In 2005, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, the commander of the tenth expedition to the International Space Station, was orbiting above Earth on an 8-month long mission in space when April 15 rolled around. For those who don’t know, that is the usual U.S. tax deadline. One would assume the IRS may make an exception for such an extraordinary circumstance, but no, Chiao had to manage his taxes in space.
Chiao may seem like a crude outlier to the IRS’ rigorous enforcement on tax collection. After all, he is physically so far from home, shouldn’t he have been qualified for an exemption from tax obligations at least for the duration of his mission in space? But this isn’t something unusual to American expats. The U.S. is one of the very few, precisely one of two, that taxes the worldwide income of nonresidents who are citizens. Millions of Americans currently living abroad are subject to the U.S. taxes even if they left many years ago and hadn’t returned home since. It is a curious system in which citizens who take no advantage of tax-funded public infrastructure still have to bear the civic duty.
Often, it isn’t the amount of tax one actually pays that causes so much distress to American expats. The biggest tension seems to come from the reporting requirements and the penalties for failing to report. Both FATCA and FBAR require expats to report their international banking and financial holdings information. Some banks, fearing the restitution from the IRS, began to turn away American customers. The majority of American expats consider the law to be unjust, which widens the emotional gap with their mother country.
The widespread displeasure is leading some expats to make a drastic decision. Just take a look at the number of the U.S. citizenship renunciation. In 2015, 4,297 Americans renounced their US citizenship. That is a 20 percent increase from 2014, which was also a record-breaking year. The trend now suggests that the number will only increase from here on out.
When the news broke out about 27 profitable companies that avoided taxes, many expats expressed their discontent with the system. United Continental, for instance, through tax allowances, erased what amounted to be a $1.5 billion tax bill, and it is just one of many American corporations practicing similar tax policies. Mirror that to $12.6 million the U.S. government collected since fall of 2014 just from citizenship renunciation fees- which now is widely believed to be another tactic to squeeze more money out of American expats. It’s not hard to see how the current system that cracks down on expats can look and feel unforgiving to those currently being affected by the law.
The American expats around the world are raising their voices, however. According to the State Department, 7.6 million (the estimation varies) Americans currently live abroad, which would make for the 13th biggest American state in terms of population. Democrats Abroad sends 21 delegates to the Democratic primaries which are two more than what the state of Wyoming sends. According to Rothermere Institute, both parties’ supporters abroad donated about $6 million to the 2008 race as well. It is tough to measure exactly how much political influence American expats can have. They are scattered throughout the world and far from home. Regardless, the efforts to gather a strong voice continue to unfold around the world, and the general American public may soon hear from expats.
Till the actual law changes, expat tax filing will remain as a highly complicated task. Complying with the current systems is, for now, the only advisable and safe way of expression. Otherwise, the IRS would impose hefty penalties and additional interests. No one wants to deal with the IRS, let alone pay them extra money. Expat tax filing needs to be done accurately to avoid further complications, and it is crucial that expats work with real professionals. If you haven’t filed your 2015 tax return, now is the time to start.