Taxation of Foreign Income (2018) – What is U.S. Citizen Based Taxation?
The United States is a CBT (Citizen-Based Taxation) country. CBT is very uncommon (and unpopular), since it allows the country of citizenship to tax a Citizen — and usually foreign residents of the country as well — on their worldwide income.
As you can imagine, this is very unfair, especially in when a citizen or resident resides outside of the United States, with most of his or her income being non-U.S. sourced — and sometimes in a country such as Dubai, which has no income tax, or Hong Kong — where most passive income is tax-free.
Since the IRS and U.S. Government as a whole have made International Tax Compliance a key enforcement priority, we are providing you with the following basic primer to help you understand the basics of CBT.
Typically, in most other countries, taxation is molded after the concept of Resident-Based Taxation (RBT).
In other words, if you are a resident of a foreign country then you pay tax in that foreign country on income you earned within that country. Typically (exceptions do apply) you do not pay taxes in the foreign country on income you earned outside of the country… Makes sense, right?
Citizen Based Taxation
Unlike almost every other country in the world, the United States utilizes a CBT model, otherwise known as Citizen-Based Taxation. Unfortunately, CBT is way more encompassing than the name implies. CBT goes far beyond taxing just U.S. Citizens; it also includes Legal Permanent Residents (Green-Card Holders) and even non-permanent residents who meet the Substantial Presence Test.
Under a Citizen-Based Taxation model, the United States taxes you on your worldwide income. It does not matter whether you reside in the United States or outside of the United States, and it does not matter if your income was earned from a U.S. source or foreign source – all of the income is reported on your US tax return.
With that said, there are a few key issues to keep in mind – so don’t give up hope just yet!
Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
If you meet the requirements of being a Foreign Resident under either the Physical Presence Test (PPT) or Bona-Fide Residence Test (BFR), then in accordance with the foreign earned income exclusion, you may be able to exclude up to $101,700 from your taxable income – along with additional money for housing allowance. The exclusion is claimed on IRS Form 2555.
Two things to keep in mind: First, the IRS is cracking down on people trying to claim this exclusion. Second, you have to claim the exclusion. In other words, just because you make less than $101,700 USD does not mean you are exempted from filing taxes. Stated another way, even if you earn less than $101,700 you cannot just not file the return (sorry for the double negative). Rather, you have to file the return and claim the exclusion. Otherwise, how will the IRS know what you earned?
In addition, due to increased enforcement through Foreign Bank Levies and Passport Revocation, compliance is a must.
Foreign Tax Credit
Depending on how much you have paid in foreign tax, and the type of tax — you may be able to claim a credit for the income you earned abroad against any taxes you owe on your US taxes, for the same income. The form you file is form 1116 (individuals). It is typically not a dollar-for-dollar deduction, because it is offset by your US tax status to avoid the artificial reduction of your non-foreign U.S. taxes — especially in situations in which foreign country may have an extremely high tax rate, such as Australia or Europe.
If you are a higher income earner, you may be able to apply both the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and Foreign Tax Credit to the same category of income (but you cannot double dip).
Unlike the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which must be for earned income, the Foreign Tax Credit can be used for either Earned Income or Passive Income such as: Royalties, Dividends, Interest, or Capital Gains.
U.S. Income Tax Treaty Position
Depending on whether the United States has entered into a income tax treaty with a particular foreign country, may impact your U.S. tax liability. In fact, you may be able to avoid immediate taxation of certain retirement benefits (common with the UK) and/or you may be able to claim a qualified dividend (at a reduced tax rate), in situations in which at least there is a tax treaty with the foreign country (other restrictions apply)
Offshore Compliance and IRS Amnesty
When a person is out of compliance with US tax related issues, it typically also includes matters involving reporting foreign accounts, investments, and/or assets on various international informational returns, such as:
- Form 3520
- Form 5471
- Form 8621
- Form 8865
- FATCA Form 8938
At Golding & Golding we focus our entire tax law practice on IRS offshore voluntary disclosure. We have helped thousands of individuals safely get into compliance, and we can assist you as well.
IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Attorney
There are only a handful of Law Firms that focus their entire tax practice on IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure (We are one of them). We have represented several hundred clients in OVDP, Streamlined and Offshore Disclosure.
You will want to make sure you use an OVDP Attorney who has:
- Litigation Experience
- IRS Audit Experience
- At Least 15-20 years of Attorney Experience
- An advanced Master’s of Tax Law Degree (LL.M.); and
- Either a CPA or Enrolled Agent (EA) license.
Why? Because you never know how the OVDP or Streamlined submission will go. Sometimes, a person is already under IRS investigation and may not know it. Then, when the person submits to OVDP they are rejected. In this type of situation, you need an Attorney with all the above required experience.
Using a CPA or Junior Attorney with no real experience, is not going to help (and you will then realize why the fees they charged were so low). We know this, because each year we receive many inquiries from clients seeking to retain our services after their initial OVDP or Streamlined junior tax attorney (without the experience mentioned above) flubbed their submission and made numerous mistakes in the submission process.
Alternatively, once you are in OVDP, you may want to:
- Make an MTM Election
- Argue a FAQ 55 Penalty Reduction
As a result, for this highly specialized area of law, you need an Offshore Disclosure Attorney who is both experienced specifically in IRS Offshore Disclosure, but also has the background and experience to fight on your behalf.
What is Offshore Voluntary Compliance?
IRS Voluntary Disclosure of Foreign or Offshore Accounts is a legal method for getting into IRS Tax and Reporting compliance before the IRS finds you first. At Golding & Golding, we limit our entire tax law practice to IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure.
Why IRS Voluntary Disclosure?
With the introduction and enforcement of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) coupled by the renewed interest in the IRS issuing FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account Form aka FinCEN 114) penalties — which are both very steep – it is typically a better strategy to be proactive and get into compliance, than to play “defense.”
FBAR penalties alone can reach ~$12,500 (adjusted inflation from $10,000) per account, per year. While this is the maximum penalty, the “recommended penalty” is still $10,000 per year, per open year (usually 3-6 years).
4 Types of IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs
There are typically four types of IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure programs, and they include:
- Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP)
- Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures (SDOP)
- Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures (SFOP)
- Reasonable Cause (RC)
IRS Voluntary Disclosure of Offshore Accounts
Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Tax law is very complex. There are many aspects that go into any particular tax calculation, including the legal status, marital status, business status and residence status of the taxpayer.
When Do I Need to Use Voluntary Disclosure?
Voluntary Disclosure is for individuals, estates, and businesses who are out of compliance with the IRS and the Department of Treasury. What does that mean? It means that for one or more years, you were required to file a U.S. tax return, FBAR or other International Informational Return and you did not do so timely, then you are out of compliance.
Common Un-filed IRS International Tax Forms
Common un-filed international tax forms, include:
- 1040 (Tax Returns)
- Schedule B (Ownership or Signature Authority over Foreign Accounts)
- FBAR (FinCEN 114)
- FATCA (Form 8938)
- Form 3520 (Gift from Foreign Person)
- Form 5471 (Foreign Corporations)
- Form 8621 (Foreign Investments, aka PFIC)
- Form 8865 (Foreign Partnership)
If the IRS discovers that you are out of compliance, you may become subject to extensive fines and penalties – ranging from a warning letter all the way up to tax liens, tax levies, seizures, and criminal investigations. To combat this, you can take the proactive approach and submit to IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure.
Getting into Compliance
There are five main methods people/businesses use to get into compliance. Four of these methods are perfectly legitimate as long as you meet the requirements for the particular mechanism of disclosure. The fifth alternative, which is called a Quiet Disclosure a.k.a. Silent Disclosure a.k.a. Soft Disclosure, is ill-advised as it is illegal and very well may result in criminal prosecution.
5 IRS Methods for Offshore Compliance
- Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures
- Streamlined Foreign Offshore Procedures
- Reasonable Cause
- Quiet Disclosure (Illegal)
We are going to provide a brief summary of each program below. We have also included links to the specific programs. If you are interested, we have also prepared very popular “FAQs from the Trenches” for FBAR, OVDP and Streamlined Disclosure reporting. Unlike the technical jargon of the IRS FAQs, our FAQs are based on the hundreds of different types of issues we have handled over the many years that we have been practicing international tax law and offshore disclosure in particular.
After reading this webpage, we hope you develop a basic understanding of each offshore disclosure alternative and how it may benefit you to get into compliance. We do not recommend attempting to disclose the information yourself as you may become subject to an IRS investigation insofar as you will have to answer questions directly to the IRS, which you can avoid with an attorney representative.
If you retain an attorney, then you will get the benefit of the attorney-client privilege which provides confidentiality between you and your representative. With a CPA, there is a relatively small privilege which does provide some comfort, but the privilege is nowhere near as strong as the confidentiality privilege you enjoy with an attorney.
Since you will be dealing with the Internal Revenue Service and they are not known to play nice or fair – it is in your best interest to obtain an experienced Offshore Disclosure Attorney.
OVDP is the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program — a program designed to facilitate taxpayer compliance with IRS, DOT, and DOJ International Tax Reporting and Compliance. It is generally reserved for individuals and businesses who were “Willful” (aka intentional) in their failure to comply with U.S. Government Laws and Regulations.
The Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program is open to any US taxpayer who has offshore and foreign accounts and has not reported the financial information to the Internal Revenue Service (restrictions apply). There are some basic program requirements, with the main one being that the person/business who is applying under this amnesty program is not currently under IRS examination.
The reason is simple: OVDP is a voluntary program and if you are only entering because you are already under IRS examination, then technically, you are not voluntarily entering the program – rather, you are doing so under duress.
Any account that would have to be included on either the FBAR or 8938 form as well as additional income generating assets such as rental properties are accounts that qualify under OVDP. It should be noted that the requirements are different for the modified streamlined program, in which the taxpayer penalties are limited to only assets that are actually listed on either an FBAR or 8938 form; thus the value of a rental property would not be calculated into the penalty amount in a streamlined application, but it would be applicable in an OVDP submission.
An OVDP submission involves the failure of a taxpayer(s) to report foreign and overseas accounts such as: Foreign Bank Accounts, Foreign Financial Accounts, Foreign Retirement Accounts, Foreign Trading Accounts, Foreign Insurance, and Foreign Income, including 8938s, FBAR, Schedule B, 5741, 3520, and more.
What is Included in the Full OVDP Submission?
The full OVDP application includes:
- Eight (8) years of Amended Tax Return filings;
- Eight (8) Years of FBAR (Foreign Bank and Account Reporting Statements);
- Penalty Computation Worksheet; and
- Various OVDP specific documents in support of the application.
Under this program, the Internal Revenue Service wants to know all of the income that was generated under these accounts that were not properly reported previously. The way the taxpayer accomplishes this is by amending tax returns for eight years.
Generally, if the taxpayer has not previously reported his accounts, then there are common forms which were probably excluded from the prior year’s tax returns and include 8938 Forms, Schedule B forms, 3520 Forms, 5471 Forms, 8621 Forms, as well as proof of filing of FBARs (Foreign Bank and Financial Account Reports).
The taxpayer is required to pay the outstanding tax liability for the eight years within the disclosure period – as well as payment of interest along with another 20% penalty on that amount (for nonpayment of tax). To give you an example, let’s pick one tax year during the compliance period. If the taxpayer owed $20,000 in taxes for year 2014, then they would also have to include in the check the amount of $4,000 to cover the 20% penalty, as well as estimated interest (which is generally averaged at about 3% per year). This must be done for each year during the compliance period.
Then there is the “FBAR/8938” Penalty. The Penalty is 27.5% (or 50% if any of the foreign accounts are held at an IRS “Bad Bank”) on the highest year’s “annual aggregate total” of unreported accounts (accounts which were previously reported are not calculated into the penalty amount).
For OVDP, the annual aggregate total is determined by adding the “maximum value” of each unreported account for each year, in each of the last 8 years. To determine what the maximum value is, the taxpayer will add up the highest balances of all of their accounts for each year. In other words, for each tax year within the compliance period, the application will locate the highest balance for each account for each year, and total up the values to determine the maximum value for each year.
Thereafter, the OVDP applicant selects the highest year’s value, and multiplies it by either 27.5%, or possibly 50% if any of the money was being held in what the IRS considers to be one of the “bad banks.” When a person is completing the penalty portion of the application, the two most important things are to breathe and remember that by entering the program, the applicant is seeking to avoid criminal prosecution!
2. Streamlined Domestic Offshore Disclosure
The Streamlined Domestic Offshore Disclosure Program is a highly cost-effective method of quickly getting you into IRS (Internal Revenue Service) or DOT (Department of Treasury) compliance.
What am I supposed to Report?
There are three main reporting aspects: (1) foreign account(s), (2) certain specified assets, and (3) foreign money. While the IRS or DOJ will most likely not be kicking in your door and arresting you on the spot for failing to report, there are significantly high penalties associated with failing to comply.
In fact, the US government has the right to penalize you upwards of $10,000 per unreported account, per year for a six-year period if you are non-willful. If you are determined to be willful, the penalties can reach 100% value of the foreign accounts, including many other fines and penalties… not the least being a criminal investigation.
Reporting Specified Foreign Assets – FATCA Form 8938
Not all foreign assets must be reported. With that said, a majority of assets do have to be reported on a form 8938. For example, if you have ownership of a foreign business interest or investment such as a limited liability share of a foreign corporation, it may not need to be reported on the FBAR but may need to be disclosed on an 8938.
The reason why you may get caught in the middle of whether it must be filed or not is due largely to the reporting thresholds of the 8938. For example, while the threshold requirements for the FBAR is when the foreign accounts exceed $10,000 in annual aggregate total – and is not impacted by marital status and country of residence – the same is not true of the 8938.
The threshold requirements for filing the 8938 will depend on whether you are married filing jointly or married filing separate/single, or whether you are considered a US resident or foreign resident.
Other Forms – Foreign Business
While the FBAR and Form 8938 are the two most common forms, please keep in mind that there are many other forms that may need to be filed based on your specific facts and circumstances. For example:
- If you are the Beneficiary of a foreign trust or receive a foreign gift, you may have to file Form 3520.
- If you are the Owner of a foreign trust, you will also have to file Form 3520-A.
- If you have certain Ownerships of a foreign corporation, you have to file Form 5471.
- And (regrettably) if you fall into the unfortunate category of owning foreign mutual funds or any other Passive Foreign Investment Companies then you will have to file Form 8621 and possibly be subject to significant tax liabilities in accordance with excess distributions.
Reporting Foreign Income
If you are considered a US tax resident (which normally means you are a US citizen, Legal Permanent Resident/Green-Card Holder or Foreign National subject to US tax under the substantial presence test), then you will be taxed on your worldwide Income.
It does not matter if you earned the money in a foreign country or if it is the type of income that is not taxed in the country of origin such as interest income in Asian countries. The fact of the matter is you are required to report this information on your US tax return and pay any differential in tax that might be due.
In other words, if you earn $100,000 USD in Japan and paid 25% tax ($25,000) in Japan, you would receive a $25,000 tax credit against your foreign earnings. Thus, if your US tax liability is less than $25,000, then you will receive a carryover to use in future years against foreign income (you do not get a refund and it cannot be used against US income). If you have to pay the exact same in the United States as you did in Japan, it would equal itself out. If you would owe more money in the United States than you paid in Japan on the earnings (a.k.a. you are in a higher tax bracket), then you have to pay the difference to the U.S. Government.
3. Streamlined Foreign Offshore Disclosure
What do you do if you reside outside of the United States and recently learned that you’re out of US tax compliance, have no idea what FATCA or FBAR means, and are under the misimpression that you are going to be arrested and hauled off to jail due to irresponsible blogging by inexperienced attorneys and accountants?
If you live overseas and qualify as a foreign resident (reside outside of the United States for at least 330 days in any one of the last three tax years or do not meet the Substantial Presence Test), you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
Even though you may be completely out of US tax and reporting compliance, you may qualify for a penalty waiver and ALL of your disclosure penalties would be waived. Thus, all you will have to do besides reporting and disclosing the information is pay any outstanding tax liability and interest, if any is due. (Your foreign tax credit may offset any US taxes and you may end up with zero penalty and zero tax liability.)
*Under the Streamlined Foreign, you also have to amend or file 3 years of tax returns (and 8938s if applicable) as well as 6 years of FBAR statements just as in the Streamlined Domestic program.
4. Reasonable Cause
Reasonable Cause is different than the above referenced programs. Reasonable Cause is not a “program.” Rather, it is an alternative to traditional Offshore Voluntary Disclosure, which should be considered on a case by case basis, taking the specific facts and circumstances into consideration.
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