How can they do that?

Have you opened a bank or investment account lately? Were you asked about other citizenships? Place of birth? Since mid-2014 Australian financial institutions have been ferreting out US Persons. At most institutions, every new account holder is asked these questions. And, if you are found to be a US Person, you must complete a form W-9 (or equivalent) disclosing your US connection and Social Security Number. This data will be sent to the ATO, who will forward it on to the IRS.

Think about that.

Private Australian financial information of Australian citizens and permanent residents is being sent to a foreign government.

How can they do that? Do they really have the authority to send private financial data to the IRS?
Continue reading “How can they do that?”

FOI Take 2

Just over a week ago, I received a message through this website from someone who had submitted an FOI request to the ATO. “Sam” expected that one of his accounts had been reported because the bank had identified him as a US Person and the balance was above the bank’s reporting threshold. The response from the ATO puzzled Sam, and it puzzled me as well. The ATO response stated that they needed to consult with a “foreign government” about whether Sam’s FATCA records were exempt from FOI under Section 33 of the FOI Act: Continue reading “FOI Take 2”

Explaining the Saving Clause III

This is Part 3 of our series explaining the Saving Clause in the Australia / US tax treaty. In Part 1 we saw how international tax works for 90% of the world’s population: income sourced in the country where you live is taxed only by that country. Income from elsewhere is governed by the treaty and generally taxed by the source country – with a tax credit in the resident country if it is also taxed there. In Part 2 we saw how the Saving Clause works in US tax treaties[1]: US citizens are subject to US tax wherever they live due to the unique practice of Citizenship Based Taxation; the Saving Clause allows the US tax its citizens as if most of the treaty did not exist, allowing the US to tax foreign-source income of foreign residents.   Continue reading “Explaining the Saving Clause III”

Explaining the Saving Clause II

This is part 2 of a three part series explaining how the Saving Clause works in international tax treaties. In part 1, we saw how international transactions are taxed for almost 90% of the world’s population under Residence Based Taxation (RBT). We looked at the example of Maria, an Australian resident with rental income in Santiago Chile. Maria pays tax to Chile on the rental income, but is not required to report or pay tax in Chile on any of her Australian income. On her Australian tax return, Maria reports the Chilean rental income and is able to deduct the tax paid in Chile from her Australian tax. Essentially, Chile has the first right to tax Chilean source income.  Continue reading “Explaining the Saving Clause II”

Explaining the Saving Clause I

When it comes to fixing the tax treaty, the “Saving Clause” is a key piece of the puzzle. From the discussion that followed the Strategy Roadmap, it is clear that many find the saving clause very confusing. So, in a series of three posts, I’m going to attempt to explain how the saving clause works and why it is important. In this first post we’ll look at how international tax works under the Residence Based Taxation model used by three quarters of the taxing jurisdictions in the world and covering almost 90% of world population, without the saving clause. The second post will look at how the saving clause, coupled with Citizenship Based Taxation changes the result. In a nutshell, we’ll see that the saving clause allows the US to tax US citizens living in Australia on their Australian source income. The final post will explore ways to fix the problem. Continue reading “Explaining the Saving Clause I”

One Step at a Time

journey

It’s crystal clear by now that the US and Australian governments are not going to wake up tomorrow and realise that FATCA and CBT are unjust and discriminatory. It will take quite some time to get rid of CBT and move to RBT. The other night I was catching up on my long list of podcasts, and stumbled upon the latest edition of the Freakonomics Podcast – In Praise of Incrementalism.  The podcast explores how an incremental approach worked for gay marriage, and the civil rights movement as well as how an incremental approach might be used for current issues such as #BlackLivesMatter. Listening to the podcast soon after reading a discussion about the civil rights movement in the American Expatriates Facebook group, started me thinking about our struggle to get our elected representatives to understand the injustice of FATCA and CBT. When it comes to fixing FATCA and CBT, a home run is unlikely. But each hit makes a run more likely. So while we have our eyes on the prize, we need to also aim for small victories that will eventually make a shift to RBT seem inevitable.

What does incremental look like?

Incremental is SLOW. It’s not exciting. But eventually it gets you there.

The incremental approach is most effective when the obvious, low-hanging fruit, is tackled first. I’ll suggest three potential baby steps that could get us on the road to victory – please add more in the comments.

Accidental Americans
Many of those claimed as US persons don’t identify as Americans at all. Perhaps they were born in the US, but their non-American parents took them home while they were still children. Or maybe they were born outside of the US with at least one US citizen parent. They may not even speak English. And now, if they admit their place of birth or parentage to their local bank, they are asked to fill out a W-9 so their account information can be sent to the IRS. What right does the US have to tax these people? The injustice is so obvious that President Obama has proposed an inadequate remedy in the 2016 and 2017 budget proposals. And recently there has been some push back against the US taxation of Accidental Americans in France.

Privacy/Transparency
Last week’s post argued that US Persons should be automatically notified when their account information was reported to the IRS via the ATO. Implementing this type of reporting would be an acknowledgement that affected US Persons have a right to know who has their financial information. Again, this is a baby step towards overturning the massive privacy violations of FATCA. A comment in the Facebook group argues that privacy is just a distraction, and that we should, instead focus on more substantive problems with FATCA. However, once our governments admit that there are some privacy concerns with FATCA, it may be easier to get them to understand some of the bigger problems.

Same Country Exemption (the right way)
This excellent video by Professor Allison Christians (McGill University) from 2014 was recently linked in the Citizenship Taxation Facebook group.

Starting about 6 minutes into the video Professor Christians advocates a “Same Country Exemption (SCE)” as an incremental approach to dismantling FATCA. SCE has a bad name among some groups of US expats because of a specific proposal that links SCE with IRS compliance. However, I think Professor Christians is advocating a simple SCE without any need for the FFI to check anything other than proof of residence: if you bank where you live, the bank is absolved of all FATCA reporting requirements. Plus, you’re being taxed where you live, so the chances of your “foreign” bank account being used to evade a significant amount of US tax is fairly small. SCE would be a small incremental step that would bring relief to many (not all) of those adversely affected by FATCA. Does it go far enough? No. But, implementing this type of SCE would alleviate at least some of the injustice of FATCA – it would be a small wedge that might allow us to push the door open wider.

 

Priorities

Following on from Carl’s post, I think the main issues have been obvious since this site was started. What we need now is to set specific goals and objectives. We can divide these into two broad groups – Tax Treaty goals and FATCA goals. The purpose of this post is to list the goals so that we can prioritise action. Continue reading “Priorities”

Strength in Numbers

Many Hands Make Light Work
Old English Proverb

United we stand, divided we fall
Aesop

There is always strength in numbers.  The more individuals or organisations that you can rally to your cause, the better
Mark Shields

All for One and One for All!
Motto from the Three Musketeeers, by Alexandre Dumas

I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow
Woodrow Wilson

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much
Helen Keller

With an estimated 200,000 persons of American origin living within Australia, one would think that the awareness would be greater of the significant threats imposed on them through the US Government’s harmful and unjust practices of extraterritorial taxation.   I’ve been baffled at how few actually understand the breadth of compliance expectations, costs and potential risks such reporting compliance penalties and double taxation but I also recognise that following years of minimal enforcement or education, many would have been able to stay blissfully ignorant of expectations imposed by a far far away country.

However, all this is changing now that the USG, with Australia’s full cooperation, has begun to enforce their extraterritorial Citizenship Based Taxation regime, aided and abetted by FATCA.  Stakeholders are starting to wake up to the material threats they face and are motivated to seek change.  This led to the recent formation of Let’s Fix the Tax Treaty! as an Australian focused advocacy group seeking to press the Australian Government for amendments to the Australia/US Tax Treaty and the FATCA IGA to eliminate discrimination against a subclass of Australian citizens that is also disadvantageous to all Australians

As a new, word-of-mouth grassroots initiative, it is pleasing to see that membership in our Facebook group has already reached over 125 members.  Nevertheless, current membership is a very small fraction of the impacted community and clearly our cause will be better served by greater membership representation.

Why does membership numbers matter?  Firstly, if we are seen to represent a large stakeholder group having aligned goals, we’ll have much greater creditability and a better opportunity to influence Australian policy and opinion makers.   Secondly, our advocacy group strategy (currently under development –look for blog posts on this soon) will flow onto specific activities that will require volunteer efforts to execute.  To successfully bring about change, we will all need to get involved.  Recently, a call went out for volunteers to serve on a Steering Committee (which remains open, hint, hint!) and there will be further calls for volunteer support as standing committees are formed to support targeted activities.   Thirdly, the more broad and diverse the skills and mindsets we can draw upon, the more successful our efforts are likely to be.

Who are the Stakeholders we need to attract?  Stakeholders consist of:

  • Australian residents of American origin, many of which are dual citizens;
  • Australian spouses of American citizens;
  • Australian citizens living in America who are now subject to US tax laws including potentially material (penalty) taxes on Superannuation and passive investments they established before moving to the US
  • Indirectly, all Australians who have to pay for FATCA systems, suffer money being unfairly diverted from their domestic economy into a foreign economy and tolerate a loss of Australian sovereignty as Australia domestic policies are undermined by a foreign power.

 

So if we accept that larger membership is desirable, what can we do about it?

  1. Spread the word to your network and ask them to do the same. Most of us know many impacted people so this is a great place to start.  To make this easier, I’ve previously posted a “model email” (look for it in the comments) that you are welcome to modify and personalise as your own.
  2. Let appropriate organisations know about our group. I’ll cross-post this in the a couple of relevant Facebook Groups I am a member of (Yanks Down Under and North American Expats in Adelaide and South Australia) please do this with other appropriate groups and please tell us about them in the comments.
  3. Media helps immensely. After the recent SMH article featuring our very own leader Karen Alpert, we saw a sharp uptick in FB membership requests and visits to our blog site.  We’ll be formally working the media angle further as the Steering Committee and group strategy gets rolled out but perhaps some of you already have connections or ideas here?  Please tell us about it in the comments.
  4. Finally, we are happy to take other ideas in the comments.

I think we should be targeting to grow this group to the 2,000 to 5,000 persons size, which seems to me both a reasonable and achievable target.  Of course, we recognise that numbers for numbers sake is not what we are here for and we will soon table an advocacy strategy and corresponding activity plan for your input and feedback.  Then it will be time to get involved!  Look for my next post soon on the benefits of having a well thought-out advocacy strategy.