Why are so many American expats giving up citizenship? It’s a taxing issue

Ruth Freeborn’s preparing to renounce her U.S. citizenship. It wasn’t an easy choice.

“It’s always hard. That’s your birthright,” says the Oklahoma-born Kingston resident. “They should not make it contingent on anything else. But they do.”

Freeborn has lived in Canada for more than three decades. She’s a Canadian citizen. Her husband’s Canadian. Their 22-year-old son, as far as she’s concerned, is Canadian.

She hasn’t lived, worked or held assets in the United States for ages.

But under American law, she’s a taxpayer. And it’s the morass of requirements and paperwork that entails that are driving her and thousands of others to give up their citizenship altogether.

“I feel I’m being forced to renounce,” Freeborn said. “And I know other people who feel that way, too.”

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Expat attrition

More expatriate Americans are renouncing their citizenship than at almost any other time. And comparing statistics from the FBI indicates the State Department may have been lowballing its numbers.

Lists of ex-citizens published in the U.S. Federal Register, a daily roundup of official documents, show the highest level recorded in at least ten years in the second quarter of 2013, with 1,958 appearing so far this year.

However, since 2012, parallel statistics kept by the FBI show renunciation rates higher than those in the published lists in the Federal Register.

The FBI reported 4,650 renounced their U.S. citizenship in 2012 – compared to the State Department’s 932. So far this year, another 1,958 people were recorded in the FBI’s database.

(The FBI tracks citizenship renunciation for gun-control reasons: Names of ex-citizens are entered in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, an FBI database designed to prevent them – along with fugitives, drug addicts, people with restraining orders related to domestic violence, and people dishonorably discharged military – from buying guns.)

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Before late 2009, quarterly totals of U.S. citizenship renunciants rarely exceeded 200, and have been as low as 15.

(In January, 2012, Global News filed a Freedom of Information request with the U.S. State Department requesting citizenship renunciation statistics. In June, 2013, State Department officials responded that they didn’t track these figures.)

People wanting to lose U.S. citizenship approach an American embassy or consulate outside the U.S. and, after a break of a few days to ensure they really mean it, come back to take an oath affirming their intention to renounce. Afterward, applicants get a document from the State Department called a Certificate of Loss of Nationality.

“We don’t really speculate on the reasons why people choose to renounce,” said State Department Consular Bureau spokesperson Beth Finan. “It’s a personal decision.”

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But the rise in renunciations is widely linked to increased U.S. pressure on citizens outside the country to file tax returns, and the complexity of the returns themselves, which many find impossible to complete without expensive tax advice.

“I know that there has been a significant uptick in the number of Americans who file returns, and a significant proportion of them entertaining the idea of renouncing US citizenship,” says Toronto-based CPA Kevyn Nightingale.

“I’ve seen it in the past, but nothing near the numbers that we’re seeing now. “

The U.S. government itself has raised similar concerns.

“Taxpayers [abroad] who are trying their best to comply simply cannot,” U.S. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson wrote in a 2011 report to Congress. “For some U.S taxpayers abroad, the tax requirements are so confusing and the compliance burden so great that they give up their U.S. citizenship.”

The IRS did not respond to questions by publication time.

“It’s very Orwellian”

Calgary-based tax lawyer Roy Berg figures his firm has as many as 50 U.S. citizenship renunciation files on the go – an astronomical increase from just a year ago. He has clients who haven’t filed – and even some who have, but made a mistake – hit with “a really nasty notice of assessment from the IRS.  … It’s potentially ruinous.”

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And while the U.S. doesn’t get much tax money from it, he notes, the state gets a lot of personal information on millions of people forced to fill out the forms.

“It’s very Orwellian.”

Due to various exclusions and international agreements designed to prevent double taxation, Americans abroad rarely owe U.S. taxes. But IRS penalties for not filing a range of tax information returns can be much higher than in Canada:

“In Canada, the penalty for missing an information filing generally maxes out at about $2,500,” Nightingale said. “The US starts at $10,000 and goes up from there.”

The U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requires foreign financial institutions to identify their U.S. citizen customers and report them to the IRS, or face a punitive tax on their U.S. investments. The Canadian federal government is widely expected to agree to some form of deal which would allow the Canadian banks to implement FATCA, although respected constitutional scholar Peter Hogg has said that such a law would be “discriminatory in a way that would not withstand Charter scrutiny.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that about a million U.S. citizens live in Canada. They have various degrees of practical connection to the United States, ranging from expatriates in the traditional sense to people born in Canada who derive U.S. citizenship from a parent. About 298,000 people self-identified as American in the 2006 Canadian census, many of whom were also Canadian citizens.

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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty “has raised serious concerns directly with the U.S. about FATCA,” his press secretary Kathleen Perchaluk said in an email, adding that the Canadian Revenue Agency “does not and will not collect the U.S. tax liability of a Canadian citizen if the individual was a Canadian citizen at the time the liability arose.”

“It comes about because wealthy people have been hiding money in offshore accounts,” explains McGill tax professor Allison Christians. “They get attention, they get caught, and now six million Americans living in other countries have to pay the price of that. [The U.S. government] can’t distinguish between a hedge fund raider with trust funds everywhere and millions of dollars hidden offshore and a kid who wants to be an au pair in Europe and wants to have a local bank account.”

“We’re not in the Cayman Islands”

Christians links the tax crackdown and its associated problems to the U.S. fiscal crisis.

“The problem is enormous deficits that have to be paid for by somebody,” she says. “Who can we blame? We look for someone who isn’t us – a foreigner. It’s very easy to put Americans who live in other countries in that category. Their accounts aren’t offshore accounts to them, but they are to the IRS.”

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But if that’s the goal, it isn’t working: Christians sees the imposition as an expensive waste of effort.

“All you’re doing is putting a lot of costs on Canadian banks and Canadian customers, because that’s who’s going to pay for it,” she said. “And the only thing you’re going to turn up is a bunch of people who didn’t know they were supposed to be filing, who are low- and middle-income filers. … You’re not going to get taxes out of it – you’re going to get penalties.”

Freeborn has an appointment to renounce coming up; she’s still “terrified” she’ll be dinged thousands in penalties for unfiled taxes – even though, as a stay-at-home mom with no income, the IRS actually owes her money.

“We’re not in the Cayman Islands. … We gladly pay our taxes where we live,” she said. “I just can’t afford to comply with their paperwork.”

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