Rock, hard place
New tax law forcing some expats to renounce U.S. citizenship
WASHINGTON — For Ruth Anne Freeborn, it boiled down to a choice between country and family.
Born in Oklahoma, Freeborn has lived in Kingston, Ontario, for more than 30 years as an American expatriate, with a Canadian husband and 22-year-old son.
But a U.S. law passed in 2010 that will require international financial institutions to provide the Internal Revenue Service with information on their U.S. account holders forced her to weigh her citizenship. Her husband, a $51,000-a-year electronics technician and the family’s sole income earner, strenuously objected to having his financial data shared with a foreign nation.
“My decision was either to protect my Canadian spouse and child from this overreach or I could relinquish my U.S. citizenship,” she said. “It was with great sorrow I felt I had to relinquish, but there was no other choice for me and many like me.”
In September, Freeborn formally surrendered her citizenship and joined a record number of Americans who are ditching their U.S. passports out of frustration and fear of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. The law was created to root out Americans evading taxes overseas by requiring foreign financial institutions to annually report to the IRS on U.S. citizens who hold more than $50,000 at the end of the year.
The reporting requirements are putting a strain on dual citizenship households where a non-American spouse or partner doesn’t want the IRS prying into their bank accounts or financial portfolios, according to U.S. expat advocacy groups and tax lawyers.
“My husband cannot understand why Americans are so offended by having their personal emails and phone calls monitored by the NSA yet are very comfortable requiring a Canadian to hand over their bank account data, which is far more sensitive,” Freeborn said.
The number of citizenship renunciations has surged from 742 in 2009 to more than 1,854 so far this year, according to the State Department. Some U.S. tax experts and expats believe the number is higher, based on foreign media reports of Americans renouncing in other countries and Internet chatter about increased waiting periods at some U.S. consulates for appointments to drop citizenship.
In addition to complaints about the reports to the IRS, expats say the law is prompting several overseas banks and financial institutions to close out longstanding accounts of American clients, refuse to open new ones, and deny loans and mortgages to expats rather than face a U.S. penalty if they don’t comply with the tax law.
The turning away of U.S. citizens by some foreign financial institutions is making it tough for some Americans to do business overseas, according to Jimmy Sexton, president of the Esquire Group, an international tax firm with offices in Las Vegas and Vienna, Austria.
“My bank told me I had to close my account by the end of the year,” Sexton said. “I moved to a larger bank with an expat division. That’s all fine and good if you live in Vienna, but if you live in an area with only small banks, good luck.”
“Many banks, foreign financial institutions, are just turning Americans away — it’s easier for them not to have American clients,” said Marylouise Serrato, executive director of American Citizens Abroad. “For some people it (renunciation) becomes a solution. But it’s done with a very heavy heart.”
Rich flee U.S.
Expats don’t want their cause tied to the rich and famous, many of whom are fleeing taxes.
Singer Tina Turner traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, earlier this month and relinquished her citizenship. Her husband is Swiss and she’s lived there for more than 20 years.
Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin dropped his U.S. citizenship last year and now resides in Singapore, a move that some financial experts estimate saved him $67 million in U.S. taxes.
Denise Rich, formerly a high-profile Democratic Party fundraiser, also handed in her U.S. passport last year and resides in tax-friendlier Austria.
“The rich can afford expensive tax attorneys,” Freeborn said. “The poor and the middle class cannot. My bank down the street is not an offshore account and I’m not hiding money.”
The U.S. Treasury Department said the law doesn’t impose a burden that would prompt foreign banks to turn away Americans or force Americans to give up their citizenship.
“Individuals that have used offshore accounts to evade tax obligations may rightly fear that FATCA will identify their illicit activities,” says a Treasury Web posting. “Yet a decision to renounce U.S. citizenship would not relieve these individuals of prior U.S. tax obligations, and might well create additional U.S. tax obligations for certain citizens and long-term residents who give up citizenship or residency.”
There are proposals in Congress to repeal or reconsider the law, though none has gone far yet.
“FATCA is a textbook example of a bad law that doesn’t achieve its stated purpose but does manage to unleash a host of unanticipated destructive consequences,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., when he introduced a bill this year to repeal FATCA. “Tax evasion is a problem that should be addressed, but not in an egregious way.”
Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives last year to create a bipartisan commission to study the impact of government policy on Americans living abroad. Ironically, Rangel co-sponsored FATCA in 2009.
Cynthia Bennett, who lives in Germany, didn’t want to wait for Congress. She renounced in 2011 and told BBC News that FATCA was the last straw.
“U.S. congressmen and senators will happily throw middle Americans living and working abroad under the bus,” she said, “if that can garner sound bites under the pretense of ‘punishing rich tax evaders.’”