On Twitter, Andrew Grossman mentioned Housden v. Commissioner, 63 T.C.M. 2063 (1992). Mr. Housden, a partner of famous Canadian architecture firm WZMH, got a loan from the Royal Bank of Canada. He later moved to the U.S. to operate a WZMH subsidiary, and made some payments on the loan from 1980 until 1983 — meaning that RBC earned interest income “from sources within the United States” within the meaning of 26 USC § 871(a)(1).
The U.S. Tax Court ruled that when an individual resident of the United States has borrowed money from a non-U.S. bank, the individual is supposed to be the withholding agent for the 30% tax on interest income earned by the bank under § 871(a). So Housden had to pay that 30% out of his own pocket and try on his own to get it back from RBC. The only relief for Housden was that he didn’t get hit with penalties for underpayment or failure to file required forms, since two famous nests of compliance condors — first Deloitte, later the now-defunct Laventhol & Horwath — failed to warn him about his withholding obligations until he was already being audited.
Brockers with local mortgages or credit cards are probably about to panic upon reading this. Fortunately, the IRS suggested in 1992 regulations that an individual interest payor should probably only be considered a “resident of the United States” if the individual meets the substantial presence test (SPT), regardless of citizenship. As Phil Hodgen pointed out two years ago, the IRS confirmed this view in (non-precedential) Chief Counsel Advice in 2012. So if you have lived in another country for your entire adult life, IRS lawyers do not seem to think they can reasonably interpret § 871 or its regulations to grab 30% of all your mortgage payments.
In other words, this is a tiny island of residence-based sanity in the citizenship-based “Internal” Revenue Code — well, almost. Nothing involving the U.S. tax system can ever be as simple as it sounds.