Bloomberg Tax is reporting a nearly 50% increase in the number of Enrolled Agents with foreign addresses. The article is troubling on many levels, starting with the title: “U.S. Tax-Dodging Crackdown Overseas Brings Foreign-Adviser Surge.” Apparently, the editorial team at Bloomberg has different ideas, because today they published “Stop Treating American Expats Like Tax Cheats.”
FATCA is truly the full-employment act for the tax compliance profession. Below the fold, I’ll examine the following issues raised by the increase in US tax compliance professionals outside of the US:
Has the IRS really “gone global”?
What support does the IRS provide international taxpayers?
On 15 October 2019, the IRS amended its FATCA FAQs (aimed at Foreign Financial Institutions – FFIs) by adding Q3 to the questions on Reporting. The new Q3 outlines the procedures that FFIs subject to a Model 1 IGA will be subject to in the event that they report accounts with missing or invalid identification numbers (SSNs). This new question is clearly aimed at easing the anxiety of Accidental Americans at the expiry of Notice 2017-46, which allowed FFIs to report date of birth instead of SSN on existing accounts if the FFI was unable to obtain an SSN.
This is significant because there have been many newsoutletsreporting that a large number of bank accounts (especially in Europe) would be closed at the end of 2019. The problem arises because there are many US citizens who have always lived outside of the US and may not have a Social Security number. Many of these individuals don’t even identify as Americans and don’t understand why they must go through the bureaucratic hassle of obtaining an SSN (not easy if you’re an adult and living outside the US). In September, the IRS made it possible for these individuals to renounce their US citizenship and follow US tax law without obtaining an SSN. However, the cost of renouncing (USD2,350 per person) is prohibitive for many, and the cost of having US tax returns prepared professionally can also be excessive.
On Friday 6 September, the IRS announced new “Relief Procedures for Certain Former Citizens.” These procedures mirror the current Streamlined Offshore Filing Procedures with some differences that might be attractive to some who have renounced or wish to renounce their US citizenship. Taken in conjunction with other recent IRS announcements, this new procedure is a “carrot” to encourage compliance before the IRS applies the “stick” of recently announced compliance campaigns. However, this begs the question of why the IRS would want to encourage compliance among non-citizens whose US tax liability would be dwarfed by the combination of the cost to the IRS of processing their returns and the cost to the individual of having the returns prepared.
While the 2014 FATCA information transfer to the IRS was widely reported, since then we have had no idea how much data has been flowing from the ATO to the IRS. To get a better idea of the scope of the data exchange, Carl sent an FOI request to the ATO for a summary of the data sent to the IRS under FATCA for all three reporting years that have now been completed (2014, 2015, and 2016). The ATO complied with this request in a timely manner, sending us a pdf file of a printout of an excel worksheet that spans several pages both vertically and horizontally. 
FATCA requires Australian financial institutions (very broadly defined) to report account holder details as well as account balance, dividends, interest and other income paid, and gross proceeds from sale or redemption to the ATO for transmittal to the IRS. It is evident from the graphs below that the amount of data going to the IRS has exploded since the initial data transfer of 2014 data (transferred 30 Sept 2015).
From 1 July 2017, Australian financial institutions will be required to report account information of anyone with a tax residence outside of Australia to the ATO under the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard (CRS). Once the United States rolled out FATCA, countries in the OECD decided that cross-border reporting of financial accounts might be a good way to rein in use of tax havens for tax evasion. However, while the two are similar, there are some differences. The key features of CRS are a common standard for: the scope of reporting (type of information, which account holders and which institutions), the due diligence required, format of the data to be exchanged.
With the current push for FATCA repeal, and the recent Hearing on The Unintended Consequences of FATCA, CRS is mentioned by some as a possible substitute for FATCA. Unfortunately, there seem to be a few misconceptions about the differences between the two Automated Exchange of Information (AEOI) schemes. As implemented in Australia, CRS is perfectly compatible with Citizenship Based Taxation.
While it is exceedingly unlikely that the U.S. Congress will ever sign on to CRS, it is important for those who advocate CRS as a more “benign” alternative to be clear on exactly what CRS entails.
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.
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”
Just before Christmas, Karen released our initial Steering Committee work on the group strategy for your feedback through the blog comments, our Facebook Group or Private Message. Perhaps the timing was not the best given how frenetic things get for most of us over the holiday season? Continue reading “Strategy Document Feedback”
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.
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.