Don't you just hate people who say that?
7 million Americans abroad and only a few are even quasi-compliant with the American tax system which requires that any American living outside the U.S. file tax returns and foreign bank accounts reports even where all the income and all those bank accounts are in the country of residence (not the US).
That's changing but I think it's useful to explain how this situation arose in the first place. "They should have known" just isn't helpful here and in many cases it is just outright ridiculous. Why? Because before there was a compliance gap, there was a communication gap.
I'm not interested in pointing fingers and going "tsk tsk" - I already have two children and I don't want to be anyone else's mom (or grandma). I am interested in getting it fixed because the problem is still with us There is, I believe, a new American "tax evader" coming off the boat (or plane) every day because people still don't get it. I meet this people and I assure you that confusion still reigns. In order to do the Next Right Thing, we have to examine how we did the Wrong Thing.
An American Exception: There are roughly 190 countries in the world today and only the United States (and Eritrea) has what really should be called a "diaspora tax" (the common term is citizenship-based taxation but that is a misnomer because non-US citizens are taxed under this system as well). What that means is that any US citizen or foreigner with a certain status in the US who moves to another country is still required to file US tax returns, pay US taxes on any income earned (and unearned) in that other country and report all of his or her bank accounts outside the US. It's an oddball situation, an outlier, a "who woulda thought" kind of thing.
It's so weird that I had one reader report via email that when he tried to explain it to his fellow Americans in his host country, he was accused of trying to tarnish the good name of the United States with his "anti-US government conspiracy theories."
The Homeland Experience: Prior to leaving the US, many Americans have already migrated within the United States. Maybe they were born in Virginia, but they went to school in California and, once they graduated, they landed a job in Wisconsin and settled there. Happens all the time. Now a lot of US states have state income taxes but if an American moves five times in as many states, the state he was born in doesn't follow him around annoying him for tax returns when he is an income-earning, property-owning resident of another state. So when an American goes abroad this is the model he has in mind and if, after having moved numerous times within the US, he goes abroad to Belize, it just doesn't occur to him that taxation and out-country migration does not work the same way as internal migration.
Accidental Migrants: Some of the recent research into the American population outside the United States reveals that many (if not most) went abroad thinking that they would go back to the US at some point. As one study participant (a US lawyer in London) reported to Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, "I was only supposed to be here for one year and that was 18 1/2 years ago."
As they acculturate in their new homes abroad, they become part of the local tax system and start paying local taxes (national and city taxes). Yes, my fellow Americans in the homeland, if you live in France on a residency permit, you will pay taxes just like everybody else here foreign or native. Ditto for just about anywhere else in the world.
So having declared and paid in the country of residence, it just doesn't occur to Americans that they are special among all the other nationalities in the world and they (lucky them) get to also report the same income (earned or unearned in the countries of residence) to the United States - a place that they haven't lived in for, say 18 1/2 years. And if you try to call that person a "tax evader", well, they are likely to take exception to that characterization especially if they have 10+ years of tax compliance in their countries of residence outside the US. It really is a "WTF?" moment when they do figure it out.
Homeland Rhetoric and the Diversity of Americans Abroad: This is a huge problem because it's about framing and context. The headlines in the media and the common perception of the need for things like FATCA and compliance programs and the like all focus on the hunt for the "rich tax evaders." So a very common problem I see is that the American au pair or visiting professor or artist or writer or musician or translator or English teacher or stay-at-home mother or university student (who most assuredly are not rich) do not see themselves as being concerned by any of it. "But I hardly make any money here!" is something I hear time and time again. "Those rules are only for rich people!"
Sorry, but that's not true. That American English teacher may be making very little but if he or she is making French minimum wage and works even part-time, it's not too hard go over the filing threshold of 10,000 USD/7300 Euros. (And believe me, if you live in France on that kind of money you are very poor indeed). Or take the American student whose parents perhaps have wired him or her enough cash to pay tuition, first/last month rent and food money - if that student's bank account goes over 7,300 euros then he must file a Foreign Bank Account Report.
It occurred to me once, seeing all those American students at McGill University in Canada, that if the IRS/Treasury wanted to make some quick money (10,000 USD for every non-reported Canadian "offshore" bank account) they could simply get the born-in-the-US student list and start checking them (and their parents back in the US) out.
Few Points of Contact: 7 million US citizens (not to mention Green Card holders) scattered all over the world and even the US embassies and consulates can't count them with a reasonable degree of accuracy. There is no requirement that Americans have to register with State and most don't. In some countries there is an American community to plug into with clubs and churches but in many there really isn't - just an "international" community perhaps. Often the US consulate is only in the main city and Americans who live in the countryside or other regional cities have to travel quite a ways to get to one. There are around 290 US embassies and consulates in the world but only five IRS international offices, over half in Europe: Frankfurt, Paris, London, Beijing and Puerto Rico.
In the 20 years I've been abroad I have never seen any tax information "pushed" by the US government to the American communities in any country including the ones that have an IRS presence. (If you have had a different experience, please say so.) In a few places with large numbers of Americans I have seen non-profits and other volunteer organizations doing their best with tax seminars and the like but these reach only a very small percentage of US citizens abroad. Given the recent tax troubles there are more events than there used to be but still looks like an American would have to be "plugged in" in some way in order to get any useful information. About the only reliable point of contact that I know of is the trip to the local consulate to renew a passport (every 5 years for minors and every 10 years for adults).
There are probably other factors I'm missing here but that's the general landscape. Even with all the recent national and international media attention, there is still a lot of confusion about American "citizenship-based taxation". Until that gets cleared up, there will be new American emigrant and immigrant "non-willful tax evaders" created every minute. (That was actually the headline of a recent article and we just howled with laughter when we read it.) And we will be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years. The recent IRS streamline amnesty program is a step in the right direction but that's slapping on a band-aid after the fact. Common sense would dictate that perhaps it would be a good idea to address the communication gap as well as the compliance gap.
I don't pretend that there is one solution to all this but I can think of a couple of places to start.
How about a "tax note" to be given out to every individual applying for or renewing a Green Card or a visa, or anyone applying for or renewing a US passport inside or outside the United States that says in the clearest language possible: If you leave the US or come in to the US, you should know that the American tax system is a little different and there are some obligations you need to know about.
If you are a US citizen or Green Card holder living abroad you must file US tax returns and report income earned in your country of residence just like you would if you were still living in the US. In addition to that you will be required to report your foreign-to-the-US-but-local-to-you bank accounts. Please see IRS publication X or webpage Y for more information.
If you are an immigrant coming in to the US, you must report any earned and unearned income, and all your pre-existing bank accounts, from any country outside the United States including your home country/country of citizenship. Please see IRS publication X or webpage Y for more information.I'd suggest that they play with the language a bit to see what is most meaningful to the target audience and what is most likely to get them to act. Another idea would be to put posters up in conspicuous places in the US consulates and a note on the front page of every US embassy website around the world. The key here is to challenge the default setting of American emigrants and immigrants and raise awareness. Surely, mes amis, all this is doable. More importantly, it's the right thing to do. Without it, the whole business smells an awful lot like a deliberate trap - a "gotcha" game for emigrants and immigrants alike. And that perception undermines....
Legitimacy. Tax authorities can do all sort of very negative things to people who don't comply but enforcement efforts are expensive and most tax systems in developed countries don't rely solely on that. Education is important and so is something called "tax morale" which just means that people voluntarily comply because they feel a moral obligation to do so, they see a link between their behaviour and a government which is providing valued goods and services, and it feels more or less "fair" to them.
That link is very tenuous to Americans living outside the United States because there are very few services for them abroad (even "protection" isn't really a reality in a lot of places). Their first reaction is that it isn't fair at all and why should they, unlike all the other citizens/diasporas of the world participating in globalization, be reporting (and often paying taxes) TWICE. You can call them all the names you like ("tax evader" and so on) and increase the already draconian fines, but the Holy Grail of international voluntary tax compliance will continue to elude everyone and poison the relationship between Americans abroad and the US government until someone stands up and starts the necessary conversation about Why This is Important and Necessary and Why We Need You to Do It.
So let's start talking already and may I suggest that HR 597 would be a good place to start?