by Karen Alpert
This feedback addresses the Residence Based Taxation (RBT) proposal from American Citizens Abroad that can be found at these links:
- Residency-Based_Taxation_ACA_Proposal_Side-By-Side_Comparison_161201_Final (1)
This proposal starts from the premise that citizenship is an acceptable basis for taxation. Shouldn’t that premise be questioned? Allison Christians, tax law professor at McGill University, argues that citizenship alone is not a sufficient basis for taxation ( https://ssrn.com/abstract=2924925). Every other country on the planet (bar Eritrea) starts from the premise that countries have the right to tax residents to support the services used by residents.
Qualification for RBT
For Accidental Americans – both those born in the US to foreign parents who have not lived in the US as an adult, and those born outside the US who qualify for US citizenship from birth but have never lived in the US – the justification for citizenship based taxation is non-existent. Do these individuals need to apply for a “Departure Certificate”? If so, at what age?
When a person makes a long-term move out of the US, why should they have to wait for 5 years to qualify for RBT? If I move from California to Texas, once I’ve established a residence in Texas, California no longer taxes me as a resident, effective immediately. Why should an international move be any different?
While waiting those 5 years, US tax will cost low income earners much more than it does under the current system. The proposal repeals the Foreign Earned Income Exemption (FEIE). While the level of FEIE is quite high, it is most valuable for middle class and lower socio-economic groups. Other countries have much more generous tax free thresholds and lower tax rates at low income levels. In Australia, for example, an individual could earn up to A$20,000 (US$15,000) before any Australian tax is due. Loss of FEIE will mean tax is due to the US for individuals earning US$10-15k. At the other end of the income spectrum, however, FTC is always a better answer than FEIE. Australia’s tax rates rise to 45% for incomes above A$180,000 (US$135,000). So, repeal of Section 911 FEIE will impact those least able to pay additional taxes and exacerbate income inequality.
The proposal does not address other information returns. Current IRS rules require that forms 8621 (PFICs) and 5471 (controlled foreign corporation) are required even when a tax return is not. For many Americans abroad, the reporting (and associated punitive penalties) is more of a problem than actually paying taxes (most owe no tax to the US anyway). If the reporting continues as long as one is a citizen, then renunciations will continue as well.
When applying for a Departure Certificate it appears that the IRS has control over the timing of the issuance of the Certificate and thus the effective date. With the current renunciation process, the potential renunciant has the date of the appointment in advance and can decide on the day whether to complete the process or not. With volatile exchange rates, the timing can affect the US dollar net worth of the individual, potentially subjecting them to the Departure Tax should the value of the US dollar fall relative to their home currency in the time between submission and approval of the application for Departure Certificate. Additionally, lack of control over the timing could cause hardship for those who must be free of US reporting to take up a job, or otherwise have a time-critical need to be free of US taxation.
Annual re-certification is a bureaucratic nightmare. One possible alternative is to collect this information as US citizens enter and leave the country. For those who return to employment in the US, the chance of avoiding taxation is minimal. Similarly, Social Security checks or investment income sent to a US address could be used as a rebuttable presumption that the US citizen is once again residing in the US.
In the Departure Tax section of the proposal it is not clear whether the intention is to use the net worth threshold in section 877(a)(2) and raise that to $5million for both renunciants and citizens opting in to RBT. Given the justification used by legislators for both the exit tax and the Departure Tax, the net worth threshold for both should be linked to the estate tax threshold and similarly indexed for inflation.
At what point does an individual determine that they have been tax compliant. Is it similar to the current Exit Tax procedures where delinquent returns filed before filing form 8854 allow one to certify compliance?
The IRS “User Fee” of $2,350 per person is a lot of money for those on modest incomes – precisely the people who will be hurt most by the repeal of section 911. The renunciation fee, which the IRS User fee is based on, is already the highest such fee in the world, and a financial hardship for many. Forcing citizens to buy their way out of Citizenship based taxation at this high price means that only those who are already relatively well-off will be able to buy their freedom. Like the current system, the proposal exacerbates income inequality by making it prohibitively expensive for those with incomes below the median to exit the double taxation forced on them by the unfair system of citizenship based taxation. As under current rules, the proposed User Fee also makes it harder and more expensive for US citizens residing outside of the US to leave the US tax system than it is for permanent residents (green card holders) – in this area citizens are treated worse than non-citizens!
Furthermore, setting the IRS User Fee to the same price as renunciation makes renunciation preferable to RBT for many citizens abroad. Those who will not be covered expatriates, who are having trouble maintaining banking relationships, are shut out of jobs due to either FATCA/FBAR reporting or the requirement to report controlled corporations to the IRS, or have no intention of returning to the US will find renunciation preferable.