A blog post

Taxation and Renouncing Citizenship: Part II

Posted on the 31 May, 2012 at 8:50 pm Written by in Taxes

Let’s say that you were born in Brazil. Your family was wealthy. Due to safety concerns (such as the risk of kidnapping), they moved you to the United States when you were young. You grew up in a southern and international city – perhaps Miami. You went to Harvard. While there you met and bankrolled a cantankerous near-friendless computer genius who came up with the next great social media idea. He tried to boot you out of the fledging company, but after a lawsuit and hard feelings, you kept about 4% or so of the shares. Much to your delight, the company went recently went public and made you a multibillionaire. Prior to that, you met with high-powered attorneys and tax advisors. You renounced your U.S. citizenship and are now living in Singapore. Where is Singapore? Think Vietnam, and then turn south. It is a former British colony, and you like pasties and room-temperature beer. Seems a fit.

Why would you do this?

Let’s go over several tax reasons. We need numbers in this conversation. Let’s use the following:

            Proceeds from IPO                             $ 4.0 billion

            Expected annual salary                    $ 7.5 million

            Expected annual dividends             $ 40 million

            Expected capital gains                      $ 25 million

What are your U.S. 2013 taxes if you remain a U.S. citizen?

(1)   Your salary may be taxed as high as 39.6% next year. Let’s say that it will be. The federal tax would be $7,500,000 times 39.6% equals $2,970,000.

(2)   If your dividends are “qualified” dividends, you would pay a 15% tax rate this year. The President’s proposed 2013 budget would increase this to 39.6%. In previous budgets, however, he has proposed 20%. What rate should we use? Let’s use 20%.  Your tax would be $ 40,000,000 times 20% equals $8,000,000.

(3)   The capital gains are a wild card. Let’s say that you will be selling stock periodically to fund your lifestyle. What amount? Let’s say $25 million annually. Let’s also say that your basis is so low that any sale is virtually all gain. The long-term capital gains rate is currently 15%, but everyone expects this rate to go up. Unless Congress acts, the rate will increase to 20% in 2013. Let’s use 20%. Your tax would be $5,000,000.

(4)   Starting in 2013, there is a new surtax on investment income if your income exceeds either $200,000 or $250,000, depending on filing status. You have clearly blown past that speed bump like Steven Tyler’s new Hennessey Venom GT Spyder. That new tax is 2.9% and will cost you $1,885,000.

(5)   Starting in 2013, there is a Medicare surcharge for persons earning more than $200,000. The surcharge is 0.9% and will cost you $67,500.

 What are your 2013 taxes in Singapore?

(1) The top tax rate in Singapore is 20%. Taxes on your salary will be $1,500,000.

(2) Taxes on your dividends will be $8,000,000.

(3)There are no taxes on your capital gains.

 OK, let’s look at the scorecard. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows:

            United States             $17,922,500   

            Singapore                    $  9,500,000

 Is there more? Well, yes.

 (1) Let’s say that you invested in mutual funds to obtain those dividends. Chances are these funds will be considered PFIC’s (“pea-fics”) and carry some heavy U.S. tax disapproval.

 The best you can do with a PFIC is make a QEF election and pay taxes every year on your share of income, whether distributed to you or not. This requires the PFIC manager to want to go to the trouble of assembling this information for you, as the PFIC tax is an American concept. A fund manager in Hong Kong, for example, might be less than interested in IRS mandates. In any event, the U.S. wants to accelerate your tax without regard to whether you received any cash.

If the fund manager is unwilling, you go to an ugly place in U.S. taxation. Without belaboring this, it may require you to go back and recalculate your prior year taxes on an “as if” basis. You will then write a real check to the IRS for that “as if” calculation. You also have to pay the IRS interest for not having paid taxes in the earlier “as if” tax year.

 (2) Don’t forget your FBAR filing every June 30.

You have financial accounts overseas, so you will have an FBAR filing.

Penalties for failure to file an FBAR border can be severe. Penalties begin at $10,000 for each non-willful violation. If willful, the penalty goes to the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the account for each violation. Oh, each year is considered a separate violation. And the IRS gets to decide what is willful.

 You got it: if the IRS considers your violation to be willful for two years, you have wiped-out the account.

 (3)   You have to file the new Form 8938 disclosing foreign financial assets.

This is the FATCA and its reason for existing reads like a bad dream. In essence, the IRS felt that it was not getting enough information from the FBAR, and it really wanted more information.

Think about this. The FBAR is mailed to the U.S. Treasury, and technically the IRS is part of the U.S. Treasury. One would think that the IRS and Treasury would speak, perhaps weekly for breakfast. Treasury did not upgrade the FBAR, nor did it replace the FBAR with the IRS Form 8938. No sir, the IRS created a new form and they kept both filing requirements. Well, it is one more opportunity to confuse the populace and maximize those penalty dollars. Brilliant!

Penalties can be rough: $10,000 for each failure to file. If you both fail to file the 8938 and fail to pay tax on the foreign income, there is a super-penalty of 40% on the tax underpayment. Don’t do that.

 (4)   Should you leave family behind, gifting to them will certainly be a problem. These transfers will be picked up under the expatriation rules of Section 877 and trigger tax at the maximum gift tax rate. That rate is currently 35% but is expected to increase to 55% next year.

You read that right: Uncle Sam is your biggest beneficiary. More so than your mom, son or daughter. 

You may want to take them with you.  Singapore has no gift tax.

 (5)   Should you remain a U.S. citizen, consider hiring an experienced tax attorney and/or CPA to navigate all this. It is another expense, but least you can write-off the professional fees on your taxes. Oh, wait. No you can’t. Chances are the fees will not exceed 2% of your income. If you are in the AMT, they will not be deductible in any event.

There are reasons other than taxation to renounce. There are many expatriates overseas who have no intention of returning to the U.S. They have lives, spouses, children, jobs and friends there. Perhaps they will return, but it will be at some unknown and distant date.

It is unfortunate to renounce citizenship over tax reasons. The U.S. does press your hand by taxing you on your worldwide income, irrespective of where you live, work or maintain family. The U.S. is virtually alone in the world with this type of taxation. If this ever made sense, does it still make sense? Leaving the U.S. doesn’t mean that you leave its mandates. You have to renounce.

What would you do?