Thursday, May 24, 2012

Taxation and Renouncing Citizenship: Part I

Why would Eduardo Saverin renounce his U.S. citizenship?  Saverin is one of the Facebook insiders and presently is unbelievably wealthy.
Saverin was not born here. His family is from Brazil, and they were wealthy before Mark Zuckerberg starting working on a networking site from his Harvard dormitory. Saverin became a citizen in 1998 and is now expatriating to Singapore.
A possible reason is U.S. tax policy. The U.S. will tax a citizen or permanent resident (think green card) no matter where you are on planet earth, how long you have lived there or whether you have any intention of ever returning to the U.S. I have family, for example, that has lived outside the U.S. since the 80s, yet the IRS expects to receive a tax return from them annually. If they have over $10,000 in a foreign bank account, Treasury expects an FBAR every June 30th. If they have accumulated enough assets over the last 30-something years, they are subject to the new IRS “specified foreign financial asset” filings. Their bank may even have to report their banking activity to the U.S. under the new FATCA rules. That is assuming the bank doesn’t close their account to avoid having to deal with these U.S. mandates.
Does this sound even remotely reasonable? Do we wonder why someone would renounce his/her citizenship?
Let’s go over the general rules in this area. The U.S. tax system differentiates between U.S. citizens and permanent residents, on the one hand, and nonresident aliens (NRAs) on the other. We can further differentiate the tax system between income taxes and estate and gift (i.e., transfer) taxes.
INCOME

A  U.S. citizen or permanent resident is taxed on his/her worldwide income. It doesn’t matter where you earned the income (you could be mining ore from the ocean floor) or whether you have or have not been in the U.S. since elementary school. That citizenship will follow you like a bad tattoo.

A nonresident alien (NRA) is a different matter. How an NRA pays income tax is generally based on one key question: is there a business activity involved? The tax term is “effectively connected.”
·         If no, then figure on a flat 30% tax rate
·         If yes, then the NRA gets the same graduated tax rates that you or I use
ESTATE AND GIFT
You can guess the drill at this point. A U.S. citizen or permanent resident is taxed on everything, wherever located, whether in the sky above or the earth below, in days past or yet to come. 
In contrast that NRA is subject to estate tax only on property located in the U.S.
There is an odd rule that stock of domestic corporations is treated as property located in the U.S. I have never quite understood that one. Fortunately, that tax overreach can be stymied by relatively easy tax planning, such as putting the stock in a foreign entity.
The gift tax applies to an NRA to the extent of tangible personal property or real estate located in the U.S. That definition excludes most stock from the reach of the gift tax.
EXPATRIATION
Let’s clarify terms. Any American who lives overseas is an expatriate. It doesn’t mean the one has renounced his/her citizenship. However, renouncing also uses the term “expatriate.” Unfortunate, somewhat like the track record of Bengals linebackers and the court system. We will use the term “expatriate” to refer to renouncing citizenship for the balance of this article.
Pre-2004
Back when, a person renouncing citizenship was subject to tax for the succeeding 10-year period, unless he/she could show that expatriation did not have as one of its principal purposes the avoidance of taxes.
The expatriate was subject to income tax on income from sources within the U.S. or effectively connected with the U.S. There were convoluted rules to slow down the tax planners, such as shutting-down nontaxable exchanges of property and outbound transactions with a controlled foreign corporation.
It didn’t take much to prompt the government to think that one was tax-driven:
(1)     Average income (not tax) for the last 5 years exceeding $100,000, or
(2)    Net worth of $500,000
The estate tax continued to apply, but it was generally limited to assets located in the U.S.
The gift tax however was expanded to include gifts of stock.
One could contest the government’s presumption that one was tax-motivated. One would request and pay for a tax ruling. I presume that everyone did so.
Also, one had to send-in an annual Christmas card to the U.S. government which included one’s address, the foreign country of residence as well as information on one’s assets and liabilities.
After-2004
The IRS found it very difficult to determine tax motivation as previously required under the tax Code. Interestingly, it also found that it could not keep up with the number of people requesting rulings. Congress in response changed the determination standard from a subjective to an objective test.
If one met the new income and asset thresholds, one was now presumed guilty of tax avoidance.
At least they increased the thresholds:
(1)    Average tax of $124,000 for the last 5 years
(2)    Net worth of $2 million
An expatriate under those limits would not be taxed under the expatriate rules even if the motivation was tax-driven. Conversely, one over those limits would be taxed, even if there was no tax motivation. Congress removed the option to request a ruling from the IRS to exempt the expatriate from taxation.
The annual Christmas card was revised to include one’s annual income and the number of days physically present in the U.S. The expatriate could not be present in the U.S. for 30 days in any one year, or one would be treated for tax purposes as a citizen and taxed on all worldwide income.
NOTE: This is pretty harsh stuff, and the U.S. may have been alone among advanced countries with this extraterritorial tax reach. Obviously, you do not spend 30 days in the U.S., for any reason.
2008 and the Heart Act
The current expatriation regime came into the Code in 2008, and it was a revenue-raiser intended to “pay” for other tax provisions of the Heart Act.
INCOME TAX

Let’s add one new threshold:

(1)    Average tax of $124,000 for the last 5 years
(2)    Net worth of $2 million, or
(3)    Fail to certify that one has complied with all tax requirements for the preceding five years

If one falls into one of these categories, one is a “covered” expatriate. Generally speaking, in taxation the adjective “covered” is bad.

There is a brand-new mark-to-market income exit tax.  The tax applies to the unrealized gain in the expatriate’s property as if the property had been sold for its fair market value. One is granted an exemption of $600,000, adjusted for inflation.

NOTE: This “make believe” sale may be surprising, but other countries – for example, Australia and Denmark – do it with their expatriates.

So you now pay tax on the way out.
The covered expatriate can defer tax on property by posting a bond or other security acceptable to the government. This is an election, and the election is irrevocable. One can elect on a property-by-property basis. The deferred tax is due the year the covered expatriate sells the property. 
There are special rules for deferred compensation, trusts and such matters which do not concern us here.
ESTATE AND GIFT
The key here is whether the “covered expatriate” transfers to a U.S. resident or permanent resident. These transfers are called “covered” gifts or bequests and have their very own special transfer tax. The rate will be the maximum estate or gift tax rate at the time.

If the transfer is made to a domestic trust, then the trust has to pay the tax. If made to a foreign trust, the tax is payable when distributions are made to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
  
The transfer tax appears to be in addition to existing estate and gift tax. One already had to pay transfer tax on property located in the U.S. This new tax also pulls-in transfers of property located outside the U.S., if the transfers are to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

So if my wife and I renounce but our daughter stays in the U.S., we would have a problem transferring assets to her. Those would be “covered” transfers and trigger tax at the maximum rate. I suppose our daughter will have to renounce with us to avoid that “covered” problem.

WHAT ISSUES HAVE BEEN CREATED BY THIS NEW TAX REGIME?
In truth, the new regime is an improvement - in many ways – over the previous system. The potential tax is now calculated once, although its payment may be deferred. The previous system required monitoring for 10 subsequent years and was very difficult to administer. In addition, this regime is not based on one’s ability to live on non-covered assets for 10 years. That of course was a previous way to wait-out the tax and favored the uber-wealthy over the merely wealthy.     
Expect disagreement with the IRS over the valuation of difficult-to-value assets. Here is an example: Eduardo Saverin’s pre-IPO stock in Facebook. The stock was restricted and non-tradable. What do you think it was worth, before its IPO, when Saverin renounced? I’ve got nickels-to-dollars that the IRS will come-in with higher numbers than Saverin does.
Another issue is when to expatriate. If one has assets that are going to appreciate significantly and soon, one wants to leave immediately. Why? Because there is little or no present appreciation in the asset, but the clock is ticking. An example would be land where a new interchange or mall will be built, or Facebook pre-IPO stock. Compare this to prior law where one would still be subject to U.S. tax for 10 years.
What if you have a big inheritance? Same incentive. The inherited asset received a step-up to fair market value at the date of death. If it is appreciating and fast, it is in one’s interest to exit as soon as possible.
NEXT
We will talk more about Eduardo Saverin and his expatriation in another post.

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