America is a great land and lures immigrants worldwide, yet record numbers of U.S. citizens and permanent residents are giving up their citizenship or residency. For all the immigrant arrivals there's an increasing trickle the other direction too. And this year that trend is up by at least 33% from the previous high in 2011.
The U.S. Treasury Department is obligated to publish the names each quarter. It is a kind of public outing that puts Americans on notice who relinquished their rights. For the 3rd quarter of 2013, 560 U.S. citizens renounced their citizenship or gave up long-term resident (green card) status.
Those seem like tiny numbers, yet the total thus far for 2013 is 2,369. See Number of Taxpayers Who Renounced U.S. Citizenship Skyrockets to All-Time Record High, quoting Andrew Mitchel. Under U.S. tax law, it is not relevant why someone expatriates. Whether the expatriation was motivated by tax avoidance or something else used to matter, but the law was changed in 2004.
Since then, the tax and other consequences do not depend on why one leaves. Yet after Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin departed permanently for Singapore with his Facebook IPO riches, there was an angry backlash. Mr. Saverin's post-Facebook fly-away prompted such outrage that Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Casey introduced a bill to double the exit tax to 30% for anyone leaving the U.S. for tax reasons.
So far, that bill remains unpassed. Meantime, are people following Tina Turner's lead? No, and not Eduardo Saverin's either. Most expatriations are probably motivated primarily by factors such as family and convenience. Many people like Ms. Turner have built a life somewhere else and may not plan to need a U.S. passport.
Complex or costly taxes can help sway a decision but are often only one factor. Although statistics are not available for why people say a final good-bye, many now find America's global income tax compliance and disclosure laws inconvenient and nettlesome. Some go so far as to say that the U.S. tax and disclosure laws are downright oppressive.
No group is more severely impacted than U.S. persons living abroad. For those living and working in foreign countries, it is almost a given that they must report and pay tax where they live. But they must also continue to file taxes in the U.S. What's more, U.S. reporting is based on their worldwide income, even though they are paying taxes in the country where they live.
Many can claim a foreign tax credit on their U.S. returns, but it generally does not eliminate all double taxes. These rules have long been in effect, but enforcement was historically less of a concern with expats. Today enforcement fears are palpable.
Moreover, the annual foreign bank account reports known as FBAR forms carry civil and criminal penalties all out of proportion to tax violations. The penalties for failure to file these forms, civil and criminal, are severe. Even civil penalties can quickly consume the balance of an account.
The coup de grace is FATCA, which is ramping up now worldwide. It requires an annual Form 8938 to be filed with income tax returns for foreign assets meeting a threshold. And foreign banks are sufficiently worried about keeping the IRS happy that many simply do not want American account holders. Americans abroad can be pariahs shunned by banks for daily banking activities.
Still, leaving America can have a special tax cost. To exit, you generally must prove 5 years of tax compliance in the U.S. Plus, if you have a net worth greater than $2 million or have average annual net income tax for the 5 previous years of $155,000 or more (that's tax, not income), you pay an exit tax.
The theory of the exit tax is that is the last chance the U.S. has of taxing you. It is a capital gain tax as if you sold your property when you left. At least there's an exemption of $668,000.
Citizens aren't the only ones to suffer. Long-term residents giving up a Green Card can be required to pay the tax too. See High Cost To Go Green: Giving Up A Green Card. A decision to expatriate should never be taken lightly. Taxes or no, it can be a big step. And around the world, more people are talking about taking this giant leap.
You can reach me at Wood@WoodLLP.com. This discussion is not intended as legal advice, and cannot be relied upon for any purpose without the services of a qualified professional.