Overseas Americans: Time to Say ‘Bye’ to Uncle Sam?

uncle samHere is a sign that life is getting complicated for U.S. taxpayers with assets abroad: More of them are deciding they are better off cutting official ties with America.

In the first half of 2013, 1,809 people renounced their American citizenship or permanent-resident status, according to a tally by Andrew Mitchel, a tax lawyer who tracks U.S. data. At that pace, the 2013 total would double the previous high of 1,781 renunciations in 2011.

Daniel Kuettel, a Colorado native who lives near Zurich, says he gave up his U.S. citizenship in October because he feared he wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage now that some Swiss banks are cutting ties with American clients.

“It was a really difficult decision. I had to think about what was best for me and my family, to reduce the risk,” says Mr. Kuettel, a 41-year-old software developer. He says his income was below the limit the U.S. allows overseas taxpayers to exempt and he owed no U.S. taxes.

The increase in renunciations is one sign that ordinary Americans who have lived and worked abroad for years, as well as green-card holders in the U.S. and overseas, believe they are at growing risk because of the intensifying government pursuit of undeclared foreign assets.

The crackdown started in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and it gathered force after Swiss banking giant UBS AGUBSN.VX +0.94% agreed in 2009 to pay $780 million to settle charges it had helped U.S. taxpayers hide assets.

Since then, more than 80 U.S. taxpayers have been criminally charged, and Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin & Co., closed down after pleading guilty to helping U.S. taxpayers hide more than $1.2 billion abroad.

On Friday, a prominent Swiss lawyer pleaded guilty in U.S. court to helping U.S. taxpayers hide millions of dollars abroad.

U.S. officials are enforcing rules established by Congress—some widely ignored for years, and others added more recently—that threaten stiff penalties and even prison for failure to comply. The crackdown has brought more than $6 billion in taxes and penalties into U.S. coffers, and experts say another $5 billion is in the pipeline. A representative for the IRS declined to comment.

Much of the money comes from well-heeled taxpayers. The top 10% of taxpayers who went through one of the Internal Revenue Service’s limited-amnesty programs had account balances over $4 million, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in a March report. The programs are one way for taxpayers who have missed past filings to come into compliance.

But many U.S. taxpayers who aren’t wealthy also are finding it harder to attend to routine financial matters abroad, because some foreign institutions don’t want to face the cost of complying with U.S. requirements.

Amid the crackdown, some face stiff U.S. tax bills and crippling fines over undeclared assets. Paying lawyers and accountants to help meet the various reporting and filing requirements routinely costs at least $1,000 a year, and often much more, experts say.

Other people say they are considering whether to renounce but are reluctant to take such a drastic step. Renouncing can cause additional complications, including another steep bill because of an exit tax the U.S. imposes on those who meet certain income or asset thresholds.


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