 — posted Q&A 1-30
The above reflect just some of the modifications and rules the IRS has made, and keeps making to their rules of their proposed OVDP structure; which again, I repeat, is not part of the law.
Many taxpayers and their advisers, in my view have not thought carefully about the law and its application; but rather have focused on the “Monopoly” rules. They cite and read the FAQs if that is somehow the law! See How is the offshore voluntary disclosure program really working? Not well for USCs and LPRs living overseas posted May 10, 2014 and The 2013 GAO Report of the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, International Tax Journal, CCH Wolters Kluwer, January-February 2014. PDF version here.
Similarly, the streamlined filing procedures is not part of the law, and also has been modified several times by the IRS. Fortunately, the IRS realized that U.S. taxpayers residing outside the U.S. are not the same as those who reside in the U.S. when they created two separate programs last year in 2014.
See, U.S. Taxpayers Residing Outside the United States: The following streamlined procedures are referred to as the Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures. Eligibility for the Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures
The point of this post is that I have seen numerous cases where U.S. citizens residing around the world were ill advised to participate in the OVDP. In short, if an individual has no criminal tax liability, I think there is little purpose or reason for almost all USC overseas to participate into the OVDP. Analyzing thoughtfully the facts of each case and the law (not the Monopoly rules) is what is important for each individual.
Finally, a clear understanding of what are the Monopoly rules compared to the law is crucial when advising USCs residing overseas. Sometimes, filing through the streamlined procedure might be well advised for a particular taxpayer; e.g., if they would otherwise have substantial late payment and late filing penalties. However, there are plenty of cases where simply filing tax returns pursuant to the law will be preferable in a particular case. This is a process that needs to be thoughtfully considered in each case with a clear understanding of the law – not just the Monopoly rules.
For some related commentary on this topic, see the following posts:
Why Most U.S. Citizens Residing Overseas Haven’t a Clue about the Labyrinth of U.S. Taxation and Bank and Financial Reporting of Worldwide Income and Assets
This post is written simply because so many U.S. citizens residing overseas are reasonably confused about the complexity of U.S. tax law. The mere requirement to file U.S. income tax returns for those overseas often comes as a great surprise. My non-U.S. born wife is an exception (as she also lives outside the U.S.) simply because I have repeatedly told her for our 20 some years of marriage.
Some in the IRS erroneously think U.S. citizens residing overseas do and should understand U.S. tax law. I posed one simple scenario to a very sophisticated IRS attorney not very long ago who specializes in the FATCA rules.
Her view is (hopefully was) that U.S. citizens throughout the world know or should know the U.S. tax laws because the instructions to IRS Form 1040 are clear.
This thought knocked me off my figurative chair onto the floor! Smack.
My surprise is based upon my own experience working with individuals and families throughout the world, in numerous countries. I have noticed a number of notions, based upon these andectodal experiences as follows:
- A minority of U.S. citizens (unless they lived most of their lives in the U.S. and recently moved overseas as an “expatriate”) have no real basic idea of how the U.S. federal tax laws work; let alone to their assets and income in their country of residence. See USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. – Key Tax and BSA Forms
- There are indeed plenty of immigrant U.S. residents (certainly less than 50% by my own experience – especially when concepts of PFICs and foreign tax credits start being discussed) who even understand the basics of U.S. international tax law.
- If they reside in an English speaking country that has relatively strong family or historical ties to the U.S. (e.g., England, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada, etc.) they are likely to have a better idea of the U.S. federal tax laws, but still the majority don’t know key concepts. See, Nuances of FBAR – Foreign Bank Account Report Filings – for USCs and LPRs living outside the U.S.
- Even those in English speaking countries that have less historical or family ties to the U.S. have a lesser understanding (e.g., New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, South Africa, India, etc.).
- Those who do not speak English know even less about U.S. tax laws and how they apply to them.
- Many individuals who learn of these requirements overseas are sometimes driven to great despair. The message they receive is not a correct one under the law in my view: as they read IRS materials (for instance, see FAQs 5, 6 and and former 51.2 from the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program Frequently Asked Questions and Answers 2014) and come to the conclusion they will soon be going to jail, criminally prosecuted or otherwise be subject to tens of thousands of dollars worth of penalties for their failure to file a range of tax forms.
- Literally, sometimes as a tax lawyer I feel more like a psychologist, when these individuals come to me saying they can’t sleep, they can’t eat, they are seeing a cardiologist for high blood pressure, etc. and even in a most extreme case they thought suicide was a solution. See, How is the offshore voluntary disclosure program really working? Not well for USCs and LPRs living overseas.
- Individuals around the world (even tax professionals) and certainly laypeople, are not commonly reading TaxAnalysts (nor would they subscribe) or other tax professional publications that explain many of the intricacies of U.S. tax laws.
- Learning and understanding U.S. tax laws, including just the basics, requires a great deal of time, aptitude for nuances and details, literacy, patience and a level of aptitude for such matters that simply escape many people around the world (most I would say). see, “PFICs” – What is a PFIC – and their Complications for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S. I can relate to this personally, as I am an international tax professional (indeed I even studied a post graduate law course outside the U.S. in a non-English language), have spent my entire professional career of more than 25 years in the area, and yet only generally have a very superficial understanding of tax laws throughout the countries where I am dealing with clients. I don’t try to understand the details of those laws.
- Many people are angry and frustrated (justifiably so, in my view, in many cases) after learning they are subject to these rules. See comment above about being a psychologist. Plus, USCs and LPRs residing outside the U.S. – and IRS Form 8938. In addition, see, Taxpayer Advocate Report on Burdens of Benign Taxpayers who Make Mistakes
Back to the intelligent IRS tax attorney. My question to her was: “Why would you, as a U.S. born individual not be reviewing the tax laws, tax forms and tax instructions of the country where your parents were born prior to immigrating to the U.S.?” I asked: “Are you not reviewing those laws in the original language of your parents (not English, but the other language of your parent’s country) to understand what tax forms and returns you should be filing?”
The IRS attorney’s response was: “What: of course, I am not reviewing such tax forms or filing information or tax laws, as I would have no tax obligations in that foreign country where I have no income, no assets or no bank or financial accounts!”
My follow-up question was a simple one: “Don’t you realize that U.S. federal tax law (Title 26) and financial bank reporting laws (Title 31) do just that!”
“Hmm she paused: how can that be?” I don’t recall if she said this out loud, or just said it with her puzzled expression.
The answer of course is that through citizenship (including derivative citizenship through a U.S. parent even though the child never spent a single day of residence in the U.S., let alone received any income or assets); that same individual in the mirror position as that IRS attorney is subject to a host of U.S. federal tax and financial reporting laws. See, Sir Winston Churchill – Famous People. Did he become a U.S. citizen at birth via “derivative citizenship”? Did he file U.S. income tax returns?
Here is the big disconnect. It’s not just among the ill-informed or those lesser educated on the fine points of law. I had the pleasure this week along with my wife to host two educated, worldly and engaging individuals who have been married some 20 years together. They are well read and highly educated. Both are lawyers by training, one practices law that often pushes him fairly deeply into the tax law and his wife is a wonderful and experienced judge in the California state courts.
I asked them (as I like to ask people around the world) if they had ever heard or understood that the U.S. federal tax law imposes taxation and very detailed reporting on the worldwide income and assets of U.S. citizens who reside outside the U.S. I discussed Cook v. Tait and the U.S. Civil War a bit. See both Supreme Court’s Decision in Cook vs. Tait and Notification Requirement of Section 7701(a)(50) and The U.S. Civil War is the Origin of U.S. Citizenship Based Taxation on Worldwide Income for Persons Living Outside the U.S. ***Does it still make sense?
All of it was a great surprise to them! They were in utter shock and both are residents in the U.S., highly educated in the law and are like the vast majority of the world, including U.S. citizens who reside outside the U.S.
This is the common response for many U.S. citizens residing overseas.