When Tax Professionals Disagree

Walter B. Wriston (former CEO of Citicorp): “All the Congress, all the accountants and tax lawyers, all the judges, and a convention of wizards all cannot tell for sure what the income tax law says.”

Applying US tax law to “foreign” legal structures is problematic.1 This is one of the great frustrations of trying to comply with the US system of citizenship based taxation (and one of the reasons why this extraterritorial application of US law should be carefully considered by all countries who negotiate tax treaties with the US). Inevitably there will be differences of opinion as to how US law applies to particular foreign income or taxes – and these differences will lead to different US tax treatment of the same or similar items. There may be no single “right” answer, and we (or the tax professional we have hired) will have to choose how to interpret US tax law to determine our US tax liability on our foreign (home) income. Understanding how our local law meshes with the structures defined in the US tax code is the first step.

In Australia, we have two advantages relative to much of the rest of the world (especially those which are not part of the Commonwealth). First, our laws are written in English. While there are several Aussie colloquialisms that differ in meaning from American English, our laws and other formal writing are written in language that is mostly the same as US English (with a few extra vowels here and there, and the occasional “zed” that has been replaced by an “s”). Second, our legal system is derived from the British system, so many of the underlying principles are at least similar between the two countries. Even so, there are differences.

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Is Super equivalent to Social Security?

This post is inspired by a paragraph near the end of this blog post by  Marsha-laine Dungog:

We would encourage U.S. expats to seize the current momentum and push for legislation that will “enshrine” the Super’s objectives as one that will “provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the Age Pension.”[41] This would conclusively lay all doubts to rest that the Super should be analyzed in a manner that is consistent with (and therefore taxed similarly to) U.S. Social Security. The treatment of SG Contributions as foreign social security is consistent with the statutory mandate under Australian Superannuation law requiring employer contributions to be made pursuant to the taxing authority of the Commonwealth of Australia (Commonwealth) and not on account of a contractual relationship between employer and employee. Consequently, earnings accrued on SG contributions and distributions therefrom should also be classified as foreign social security benefits which are already excluded from U.S. taxation under Article 18(2) of the Tax Treaty.[42]

This got me thinking. In what ways is Super equivalent to Social Security? And does the proposed legislation1 actually do anything? Finally, what action is needed in Australia to clarify this issue? Continue reading “Is Super equivalent to Social Security?”


For US expats who moved to Australia decades ago, the idea that they should be filing annual US tax returns may be unreal. Many have been non-compliant for years. Because of this, FATCA and the resulting compliance push have (probably on purpose to some extent) entrapped long-term expats, who have found that the rules have changed while they weren’t looking.

One major area where long-term expats have been entrapped is superannuation. Even the IRS has no idea how to report super. There are two main alternatives during the accumulation phase (this applies to most accumulation accounts) – either just the contributions are taxable in the Continue reading “Entrapment!”

It’s not ‘… a matter for them to pursue with the US’!

Back in 2014, we met with our federal MP who sent a letter on our behalf to the Assistant Treasurer asking about taxation of our superannuation accounts by the US. This is an extract of the response we received from then Acting Assistant Treasurer, Matthias Cormann:

Letter dated July 2014 from Acting Assistant Treasurer
Letter dated July 2014 from Acting Assistant Treasurer

I have a problem with this response.

Continue reading “It’s not ‘… a matter for them to pursue with the US’!”