Offshore Tax for Americans Living and Working Abroad

Offshore IRS Audit

Will the IRS Audit Me for Going Offshore?

For those of you living and working abroad, or investing outside of the United States, the fact that you file one or more of the offshore company forms and report a foreign bank account on the FBAR will have little to no effect on your chances of an audit. The IRS is focused like a laser on those who fail to report their offshore transactions. So, if you are in compliance, you have little to fear.

To put it another way, individuals who file an offshore return are not currently a target for the IRS. They have amassed their forces to go after the banks and non-compliant individuals because that’s what makes headlines…that’s what brings in the cash.

How much are we talking about you ask? The IRS has brought in about $4 billion through the Voluntary Disclosure Program and another few billion in fines and penalties against Swiss and other banks who helped Americans avoid taxes. These are the kind of numbers the government is going for…they are not concerned with the average person’s compliant offshore dealings.

This is all to say that the IRS is not so concerned with those in compliance. If you have been filing your forms and paying along, you are no more likely to be audited that the average person. If you get in to compliance voluntarily, then you take the target off of your back.

It is also important to realize that the IRS audits less than 1% of taxpayers each year…and their budget for 2014 and 2015 has been cut by Republicans angry about the way their fund raising groups were treated in the last election cycle. Based on the following factors, I believe that most of my clients have a 3% to 5% chance of facing the tax man…not because of international structures, but because of their higher levels of income.

My point here is not that you will never be audited. It is simply that going offshore does not significantly increase your probability of facing down the IRS. For more on this topic, please take a look at my article How to Avoid an IRA Audit – Expat Edition.

If you are behind in your U.S. tax filings, I suggest you take a look at my article on the IRS Voluntary Disclosure program. If you qualify as an Expat, this might be a cost effective avenue for you to get right with the Service.

IRA & Retire, Asset Protection

How to Avoid an IRS Audit – Expat Edition

If you are living and working abroad, you still need to worry about the IRS. In this article, I will talk about how to avoid an IRS audit with a focus on Expats.

Are you worried that the IRS will come knocking on your door? Want to know how to avoid an IRS audit? I battled the IRS for a decade and here are a few of the tips and tricks learned, often the hard way, in those skirmishes.

So, what are the major audit flags? What will bring the IRS to your door? Some are selected at random, a kind of control group, but there are a number of items that can increase your chances of being selected by the computer for an audit.

The key factors are the amount you earn, the type and quantity of deductions you take, the volume of capital gains transaction on Schedule D, your line of work, and whether you own your own business.

Of these, income level is far and away the most important factor. As I said above, less than 1% of the taxpaying population is audited each year. If your income is $200,000 or more (defined as rich in today’s America), your chance of an audit jumps to 3.26%. If you have a great year, and make $1 million, your chance of a visit skyrockets to just over 11% (about 1 in 9). So, you want to know how to avoid an IRS audit…just stop working!

I assume you won’t decide to work less, or earn less, to keep the IRS from your door, so let’s talk about what you can control. By far, the most egregious error is failing to report all of your income…and this is exactly what the IRS is targeting with FACTA and its offshore banking initiatives.

You see, FACTA forces all banks around the world to report the income and transactions of their American clients to the IRS, just as American banks do today. It essentially turns your foreign banker in to an unpaid agent of the U.S. government.

Next, IRS computers compare these reports to the return you file and audit those whose report doesn’t match the computer file. The larger the discrepancy, the higher your chance of an audit. The purpose of FACTA is to ensure all Americans are reporting each and every transaction and to provide a tool to the IRS to easily track down and persecute those who failed to toe the line.

Therefore, the best way for the U.S. person living, working or investing abroad to avoid an IRS audit is to file all necessary forms.

Another red flag is your charitable donations. The IRS keeps statistical data by income bracket on this category. The further you get from the standard deviation, the higher your chance of an audit. If you give 5% of your income to charity, with no non-cash donations, your audit meter will hardly register a beep. Give 50% of your adjusted gross income in donations of clothing and personal affects, and I guarantee you will be audited…possibly before you have time to cash the refund check.

Next on the list of red flags are rental real estate losses. If you have a loss from one foreign or domestic property of less than $25,000, your risks are minimal. If you claim to be a real estate professional so you can take larger losses, or because your income from other sources exceeds $150,000, then your risk of an audit is very high.
The last major caution is to day traders and those claiming to be professional traders of their own accounts. I understand that the desire to be considered a professional trader can be strong, and I field a number of calls from those wishing to do this “business” offshore.

Those who trade in stocks and securities as professionals have big time advantages over the rest of us. Their expenses are fully deductible and their profits are exempt from self-employment tax. Losses of traders who make a special section 475(f) election are fully deductible and aren’t subject to the $3,000 cap on capital losses.

But, to be a professional trader, and not just a simple investor, you must regularly and continuously trade stocks. It must be your primary business and you should be spending about 30+ hours a week trading, researching, and working on your craft. If you aren’t that involved, you are not a trader.

And the IRS realizes that it can be quite difficult for a person trading his own portfolio to prove he is a professional, so they are easy targets…often fish in a barrel.

If you are reporting your business on Schedule C, rather than an onshore or offshore corporation, you have a significantly higher risk of audit compared to someone who is properly structured. The favorite categories on this form are home office deduction, automobile expenses, notoriously hard to prove and often estimated by clients, and meals and entertainment. Did you actually bother to keep all of your receipts and write down who you met with and why? Keep it “simple” and get a corporation.

Why will a corporation reduce your chances of an audit? Let’s say you reported $200,000 on Form 1120. You will be grouped together will all of the other corporate entities. At $200,000, you are probably a small fish in a big pond. But, report that same profit on Schedule C, you are probably a medium to large fish to the self-employed audit group in the IRS. In other words, not many are making $200,000+ on Schedule C, but the number of corporate entities earning more than that is significant.

As someone who has handled hundreds of IRS exams over the years, I believe that these categories cover 90% of the non-random audits. If you want to know how to avoid an IRS audit, focus on compliance and your corporate structure. I will give you a few more examples below, but as we move on, the effect on your chances of an audit get less.

Hobby losses are major red flags, but one most people manage to avoid. You must report income from a hobby (such as horse racing) and you can deduct expenses up to the amount of that income. You are prohibited from deducting expenses in excess of that income. So, if you are considering racing ponies in Panama, don’t deduct them on your U.S. return.

The same is true of gambling. U.S. casinos will report your wins, and you are allowed to deduct your losses to the extent of those wins. You should never take a loss from gambling, though some try on Schedule C by calling it a business. Keeping in mind that you must be able to prove your losses, usually with a gambling log, you can deduct foreign losses against U.S. wins. If you took $100,000 from a lucky streak in Las Vegas, and gave it all back to the Trump Casino in Panama City in the same year, you can net losses against wins to break-even.

Just about any small business has a high risk of audit. This is especially true of bars and restaurants with cash transactions. In fact, these establishments often get hit by the IRS, State tax board, and employment tax board in the same year.

If you are in a business offshore, and pay your employees or consultant’s in cash, you will have a tough time if the tax man comes calling. You must prove all expenses to the U.S. IRS, so you should try to pay by check or wire whenever possible and have an invoice or receipt in the file. If not possible, then a signed receipt may get you by.

I will conclude with this: if you are living, working, or investing offshore, and have been filing all of the proper forms, you have nothing to fear from the IRS. If you have been lax in your reporting, then you might just find yourself at the top of the IRS hit list. Did you miss an FBAR or two? Do you have foreign real estate in a corporation that you did not report? You should get these issued resolved before FACTA arrives in full for on January 1, 2015.

If you are considering filing your delinquent forms, please take a look at my article on the voluntary disclosure program. If you qualify as an expat, and you owe no tax to the IRS, you might get away with zero penalties.

Feel free to contact me for a confidential consultation on any of these issues. You can reach me at or by calling (619) 483-1708.

Seize Your IRA

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion 2014

Good news for those American’s living and working abroad. The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in 2014 has been increased to $99,200. This means that you can exclude up to $99,200 in salary for 2014 on Federal income tax return if you are a resident of another country or are abroad for 330 out of 365 days.

  • This article from 2014 contains some valuable information. For 2015 FEIE numbers, please see: FEIE 2015

If a husband and wife both qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in 2014, they each may deduct up to $99,200 this year. That means a husband and wife team may earn up to $198,400 from their offshore corporation.

Unfortunately for retirees and investors, this exclusion only applies to earned income, which is income from a business or a salary. If you are drawing that salary from a corporation formed in the United States, social taxes will still apply. If you are operating a business without a corporation, then Self Employment Tax at 15% will still apply.

  • Note that the exclusion applies to salary from any foreign corporation. It does not matter if you own the company or you work for someone else.

The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion for 2014 does not apply to passive investments or capital gains. If you are an American living and working abroad, the U.S. wants its cut of your investment profits. If pay taxes to another country (such as when you sell foreign real estate for a capital gain) you get a dollar for dollar credit and are not double taxed by America. For more information on foreign real estate transactions, see my article U.S. Tax Breaks for Offshore Real Estate.

This amount of $99,200 is the maximum exclusion you can qualify for. If you earn less than the exclusion, you may not carry forward the unused portion. For example, if your salary is $60,000 in 2014, you may only exclude $60,000. You may not carry over the balance of $39,000 to 2015.

If you earn more than $99,200, you must pay tax on the excess for the right to carry that U.S. passport. So, if you earn $299,200 in 2014, you will pay U.S. tax on $200,000 at about 38%, or $76,000. If you are operating a business through an offshore corporation, you might be able to retain earnings in that company and thereby defer U.S. tax. For more information, see: Eliminate U.S. Tax in 5 Steps with an Offshore Corporation.

Since 2006, the FEIE has been pegged to inflation, so we expect it to increase each year ever so slightly. The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion for 2014 increased by about 1.6% from 2013 and about 2.5% from 2012. So, we might expect an increase of 2% in 2015. Which is to say that the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion for 2015 might be about $101,184.

Here are Foreign Earned Income Exclusion amounts from 2014 back to 1998.

  • Tax year 2014: $99,200
  • Tax year 2013: $97,600
  • Tax year 2012: $95,100
  • Tax year 2011: $92,900
  • Tax year 2010: $91,500
  • Tax year 2009: $91,400
  • Tax year 2008: $87,600
  • Tax year 2007: $85,700
  • Tax year 2006: $82,400
  • Tax years 2002-2005: $80,000
  • Tax year 2001: $78,000
  • Tax year 2000: $76,000
  • Tax year 1999: $74,000
  • Tax year 1998: $72,000

I hope you have found this article helpful. If you would like more information, I suggest you read start with the Tax Benefits of Going Offshore. Feel free to contact me at with any questions or article requests. As always, you may leave questions in the comment section below and I will respond online.

Offshore Roth Conversion

IRS Automatic Extension for Expats: April 16 is the First Day of the Expat Tax Season

Because of the IRS automatic extension for Expats, today, April 16, is the first day of the Expat tax filing season. While those of us stuck in the U.S.A. must file and pay by April 15, Expats get an automatic two month extension.

This two month automatic extension for Expats is more valuable than the standard six month extension to file your taxes. See, the six month extension allows you to file your return on October 15, but it does not extend the time to pay your taxes. If you pay after April 15, penalties and interest will apply.

If you are living abroad, you have two extra months to file and pay without getting hit with any fees by the ever generous IRS. This means you have an extra two months to use that cash before it goes in to Uncle Sam’s coffers.

If you use the automatic two month extension for Expats, make sure the IRS knows that you qualify so you don’t get stuck fighting over an erroneous bill. There is no form available to put them on notice, so you need to attach a letter to the front of the return with your name (or names if a joint return), foreign address, and social security number(s). Either tell the IRS that you are employed in Country X, or that you are a tax resident of Country Y and thus your return is due on June 15.

This extension is only for those who are resident or working in another country as of April 15th. If you were living abroad in 2013, and returned to the U.S. in January of 2014, you may not take the IRS Automatic Extension for Expats.

If you need more than two months, you can use IRS Form 4868 just like the rest of us gringos to get the standard 6 month extension. Of course, you will be expected to pay by June 15 and, if you pay after that date, interest and penalties will apply. For a rough estimate, paying after June 15 will cost about 4.5% per month in fines.

  • For more information on Form 4868, see the IRS website.
  • For information on late filing penalties, see this section of the IRS site.

You should also keep in mind that the two and six month extensions don’t affect your FBAR filing deadline. You must report your foreign bank account by June 30th, no matter when you file your personal return. If you need to report a foreign bank account, checkout my article on New FBAR Filing Requirements for 2014.

If you are operating a business through an offshore corporation and filing Form 5471, this form is attached to your personal return. Thus, extending your personal return automatically extends the time permitted to file your corporate return. No additional extension is required.

However, the two month and six month extensions above do not apply to offshore trusts. If you file Form 3520-A or 3520, these are due on March 15 and can be extended until September 15 using IRS Form 7004 (see the IRS website for more information).

Finally, if you are an Expat who is going to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion late in the year, you can get a special extension from the IRS to file after the October 15 deadline. To use this extension, you must file IRS Form 2350 by April 15, and pay any expected tax due by April 15 (that’s right, not June 15 when using this extension). For more information, see Extension of Time to File in Order to Qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

When might someone need this FEIE extension? Let’s say you leave the U.S. on November 1, 2014 and want to use the 330 day test to qualify for the FEIE on income earned abroad from November 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014, as well as get credit for those days to qualify in 2015. In that case, you must file your 2014 return 30 days after you qualify for the FEIE, which would be December 2, 2015. You may not file your 2014 return until you actually qualify for the FEIE…you may not assume you will qualify.

For those of you who love trivia, here is the origin of the automatic extension for Expats to file their Federal tax returns. Under the mail box rule, your tax return is received by the IRS when you place it in the mail box. Lawyers also call this constructive receipt.

When you mail your tax return in the U.S. on April 15, it arrives at the IRS in just a few days. If you are out of the U.S., it might take a very long time in deed to go from China to a package to Uncle Sam using standard international post. The automatic extension for Expats came about as the longest time the IRS would allow a package to arrive from overseas. So, back in the day, the IRS was to receive your return by June 15, whereas you needed to post your return by April 15 from the U.S.

Today, those using the automatic extension for Expats can mail their return and payment on June 15…it need not be received on that date. If you will be sending in a paper return on this date, I strongly recommend you use FedEx or another courier service to avoid significant delays.

As electronic filing has become the norm, the justification for the automatic extension for Expats has changed. Today, it is explained as the extra time Expats might need to collect documents and file their local returns so that they know how to make use of the Foreign Tax Credit and related deductions.

As we get ready for the Expat tax filing season, please take a minute to read through my tax page. Feel free to send me an email at or call (619) 483-1708 if you would like for us to prepare your U.S. Expat tax return. We are experts in Forms 5471, the new FBAR, Form 2555, and all the others those living, working and investing abroad must come to terms with.

Retire Abroad

New FBAR Filing Requirements for 2014

As you, the American with investments abroad, get ready to prepare your 2014 tax return, there are important new FBAR filing requirements for 2014. Some of these FBAR filing requirements are cosmetic and others could get the misinformed in hot water.

Note: If you have no idea what an FBAR is, you might check out my general article on filing requirements for those living, working, or investing abroad. If you want to learn how to legally avoid the FBAR, click here.

First, let me tell you how your accountant or CPA thinks. The foundation of tax preparation for professions is SALY…prepare the return the Same As Last Year to reduce the risk of an audit.

So, when your preparer pulls out your file, he or she will be thinking SALY and will reach for the same old forms to file. When new FBAR filing requirements for 2014 are announced, but don’t get much press, tax preparers without many Expat clients can get caught unprepared.

It may be up to you to educate your preparer on the FBAR and these New FBAR filing requirements for 2014. Here they are:

Not one to bury the lead: IRA owners don’t need to file an FBAR in 2014!

For those of you with Offshore IRA accounts, the IRS has finally come out and said that IRA owners and beneficiaries do not need to file an FBAR. Whether an offshore IRA needed to file an FBAR was never clear, so we all aired on the side of caution and filed it year after year. Well, that burden has been lifted (see below).

The cosmetic change is that the name of the form has changed. The official name of the FBAR changed from Treasury Form TD F 90-22.1 to FinCEN Form 114. I’ll bet not many people even noticed, as we all refer to it as the FBAR.

The big change to the FBAR for 2014 is that it must now be filed online. No more paper allowed. So, when your preparer pulls out your file and grabs the same old forms, you may be in for penalties.

That’s right, if you or your preparer are unaware of the change and mail in SALY, you could face significant penalties for filing late…or not filing at all. So, be sure to talk to your tax man or woman!

Note: the deadline for the electronic FBAR filing did not change and remains June 30. If you file your FBAR with your personal return on April 15, all is well. If you procrastinate and get an extension for your personal return until October 15, your FBAR is still due on June 30. That’s right, the extension of time to file your personal return does not apply to the FBAR.

Do you prepare your own returns? Do you want to sound cool when you explain things to your preparer? Then here is how to file an electronic FBAR in excruciating detail.

To file an electronic FBAR:

  1. Go to
  1. Click “File an Individual FBAR” on the left side of the page.

  1. You will then be brought to the screen below, where you can download a PDF version the FBAR (FinCen Form 114). This PDF allows you to type information into the form and save the results (wow, a fillable PDF form – modern technology fresh from 2001!)

  1. Fill in FinCen Form 114 PDF. You will need your information, including social security number and date of birth, as well as your bank name, address, account number, and highest balance for the year. Be sure to save the document when you are finished. If you are unsure what information you need to enter in a certain field, you can move the mouse cursor over that field, hold it for a moment, and a box of text will pop up explaining what you need to enter. See the picture below for an example.

  1. Once everything is filled out correctly, go back to the first page digitally sign the document, save and validate it, and then finalize it for submission.

  1. When you’re ready to submit the form, go back to the page from Step 3 and click the link to “Submit FBAR.” This will take you to the submission page, where you’ll need to enter some contact information and then upload the finalized PDF. The process is not complete until you submit the form.

As you can see, the government has taken a simple form, which could be filled out a a 5th grader and mailed in, and turned it in to a computer nightmare for some. How many of those preparing their own returns will be confused and confounded by this new fangled technology? It will be an interesting year.

New FBAR Filing Requirements for 2014 – Who Must File?

Anyone who is a “U.S. person” must file an FBAR and enjoys the honor of paying U.S. tax on their worldwide income. Basically, this is anyone with a U.S. passport, green card, or someone who lives in America for 6+ months in the year.

If you are not sure you qualify as a U.S. person, please read: Who is a US Person?

The list of those exempt from filing an FBAR has also been updated and codified. For many of you, the most important statement is that IRA owners and beneficiaries are not required to file an FBAR.

Here is the complete list:

  • Certain foreign financial accounts jointly owned by spouses;
  • United States persons included in a consolidated FBAR;
  • Correspondent/nostro accounts;
  • Foreign financial accounts owned by a governmental entity;
  • Foreign financial accounts owned by an international financial institution;
  • IRA owners and beneficiaries;
  • Participants in and beneficiaries of tax-qualified retirement plans;
  • Certain individuals with signature authority over, but no financial interest in, a foreign financial account;
  • Trust beneficiaries (but only if a U.S. person reports the account on an FBAR filed on behalf of the trust); and
  • Foreign financial accounts maintained on a United States military banking facility.

To be clear, the above list is not necessarily new FBAR filing requirements for 2014. I am saying that the IRS finally listed the exceptions on their website and ended the debate, especially in regard to IRA owners and beneficiaries. For more information, see

I hope you have found this article helpful. Please post any questions or suggestions in the comments below. I will personally respond to every inquiry.

benefits of an offshore company

Benefits of an Offshore Company

One of the most confusing areas of going offshore are the benefits of the offshore company. Will going offshore reduce your taxes? The answer is a qualified maybe. Will an international corporation or LLC structure protect you from creditors? The answer is a resounding yes.

In this article I will attempt to describe the benefits of an offshore company for those living in the United States and for those living and working abroad.

Offshore Company for Those Living in the U.S.

The benefits of an offshore company for those living in the United States are simple: it provides some of the best asset protection available and allows you to diversify your investments internationally. Moving your assets in to an offshore company should not increase or decrease your U.S. tax bill.

This is the say that there should be no tax benefit to going offshore if you are living in the United States. Offshore asset protection should be tax neutral.

So, your offshore company might invest in gold bullion held in Panama or Switzerland, real estate in Belize or Colombia, and hold a brokerage account at any number of quality firms. It will allow your assets to escape from America and plant that first flag offshore.

Protecting yourself with an offshore company will require you file a corporate tax return, IRS Form 5471, or a disregarded entity return, IRS Form 8858, and, if you move more than $10,000 out of the US, to report your international bank accounts  on the FBAR form. For additional information on tax reporting, click here.

Offshore Company for Those Living and Working Abroad

Let me begin by noting that U.S. citizens are taxed on their worldwide income no matter where they live. Operating a business through an offshore company may significantly reduce the amount you must hand over to Uncle Sam…so long as you file all of the necessary forms each year.

If you are living and working outside of the United States, the benefits of an offshore company can be significant. First, it allows you to protect your business assets, increases privacy, and offers an unparalleled level of asset protection.

Next, an offshore company allows you to maximize the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. If you were to operate a business without a corporation, or with a US corporation, then you must pay Self Employment tax or FICA, Medicare, ObamaCare, etc. This basically amounts to a 15% tax on your net profits.

If you were to roll the dice and operate a business offshore without an offshore company, unprotected from litigation, you would report your income on Schedule C of your personal return. When this happens, expenses on Schedule C reduce the value of your Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

For example, if your international business grosses $400,000, and your expenses are $200,000, your expenses are (obviously) 50% of your gross. When this is reported on Schedule C and Form 2555, your FEIE is reduced by 50% and you only get $49,000 tax free…not the full FEIE amount of $98,000.

– The FEIE is actually $99,200 for tax year 2014 and 2015 has not yet been released. I usually round down to $98,000 to make the math easier to follow.

If this same $400,000 in gross profit and 50% expense is reported in an offshore company, on IRS Form 5471 and 2555, then you get the full $98,000 FEIE. If the business is run by a husband and wife, each may take the exclusion, and you will get $196,000 tax free.

Finally, by operating your business through an offshore company, you may retain earnings that are in excess of the FEIE. So, if your net profit is $200,000, you might draw a salary of $98,000 and leave the rest of the money in the business. Thereby, you will pay zero US tax on your offshore business.

So, the tax benefits of an offshore company can be major. When planned and structured properly, your offshore company may pay zero U.S. tax…while remaining in compliance and following all of the applicable laws.

For more detailed information on the benefits of an offshore company, please check out my Expat Tax and Business Guide.

Why So Much Confusion on the Benefits of an Offshore Company?

So, why is there so much confusion about the benefit of an offshore company? Why do I receive calls nearly every day from people who are mixed up on the tax benefits? I think there are two answers:

First, promoters located offshore, and out of the reach of the IRS, often give false information to make sales. If you call an incorporator in Nevis and ask about taxes, they will say something like, “no, you don’t need to pay tax on your profits. You can leave them offshore as long as you like and no one will know about them until you bring them in to the U.S.”

Well, this is true from the perspective of someone in Nevis. That island will not attempt to tax your Nevis IBC, nor will they require you to file any tax returns or report your business. But that is not what is important here…as a U.S. citizen, you are concerned with the IRS knocking down your door and not what Nevis thinks.

This is why all U.S. persons must use a U.S. firm that offers tax and business consulting services to incorporate offshore. The risks and costs associated with failing to keep in compliance will certainly outweigh any premium you pay for quality representation. If you don’t choose Premier to create your offshore company, make sure you use another U.S. tax expert!

Second, you read all the time how big companies like Google and Apple have billions of tax free dollars offshore. Why can’t you, the average guy or gal, setup an offshore company and do the same thing?

These big guys have business units with employees and other assets that are working and producing sales outside of the U.S. They don’t just form an offshore company and run revenue through it. They build an offshore division that makes money…and it is these profits generated by their offshore units that retain earnings offshore.

  • Want to learn more about how big corporations operate? Read up on terms like “transfer pricing.” This is the foundation of the offshore corporate tax break for large firms.

Because small businesses can’t usually hire a bunch of employees in Panama and Ireland, and pay big money to tax lawyers to structure their worldwide affairs, we are left with the basics: the only way to emulate Apple and Google is to move you and your business offshore and qualify for the FEIE.

I hope you have enjoyed this article on the benefits of an offshore company. Feel free to contact me at for a confidential consultation, or post a question to this page in the comments.

Spain tax guide

Spanish Tax Guide: Tax Implications of Living, Working and Investing in Spain

Spanish Tax Guide – this is the first in our country tax guide series.

Spain emerged from five years of recession in mid-2013, and now is one of the hottest investment options around. Real estate and investment markets are still priced near the bottom, but are on the upswing, employment is improving, and the government’s austerity measures are growing the economy.

Spain’s economy, the fourth-largest in the EU after Germany, France and Italy, crashed in 2008 when a real-estate boom went bust, taking down much of its banking system and raising doubts about the country’s solvency. The gross domestic product, which briefly rebounded in 2010 and 2011, has shrunk 7.5% in the past five years.

Investing in Spain is still not for the faint of heart. Its tax system is one of the most complex in the world, still boasts one of the highest rates in Europe, faces staggering budget deficits which have resulting in “wealth taxes” for residents and nonresidents alike, and the economic rebuilding has just begun. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said “Spain is out of recession but not out of the crisis,” cautiously touting the effects of budgetary and structural overhauls that have been among the deepest in the euro zone. “The task now is to achieve a vigorous recovery that allows us to create jobs.”

There are strong signs of recovery, and thus opportunity for international investors. Labor costs have been reduced, exports are on the rise, and the current-account deficit, once 10% of GDP as cheap money poured in to fuel the building boom, has turned to surplus. However, GDP growth is expected to increase by .5% to 1% in 2014.

High corporate and personal taxes on your worldwide income, and possibly your worldwide assets, are a major issues for anyone moving to Spain. Unwilling to cut government spending, Mr. Rajoy’s right-leaning government chose to raise taxes. According to the Cato Institute, “Following the tax increase, Spanish individuals will be paying one of the highest personal income tax rates in Europe. For instance, from 2012 onwards, only Sweden and Belgium, with 56.4% and 53.7%, respectively, will have a higher top marginal income tax rate than Spain, which stands at 52%. However, if one takes into account local surcharges imposed by some Spanish regional governments, the top marginal rates rise further. In Catalonia, for example, the top tax rate is 56%.”

For just about any income, Spanish tax rates are higher than in France, Britain, Italy and Germany, they say, adding:

“All of those countries enjoy a considerably higher income per capita than Spain and thus can more easily withstand higher taxes than a poorer country. With Rajoy’s tax hike, Spain suffers from the worst of both worlds: very high taxes combined with decreasing income and employment levels. At 23%, Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.”

Spain’s immensely complex tax regime means that the well organized and researched resident entrepreneur might take advantage of a number of planning opportunities. While Spain has one of the highest tax rates in the EU, it has one of the lowest effective tax rates. The official corporate tax rate, for example, is 30% but large Spanish companies pay about 8% on average. This compares favorably to the US effective corporate rate of 12.6% for 2013.

  • There are few planning options available to non-residents…who basically pay a 21% flat tax without deductions.

Spanish Tax Primer

A resident of Spain is liable for tax on their worldwide income at scale rates after any available allowances and deductions. A non-resident of Spain is liable for Spanish income tax only on Spanish income, and possibly Spanish assets, generally at fixed rates with no allowances for deductions.

If you spend more than 183 days in Spain during the calendar year, or your “center of economic or vital interest” is in Spain, you are a resident for tax purposes. Depending on where you live, personal income tax on wage and business income will range from 24.35% to 56%.

  • “Vital interests” usually refers to someone whose spouse lives in Spain and they are not legally separated, and/or their dependent minor children live in Spain.

If you are a tax resident of Spain, income “derived from savings,” such as interest income and capital gains, are taxed at 21% to 27%. Specifically:

  • Up to €6,000: 21%
  • Excess from €6,000 up to €24,000: 25%
  • Excess from €24,000: 27%

By comparison, non-residents pay 21% on capital gains and 24.75% on investment income earned in Spain. Where residents are taxed on their worldwide income, nonresidents are taxed only on income earned in country.

As a tax resident, you might also get the joy of paying a wealth tax on your worldwide assets. This levy varies from year to year and has come and gone in various forms since 2008. In 2014, each person is generally allowed assets of €700,000 and a personal residence of €300,000, so a husband and wife might be able to hold up to €2 million before paying the wealth tax. If you are caught up in this toll, you will be required to pay a tax equal to 0.2% to 2.5% of your total assets.

Spain’s wealth tax is quite complicated, varies from region to region, has been repealed and brought back from the dead more than once, and might finally be eliminated in 2015. In some areas, allowances are reduced and, if you are fortunate enough to live in Madrid, you pay no wealth tax at all…I guess that’s where the politicians call home. If you are at risk of the wealth tax, you should contact a local expert.

Taxation of Real Estate for Residents and Non Residents

If you are a tax resident and own a rental property in Spain, net income earned is taxed at ordinary rates, which are 24.35% to 56% rate. You are allowed to deduct ordinary and necessary expenses, which include interest on loans used to acquire the property, repairs and maintenance, leasing fees, etc. Spain allows you to depreciate the value of the home or structure on the land at up to 2 – 3% of the purchase price, but you may not depreciate the value of the land. 3% results in a depreciation rate similar to the United States (33.3 years in Spain compared to 27.5 years in the US) and more “generous” that the 40 year depreciation schedule Americans are allowed for foreign property.

If you are not a tax resident and own rental properties in Spain, net income is taxed at a rate of 24.75%. If you are not a resident of the EU nor a resident of Spain (ie. you are a US resident for tax purposes), you may not deduct any expenses against your rental income.

If you are not a resident of Spain, you pay 21% in capital gains tax on the profits from the sale of your real estate and 24.75% on other types of investment income. But, be careful because local capital gains tax (which is levied by the town hall where the property is located and depends on local values) may also apply. This should be considered before making a purchase.

  • 3% of the gross sale price is held back by the buyer and paid over to the Spanish tax authorities. If 3% of the gross is more than 21% of the net (more than the total tax due), you can file a claim for refund.

In addition to the tax on net rental income, you will pay property tax at 1% to 2% per year based on the value of the property. This rate varies by municipality and you should take it in to account when considering properties from different areas. You should also look in to whether you must pay cantonal property tax in addition to the general property tax described above.

There is also a special assessment on real estate owned by non-residents. If you are not a tax resident of Spain, you will pay 3% per year on the value of the property for the right to own property in Spain.

When you go to sell the property, you will pay capital gains tax as described above. Because Spain’s capital gains rate is equal to or higher than the United States, you will probably not owe capital gains tax to Uncle Sam on the transaction. This is because, in most situations, the Foreign Tax Credit will come in and eliminate a double tax.

Spain will also hit you with a Stamp Duty on the transfer. In most cases, this is 0.5% rising to 1% in some autonomous regions and can reach up to 6%! It is paid by the buyer, but you should take it in to account when valuing your property. A property with a small duty might garner a higher price than one with a 6% toll.

Finally, if you own significant real estate in Spain, and you are not a tax resident, you may still get to pay the wealth tax on your assets in Spain. That’s right, if you own rental properties worth more than €700,000 in 2014, you are required to pay a tax based on their value. The levy starts at 0.2% and jumps to 2.5% quickly. It is uncertain whether this tax will apply after 2014.

Taxation of Rural Land

Many of these taxes do not apply to rural land (land primarily dedicated to farming). For example, transfers of rural land and used buildings on that land are exempt from the 21% tax described above. Used for this purpose means that the building is transferred for the second or subsequent time, except when the building is acquired for rehabilitation, and the property is classified as rural by the taxing authorizes.

In many cases, the transfer of rural land will be taxed at around 7% and property taxes will apply at 2% per year. Though, this is an estimate and can vary by region. You should seek the advice of a local attorney before purchasing rural land…and be aware that is extremely difficult to obtain a permit to build in land zoned as rural.

Tax Summary

As a resident living and working in Spain, you are facing personal income rates that cap at an astounding 57% and capital gains taxed at 21% to 27%. However, you can make use of a number of deductions and exclusions that may get your effective rate down to that of the UK and France…now, there’s something to aspire to in tax planning!

If you are a non-resident, you will enjoy a 21% to 24.75% flat tax with very few deductions (unless you are an EU resident). When you consider that owning rental properties in the US generally reduce your taxes (mortgage interest, expenses and accelerated depreciation often exceed rental income), rather than increasing them as is the case in Spain for a nonresident, one should think long and hard before buying a Spanish rental.

As a non-resident, you will also pay a special 3% tax per year, and a property tax of 1% to 2%. Therefore, a non-resident’s carrying costs may be as high as 5% of the assessed value each year.

When you purchase real estate in Spain, the buyer is responsible for a scaled transfer tax of 8 – 10%, and this usually jumps to 12% for new builds (property acquired from the builder / developer). When you sell the property, you pay 21% on the net gain plus an average stamp duty of 1.5%. Local and municipal taxes may also apply.

Finally, when a non-resident sells their property, a special 3% withholding on the total sale price must be held back by the buyer.

I hope you have found this tax review helpful. I’d like to end with an interesting caveat in the Spanish tax code:

  • Because of the extremely high transfer taxes, buyers and sellers might be incentivized to misreport the sale price, with the buyer giving cash on the side to the seller to make up the difference. Well, if the tax authority can prove that the transfer was reported at less than 50% of its fair market value, the government has the right to buy that property for the value reported in the sale.

I hope you find this article helpful. Please contact me at with any questions or article requests.

US Person for tax purposes

Who is a U.S. Person for Tax Purposes?

Who must pay US taxes you ask? Who is a US person for tax purposes? Who is in the crosshairs of the IRS? The answer is not quite as simple as you may think…and something that confuses many people living and operating a business in the US.

Who is a U.S person for tax reporting purposes? Who are these unfortunate soles who must file an FBAR, report their foreign assets on IRS Form 8938, and pay tax on their worldwide income?

As those of you know who have met me at conferences or read my articles, I often ramble on about the many filing requirements for those living and working abroad. I won’t go in to them again here, but you can see my taxation page for more information.

First, a U.S. person is ANYONE with a U.S. passport. It doesn’t matter if you currently live in the United States, nor does it make a difference that you have never lived in the U.S. So long as you hold a passport from the U. S. of A., you are required to pay up and report everything.

That is the easy answer. But, what about those who were not blessed at birth with a blue passport and the honor of giving half of what they earn to the American machine?

For example, I recently had someone in my office that had been living in the United States for the five years on a Green Card. He had been filing his U.S. tax returns, and paying tax on his U.S. income, but had done nothing about his international obligations.

He was considering obtaining U.S. citizenship and was wondering what that would do to his tax situation. He had no idea that he was already screwed and a U.S. person for tax purposes.

A U.S. person for tax purpose includes any of the following: (see the IRS website):

  1. A U.S. Citizen, which is anyone with a U.S. passport,
  2. A green card holder (see:—Green-Card-Test), or
  3. A U.S. resident for tax purposes – most commonly defined as someone who spends more than 183 days in the US under the Substantial Presence Test. A U.S. resident for tax purposes is commonly referred to as a resident alien.

Therefore, if you have a U.S. passport or green card, or are a resident alien for tax purposes, you must report income from all sources within and outside of the U.S. For more information, see Publication 525, Taxable and Nontaxable Income.

Also, if you are a U.S. citizen, green card holder, or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate and gift tax returns and for paying estimated tax are generally the same whether you are living in the U.S. or abroad. See the IRS website for information on how to file as a resident alien abroad.

So, a U.S. person for tax purposes is just about anyone with immigration ties to the U.S., or spends most of their time here. If you want to enjoy the benefits of America, it’s going to cost you…and if you are unaware of these obligations, it can cost you big time!

I hope you find this brief article helpful. For additional information, or questions on your tax filing

Physical Gold

Do I Need to Report Gold to the IRS? FBAR and Form 8938

Are you required to report gold to the IRS? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Gold you hold directly is not reportable on the FBAR or IRS Form 8938. But be careful…when you sell the gold, you have a reportable transaction.So, in most cases, you are not required to report gold to the IRS!

You hold gold directly if you own gold bars, gold bullion or coins and keep them in a vault. It doesn’t matter whether that vault is inside the U.S. or somewhere secure like Panama. You do not hold gold directly if you own a gold certificate, gold stocks, or a gold future contract. Only physical gold that you have direct access to is allowed to be private. For additional information, see the IRS website.

I note that your IRA can hold gold bullion directly, and that gold can be held in a foreign vault. Many of our clients form offshore IRA LLCs to hold this type of asset. In that case, your administrator must report the appreciation in the IRA account, but are not required to file an FBAR or IRS Form 8938.

The same holds true for tangible assets that you buy as investments. Examples of tangible assets include art, antiques, jewelry, cars and other collectibles. If you hold these assets outside of the United States, you are not required to report them on your FBAR or IRS Form 8938. Note that an IRA may not own art, antiques, jewelry, cars or any type of collectible

Finally, you are not required to report the existence of a safe deposit box at a foreign bank. A safe deposit box is not a foreign account and is thus not covered by these forms. If your safe deposit box has only gold and jewelry, then you have nothing to report.

Now, here’s the rub: If you sell your gold or tangible property to a foreign person, that sales contract is a reportable asset. According to the IRS, “The contract with the foreign person to sell assets held for investment is a specified foreign financial asset investment asset that you have to report on Form 8938, if the total value of all your specified foreign financial assets is greater than the reporting threshold that applies to you.”

Therefore, if you sell your gold and collectables to a U.S. person, no reporting is required. If you sell these same assets to a foreign person, and the total value is significant, you must report the transaction on IRS Form 8938.

I hope this helps. For a similar article on foreign real estate, see: Do I Need to Report my Offshore Real Estate on IRS Form 8938?

Real Estate in an Offshore IRA

Do I Need to Report my Offshore Real Estate on IRS Form 8938?

The general rule is that foreign real estate is not reportable to the IRS on Form 8938. Good news and an asset category that has been ignored by the IRS hawks trying to swoop in on as many international resources as possible.

But, read on! While the default rule is that foreign real estate is not reportable, about 95% of my clients do need to report their real estate holdings on IRS Form 8938. This is because foreign property is usually held in an offshore trust or foreign corporation and your shares in entity must be reported on Form 8938 and elsewhere.

Let’s take a step back: Form 8938 – Statement of Foreign Financial Assets was created in 2011 and must be filed by anyone with significant assets outside of the United States. If you qualify to file Form 8938, you are to report financial accounts maintained by a foreign financial institution.  Examples of financial accounts include: Savings, deposit, checking, and brokerage accounts held with a bank or broker-dealer.

Also, you are to report stock or securities issued by a foreign corporation (like the one that holds your foreign real estate), trust or other entity (such as an offshore LLC), and any financial instrument or contract held for investment with an issuer or counterparty that is not a U.S. person.  Examples of these assets include:

  • Stock or securities issued by a foreign corporation;
  • Stock or membership interests issued by a foreign limited liability company;
  • A note, bond or debenture issued by a foreign person;
  • An interest rate swap, currency swap, basis swap, interest rate cap, interest rate floor, commodity swap, equity swap, equity index swap, credit default swap or similar agreement with a foreign counterparty;
  • An option or other derivative instrument with respect to any of these examples or with respect to any currency or commodity that is entered into with a foreign counterparty or issuer;
  • A partnership interest in a foreign partnership;
  • An interest in a foreign retirement plan or deferred compensation plan;
  • An interest in a foreign trust or estate;
  • Any interest in a foreign-issued insurance contract or annuity with a cash-surrender value.

Foreign real estate is not a foreign financial asset required to be reported on Form 8938.  So, a personal residence or a rental property outside of the United States does not need to be reported on this form.

However, if the real estate is held through a foreign entity, such as a corporation, partnership, or trust, then your interest in the entity is a specified foreign financial asset that might be reportable on Form 8938.  The value of the real estate held by the entity is used to determining the value of the shares to be reported on Form 8938, but the real estate itself is not separately reported on Form 8938.

All of this is to say that, if you purchase foreign real estate in your name, without an entity, you do not need to include that asset on Form 8938…but be careful, there are a number of traps for the uninitiated.

First all rental income must be reported on your personal return (Form 1040 and Schedule E), regardless of amount and regardless of whether you are required to file Form 8938. In most cases, reporting your rental property on Schedule E will create a loss, and thereby reduce your US taxes. For more information on this and taking depreciation on international real estate, check out my article US Tax Breaks for Foreign Real Estate.

Second, if you open a foreign bank account to facilitate the purchase of the property, or the receipt of rental income, and that account has more than $10,000 in it on any one day of the year, then you must report the bank account on US Treasury Form TD F 90-22.1, commonly referred to as the FBAR or Foreign Bank Account Report. I will discuss this form in more detail below.

Want to avoid filing the FBAR?

  • When you purchase the property, wire funds from your US account in to escrow. Don’t allow the purchase price to go through an offshore account.
  • Keep less than $10,000 in the operating account. You might need a foreign account to pay local expenses and receive rent, but you can avoid this form by maintaining a minimum balance.

What if you do not want to hold foreign real estate in your name? What if you, like most investing abroad, prefer the privacy, security and protection of a corporation?

Even if you purchase foreign real estate in a corporation, you might not need to file Form 8938. Remember that Form 8938 applies to those with “significant” assets outside of the United States. Here is how it works:

If you are living in the United States, are a married couple filing a joint tax return, and your reportable foreign assets on the last day of the year do not exceed $100,000, and are not more $150,000 on any day of the year, you don’t need to file Form 8938.

If you living in the United States, are single or married filing separate, and your reportable non-US assets on the last day of the year do not exceed $50,000, and are less than or equal to $75,000 on any day of the year, you don’t need to file Form 8938. For additional information, see the instructions to Form 8938.

If you are living abroad, are a married couple filing a joint tax return, and your reportable non-US assets on the last day of the year are not more than $400,000, and do not exceed $600,000 on any day of the year, you don’t need to file Form 8938.

If you living abroad, are single or married filing separate, and your reportable non-US assets on the last day of the year do not exceed $200,000, and are not more than $300,000 on any day of the year, you don’t need to file Form 8938. For additional information, see the instructions to Form 8938.

NOTE: Be careful when calculating the value of your foreign assets. You need to convert the value from your foreign currency to United States dollars each year. As the US dollar falls, the relative value of your assets increase. For an example, see my article Weak Dollar Crushing the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

Do you spend some time in the United States each year? Are you unsure if you are a US or international person for the purpose of Form 8938? The answer is simple: If you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE), then you are an international person. If you don’t qualify for the FEIE, you live in the US for tax purposes. Yes, even if you spend significant time abroad, you live in the US for the purpose of this form if you don’t qualify for the FEIE.

If you don’t know whether you qualify for the FEIE, or have no idea what the FEIE is, then you are probably a US person. Basically, if you are a resident of a foreign country for a full calendar year, you qualify for the FEIE. Alternatively, if you spend more than 330 days per year abroad out of any 365 day period, you qualify for the FEIE.

Note: This is a summary of a complex topic. For a detailed article on the FEIE, check out Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Basics.

If you decide to hold your foreign real estate in a company or trust, you will have filing obligations in addition to Form 8938.

The most critical offshore tax form is the FBAR. Anyone who is a signor or beneficial owner of a foreign bank or brokerage account with a value of more than $10,000 must disclose their account(s) to the U.S. Treasury.

The law imposes a civil penalty for failing to disclosing an offshore bank account or offshore credit card up to $25,000 or the greatest of 50% of the balance in the account at the time of the violation or $100,000. Criminal penalties for willful failure to file an FBAR can also apply in certain situations. Note that these penalties can be imposed for each year.

In addition to filing the Foreign Bank Account form, the offshore account must be disclosed on your personal income tax return, Form 1040, Schedule B.

Other international tax filing obligations include:

  • Form 5471 – Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations.
  • A foreign corporation or limited liability company should review the default classifications in Form 8832, Entity Classification Election and decide whether to make an election to be treated as a corporation, partnership, or disregarded entity.
  • Form 8858 – Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Foreign Disregarded Entities.
  • Form 3520 – Annual Return to Report Transactions with Foreign Trusts.
  • Form 3520-A – Annual Information Return of Foreign Trust.
  • Form 5472 – Information Return of a 25% Foreign-Owned U.S. Corporation.
  • Form 926 – Return by a U.S. Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation.

Once you begin to expand your investment options beyond the United States, your IRS picture will become more complex. But, don’t let big brother bully you in to keeping your money at home. Don’t let these forms dissuade you from diversifying outside of your comfort zone or achieving significantly higher returns than are available from your local bank.

You have two options: 1) get in line and keep your money at home or 2) break from the crowd, file your forms, and make some real money.

If you choose diversify abroad, I suggest you hire a tax preparer who is experienced in international investments and forms to handle your reporting. Your local guy probably has no idea what any of this means and the cost of making a mistake is just too great for you to take on the IRS alone.

U.S. Source Income

Tax Season’s Best Questions

We get a lot of good questions from Expats around the globe during the April 15 and October 15 tax seasons. Here are a few from this go-round.

Moving to a High Tax Country

Q: “I’ve just moved to Australia in the last year.  I currently have very little assets in the US and am working for An Australia company building a saving account in Australia. I am planning on purchasing a home and or investment property in the next 12 months with the intention of having around 5 properties in a few years.  I’m trying to plan in advance to avoid long term capital gains and use smart tax strategies.  I am planning on buying in Australia and own no property in the US.  Will the US tax my income and capital gains?  If you have any suggestions on resources to utilize I’d be very appreciative.”

A: Unfortunately for you, US tax will not be an issue. This is because your tax rate in Australia is certain to be higher than it would be in the US. For example, your personal tax rate in Australia will start at 19%, and max out at 45% on income over $180,000. Your rate in the US on income over $180,000 should be 28% to 39.6%.

Making things worse, Australia does not have a capital gains rate…capital gains are taxed the same as your ordinary income. Therefore, long term gains in Australia might be taxed at 45% compared to 20% in the US.

When you move out of the US to a country with a higher tax rate, you should not expect to pay any tax to the US. You must still file your US tax returns each year, but the Foreign Tax Credit should eliminate any US tax on your Australian income.

The Cost of Compliance

Q:  “Thanks for the wonderful newsletter. I hope I get this email to you. I believe that someone from US would have a very hard time when opening up an IBC as it gets really expensive to file IBC paperwork with the CPAs. If also exiting the US with expatriation, it would cause problems with expatriation taxes. My CPA keeps on telling me that it would require $4,000-$5,000 dollars just to file all the forms needed. I was shocked at the costs…I am confused since they both told me there are a lot of people selling these offshore vehicles which can get me in a lot of requirements and problems. This is the same answer that I got from various tax attorneys in USA.”

A: I agree completely that there are a lot of promoters out there selling IBCs that can get Americans in to trouble. One of the quickest paths to disaster for an American is using an incorporator that does not provide US compliance. For more on this topic, checkout my article on offshore asset protection scams.

To avoid these issues, you should use a US tax expert to form your offshore structure. Companies such as mine will ensure you are in US tax compliance from day one.

Regarding the costs of compliance, offshore corporations and IBCs file Form 5471, which is a US corporate tax return designed to report ownership, control, and income from these types of structures. This return will require a profit and loss statement and balance sheet, but should be no more complex or costly than a typical US corporate return, Form 1120.

If someone is operating a large business with employees offshore, is retaining earnings offshore, or has a number of partners in the business, Form 5471 can become expensive…just as a complex Form 1120 can become costly.

If you are using an IBC for basic asset protection, filing your US return should not be a major expense. We typically charge $850 for Form 5471. If you are being quoted $3,000 to $4,000, you are either working with a major firm such Delloitte, or your CPA simply doesn’t want to handle the returns and is quoting a ridiculous rate to prevent you from setting up a structure.

State Tax Issues for Expats

Q: “I have heard that some people move to Texas or Florida before going offshore. Can you tell me why? When I moved from California to Panama, and become a resident of Panama, I had no problems.”

A: Right, if both H and W move out of California and become tax residents of a foreign country, then their State issues are eliminated. However, moving to Florida or Texas before going offshore reduces the risk of being audited on this issue by California.

First, I note that California doesn’t have a FEIE. So, if you move out of CA for two years and intend to return, 100% of your income earned abroad is taxable in California. You might avoid Federal income tax with the FEIE, but not CA income tax.

Second, for those using the 330 day test, State tax can be a real problem. This is especially true of they keep their old home and other ties to the State.

For example, I have had the case where Husband works offshore and qualifies for the FEIE using the 330 day test (military contractor) and the case where he lives offshore and qualifies under the residency test. Their wives lived in CA with the kids.

For the contractor, CA has no FEIE and thus 100% of his income is taxable in CA. You see this a lot with military contractors and oil field guys in hostile countries…obviously, H is not a resident of Iraq and intends to return to wife and kids when his contract is up.

For the person using the residency test, CA says half of H’s income is attributable to W because CA is a community property State. Therefore, 50% of H’s income is taxable in CA.

A more common example for non-contractors might be H and W have a small business netting $100,000 in Panama. H qualifies for the FEIE using the 330 day test, but W does not. She wants to spend more time visiting the kids / grandkids, while H is just done with the US.

They put all of their income under H and pay no Federal tax using his FEIE.

Then, CA comes along and says W is really a resident of CA, 50% of H’s income is attributable to W, and 50% of the income is taxable in CA.

One reason W might be a resident of CA is that she did not break off sufficient ties to the State and she intends to return there someday.

Do you disagree with CA’s determination? Legal fees will be at least $10,000.

Offshore Contractors and the FEIE

Q: “Christian, I am writing for my son who is in Afghanistan.  He works as a contractor there but need to find a tax person who understands the 35 days in country rule.  I’m sure you do but don’t know militarily if that is different.  Would like your recommendation if possible.”

A: Yes, I am familiar with this FEIE and have had many contractor clients…maybe around 100 over the years. Here are the rules for contractors abroad:

First, a contractor is someone paid by a US or foreign corporation and not directly by the US government.

Second, a contractor may take the FEIE (military personnel do not qualify). Contractors must use the 330 day test and not the residency test. Here is a detailed article on the 330 day test.

The reason he must take utilize the 330 day test is that a contractor is not a tax resident of Afghanistan because he does not intend to make that his home. His intention is to return to the US after his contract is up. So, he must use the 330 day test and not the residency test, and may spend no more than 35 days in the US.

This means that he should spend most of his vacation days somewhere other than America. Remember, he is not required to be in Afghanistan to qualify…he need only be outside of the US. So, if a contractor is on a 2 months on 1 month off rotation, he should vacation in Latin America or the Caribbean.

It is important to note that, if a contractor misses the FEIE even by one day, then he loses the FEIE completely and all of his income is taxable.

Third, if a contractor is paid by a US corporation, then he must receive a W-2 with Social Security and Medicare deducted. If paid by an offshore corporation, then the contractor is not liable for these taxes.

Fourth, there is a special component of the Foreign Housing Exclusion for contractors in war zones. In most cases, he (the temporary worker) may only deduct the cost of maintaining one home abroad. If your employer provides housing, that is his tax home.

However, if he maintains a second, separate household outside the United States for his spouse or dependents because living conditions near his primary home are dangerous, unhealthful, or otherwise adverse, he can exclude / deduct this second home using the Foreign Housing Exclusion.

In other words, if he is in a war zone, he may exclude the value of two homes outside of the US…one for himself and one for his family. If he is not in a war zone, he may only exclude his primary offshore home.

Adverse living conditions include:

  • A state of warfare or civil insurrection in the general area of your tax home, and
  • Conditions under which it is not feasible to provide family housing (for example, if you must live on a construction site or drilling rig)

Moving a Business Abroad

Q: Christian, I have moved to Costa Rica and just love it here. I have a business and a corporation in Florida and need some tax advice. Can you help?

Q: You indicate you are operating a business through an FL company while living offshore. This will certainly increase the amount of tax you pay to the United States.

If you will qualify for the FEIE, then you should add an offshore corporation to your structure. The offshore company will bill the US company and you will draw your salary from the offshore company. This will eliminate self-employment and all other related taxes…reducing your US taxes by at least 15%.

Such a company should be in a country other than where you are resident, and one that will not tax your income. Therefore, I recommend Belize. I also note it must be an IBC and not an LLC.

Puerto Rico Tax deal

Puerto Rico Tax Deals for Corporations

Thinking about moving your business offshore? If you are a US citizen, and your profits exceed $400,000, I guarantee Puerto Rico has a better deal for you.

As I reported last month, a US citizen can move to Puerto Rico and pay zero capital gains tax on his or her passive income and investments. That’s right, no US Federal or State tax on capital gains tax from real estate, stocks, and/or other investments acquired after you move to and become a resident of Puerto Rico.

This time around, I am here to tell you that Puerto Rico has a deal for business owners and entrepreneurs…a deal you can’t find anywhere else in the world unless you turn in your US passport.

Puerto Rico is offering business owners a tax contract similar to the one Switzerland and Russia negotiates with high net worth Europeans. Yes, Snowden’s Russia is a tax haven. For example, the actor Gérard Depardieu, angry over a plan by the French government to raise taxes to 75 percent for the wealthy, accepted a Russian passport from President Vladimir V. Putin. Russia has a flat tax rate of 13 percent.

A tax contract with Puerto Rico will allow you to cut your total (worldwide) tax rate down to 10% or lower without the need for any complex planning or structuring. Once you enter in to a contract, it can’t be modified or revoked by the government until 2036. Of course, you can leave Puerto Rico, thereby opting out of the tax deal, at any time. You can also spend a few months a year in the United States.

To receive these benefits, you are required to move yourself and your business to Puerto Rico, spend at least 183 days a year on the island, become a legal resident of this territory, and enter in to a tax contract with the government. Once you have relocated, you have opted out of the US Federal and State tax systems and in to the Puerto Rico tax code…which trumps the Federal code.

  • As a US territory, Puerto Rico’s tax code takes precedent over the US Federal tax code. While US Expats are bound by Federal tax law, American’s in Puerto Rico need only follow local tax rules.

Such a contract is the inverse of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) and allows you to pay all of your taxes now at a reduced rate without the need to lock earnings in to an offshore corporation, captive insurance company, or some other complex tax deferral mechanism.

Let me explain: If you qualify for the FEIE you can earn up to $97,600 in salary free of Federal income tax in 2013. If a husband and wife are both working in the business, they might take out $195,200 combined. That is a major tax break which allows a properly structured offshore business earning $195,200 to be completely free of US tax.

Well, what if your business earns significantly more than the FEIE amount? You can usually retain excess profits in to your corporation and thereby defer US tax until you distribute these profits as a dividend. Capital gains, interest income and other returns derived from these retained earnings are taxable (may not be deferred) and dividends are taxed as ordinary income.

While the FEIE works great for those with business profits near the exclusion amount, it is not so wonderful for those earning significantly more. If you net $1 million a year and want to take that money as income now, then you are stuck paying US tax on the amount over the FEIE at 39.6% in 2013. This comes to about $318,000 in Federal income tax assuming a husband and wife both qualified for the FEIE and no State tax is due (($1m – $195,000) x .396) = $318,000. If only one person qualifies for the FEIE, your tax bill will be about $357,350 (($1m – $97,600) x .396) = $357,350.

In Puerto Rico, you pay income tax on the first $250,000 (using a graduated rate of up to 33%) and 4% on income over $250,000. There is no need to retain earnings in an offshore corporation and no issues related to tax deferral. You are paying tax each year as the money is earned…at a lower rate compared to those of us in the States, but no deferral or retainer earnings to worry about.

For example, on $1 million of business profits, your tax bill in Puerto Rico will be about $105,000, significantly less than the same US owned business operating offshore using the FEIE. This equates to an effective tax rate of about 10% ((.30 x 250,000) + (.04 x 750,000)) = $105,000 or 10%.

As your net profits increase, the benefit of Puerto Rico’s tax system increase and your effective tax rate drops. For example, on net profits of $3 million, your tax is approximately $185,000, for an effective tax rate of 6.2% ((.30 x 250,000) + (.04 x 2,750,000)) = $185,000 or 6.2%.

As stated above, if your net profit is anywhere near the FEIE amount, then living and working abroad and operating through a foreign corporation will give you the best tax deal. If your profits are between $100,000 and $500,000, then you might need to run the numbers to determine whether Puerto Rico or the FEIE provides the better option. Such an analysis would take in to account how much you are willing to retain in to an offshore corporation, how long you can lock those profits away, and the deductions you have available on your US personal income tax return (itemized deductions such as mortgage interest, property tax, charitable contributions, etc.). I have not considered these issues in the examples provided.

What about those of us earning less than $1 million from our business? In Puerto Rico, you will be required to take salary of 1/3 of your net profits, up to a maximum salary of $250,000, and pay 4% on the remaining 2/3. So, if you earn $300,000 in total profits, your tax would be about $38,000 or 12.6% ((.3 x $100,000) + (.04 x $200,000)) = $38,000 or 12.6%.

If that same $300,000 was earned as salary by a US citizen using the FEIE and an offshore corporation, the first $97,600 would be tax free and the remaining $202,400 would be taxed at around 31% in 2013. This means your US Federal income tax will be about $62,644 (($300,000 – $97,600) x .31) = $62,644 for an effective rate of about 20%.

If a husband and wife are both working in that business with a net of $300,000, the FEIE amount becomes $195,200, and the balance is taxed at approximately 29%, for a total tax of $30,392. Therefore, at this income level it will be more efficient for a single person to operate in Puerto Rico and a married couple to be based offshore (($300,000 – $195,200) x .29) = $30,392 or about 10%.

When you combine these business tax incentives with the personal tax benefits of zero capital gains, you have a very strong contender in Puerto Rico. It is a deal that no country in the world can offer a US citizen.

So, why is Puerto Rico doing this? This island territory is in its 8th year of recession and is desperate to attract some wealth and prosperity. 4% tax on business profits is better than no business and no tax revenues.

How bad is the economy? Puerto Rican bonds are sold in the US with yield above 10%, which is extremely high. So high that Puerto Rico was forced to cut its offering this week the island’s Government Development Bank announced it would cut bond sales to between $500 million and $1.2 billion for the rest of the year. This yield compares to California municipal bonds at a current high of 3.13%, up from 2.17% at the end of 2012.

As the territory struggles with $70 billion in public debt and a 13.9% unemployment rate, higher than any U.S. state, it is searching for new ways to bring in capital, employment and investment. The government hopes to cut its $820 million budget deficit in half by 2015.

But, there is hope for Puerto Rico. While the US is completely out of control, Puerto Rico’s deficit has been reduced from $2.4 billion over the last couple of years. The island’s five-year economic plan calls for creating more than 90,000 jobs that would add as much as $7 billion to the economy by 2016, and another 130,000 jobs and as much as $12 billion of growth by 2018.

While these tough economic times might prevent a firm from building a large factory, or committing millions to the Island, they should not deter a high net-worth investor and business owner from picking up and moving. These tax incentives are guaranteed by the government until 2036 and can’t be withdrawn or amended. Even a law change would have no affect because your earnings are not locked in to the corporation, as they are with retained earnings in excess of the FEIE.

For more information, here are some links to other sites.

Links to Outside Resources

If you are considering moving your business  to Puerto Rico or abroad, please contact me for a confidential consultation. You can reach me directly at or (619) 483-1708.

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Move to Puerto Rico and Pay Zero Capital Gains Tax

Are you tired of paying in to the Obamanation? Is most of your income from capital gains taxed at 24% plus whatever your State grabs? You can eliminate tax on interest, dividends and capital gains by moving to Puerto Rico…immediately and legally.

Those of you who have been following me on  Live and Invest Overseas and for a while know I am focused on showing business owners how they can move their operations offshore to eliminate or defer US tax using the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. While this model works great for the entrepreneur or small business owner, it provides little benefit for retirees or those who make a living trading stocks and investing.

While the US is taxing and redistributing wealth as quick as it can, Puerto Rico has seized upon this opportunity (an Obamatunity if you will) to entice high net worth individuals to move to their happy islands. Puerto Rico has completely eliminated tax on capital gains, interest and dividends. Yes, that’s right, once you become a resident of PR, you can legally pay zero capital gains tax. No more Federal tax, no complex planning, and no fear of the US government finding your offshore account.

I am not talking about only cutting out your State tax…I am saying you can jettison ALL United States tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains. This is possible because Puerto Rico, while a commonwealth of the United States, is treated as separate for tax purposes. By moving to PR, you can opt out of the Federal tax system and in to the PR tax program. This is because, under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), capital gains are sourced to your place of residence and the IRC has one section detailing Federal law and another specifying laws of the territories.

Retired? Puerto Rico does not tax social security or unemployment income.

I would like to note here that moving to a foreign country with a low capital gains tax rate does not reduce your effective tax rate on passive investments. This can only be accomplished by relocating to a tax friendly US territory. As a US citizen, you are taxed by the US IRC on your worldwide income no matter where you live. When you move abroad, you remain under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government. So, if your country of residence taxes your gains at 5%, and the US at 20%, then you pay 5% to your country and 15% to Uncle Sam for the right to carry his passport. But, when you move to Puerto Rico, you fall under a unique section of the US tax code for the Commonwealth which trumps Federal law. You are opting out of the IRC Federal system and opting in to the IRC commonwealth system.

In other words, once a U.S. citizen becomes a resident of Puerto Rico, any income derived by that person from sources within Puerto Rico is excluded from U.S. Federal income tax, and taxed under the Puerto Rican income tax code. However, any income derived from outside of PR remains taxed under the Federal law.

So, capital assets (such as land, stocks, bonds, etc.) acquired after moving to PR are tax free. As for property acquired prior to becoming a resident, special provisions can result in a 10% long term rate from the day you qualify and a 5% tax rate applies to property acquired prior to becoming a resident and held for at least 10 years thereafter. See details below.

Why is Puerto Rico Doing This?

While I could pontificate on how PR sees the error of our ways and is a bastion of freedom and capitalism, the truth is probably less grandiose. Puerto Rico’s per-capita income is around $15,200, half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. Puerto Rico has been battered by several years of recession and its unemployment rate is over 13 percent, well above the national rate, and its economy remains in a funk. Moody’s Investors Services rates the island’s debt one notch above junk status; and in a recent research note, Breckenridge Capital Advisors said the island was “flirting with insolvency.” The island has the weakest pension fund in America and by some estimates could run out of money as soon as 2014.

I also note that these tax breaks apply only to new residents and not those currently living in Puerto Rico. More specifically, they are available to individuals who have not been residents of Puerto Rico within in the last 15 years and who become residents of Puerto Rico on or before December 31, 2035. As such, PR is obviously attempting to bring in new money to revitalize their fledgling economy.


To qualify, you must become a tax resident of Puerto Rico, reside in PR for at least 183 days a year, and file an application for the exemption with the local tax authority. Once approved, the decree establishes the terms of the exemption and has the effect and force of a contract during the entire benefit period. Considering the weakness of the PR economy, and how frequently tax laws change, this contract status is a major benefit.


The tax incentives available to individuals are as follows:

  • 100% tax exemption on interest and dividend income earned after the nonresident individual becomes a resident of Puerto Rico; also applies with respect to alternative minimum tax (AMT) up to tax year 2036
  • 100% tax exemption on interest, financial charges, dividends or distributive share on partnership income from international banking entities in Puerto Rico including AMT
  • 100% tax exemption on long-term capital gains realized and recognized after becoming a resident of Puerto Rico but before January 1, 2036
  • If not realized and recognized within the incentive timeframe, regular individual long-term capital gain applies (currently at 10%)
  • Applies to appreciation of property after becoming a resident of Puerto Rico
  • 5% tax on long-term capital gains realized before becoming a resident of Puerto Rico, but recognized after 10 years of becoming a resident of Puerto Rico, as long as recognized before January 1, 2036
  • This 5% long-term capital gain tax only applies to the portion of gain that relates to the appreciation of the property while the individual lived outside Puerto Rico
  • If the long-term capital gain is not recognized within these time periods, applicable individual long-term capital gain rate would apply on any Puerto Rico-source long-term capital gain

Puerto Rico also has great incentives for business owners, based around the tax breaks on dividend payments, which I will detail in a future article. If you are considering living and working abroad, give Puerto Rico a chance. Because of its status as a US territory, these islands can offer tax incentives to US citizens that are not available anywhere else in the world.

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US Tax Breaks for Offshore Real Estate

Do you own property outside of the United States? Are you thinking about investing in offshore real estate? Are you an offshore real estate mogul looking to reduce or eliminate your US taxes? This article will cover all areas of US taxation of offshore real estate and provide insider tips and techniques to get your US tax bill under control.

So long as you carry a US passport, the IRS wants you pay tax when you sell offshore real estate. US citizens are taxed on their worldwide income and there are very few offshore tax breaks for capital gains and the passive income. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether you are living in the good ‘ole U S of A or abroad, passive income and capital gains are taxable as earned.

  • Active investors, real estate professionals, and those who buy in a retirement account are exceptions to the rule.

This means that offshore real estate is taxed the same as domestic real estate (with the exception of depreciation). The same tax rates apply, the same deductions for expenses are allowed, and the same credits are available. I will describe the best of these below.

In most cases, if buy a property in Panama and sell it after 3 years, you have a long term capital gain in the US, and owe tax at 20% to 23.8%. For the rest of this article, I will assume a long term US rate of 20%.

Offshore Real Estate and the Foreign Tax Credit

This doesn’t mean you must pay double tax, first in the country where the property is located and then again in the United States. The IRS allows you to deduct or take a dollar for dollar credit for any taxes paid to a foreign country…for every dollar paid to Panama your US bill should go down by one dollar. In practice, this never works out perfectly, but it does eliminate most double tax.

For example, let’s say you bought a property in Medellin, Colombia in 2005 for $100,000. In 2013, you received an offer you couldn’t refuse for $150,000, giving you a capital gain of $50,000. The capital gains tax rate in Colombia is 33%, so you pay $16,500 to Colombia.

The capital gains rate of Colombia is significantly higher than the United States at 20%, so you should not expect to pay any tax to the US. You will report the sale on Schedule D of your US personal return and deduct or take a credit for the $16,500 paid on Form 1116, leaving nothing for the IRS to leach on to.

Now let’s say you sell a property in Panama, where capital gains are taxed at 10%. In this case, you will pay 10% to Panama ($5,000) and 10% to the United States ($5,000), to get to the US 20% rate for long term capital gains.

If you had this same transaction in Argentina, Ecuador or Costa Rica, where real estate sales are not taxed, you will pay all of the “available” 20% to the United States.

Important Note: When deciding in which country to buy real estate, that country’s capital gains rate only comes in to play if it exceeds the US rate. If a country’s capital gains rate is 0% to 20%, you will pay 20% in total. If a country’s rate is more than 20%, then only the excess should be considered in your decision. For example, you are paying a 13% tax premium to buy property in Colombia because Colombia’s rate is 13% higher than the US’s capital gains rate.

Many clients look at a country like Costa Rica and think they are getting a deal or saving money by paying no capital gains tax when they sell their property. Well, these countries have other taxes and duties to make up for their zero capital gains rate, which might not deductible on your US return. In most cases, you are better off buying property in a country whose system mirrors that of the United States.

Cut Out the Tax Man – Offshore Real Estate in Your IRA

The exception to the rule above is offshore real estate held in an IRA LLC. By purchasing offshore real estate in your retirement account, you can defer or eliminate US tax on both rental profits and capital gains. If the country where your property is located doesn’t tax the sale, then you just might avoid the tax man all together. If the country taxes you at a relatively low rate, such as Panama at 10%, this might be the only tax you pay (ie. the IRA cut your total tax bill by half).

Let me explain: If you move your IRA or other type of retirement account away from your current custodian and in to an Offshore LLC, you can invest that account in foreign real estate. The LLC is owned by your retirement account and holds investments on behalf of that account. You buy the rental property in the name of the LLC, pay operating expenses from the LLC, and profits flow back in to the LLC and in to your retirement account.

I note that this structure is for investment or rental real estate and not property you want to occupy. If you later decide to live in the property, it must first be distributed out of the retirement account to you and taxes paid if applicable.

If you wish to purchase offshore real estate with funds from your IRA and a non-recourse loan, or you are in the active business of real estate, you can add a specially structured offshore corporation to eliminate US tax.

If you buy real estate with an IRA in the United States, you get the joy of paying tax on the gain attributed to the money you borrow (the mortgage). If 50% of the purchase price comes from your 401-K and 50% from a loan, half of the rental profits and half of the gain is taxable, with the other half flowing in to your retirement account.

Take this same transaction offshore and no US tax is due. Tax free leverage in a retirement account is one of the great offshore loopholes. Please check out this article for more information.

Offshore Real Estate and Depreciation

Owners of rental real estate in the United States get to utilize accelerated depreciation and deduct the value of the property over 27.5 years. If the property is offshore, you must use straight-line depreciation over 40 years and you get less bang for your depreciation buck.

On a $100,000 rental property, your annual depreciation deduction would be about $3,636 for US situated property vs. $2,500 if located outside the country. This means you would be paying a premium of $1,136 offshore real estate.

Don’t get to excited and cancel your offshore real estate deals just yet! The benefit of depreciation can be fool’s gold. The accelerated depreciation is great if you plan to hold the property for 20 years. However, if you plan on buying, improving and selling over a short period (a few years), then accelerated depreciation will cost you money, not save you money.

This is because depreciation is “recaptured” when you sell the property. Every dollar you were allowed to deduct over the years prior must be paid back, is added to your basis, and taxed at 25% rather than 20%. So, as a rough example, if you have a gain of $50,000, and took depreciation of $20,000, you owe tax at 20% of $50,000 for $10,000 plus 25% of $20,000 for $5,000. Therefore, you total tax due is $15,000.

The more depreciation you take, the more you must repay. If you hold a property for many years, taking a deduction today, and paying it back in the distant future, is a benefit. If you will sell the property in 3 or 5 years, taking the deduction now, and paying an additional 5% in tax later, is of little to no benefit.

I have had several clients over the years shocked at the size of their tax bills from the sale of a rental property. They had planned for a 15% rate (the previous long term rate), and ended up at 20% + recapture. In States like California, where values property values have gone down, it is possible to sell a rental at a loss and still have a big time tax bill from recapture.

This might lead some to think a good strategy is to not take depreciation, especially on property you plan to flip ASAP. Well, the IRS has a surprise for you: The tax law requires depreciation recapture to be calculated on depreciation that was “allowed or allowable” (Internal Revenue Code section 1250(b)(3)). This means you will pay tax on depreciation whether you take it or not.

All of this is to say that not being allowed accelerated depreciation on offshore real estate might be a good thing.

$250,000 / $500,000 Exclusion and Offshore Real Estate

As I said to begin this article, all of the same US tax rules apply to offshore real estate that apply to onshore properties. This holds true for the primary residence exclusion: If you qualify, you can exclude up to $250,000 single or $500,000 married filing joint, from the sale of your primary residence.

To qualify, you must own and occupy the home as your principal residence for at least two years before you sell it. Your “home” can be a house, apartment, condominium, stock-cooperative, or mobile home fixed to land anywhere in the world.

Tax Tip: You can take the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion any number of times. But you may not use it more than once every two years.

Have you owned and been renting out a property in Panama for a few years? You might consider kicking out those renters, moving to Panama, and occupying the property for two years before you sell.

Did you convert a home from your primary residence to a rental property? The rule is that you must have lived in the property for 2 of the last 5 years to qualify for the exclusion. Therefore, you can live in it for two years, rent it out for up to 3 years, and then sell and get the full exclusion.

To get the $500,000 exclusion, both a husband and wife must live in the home as their primary residence. It is possible for one spouse to qualify while the other does not. For example, husband is living in the United States and visiting his wife and family in Panama. On a joint return, only the wife may take the exclusion for $250,000 when they sell the home in Panama.

You don’t need to spend every minute in your home for it to be your principal residence. Short absences are permitted—for example, you can take a two month vacation and count that time as use. However, long absences are not permitted. For example, a professor who is away from home for a whole year while on sabbatical cannot count that year as use for purposes of the exclusion.

You can only have one principal residence at a time. If you have a home in California and a condo in Panama, the property you use the majority of the time during the year will be your principal residence for that year. So, it would be possible for Panama to be your primary resident for one year and California to be your primary residence the next. Before you sell, make sure you have spent at least 2 of the last 5 years in the property.

Like-Kind / 1031 Exchange with Foreign Property

Because you get the “benefit” of all US tax rules when it comes to offshore real estate, you can use like-kind exchanges (also called a Section 1031 exchange) to defer US tax. The only caveat is that you can’t exchange US property for foreign property – it must be a foreign property for foreign property transfer.

In a like-kind exchange, you defer paying taxes by swapping your property for a similar property owned by someone else. The property you receive is treated as if it were a continuation of the property you gave up. The benefit is that you defer paying taxes on any profit you would have received.

You may only exchange property for other similar property, called like-kind property by the IRS. Like-kind properties must have the same nature or character, even if they differ in grade or quality. All real estate owned for investment or business use in the United States is considered to be like kind with all other such real estate in the United States, no matter the type or location. For example, an apartment building in New York is like kind to an office building in California.

All real estate owned for investment or business use outside of the United States is considered to be like kind with all other such real estate outside of the United States. Therefore, you can exchange an office building in Panama City, Panama for an apartment building in Medellin, Colombia. You may not exchange a property in Panama with a property in New York.

In practice, it’s rare for two people to want to swap their properties with each other…especially offshore, where only US persons benefit from this loophole. Instead, one of the owners usually wants cash and the other (the gringo) wants to avoid tax on his gain. In this case, you can still qualify for a like-kind exchange by adding a licensed third party specialist to the deal, called a qualified intermediary or QI.

Let’s say your property in Panama is worth $300,000, and you have a capital gain of $100,000. You can defer paying tax on this sale if you can find someone in Colombia who wants to swap. Of course, no Colombian wants any part of a US 1031 exchange because they get no benefit…only an American living in Medellin would find the tax deal interesting. So, after you identify the property you want in Colombia, you need to hire a QI.

Essentially, the QI buys the property in Colombia and then enters in to a like-kind exchange with you. So long as you can identify the replacement property within 45 days after you sell the Panama property, and your replacement property purchase is completed within 180 days, you have a qualified 1031 exchange. Because of these time limits, it’s a good idea to have a replacement property lined up before you sell your property.

You should also note that this tax strategy is only advantageous in countries with low capital gains rates. If the country has a tax rate equal to or higher than the US, there is no reason to enter in to an exchange. It will not reduce your tax in the country where the property is located, only in the United States. If the Foreign Tax Credit will eliminate your US tax obligation, then an exchange is pointless.

By swapping a property in Panama with a property in Colombia, you are deferring US tax on 10% of the gain. This is because you pay 10% to Panama and nothing at this time to the United States. When you sell the property in Colombia, there is no reason to enter in to a like-kind exchange – unless you want to defer the gain from Panama a second time. The tax rate in Colombia is higher than in the United States, so no tax will be due to Uncle Sam on the gain from that property.

  • Let’s say you had a gain of $100,000 on the property you sold in Panama in 2011 and you will have another gain of $50,000 when you sell the property in Colombia in 2016 (very good for you by the way).
  • When you sold the property in Panama, you paid 10% to Panama and transferred the gain to the property in Colombia for US tax purposes.
  • When you sell the property in Colombia in 2016, you will pay 33% on the $50,000 to Colombia, leaving nothing for the US on this portion of the transaction.
  • You will also recognize the deferred capital gain on $100,000 from the Panama property. You already paid 10% to Panama, so you will pay 10% ($10,000) to the US in 2016 from the sale of the Panama property in 2011.

All of this planning and structuring allowed you to defer a 10% US capital gain for 5 years.

Combo Deal: Yes, you can combine a 1031 exchange with the $250,000 primary residence exclusion. To qualify for both, you must hold the property for more than five years and live in it for at least two of those five years. Then, you can use the exclusion to reduce or eliminate the capital gains, including tax carry-over from a like-kind exchange.

Offshore Rental Properties

Rental income and expense from offshore real estate is reported on your personal return, Schedule E, just as a US rental property would be. You must keep US quality books and records, including all expenses from management, improvements, repairs, and taxes paid. You must follow all US tax rules for these deductions and expenses, such as depreciating improvements and deducting repairs.

The IRS has a right to audit you offshore real estate, so be ready. It may be common to pay your bills in cash in Colombia, but you will have a tough time deducting any expenses without a receipt and proof of payment (such as a cancelled check).

An area of emphasis in an audit of offshore real estate is travel and other expenses associated with visiting the property. If you are flying to Panama five times a year, hanging out for a week, and then expensing these trips against your one rental unit on Schedule E, the deduction will not survive an audit. In fact, it is likely to be the cause of an IRS investigation.

I generally advise clients that they may visit their rental properties once a year for a couple of days. If they have no other business abroad, and are not using the getaway as a vacation, the entire trip may be deductible. If you have a large portfolio abroad, then you might get away with spending more time traveling, but one trip per year is a safe deduction.

When reporting your rental property, remember to take depreciation. As stated above, the only difference in offshore real estate is the allowed depreciation method. You must utilize straight-line depreciation over 40 years.

US Tax Filing Obligations for Offshore Real Estate

Your offshore real estate comes with a number of new and exciting US tax forms to file. It is important you master these forms or hire someone experienced in there preparation. Failure to file, or filing late, can result in outrageously high penalties.

  • These draconian penalties are aimed at Americans hiding money offshore. Unfortunately, regular folks, with simple offshore investments, often get caught in the crossfire.

The most critical offshore tax form is the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, Form TD F 90-22.1, referred to as the FBAR. Anyone who is a signor or beneficial owner of a foreign bank or brokerage account with a value of more than $10,000 must disclose their account(s) to the U.S. Treasury.

For example, if you opened an offshore bank account to receive rent payments, and that account has more than $10,000 in it on any given day, then you must file an FBAR. If you send the funds to buy the property in to your offshore account, and then on to escrow, you must file this form. If you wired money from your US bank account directly in to escrow (which is a bank account you do not control), then the FBAR is not required.

The law imposes a civil penalty for failing to disclosing an offshore bank account of up to $25,000 or the greatest of 50% of the balance in the account at the time of the violation or $100,000. Criminal penalties for willful failure to file an FBAR can also apply in certain situations. Note that these penalties can be imposed for each year.

In addition to filing the FBAR, the offshore account must be disclosed on your personal income tax return, Form 1040, Schedule B.

Other international tax filing obligations for offshore real estate include:

  • If your property is held in a foreign corporation, you must file Form 5471 – Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations.
  • If you hold your offshore real estate in a foreign LLC, you may need to file Form 8858 – Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Foreign Disregarded Entities.
  • If your property is held in an international trust, a Panamanian foundation, or a Mexican Fideicomiso, you may need to file Form 3520-A – Annual Information Return of Foreign Trust and possibly Form 3520 – Annual Return to Report Transactions With Foreign Trusts.
  • If your foreign assets are significant, you must file Form 8938 – Statement of Foreign Financial Assets was new for tax year 2011. The filing requirements (who must file) for this form are too complex to list here, so please see the instructions before filing.

The Offshore Real Estate Professional

If you are living and working abroad and in the business of real estate, you can realize some great tax benefits. The following section is for those who spend a significant amount of time and effort working their offshore properties, and not those with only one or two apartment units.

The typical investor in offshore real estate may only deduct his losses against other passive income. If you do not have any other passive income, losses are carried forward until you can use them.

An exception to this rule applies to a) active participants and b) material participants in the management of offshore real estate.

As an active participant in offshore real estate, you can deduct up to $25,000 of passive losses against other income (like wages, self-employment, interest, and dividends) on your US tax return.  This allowance is phased out on a 50% ratio if your adjusted gross income is $100,000 or more.

As an active participant, you must share in the management, financial and operational decisions of the property and be knowledgeable in the day to day issues (usually by reviewing financial statements and other documents produced by the manager). This means you should be responsible for arranging for others to provide services like repairs, collect rents, etc. You may have a paid manager for the property and still be considered an active participant, so long as you manage that manager.

Besides the need to qualify as an active participant you must also meet these additional requirements:

  • You must own more than 10% of the property.
  • You cannot be a limited partner…you must be a general partner.
  • You must be an active participant in the year of the loss and the year that the loss is deducted. For example, if you are a passive investor in 2012, and active in 2013, you can’t deduct a loss from 2012 on your 2012 or 2013 return (because the 2012 loss was carried forward).

If you are a material participant in offshore real estate, you are much more involved and in control than an active participant. As a material participant (sometimes referred to as a real estate professional), you are in the active business of real estate and may deduct your expenses against any and all of your other income, without limitation or AGI phase-out.

It is relatively easy to qualify as an active participant. It is far more challenging to be classified as a material participant in offshore real estate. If you can meet the criterion, you will find that there are major international tax breaks and loopholes available to the real estate professional.

NOTE: The major benefit of being offshore and material participant / real estate professional is that you may draw a salary from an offshore corporation and qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. This tax break is only available to offshore professionals and not those living or working in the United States.

To be classified as a material participant or real estate professional you must be active year-round in the operation of your offshore real estate business. You must work on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis, and offshore real estate should be your primary occupation. If you work a full time job and do real estate on the side, you are probably not a real estate professional.

According to the IRS, you materially participate in offshore real estate:

  • If (based on all of the facts and circumstances) you participate in the activity on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis during the year; or
  • If you participate in the activity for more than 500 hours during the year.

To meet the facts and circumstances test, offshore real estate should be your principal trade or business and you must have significant knowledge and expertise in that industry.

You can prove your level of involvement to meet the 500 hour test by any reasonable means. This includes calendars, appointment books, or narrative summaries identifying work performed and hours spent. Contemporaneous daily time reports or logs aren’t required but it is your responsibility to prove you meet the test, so any evidence you can muster will be a benefit. This is to say that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate you qualify as a real estate professional.

In order to materially participate in offshore real estate, you should be living and working abroad. It would be near impossible to qualify as materially involved in properties in Colombia while living Texas. Therefore, you should also plan to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE). When the FEIE is combined with an eligible offshore real estate business, you can take out up to $97,600 in salary from that enterprise free of Federal income tax and make use of a number of other tax mitigation strategies.

In other words, a qualified offshore real estate professional can deduct his or her expenses against all other income, regardless of source and without limitation based on his or her AGI, and draw out up to $97,600 in profits free of Federal income tax. If a husband and wife both qualify as material participants and for the FEIE, they can each take out a salary of $97,600, for a total of $195,200 of tax free money.

To qualify for the FEIE, you must be out of the US for 330 out of 365 days or a resident of another country. If you are a resident of another country, preferably where your properties are located, then you can spend up to 4 months in the US each year.

The 330 day test is quite simple: you are either out of the US or you are not. The 365 days need not be in a calendar year (for example, May 2013 to May 2014 is fine) and there is no requirement to file for residency or spend a certain amount of time in particular country.

The residency test is more challenging. You must be a resident for a calendar year and move to a particular country with the intention of making that your home for the foreseeable future. You must submit a residency application to that country, file taxes, and generally become a member of the community.

The 330 day test is based on travel days and the residency test involves your intentions to move to a particular country and make that your home. It is always easier to prove how many days you are in the US. To put it another way, it can be a challenge to prove your “intent,” especially if your needs or intent changes after only a year or two.

For this reason, I suggest you qualify under the 330 day test in your first year abroad and then move to the residency test. This is the safest way to deal with the possibility of changes in circumstances.

If your offshore real estate business is focused in one country, you can obtain residency in that nation after a year and utilize the residency test to qualify for the FEIE. Utilizing the residency test in the long run is the best way to ensure you receive the benefits of the FEIE while being classified as a real estate professional.

If your offshore real estate business spans many countries, and you are on the road several months of the year, then you may need to utilize the 330 day test in year two and beyond. You may not be able to put down roots in one country, or you might not want to become a tax resident of any nation. In this case, you will need to watch your travel days to and from the US closely. If you miss the 330 days, even by one day, you lose the FEIE in its entirety and pay US tax on 100% of your salary.

If you qualify for the FEIE, you must operate your offshore real estate business through a foreign corporation. In order to minimize worldwide tax, you might consider a holding company in a jurisdiction that will not tax your income and subsidiaries in each country you do business to transact on behalf of your properties.

Whatever your structure, and wherever you decide to setup shop, you must incorporate outside of the United States. If you decide to skip this step, you will pay US self-employment tax on the salary. Even though you might pay nothing in Federal income tax, you will pay around $15,000 per person in SE tax. US SE tax is eliminated completely by the use of a properly structured foreign corporation.

The FEIE allows you to take out up to $195,200 (joint) free of Federal income tax, and a foreign corporation eradicates US SE tax. What if your profits are significantly more than $195,200?  You can retain earnings in to your foreign corporation to be taken out as salary subject to the FEIE in future years or as dividends whenever you choose. Withdraws that qualify as salary under the FEIE, are taken out tax free. If they come out as dividends, they are tax deferred for as long as you see fit to maintain the corporation…which can be decades, even if the business has long since been shuttered.

If you are able to combine material participation / active business status with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, and do so through a foreign corporation, you might just operate your offshore real estate business free of any and all US tax and keep Uncle Sam out of your pocket entirely. But, this is a major endeavor and one you should not take lightly.

You must be ready to defend your position in an audit and keep US quality books and records to support both positions. To succeed in an audit of your active business status, keep extensive files, to-do lists, home and mobile phone records, business plans, project descriptions and instructions to employees documenting your active involvement in day-to-day activities of the business.

In order to prove your FEIE, keep track of travel to and from the United States and have your credit card and other records available to support you claims of days out of the country. If you will use the residency test, file for residency and, if possible, a work permit. Also, file a tax return in your country of residence and put down as many roots in to that community as possible. You may be able to structure your affairs in such a way as you pay very little in tax to this country, but you should file a return.


The world of offshore real estate investing can be a complex maze of US tax compliance, deductions, credits and exclusions. If you are a professional, or you’re considering starting an offshore real estate business, you will need a solid plan to minimize your worldwide tax obligations. Such a plan must take in to account your US requirements and those of the country(s) where your property is located.

I can assist you by forming basic holding companies for the passive investor, creating a custom plan for the professional, placing your cash and properties behind appropriate barriers for asset protection, and keeping all of these constructs in US tax compliance.

Feel free to phone me at (619) 483-1708 or by email to with any questions and a confidential consultation.

December 2019 Update – we no longer offer 1031 exchange servies. I am not aware of any global firm that supports these transactions.

Offshore IRA Fees

Tax Benefits of Going Offshore

The United States tax code is a hopelessly complex mess with as many loopholes for the wealthy as there are stars in the sky. There are many tax benefits of going offshore, and some of them can great for the “regular guy.”

Multinational corporations and billionaires spend big money on political campaigns and on lobbyists to ensure their interests are protected, and they expect a strong return on these “investments.” For example, a 2009 study found that each dollar put toward lobbying translated into $6 to $20 of tax benefits. Searching through these negotiated tax breaks leads you to a list of tax benefits of going offshore.

Just how ridiculous has the US tax code gotten? According to the IRS, taxpayers spent more than six billion hours in 2011 complying with the tax code – that’s enough to create an annual workforce of 3.4 million people. If that workforce was a city, it would be the third largest city in the United States. If that workforce was a company, it would employ more individuals than Walmart, IBM, and McDonalds, combined.

Even the mighty IRS seems overwhelmed by the complexity of the current tax laws. According to the National Taxpayer Advocate – part of the Internal Revenue Service – the Service cannot meet the needs of taxpayers.

Of the 115 million phone calls the IRS received in fiscal year 2012, it was only able to answer (actually pick-up) 68 percent of the calls. The IRS also failed to respond to almost half of all taxpayer letters within the agency’s own established time frame. And in 2011, the U.S.  Treasury Inspector General’s reported to Congress that most taxpayers who contact the IRS do not receive helpful responses.

Such complexity means that the well informed and well represented have a major advantage over the average citizen. While billionaires can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in legal fees to structure their affairs to minimize tax, diversify their investments, and protect their assets, the average citizen is at a major disadvantage.

With this in mind, I spend my time researching and writing on the various ways the average person might utilize the tools designed for the Googles and Mitt Romneys of the world for their benefit. It is my hope that my website and articles will level the playing field just a bit.

Tax Benefits of Going Offshore

In the world of international tax planning, there are many regulations that can be utilized by anyone living, working, or investing abroad, to reduce your US tax bill. Some will eliminate tax on your salary, or allow you to opt out of the Social Security and Medicare taxes, while others, such as those that apply to IRA LLCs, can allow you to invest in just about anything offshore, with leverage, tax free.

The information provided below on the tax benefits of going offshore is a brief summary of a variety of complex tax rules. It is not meant as a complete analysis of these laws, nor is it tax or legal advice specific to your situation. Please contact me at or at (619) 483-1708 to discuss your situation in detail.

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

The key to many of the offshore tax benefits of going offshore is the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. This section of the tax code allows you to earn up to $97,600 from work, either as a self-employed person or as an employee. To qualify, you must be out of the US for 330 out of 365 days or a qualified resident of another country.

Anyone living and working abroad can qualify for this exclusion, so long as you meet the requirements of the 330 day test or the residency test, you are golden. The exclusion applies to Federal Income Tax, and not Self Employment tax, so additional planning may be required if you are running your own show.

I note that only those living in low tax countries will get much play from this exclusion. If you are based in a place with a tax rate that is about the same, or even higher, than the United States, then the Foreign Tax Credit will step in and prevent double taxation, without the need for the FEIE.

In other words, if your US Federal tax rate is 35%, and your rate in France is 40%, you have no need of the FEIE because you are already paying more in tax than you would in the United States. You can deduct your French tax on your US tax return without concerning yourself with qualifying for the FEIE.

Conversely, if you are living tax fee in Panama, drawing a salary of $100,000, and fail to qualify for the FEIE, then 100% of your income is taxable in the United States. Without the FEIE, there is no benefit to working abroad in a low tax country!

Take Your Retirement Account Offshore

By moving your IRA or other retirement account in to an offshore LLC, you can take control over your savings, invest in foreign real estate or projects, and hold cash outside of the United States in any currency you like. Even better, you can do all of this while maintaining the tax free or tax deferred status these accounts enjoy.

For the sophisticated investor, the tax benefits of going offshore can be enormous! I will list the in order of importance.

First, if your IRA invests in certain hedge funds (typically, the most profitable ones), the income generated is probably taxable to your IRA at the prevailing corporate tax rate, which is currently 15% to 39%. Most investors will pay about 34% on taxable income earned in their retirement account. In addition, you must file IRS Form 990-T to report that income and pay the tax.

–        Note that only very specific types of income, known as Unrelated Business Income (UBI), is taxable in a retirement account. This tax is called UBIT.

By moving your IRA in to an offshore LLC, and investing through a UBIT Blocker Corporation, you can completely eliminate UBIT. Your IRA can invest in a hedge fund, or any other UBI generating venture, and pay zero US tax.

This tax loophole was created for large pension funds, but is available to any tax exempt organization or charity, including offshore IRA LLCs. Hedge funds that wish to attract pension funds, retirement accounts, or non-US investors, must set up an offshore module of their fund (known as a Master/Feeder structure), whereby the tax exempt groups (your IRA) and foreign persons invest in the offshore division, while US persons invest in the US division. Then, these groups are combined in the master fund, from which investments are made and returns generated.

Offshore IRA LLCs have been used by the uber rich for years, and became big news during the previous presidential election. Many news outlets reported that Mr. Romney was able to grow his IRA LLC to over $100 million through the use of this type of international tax planning. To read more about his use of these structures, click here for the NY Times and here for a very partisan article on the Huffington Post.

Likewise, IRA LLCs that wish to invest in an active business will benefit from being offshore. Your IRA LLC can own up to 50% of any active business. The profits generated, especially if that business is structured as a partnership, are often Unrelated Business Income and taxable to the IRA.

If the company is offshore, then it may be operating free of US income tax. If you buy in through a specially designed offshore IRA LLC, profits paid out to you may also be tax free because your offshore structure effectively blocks the US from taxing those profits. For additional information, see the UBIT Blocker section of my website.

Those are the basics of taking your IRA offshore…child’s play, if you will. Here is the monster tax benefit of going offshore: You can eliminate UBIT on leverage by going offshore. Let me explain.

When you borrow money, or leverage up your IRA, the profits generated from that leverage are taxable (under the UBIT rules). So, if you buy a rental property for $100,000 with your IRA, paying $50,000 from your retirement account and get a non-recourse loan of $50,000 for the balance, when you receive rental payments, or sell the home, 50% of the net income will be taxable as UBI.

The same is true with brokerage and forex accounts. Your provider may be willing to give you 10 to 1, 30 to 1 or even 100 to 1 leverage on your deposit. But, if this is an onshore retirement account, the profits generated with that leverage are taxable.

By taking these transactions offshore, through a specialized offshore IRA LLC with UBIT Blocker Corporation, you can eliminate UBIT on borrowing and leverage. Tax free leverage is the key to generating big tax free profits in your retirement account.

For the “asset protection” benefits of moving your retirement account offshore, see my article: Can the Government Seize my IRA? If you are concerned with privacy or protecting your IRA from creditors and government appropriation, moving your IRA offshore, and in to a bank that does not have a branch in the US, is your best and only defense.

Stop Paying Social Taxes

Are you tired of supporting the Obamanation through social and medical taxes? Or, forgetting the political hyperbole, do you want to cut your US taxes? You can opt out of employment and social taxes by moving offshore. If you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, and are an employee of a company based outside of the US, then you need not pay Social Security, Medicare, or any other social taxes on your salary.

However, if you are an independent contractor, or are otherwise self-employed, then you must still pay Self Employment tax, at a rate of around 15%. So, assuming you qualify for the FEIE, on a salary of $97,000 you pay no Federal Income Tax but around $14,000 in SE tax. For a husband and wife, each drawing a salary, the SE tax will doubled to about $28,000.

The same is true if you are an employee of a US corporation while living abroad. You get the benefit of the FEIE, but must pay your share of social taxes (about 7.5%), as must your employer. All Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, and related taxes still apply to the Expat and his employer, so long as you are employed by a US company.

Like the employee of a foreign company, you can eliminate SE tax by incorporating your business offshore and become an employee of that company. You can incorporate in any tax free country (such as Belize), and it does not matter where you are living or working, it does not matter if you are the owner and sole employee, nor does it matter if all of your clients are in the United States. So long you are living and working abroad, qualify for the FEIE, and are running an active business, you can eliminate SE tax by incorporating offshore. Your corporation should bill your clients and you can draw a salary from the net profits that entity of up to the FEIE amount (currently $97,600).

–        You might combine the offshore company with a US LLC if you wish to open accounts in the US and get paid by check, PayPal, or credit card.

Defer Tax with Offshore Mutual Funds

For the uninitiated, investing in an offshore mutual is a bad idea. Punitive rules (the opposite of loopholes) have been written in to the tax code by the US mutual fund industry which are quite hostile to investing in these types of products offshore.

In most cases, an offshore mutual fund investment is governed by the Passive Foreign Investment Company (PFIC) section of the code. Like a US mutual fund, you only pay tax when you cash out. But, unlike a US fund, the tax man is going to crush your profits. First, when tax is paid, all income and gains are taxed at the highest ordinary income rate (presently 39.6%).  There is no long-term capital gains treatment.  Second, losses are disallowed.  Third, you have to assume that all of the gains are earned ratably over the time the investment was held — even if the fund lost money the first few years and only made its gains in the last year when you cashed out.   Why is that bad?  Because of the final part of the quadruple whammy – interest charges, compounded annually.  Annually compounded interest at the underpayment interest rate (which is set by the Treasury Department each quarter and has been anywhere from 5% to 10% over the last several years) is charged on deferred tax.

And here is the loophole for the offshore professional: If the PFIC meets certain accounting and reporting requirements, a PFIC shareholder can elect to treat the PFIC as a qualified electing fund.  The effect is that the PFIC shares are taxed like U.S. shares.  The owner of a foreign mutual fund treated as a QEF may: 1) elect to pay tax on income as it is accrued in your account, or 2) choose to defer tax until money is received. If both the QEF and deferral elections are made, you pay tax on the profits plus 3% interest per year when you receive a distribution.

If your offshore mutual fund is returning profits greater than your interest rate of 3%, or the fund has profits some years and losses in others, the QEF with deferral elections are major tax benefits. This is especially important for a fund with losses, as these losses do not flow through to your tax return, so deferral can eliminate some quite harsh tax consequences of going offshore.

These elections allow the well-educated investor to access some of the high flying offshore mutual funds without the punitive taxes meant to keep the uninformed in the United States.

Eliminate Tax in Your Country of Residence

While the United States taxes you on your worldwide income, no matter where you live, and no matter where your clients are located, most countries do not charge you for foreign source income…which is to say, you pay no tax on income earned outside of their borders or, the majority of nations tax you only on income earned within their territory.

With this in mind, planning may eliminate tax from your country of residence. For example, if you are living in Panama, selling products or services to customers in the United States, and operating a through corporation in Belize, Panama may not tax you on the net profits of that Belize entity. Conversely, if you are living and working in Panama, operating through a Panama corporation and/or selling to people living in Panama, then Panama wants its cut.

By incorporating your business in a country other than where you reside, you may be able to legally avoid paying any tax to that country. When you combine a tax free country of incorporation (Belize), with a country with a territorial tax system (Panama), and the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, it is possible to earn a significant amount of money from your business and pay zero income tax to any nation.

In the case of a business with employees and local expenses, you may form a corporation in Panama and bill your Belize corporation from that Panamanian entity. You should only bring in enough money to Panama to pay your bills, but draw your salary from the Belize company. In this way, the Panama company will break-even and no tax will be due.

I am often asked why countries like Panama allow this setup. It is because 1) you will pay employment and other taxes on your employees, and 2) you will spend money and indirectly contribute to the economy by living and basing your business in that country. A business that employees local workers is a major benefit to any efficiently run economy.

Retain Earnings Offshore

For the entrepreneur, qualifying for the FEIE and taking that salary through an offshore corporation is the first line of defense against the IRS. It allows you to take out $97,600 in salary free of Federal Income Tax. If a husband and wife are both involved in the day to day operation of the business, each may qualify for the exclusion, resulting in up to $195,200 in tax free salary.

So, what if your net profit is more than FEIE? If you take more than the Exclusion out of the corporation, you will pay tax on it as earned. If you leave it in the corporation, it will be classified as retained earnings and not taxable in the United States until it is distributed as a dividend or other payment.

–        This assumes you are incorporated in a country, such as Belize, that will not tax your corporate profits or retained earnings.

Two important caveats: 1) interest or capital gains derived from these retained earnings is taxable as earned, and 2) you may not borrow retained earnings from your corporation or use them for your personal benefit. They must remain in the corporation or be used for business expenses and expansion.

You might be wondering why large companies based in the US get offshore exclusions while you must make the drastic step of moving abroad to receive these benefits? In fact, multinationals must follow similar rules to qualify by having an active division with employees outside of the US in order to retain some earnings offshore.

To put it another way, a small business, that is owned and controlled by a US person, must move all of its operations outside of the US to gain these benefits. A large corporation can achieve the same by moving an autonomous division abroad.

For additional information on this topic, see my article: How to Manage Retained Earnings in an Offshore Corporation.


As you can see, there are a number of tax benefits for those offshore. If you are living, working, and/or investing abroad, you should consult with a professional to ensure you are taking advantage of these benefits. For the business owner who has a non-US partner, additional incentives may be available but are outside of the scope of this article.

I will end by pointing out that big tax breaks come with big tax reporting requirements. US tax compliance should be a primary component for anyone considering going abroad and is the foundation of an international tax or business strategy. Be sure to contact a licensed US representative, and do not rely on a foreign provider, whenever incorporating offshore.

Retire Overseas Tax Free

How to Avoid Filing Offshore Tax Returns – IRS Form 5471 & FBAR

Any offshore business owned and operated by a US citizen must file IRS Form 5471, an FBAR, and disclose all of its dealings to the US government. Here, you will learn how to legally reduce or eliminate these filing and disclosure obligations.

Most importantly, you must file US Treasury Form TD F 90.22.1 (generally referred to as the FBAR) if you have more than $10,000 in an offshore bank account or accounts, IRS Form 5471 if you operate your business through an offshore corporation, and IRS Form 926 if you transfer money or assets to an offshore corporation.

If you are a US citizen and the sole owner of the business with no non-US partners, then you are stuck filing these forms in their entirety. Basically, you must handle accounting and reporting of your offshore business just as you would if your business was in the United States.

As such, the IRS has the right to audit your offshore business and refuse to allow deductions for any expense you are unable to justify under the US tax code. It does not matter what the accounting and tax practices of your country of operation are…US citizens must report and pay tax in the US based on US tax an accounting standards.

If you do have partners who are neither US citizens nor US residents, then you have some planning options. First, if you have complete trust in your partner, then he or she can be the sole signer on the bank account, which means you are not required to file the FBAR.

The same is true of IRS Form 5471, the offshore corporation return. If the business is owned solely by a non-US person, and you are an employee, then the entity has no US reporting requirements.

It is important to note that I am talking about true ownership, not just some nominee director put in place to skirt the rules. This will not work and can land you in hot water with the Feds. The FBAR must be filed by anyone who has signatory rights or control over an offshore account and IRS Form 5471 must be filed by anyone with significant ownership, control, or voting rights in an offshore company.

With that said, unless your non-US partner is your spouse, it is probably impractical to give up complete control of a business just too avoid dealing with the IRS. But, there are varying levels of ownership and control that you can utilize to reduce the amount of information you must provide the US government.

For example, maybe you can structure a joint venture between an offshore corporation you own and your non-US partner’s corporation. In this way, you can bring in to your entity only what you wish to report to the IRS, possibly an amount which will match up with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

Next, consider your filing obligations prior to completing your incorporation. Portions of IRS Form 5471 are required of any US person owning or controlling 10% or more of the stock and your reporting obligations increase as your ownership increases. For this purpose, a US person is a US citizen or resident and the 10% ownership requirement is defined as follows:

  1. 10% or more of the total value of the foreign corporation’s stock or
  2. 10% or more of the total combined voting power of all classes of stock with voting rights.

This is to say that US person or persons may own 9% of the company and have no IRS Form 5471 reporting obligation. If you find yourself in a partnership where you may choose to hold 15% or 9%, then it may be in your best interest to hold 9%. Also, you may benefit from the use of option purchase agreements, or other forms of contract, that do not impart ownership or control of the business.

If you own or control 10% or more of the stock of a foreign corporation, but not more than 50%, then you have reduced IRS Form 5471 reporting requirements and you may pay less in US taxes. Again, if you have the option of taking 50% or 51% of a venture, with the balance going to a non-US person, you might elect 50% to minimize your filing and paying obligations.

In the year you form the company, or acquire your 10%+ interest, you must file a full tax return for your offshore corporation on IRS Form 5471, reporting ownership, transfers, income, expense and a balance sheet. In subsequent years, you need only provide the following:

  1. The identifying information on page 1 of IRS Form 5471, not including Schedule A,
  2. Report special ownership interests the company may have, such as in trusts, other foreign entities, cost sharing arrangements, or other complex holdings reportable on Schedule G.
  3. IRS Form 5471 Schedule O, reporting the names of US officers, directors and shareholders, as well as transfers of stock.

In most cases, the Form 5471 return due for a company with US shareholders owning and controlling 50% or less is quite simple in year two and beyond. It should be a mere formality with no income and expense or balance sheet information required.

By contrast, the return due for a company which is controlled by US persons is quite complex and imparts filing obligations on everyone, including US shareholders who are not involved in the business.

When US persons own more than 50% of an offshore company, that entity is classified as a Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) by the IRS. As such, a full corporate tax return, with balance sheet, retained earnings statements, income and expense report, and a host of other information is required. The return consists of IRS Form 5471, as well as Schedules A, B, C, E, F, G, H, I, J and M. I won’t go in to each, so please take my word that preparing this monstrosity is a lot of work.

  • If you are a shareholder in a CFC, but not involved in the business,  you must file IRS Form 5471, along with Schedules G, H, I, and J. For additional information, see Category 5 filers.

More importantly, when an offshore company is classified as a CFC, it is unable to retain certain types of income. As such, these profits or transactions must be reported by the shareholders and taxed in the US, just as they would be with a US LLC or S-Corporation, regardless of whether any money is distributed.

CFC Income, or Subpart F income as it is commonly referred to, includes the following:

  1. Certain types of insurance income;
  2. “Foreign base company income,” which covers certain dividends, interest, rents, royalties, gains and notional principal contract income; income from certain sales involving related parties; income from certain services performed outside the CFC’s country of incorporation, for or on behalf of related parties; and certain oil related income;
  3. Income connected with certain sanctioned countries;
  4. Income from operations in which there is cooperation or participation in an international boycott of Israel; and
  5. Illegal payments made to a foreign government or agent.

Obviously, item two above is the one relevant to most business owners. The bottom line with this clause is that the shareholders of a CFC must pay tax in the US on passive income and related party transactions, where, had they been shareholders in a company with 50% or less US ownership, no such tax would have been due.

Finally, as a CFC, you may be limited in your ability to retain earnings and profits which result from loans or other debt obligations of US shareholders. This is true even if those profits are the result of an active business, rather than the passive income listed above. For additional information on this, and other CFC issues, see the IRS Audit Guide.

So long as you have US partners, there are a number of tax planning options for those operating a business offshore. We at Premier can assist you to structure such a business and keep it in compliance with US authorities. For additional information, and a free confidential consultation, please contact me at or call (619) 483-1708.

Dollar Will Fail

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Basics

The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is the Expat’s first, and sometimes only, line of defense against the IRS. It allows you to eliminate up to $97,600 in salary from your US taxable income in 2013, and can provide additional benefits to those living, working, and operating a business abroad.

Just about every tax article on this site is based on the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in one way or another, so it is imperative that you have a solid understanding of this US tax law. Whether you are planning to move abroad, or you have been out of the US for years, you should become an expert on the inner workings of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

  • Note that the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion applies to salary you earn from your own business or as an employee of someone else. It does not apply to retirement or other investment income. If you are a pensioner with no intention of getting a job or starting a business offshore, this posting is not for you.
  • This article has some very useful information. For updated FEIE numbers, see: Foreign Earned Income Exclusion 2015

An Introduction to the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

As stated above, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion allows you to eliminate up to $97,600 in salary from your US taxable income.

For example, if you are an employee of a corporation in Belize or Panama, you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income exclusion, and you earn $65,000 in wages, you will pay no Federal income tax. Likewise, if you earn $200,000 in salary while qualifying for the exclusion, you will pay US tax on the amount over $97,600, or on $102,400.

Foreign Tax Credit: If you are paying tax to your country of residence, then the Foreign Tax Credit will step in and eliminate any double taxation. But, for the balance of this article, let’s assume you pay no local tax, which is the case with the majority of my clients, and leave the Foreign Tax Credit for another time.

Note that I said “no Federal income tax.” It is possible to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and still be considered a resident of a State in the US…especially an aggressive cash starved State like California. If that occurs, you may have to pay State tax on 100% of your salary. You should review your State laws prior to moving abroad to ensure you don’t get hit with a surprise tax bill.

Also, income tax does not include social taxes, such as FICA, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, or Self Employment taxes. If you are an employee of a US company while qualifying for the exclusion, you and your employer will pay these taxes. If you are running a business and not incorporated offshore, you will pay about 15% in Self Employment tax which is not reduced by the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. To avoid this, you or your employer can incorporate a subsidiary offshore from which you will draw a salary.

Finally, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is based on United States Dollars earned. If your country’s currency is appreciating vs. the dollar, the value of the exclusion to you is declining. For a summary of these issues, see: Weak Dollar Crushing the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

Qualifying for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

There are two ways to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion:

1) The physical presence test, and

2) The residency test.

The first is relatively simple to calculate and does not require you to live anywhere in particular. The second allows you to spend much more time in the United States, but has many conditions and requirements attached to it.

Physical Presence Test

The physical presence test is easy to define. You qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion if you are out of the United States for 330 out of any 365 day period. It does not require you to be out of the country for 330 days in a calendar year…any 12 month period will do.

So, if you are abroad from April 1 2013 to April 2, 2014, and only spend 10 days in the US visiting family during this time, you qualify for the exclusion. You can exclude up to $97,600 in salary earned from April to April from your US income tax returns.

Because you are using an April to April calendar, your Foreign Earned Income Exclusion will be prorated on your 2013 and 2014 personal income tax returns. If you earn $100,000 in 2013, you will be able to exclude about $73,200 (75% of the $96,700 Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). You will then be able to exclude around $24,400 on your 2014 tax return in salary earned from January 1, 2014 through March 31, 2014.

When you rely on the physical presence test, it does not matter where you are in the world…just that you are out of the US for 330 days out of 365. You can move around as much as you like (see below), are not required to have a home base, and are not required to be in any one country for a certain period of time.

Of course, my favorite clients will always find a way to make a simple matter complicated. Many of you will try and maximize your time in the US, coming up against the 35 day limit.  That means you need to understand the definition of travel days vs. days abroad and take in to account time over international waters. This becomes especially important for those who travel through the US, those who take long flights through multiple time zones, and those who travel by ship. For a detailed review of these issues, see my article: Changes to the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Physical Presence Test Travel Days

Residency Test

While the physical presence test is relatively simple to calculate, qualifying for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion using the residency test can be a challenge. First, the residency test requires you to be resident in a country for a full calendar year. This usually means you must utilize the physical presence test your first year abroad, and then step up to the residency test.

Next, you must move to a city and demonstrate that you plan to make it your home.  The key to the test is your intent to move to that place for the forcible future, with no intent to return to the United States. Any time a tax issue is determined by something as fuzzy as intent, you are asking for trouble in an audit. You must compile a great litany of evidence in case your use of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is challenged…especially if your intentions change and you return to the US after a few years.

To put it another way, you are required to prove to an IRS examiner that you moved to your particular city permanently and with no intent to return to the States in the forcible future. Yes, I am saying that you have the burden of proving that you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion under the residency test. It is up to you to substantiate your case and not up to the IRS to disprove your claim.

Intent to return to the US is often at the heart of the battle in these examinations. One common case is the “short term” work assignment. If you are sent to Panama by your employer on a 3 year assignment, you probably do not qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion under the residency test. This is because the evidence suggests that you intend to return to the United States at the end of that 3 year contract.

I see this all the time with military contractors and oil well workers. They want to claim they are residents of Iraq or some war torn strip of land, though their families are in the States and they have no ties to the country to which they have been sent. In these cases, the contractor must rely on the physical presence test, as he will never qualify under the residency test.

In contrast, it would be possible to move to Panama with no intent to return to America, following all of the suggestions below, and then being forced back home after two years due to an unforeseen circumstance.

Such a person will likely qualify as a resident of Panama, even though their stay was short. It is therefore conceivable that someone in Panama for two years would qualify under the residency test, while someone in Iraq for five years would not.

At the other end of the spectrum is the perpetual traveler. This is the person who leaves the US and never puts down sufficient roots to be considered a resident of any particular country. I have had a number of clients who spend a month or two in each country and have no home base.

The heart of the residency test is your intent to make a particular place your home. If you never put down roots, you are not a tax resident of any country and you land back on your default tax home, the United States (without passing Go and without collecting $200). Therefore, the perpetual traveler must qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion using the physical presence test and not the residency test.

  • Tip: If you are a contractor or perpetual traveler with family in the States, have them visit you at a Caribbean Island paradise or somewhere else outside of the US. I guarantee this vacation will be less costly that risking the loss of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

It is possible to travel extensively and still qualify under the residency test. If you are road warrior, then you should always be returning to a home base. If all of your adventures originate from and return to from Medellin, then Colombia is your home port. If you can demonstrate that you have such a home port, and follow the other keys below, then you have a good shot at being considered a resident.

As I have said, the burden of proof is on you, not the IRS, when it comes to the residency test. The evidence required to prove up the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion using the residency test will vary with each case, but here are a few keys:

1) Obtain a residency permit from your new country.

2) It is best if you spend 6 months or more in your country of residence. You are considered a tax resident in most countries if you spend six months out of the year there.

3) Get a work permit or other authorization to operate a business in your country of residence.

4) File tax returns in your country of residence. You can structure a business with an offshore corporation to limit taxes as permitted, but you should file some kind of personal income tax return to show you are a member of that society.

5) Cut as many ties as you can with the United States. It is especially important to sell or rent out on a long term lease any real estate. You should also limit US investments, bank accounts, and any other link you can think of.

6) Make as many connections with your new country and local community as possible. For example, get a driving license, local ID card, open local bank accounts with debit cards, and join a club or two.

In item #1 above, I note that your residency permit should be from your new country. Many clients grab for the easiest authorization available, such as the Belize QRP visa, and have no intention of living in Belize. It is important to at least begin the process of obtaining residency in your new country, and not in a country where you will have no other ties.

It is possible to qualify as a tax resident for US purposes and not have a residency permit from your new country. If you are unable to afford or qualify for residency, then each of the other suggestions above become all the more important. I also suggest you at least begin the application process prior to using the residency test.

Why all the fuss about the residency test? Why spend the time, effort and money to qualify? Because, once you are a tax resident of another country, you can spend a lot more time in the US. You are no longer limited to the 35 days you get with the physical presence test and you no longer need watch the calendar like a school girl hoping for summer.

How much time do you get in the good ole US of A? That is a difficult question. First, you should not be working while here. All work for your employer should be done abroad. Next, you can’t spend six months or more hanging around. Once you are in the US for 6 months, you are considered a tax resident.

Other than these limits, you can spend as much time in the US as you like, keeping in mind that you must be able to convince the IRS in an audit that you are a resident of your “home” country. I like to tell clients that they can spend 60 days here without risk, and 90 days if they have a good reason. Once you exceed these numbers, it becomes quite challenging to prove you are a resident of another country.

Of course, each case is different and I can envision a scenario where four months in the US would pass inspection. I can also imagine a case where 90 days in the US would not be acceptable. It will all depend on the facts and circumstances of your situation and the quality of your connections to your country of residence.

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion – Use it or Lose It

The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is an all or nothing proposition. If you qualify, you get to deduct $97,600 on your 2013 personal income tax return. If you do not qualify, you get to deduct nothing and all of your income is taxable in the United States so long as you carry a US passport.

It is a very harsh law and the IRS goes in to Tax Court all the time to take the exclusion away from someone who missed qualifying by a day or two, or someone who failed to meet their burden of proof on the residency test. And, remember, a lot of audits cover three or four years, so losing the exclusion could result in a tax bill of well over $100,000 with interest and penalties.

Also, to get the benefit of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion you must file your US tax returns. If you do not file, and you are chased down by the IRS, you will lose the right to take the exclusion. Yes, even if you spent every day for five years outside of the US, and there would be no question of your qualifying, the IRS has the right to take away the exclusion for your failure to file.

I am not saying you will lose the exclusion simply because you have not filed on time. If the IRS is not on your trail, and you come forward voluntarily, you will be able to take the full Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. It is only those whom are found out, usually through an offshore bank account, a computer generated audit, the government randomly seeking out non-filers, their family or employer being audited, or some other issue that brings them to the attention of the IRS, who lose the exclusion.


As you can see, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is fraught with complexity and nuance. Before you start an offshore business, or before going to work outside the US, consult with an expert in this area. Even if you have been living abroad for years, it is in your best interest to have an experienced professional review your prior filings, plan out your next few years, and make sure you are in compliance.

If you have not filed your US tax returns for a few years, it is imperative that you do so to ensure you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. If, in addition to non-filing, you have an unreported offshore account, you should consider joining the current IRS amnesty program. For information on this, see my article: IRS Voluntary Disclosure Program Gives Big Breaks to ExPats. Basically, if you will owe no tax on your late filed returns after taking the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in to account, then you will also avoid penalties for failing to report your offshore bank account(s).

If you have any questions on the exclusion, or need assistance with planning your international business or preparing your US tax returns, please contact me at (619) 483-1708 or by email to We are very experienced in these matters and consultations are confidential.

Offshore Corporation Taxation

Eliminate U.S. Tax in 5 Steps with an Offshore Corporation

Yes, you, the offshore entrepreneur, can eliminate your US tax bill by forming an offshore corporation and following the five steps below.

As you are painfully aware, the United States taxes its citizens on their worldwide income. No matter where you live, or how much you make, America want’s its cut. Using an offshore corporation will level the playing field just a bit.

If you are a salaried employee in a high tax country, such as France or England, then the US tax system can’t get much, if anything, from you. You have already paid more in taxes to your host country than you would have to the US, so the Foreign Tax Credit steps in and prevents double taxation.

In other words, if the US tax rate is 30%, and you, as an American living in London, pay 35% to The Queen, there is nothing left for the US to take.

But, what if you want to structure your affairs to reduce or eliminate your worldwide tax bill? If form an offshore corporation, and you can follow these five steps, you will eradicate host country income tax, eliminate or defer US tax on your business profits and finally get Uncle Sam out of your pocket – legally and without risk.

Step 1 – Form an offshore corporation in a country that is business friendly

There are a number of tax efficient countries where you can structure your offshore company to pay zero local income tax. Most of these business friendly nations will tax only local source income, or sales to locals, and an internet based or international business will not pay tax on its profits.

To facilitate this, you may need to incorporate in an offshore jurisdiction, as well as in your country of residence, and bill your clients through your offshore entity. The offshore corporation is your “sales” unit and the corporation in your country of residence is your “operating” entity.

Cash flows to your sales entity and net profits are held there. Operating overhead, such as office and employees, are run through the operating entity, which bills the sales unit for these expenses. The operating entity should break-even at year end to avoid local taxation.

If you are marketing to the United States, the most business savvy country from which to operate your offshore company is Panama. It offers a well-qualified English speaking workforce at ¼ the cost of the US and is in the same time zone as America, a big benefit. Panama also has an excellent banking and professional sector, as well as decades of experience in shipping, technology, and production.

Where you incorporate your offshore sales unit doesn’t make much difference. So long as 1) it is different from your operating country, 2) does not tax your business, and 3) does not require you to provide annual reports or audited financial statements. In most cases I recommend a sales unit in Belize or Nevis to match up with a Panama operating company.

You might wonder why countries like Panama and Belize offer these types of structures and tax benefits…don’t they need tax revenue? First, these countries are relatively small and have nowhere near the military, spying, social programs, and other expenses related to running a superpower. Second, offering these incentives brings in investment, income from employment taxes, as well as employment, sales taxes, and other benefits. A small and efficient economy based on entrepreneurship can bring in sufficient proceeds to offer most of the benefits and few of the costs of America.

Step 2 – Live and Work Outside of the US

To realize tax benefits from your offshore corporation, you must live and work outside of the United States as well as qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. If you do not qualify for the exclusion, all of the income in your offshore corporation will be taxable in the United States.

There are two ways to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion:

The first is a simple math – be out of the US for 330 out of 365 days. If you can meet this requirement, known as the Physical Presence Test, you are guaranteed to qualify for the exclusion and should have no problems in an audit.

I also note that you can be out of the US for 330 out of any 365 day period. It does not need to be in a calendar year. For example, if you are out of the US from March 1, 2013 to March 30, 2014, and only visited the US for 20 days during that time, then you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

If you have questions on the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and how these days are calculated, please see my article: Changes to the FEIE Physical Presence Test Travel Days

The second is based on your intention to become a resident of another country for the foreseeable future and is more challenging to prove if you are audited. As a test based on your intentions, rather than travel days, it requires you to show you are a resident of a country, that you are a part of the community there, and that you have no intentions of returning to the United States in the foreseeable future.

To qualify as a resident, you must get a residency permit and file taxes in your new nation (hopefully, you will pay very little, if anything, but you must file). Also, you should think about applying for citizenship or securing some other long term work permit or enhanced residency status. Finally, you should break as many ties to the US as possible, including selling real estate, moving with your family or spouse, transferring some of your investments or retirement accounts, and have as few contacts with the US as possible. 

If you can qualify under the Residency Test, rather than the Physical Presence Test, you can spend much more time in the United States. While I don’t recommend spending more than 4 months, it is possible to spend just under 6 months. If you spend 6 months or more in the United States, you are by definition a resident.  Exactly how much time you can spend in your homeland will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your situation.

I also note that the Residency Test must cover a calendar year. While the Physical Presence test can be used for any 12 month period, the Residency Test is much more rigid and is usually not an option in the first year you move abroad…unless you happen to move on January 1st.

If you are a perpetual traveler, or on a work assignment abroad, you will need to use the Physical Presence Test. This is because the perpetual traveler never puts down roots in a particular city, and so she is not a “resident” of anywhere, at least as defined by the US tax code. Likewise, the person assigned to work for 3 years in Medellin, Colombia by his employer intends to return to the United States at the end of that job assignment (at least, until he learns how much fun the city can be), so he is not a resident of Colombia for US tax purposes.

Once you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you can earn up to $97,600 in 2013 in salary from your offshore corporation and pay nothing in US Federal Income Tax. If a husband and wife both qualify, then you can earn $195,200 jointly.

If you are operating a business, and your net profits exceed $200,000, read-on, additional planning is required.

Step 3 – If you are self-employed or have a business, form an offshore corporation

If you are operating a business, you must form an offshore corporation. Failure to incorporate will have dire consequences on your US tax situation. Here are a few examples:

If you do not incorporate, you will pay Self Employment tax on your income, which is approximately 15% and is not reduced by the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. On joint income of $200,000, SE tax is a little less than $30,000 per year – money you could have saved by planning ahead.

If you do not incorporate, your Foreign Earned Income Exclusion will be reduced by your business expenses. This is a complex matter, but I can summarize it as follows: if your business expenses are 50% of your gross, then your FEIE will be reduced by 50%, from $97,600 to $48,800. So, only $48,800 of your salary is tax free under the FEIE.

If you do not incorporate, 100% of your net profit must be reported as salary. If you incorporate and earn more than the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you may be able to retain earnings over and above the FEIE and thereby eliminate or defer US tax. 

It is not tax efficient to draw a salary of more than $100,000 single, or more than $200,000 jointly, from a foreign corporation. If your net profits are above these levels, leave the excess in the corporation and defer US tax until the money is distributed.

There are a number of rules to consider when dealing with retained earnings. For additional information on retained earnings in your offshore corporation, read my previous article here.

Step 4 – Gain residency in your new home country

During your first year offshore, I highly recommend you use the Physical Presence Test to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and spend as little time in the United States as possible. Keep in mind that the Residency Test requires a full calendar year and that qualifying as a resident is a challenging and complex matter.

Once year two rolls around, have all of your documents filed, your ties to the US cut, and your roots firmly in to the community. No matter your long term plans, being able to come and go in the US will be a benefit, and being recognized as a resident of your country of operation will  open a number of doors, both in America and abroad.

For example, a resident will have a much easier time opening bank accounts, getting favorable apartment and office leases, and generally conducting business.  As the luster of the American passport diminishes around the world, a residency card becomes more of a necessity.

Step 5 – File your US Tax Returns, Offshore Corporation Returns, and Report your Foreign Assets and Bank Accounts

As an American citizen, you are required to report your income and foreign assets to the US government or face the wrath of the IRS. This includes an interest in an offshore corporation. The penalties for not reporting these resources are intended to be so draconian that failure to comply is simply not worth the risk.

For the international business owner, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and a properly structured entity should remove most of the tax cost of compliance, so reporting and running a “clean” operation should be a welcome relief.

Below is a basic review of the expat Entrepreneur’s US filing obligations:

International Bank and Brokerage Accounts

The most critical filing requirements is the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts. Anyone who is a signor or beneficial owner of a foreign bank or brokerage account with more than $10,000 must disclose these accounts to the U.S. Treasury.

The law imposes a civil penalty for not disclosing an offshore bank account or offshore credit card up to $25,000 or the greatest of 50% of the balance in the account at the time of the violation or $100,000. Criminal penalties for willful failure to file an FBAR can also apply in certain situations. Note that these penalties can be imposed for each year.

In addition to filing the Foreign Bank Account form, the offshore account must be disclosed on your personal income tax return, Form 1040, Schedule B.

Offshore Corporation and Trust Filing Requirements

There are a number of filing requirements for offshore corporations, IBCs and International Trusts. Failure to file the required returns may result in civil and criminal penalties and may extend the statute of limitations for assessment and collection of the related taxes.

            Form 5471 – Information Return of U.S. Persons With Respect to Certain Offshore Corporations must be filed by U.S. persons (which includes individuals, partnerships, corporations, estates and trusts) who owns a certain proportion of the stock of a foreign corporation or are officers, directors or shareholders in Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC). If you prefer not to be treated as a foreign corporation for U.S. tax reporting, you may be eligible to use Forms 8832 and 8858 below.

            A offshore corporation or limited liability company should review the default classifications in Form 8832, Entity Classification Election and decide whether or not to make an election to be treated as a corporation, partnership, or disregarded entity. Making an election is optional and must be done on or before March 15 (i.e. 75 days after the end of the first taxable year).

            Form 8858 – Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Foreign Disregarded Entities was introduced in 2004 and is to be filed with your personal income tax return if making the election on Form 8832. A $10,000 penalty is imposed for each year this form is not filed.

            Form 5472 – Information Return of a 25% Foreign-Owned U.S. Corporation is required to be filed by a “reporting corporation” that has “reportable transactions” with foreign or domestic related parties. A reporting corporation is either a U.S. corporation that is a 25% foreign-owned or a foreign corporation engaged in a trade or business within the United States. A corporation is 25% foreign-owned if it has at least one direct or indirect 25% foreign shareholder at any time during the tax year.

            Form 926 – Return by a U.S. Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation is required to be filed by each U.S. person who transfers property to a foreign corporation if, immediately after the transfer, the U.S. person holds directly or indirectly 10% of the voting power or value of the foreign corporation. Generally, this form is required for transfers of property in exchange for stock in the foreign corporation, but there is an assortment of tax code sections that may require the filing of this form. The penalty for failing to file is 10% of the fair market value of the property at the time to transfer.

            Form 8938 – Statement of Foreign Financial Assets was new for tax year 2011 and must be filed by anyone with significant assets outside of the United States. Who must file is complex, but, if you live in the U.S. and have an interest in assets worth more than $50,000, or you live abroad and have assets in excess of $400,000, you probably need to file. If you are a U.S. citizen or resident with assets abroad, you must consult the instructions to Form 8938 for more information. Determining who must file is a complex matter. See,-Statement-of-Foreign-Financial-Assets for additional information.

With proper planning, selecting the best country of operation and formation of your offshore corporation, keeping in compliance, gaining residency, and, most importantly, utilizing the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you can operate your business free of both US and local taxes and make the most of your time abroad.

Please contact me directly at or call (619) 483-1708 for a confidential consultation.

FEIE) physical presence test travel days

Changes to the FEIE Physical Presence Test Travel Days

If you are using the FEIE physical presence test travel days to qualify for the exclusion, watch your calendar closely. As the IRS interprets the FEIE ever more harshly, one day here or there can cause you to lose the exclusion and cost you thousands.

As you know, the FEIE allows an American abroad to exclude up to $97,600 of wage or salary income for 2013 from your U.S. personal income tax return. You can qualify by becoming a resident of a foreign country or by being present in a foreign country or countries for 330 out of 365 days.

In recent years, a battle has raged on the definition of “present in a foreign country or countries” It is now interpreted very literally, and, of course, in favor of the IRS.

In prior years, we explained the FEIE physical presence test travel days like this: You must be out of the U.S. for 330 days out of 365. The 330 days do not need to be in a calendar year…any 12 month period is fine.

But this definition has been modified through a series of tax court cases. Now, we explain the FEIE physical presence test like this: You meet the FEIE physical presence test if you are physically present in a foreign country or countries 330 full days during a period of 12 consecutive months. The 330 days do not need to be in a calendar year…any 12 month period is fine.

This modification may seem minor, but has caused many to lose the benefits of the FEIE altogether, costing them thousands of dollars each year, and bringing millions in to the IRS.

The change in terminology means that, being “present in a foreign country” does not include time in on or over foreign waters. In other words,you are not present in a country while in or over international waters.

Also, a full day is now a period of 24 consecutive hours, beginning at midnight. It no longer includes partial days. Therefore, to meet the FEIE physical presence test travel days you must now spend each of the 330 full days in a foreign country or countries.

When you leave the United States, or return to the United States, the time you spend on or over international waters does not count toward the 330-day total. This means that most travel days to or from the U.S. does not count towards the FEIE physical presence test. Exceptions would include driving or flying to Mexico, or Canada. Travel to South and Central America depend on your flight path or course. However, because you must be present in the foreign country for a full day (24 hours), your path is only relevant if you are traveling at night and on the road at midnight.

Time over international water can be very important to those traveling to Europe or Asia.

  • For example, if you leave the United States for Switzerland by air on March 28, and you arrive in Switzerland at 9:00 a.m. on June 29, your first full day in Switzerland is March 30.

You can take short trips from country to country (not including the United States) without affecting your FEIE physical presence test. However, if any part of your travel is over international waters, and the trip takes 24 hours or more, then you lose those day(s).

These new interpretations can hit perpetual travelers and cruise ship passengers hard.

  • For example, you leave Panama by ship at 10:00 p.m. on February 6 and arrive in Brazil at 11:00 a.m. on February 8. Since your travel is not within a foreign country or countries and the trip takes more than 24 hours, you lose three FEIE physical presence days – February 6, 7, and 8. If you remain in Brazil, your next full day in a foreign country is February 9.

The IRS takes these calculations quite seriously and goes to extreme measures to deny the FEIE physical presence test travel days. For example, I was in the courtroom watching one of the first cases where the government attacked the captain of a small sailing ship. This guy and his wife were just getting by on $55,000 per year as the captain and crew of a millionaire’s yacht, and the FEIE was everything to them.

The government spent a great deal of time going through the ship’s course and even got the U.S. Navy involved to determine exactly when the yacht crossed in to international waters (over 50 times during the year). This endeavor took up hundreds of government man hours and resulted in the captain losing the FEIE physical presence test by three days.

I give you this example to stress the importance of watching your travel days. I guarantee the IRS will do anything to separate you from your money, so you must be even more diligent to protect your rights.

  • A number of special rules apply to international airline pilots and are not considered here. For additional information, see the IRS website or the pilot’s forum.

I will leave you with one last cautionary tale: A friend was traveling with his wife and three children, including their new baby, from Panama to the Cayman Islands. They decided to take the cheaper flight with a stop-over in Miami. Well, it was the most expensive vacation they ever had.

If you are in transit between two points outside the United States and are physically present in the United States for less than 24 hours, you are not treated as present in the United States during the transit. The U.S. airport is considered international space for this purpose. So, if the trip, including the stop-over in the U.S., takes less than 24 hours, you do not lose any FEIE physical presence test days.

Well, U.S. immigration took this opportunity to interview these Expat’s on their time in Panama, their business interests and foreign assets, whether they had filed and paid their U.S. taxes each year, searched their luggage, and, the most damning, let them sit for two hours before beginning the grilling of all members, including the children.

As a result, they missed their flight from Miami to Cayman and had to spend the night in Florida. This meant the trip took more than 24 hours and that they were considered present in the U.S. during their stop-over. Thus, they lost two full FEIE physical presence test days.

Because this was at the end of their 330 day cycle, and they had previously spent some days in the U.S. during the year, they lost the FEIE in its entirety. That stop-over in Florida cost these fine people over $38,600.

I note that you can’t pro-rate the FEIE physical presence test. You either qualify or you don’t. For example, if you do not meet the physical presence test because of illness, family problems, a vacation, or your employer’s orders cause you to be present for less than the required amount of time, the FEIE physical presence test is lost.

There is only one narrow exception to this rule. The minimum time requirement can be waived if you must leave a foreign country because of war, civil unrest, or similar adverse conditions in that country. You must be able to show that you reasonably could have expected to meet the minimum time requirements if not for the adverse conditions, and that you had a tax home in the foreign country and were a bona fide resident of, or physically present in, the foreign country on or before the beginning date of the waiver.

The moral of the story is that you must watch your travel days closely. If you are closing in on your 330 day limit, do not risk a trip through the United States. I guarantee that neither immigration officials nor the IRS will heed your cries for mercy. For additional information on the FEIE physical presence test, see

Publication 54, Tax Guide for U.S. Citizens and Resident Aliens Abroad.