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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Expatriates choosing to leave the US rather than pay taxes

No pain-free way to deal with FATCA: Pro
No pain-free way to deal with FATCA: Pro

More Americans renounced their citizenship and terminated their long-term residency in the first three months of the year than ever before, courtesy of the crackdown in foreign tax rules.

The upsurge subsided some in the second quarter but has been ongoing since the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service began aggressively enforcing tax rules for American expatriates. The crackdown on the Foreign Bank Account Report is fresh, though the law has been in existence since 1970. Under the law, U.S. taxpayers are required to file if they held one or more foreign accounts totaling more than $10,000 over the course of a year.

"Many people have been getting caught up on their U.S. tax filings and then renouncing," said Andrew Mitchel, an international tax lawyer who analyzes Treasury Department data.

For a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate and gift tax returns and paying estimated taxes are generally the same whether one is in the country or abroad. A person's worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where he or she resides.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act is intended to ensure that the Internal Revenue Service obtains information on accounts held abroad by U.S. taxpayers at foreign financial institutions.

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The initiative comes after UBS in 2009 was accused of helping American taxpayers hide money overseas. In 2014, Credit Suisse pleaded to similar claims. UBS paid $780 million to the U.S. and turned over information on more than 4,000 Swiss accounts. Credit Suisse Group paid $2.6 billion.

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These scandals gained much publicity, launching law officials to go gung-ho on the mission, and led to an increased awareness among U.S. citizens about their tax requirements.

"I think that the rise in the number of people renouncing over the past few years has to do with people becoming more aware of their U.S. tax filing obligations and the potential penalties that can be imposed for failure to file certain disclosure forms," Mitchel said.

The penalty for unintentionally failing to file the FBAR is the standard penalty: $10,000 per year.

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So taxpayers with ties to a supposed "tax haven" are finding themselves in a tug of war between keeping their assets and minimizing taxes—or keeping their U.S. residency.

In the first quarter of 2015, the Treasury Department reported 1,335 expatriates. That was the highest quarterly number of published expatriates ever, surpassing the previous record of 1,130 that was published in the second quarter in 2013.

But in the second quarter this year, the department reported only 460 expatriates. That represents nearly a 65 percent decline from the record first-quarter number.

So is the exodus losing steam?

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Freddi Weintraub, an attorney who specializes in immigration law believes that things may be changing. At one point, Weintraub was seeing a threefold increase in expatriation inquiries related to taxes. But for the last 10 to 12 months, she hasn't had a single request for assistance when it comes to expatriation and taxes.

"This past quarter would suggest that the numbers are leveling off," Mitchel said. But he won't make any bold confirmations just yet. "The quarterly numbers tend to vary quite significantly," he said.

The third-quarter expatriate list will be published this autumn.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story misidentified the reporter who wrote the article.