Mister Taxman: Why Some Americans Working Abroad are Ditching Their Citizenships

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Why is Tina Turner switching from American to Swiss citizenship? The legendary singer, a longtime Zurich resident, told the Blick newspaper that she has been very happy in Switzerland and “can’t imagine a better place to live.” But some observers believe she may be one of thousands of American expatriates who have taken the drastic and irrevocable step of giving up their citizenship because of what they consider to be the unjust and discriminatory taxation practices of their government.

While Turner has indicated nothing other than a practical decision behind the switch, it comes at a time when American expats all over the world are turning in their passports in record numbers to avoid double taxation and other financial burdens imposed on them by Uncle Sam. According to government figures, nearly 1,800 Americans relinquished their passports in 2011, a process that requires a special application and a $450 “exit fee.” True, that number is just a drop in the bucket, considering that an estimated 6 million U.S. citizens currently live abroad. But the numbers are growing dramatically — a sevenfold increase since 2008, and that is not counting thousands of applications waiting to be processed in U.S. consulates and embassies around the world.

The U.S. is the world’s only industrialized nation that taxes citizens who live overseas, even if their income is generated in a foreign country and they never return to America. And while high-profile cases like that of Turner or that of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (who renounced his American citizenship last year to become a resident of Singapore) catch public attention, the vast majority of expatriates affected by double taxation and increasingly draconian filing rules are middle-class or retired, or those who have never lived or worked in the United States at all, but were born to American parents overseas.

Even though expatriates can claim a $97,000 exclusion on their U.S. taxes, most Americans who work in high-cost nations earn salaries far exceeding this amount, for which they already pay hefty income taxes in their countries of residence.

“I became increasingly frustrated by the necessity to file in two countries,” says Peter Dunn, an Anchorage, Alaska native who now lives in Toronto and renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2011.  Dunn became even more outraged when the IRS insisted on taxing his Canadian Tax-Free Savings Accounts, which are similar to the tax-free Roth IRAs in the U.S. “I could not live with the abuse of America taxing me even though I could not receive any services or benefits of living in the U.S.,” he adds.

In addition to the burden of double taxation, expats must deal with a myriad of increasingly complex and confusing IRS rules, like the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), which requires expatriates to report all foreign accounts exceeding $10,000, including those held jointly with their non-American spouses. Stiff financial penalties are imposed for non-compliance.

While filling out this form, Genette Eysselinck, a North Carolina native who lives in France, included the details of her accounts held jointly with her Belgian husband, as required by the IRS. “When I realized how distressed he was over my breach of confidence, I decided the only recourse left was to renounce my nationality,” she says. Eyssenlick gave up her American citizenship last year.

Another law that affects expatriates is the Foreign Assets Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which will go into effect in July and require all foreign banks to report to the IRS information about accounts held by Americans. While this new regulation aims to prevent tax evasion, it also makes life difficult for millions of law-abiding expats.

“FATCA is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Jackie Bugnon, director of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), a Geneva-based expatriate advocacy group. Because this legislation forces local banks to invest in expensive new infrastructure in order to comply with the IRS rules, “access to foreign financial institutions is being shut off and Americans abroad are treated like criminals,” she adds.

Switzerland-based Amy Webster experienced the bias first-hand when she and her Swiss husband encountered difficulties getting a mortgage due to her U.S. citizenship.  “This was infuriating and humiliating,” she says. “These unfair regulations imposed by the U.S. government are having adverse effects on the lives and wellbeing of U.S. citizens living in this country.”

Webster notes that while she understands “the political motivation of the current administration to chase tax evaders and punish banks that contributed to such transactions, I am outraged that these regulations have impacted honest and hard-working citizens.”

One way to stave off the surge in renunciations, ACA’s Bugnon points out, is to tax expatriates on the same basis as non-resident aliens, who maintain a tax home in a foreign country and benefit from the same tax laws as American citizens within U.S. territory. That’s the proposal the ACA will push during the Overseas Americans Week, to be held in Washington D.C. the week of February 11.

Unless this change happens soon, disgruntled expats will continue to turn their backs on America, perhaps singing Tina Turner’s old hit, aptly titled, “Goodbye, so long.”

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