Taxation of #AmericansAbroad in the 21st Century: “Country of birth” Taxation vs. “Country of Residence” Taxation

Prologue – The “Story Of The Century

Since July 1, 2014, the United States via threats threats of the FATCA Sanction, has begun a “world wide hunt” for people born in the United States. The U.S. legal justification is two-fold:

1. Those born in the United States are U.S. citizens.

2. Citizens of the United States are obligated to pay taxes to the United States regardless of where they live in the world. Furthermore, regardless of where they live, the U.S. government has the right to control their lives and activities under the guise of “citizenship-based taxation”.

As the article referenced in the above tweet makes clear, many people “claimed” by the United States have never had any connection to the United States except that they were born there. The article includes:

Awad Al-Zahrani, whose son has US citizenship, said he would give it up.

“My son got the passport since he was born there while I was studying in the country back in 2000. At the time, the Saudi embassy had told me that it would not be a problem for him to hold two passports. Now that we have to pay taxes, though, we’ll be giving the US passport up.”

Abdulrahman Al-Habib, head of journalism studies at KAU, argues that Saudis who were born in the US should be exempt from paying taxes.

“We should establish a unified center to help Saudis clear their former tax registers,” he said.

US Consul-General Todd Holmstorm, however, confirmed that US citizens should pay income tax and called on their international counterparts to help them eliminate tax evasion.

The tax law is designed to combat evasion through increasing transparency in the financials of US taxpayers,” he said.

Mr. Holmstorm’s bio indicates that his career has had a Canadian connection in Ottawa, Canada. His comments in the above article imply that he believes that those (1) born in the U.S. who (2) do not live in the U.S. and (3) do not pay taxes to the U.S. are guilty of “tax evasion”. Strong language indeed. Yet, these are his words which clearly reflect the attitude and policy of the U.S. Government.

We are witnessing what McGill law professor Allison Christians once referred to as the “Story of The Century“. To borrow from Professor Christian’s post:

The US is right now imposing enormous penalties and unleashing general chaos on people living in other countries with US citizenship, both by newly enforcing long-ignored rules and by layering on top of these rules a new and more draconian layer of enforcement. The chaos comes in the form of fear-inducing, devilishly complicated and duplicative paperwork, and penalties, most of all penalties, and it is being piled on to millions of people around the world, many of whom, like Cruz, are very possibly only beginning to understanding that citizenship status is mostly conferred upon rather than chosen by individuals.

Ted Cruz should consider himself very lucky, because the citizenship he claims he didn’t realize he had doesn’t carry any punishment for his failure to recognize it. Moreover renouncing, if he really intends to follow through on that promise, will be relatively simple, cheap, and painless other than the cost to his US political career, if any.

Not so if he had lived his life in Canada with his current apparent dual status. US citizens abroad now understand that discovering ties to the US means discovering a world of obligations and consequences flowing from citizenship that you were expected to know and obey. Ignorance of the law being no excuse, the punishments range from the merely ridiculous–many times any tax that would have ever been due–to the infuriating: life savings wiped out and many future tax savings sponsored by your home government, such as in education or health savings plans, treated as offshore trusts and therefore confiscated by the US. Moreover there is no ready escape hatch for the newly discovered and unwanted US citizenship: five years of full tax reporting compliance must be documented, appointments must be made with officials, fees must be remitted, interviews must be conducted, and in some cases exit taxes must be paid. If some in Congress get their way, renunciation could even mean life-time banishment from the US someday soon.

In the grand scheme of things Ted Cruz’s citizenship is a non-story. But for what it illustrates about citizenship-based taxation, it could be the story of the century.

The Debate – Taxation Based On The “immutable Characteristic of Place of Birth”

In May of 2014 I presented a paper at the “Reinventing Citizenship” Conference hosted by Alternative-Academia and run in Toronto, Canada. The Conference was approximately two weeks after the Toronto Conference on Citizenship-based taxation organized by American Citizens abroad.

The paper I presented at the Alternative Academia conference was influenced by the Michael Kirsch Bernard Schneider debate held in Toronto on May 2, 2014. The May 2 conference was a great success. Among other things, it spawned the New York Times op-ed by David Kuenzi discussing the absurdity of the FATCA rules as applied to Americans abroad.

As might be expected my paper focused on Citizenship-based taxation in general and the question of what kind of “connection” (voluntary or otherwise) to the United States must be established to justify the taxation of a U.S. citizen residing outside the United States.

The complete paper may be read here:

Taxation of Americans Abroad in the 21st Century

Toronto – Conference on U.S. Citizenship-based taxation – May 2, 2014

“Citizenship does reflect a voluntary identification with society – Professor Michael Kirsch”

On May 2, 2014, the first ever conference on U.S. citizenship-based taxation took place on the campus of the University of Toronto. The conference – sponsored by ACA Global Foundation – featured a debate between Dr. Bernard Schneider (who opposes citizenship-based taxation) and Professor Michael Kirsch (who supports citizenship-based taxation). Both Dr. Schneider and Professor Kirsch have authored  leading papers on this topic. There was general agreement that a discussion of U.S. citizenship-based taxation necessitated a discussion of (at least) the following two issues:

1. Whether it is appropriate to use citizenship as a criterion for the imposition of taxes under any circumstances (can the U.S. levy taxes on its non-resident citizens on income that is not earned in the U.S.?); and

2. If the U.S. can levy taxes on its citizens who do NOT live in the U.S., are there limits to how far this taxing power can extend? At what point does something cease to be a tax and become a form of “life control”? (In addition, at the present time, the U.S. taxation of its  citizens abroad amounts to a tax on the country where the U.S. citizen resides. The days of the world accepting that the U.S.has the right to tax its citizens in any way that it chooses are numbered.)

I was the moderator of this fascinating debate. Significantly, both scholars seemed to agree that (with respect to the second question) the practical application of U.S. citizenship-based taxation was excessive and unworkable. In other words, if U.S. citizenship-based taxation can be justified at all, the current U.S. rules of U.S. citizenship-based taxation are too onerous and excessive in their reach. (Those who doubt or don’t understand the practical reality of U.S. citizenship-based taxation are advised to reread the opening paragraphs in the Introduction to this paper.) Commentary on the conference from third parties may be found here and here.

This conclusion is not surprising, given that U.S. citizenship-based taxation in practice results in disadvantages which include:

– U.S. citizens abroad being subjected to significant double taxation (Social Security taxes in some countries and the Obamacare Surtax)
– U.S. citizens abroad being subjected to taxation on things that are exempt from tax in their country of residence (example the principal residence)
– U.S. citizens abroad being disabled from effective retirement planning if they live outside the United States (the prohibition on foreign mutual funds, life insurance policies, etc.)
– U.S. tax rules being used as a mechanism to control the activities of its citizens abroad (for example U.S. citizens who marry non-U.S. citizens are subjected to problematic tax consequences)
– U.S. citizens abroad being subject to “reporting requirements” (including but not limited to the FBAR) that impose limitations on their professional mobility (the requirement to report on non-U.S. business partners)
– U.S. citizens who relinquish their citizenship are potentially subject to “Exit Taxes” on assets acquired with money earned in their country of residence
– The effect of taxing U.S. citizens abroad, is that capital is siphoned from their country of residence to the U.S. To put it another way: to tax the U.S. citizen abroad, is to tax the country in which he lives.

Where the scholars disagreed, was on the first question:

Is it appropriate to use citizenship as a criterion for levying taxes at all?

When considering the appropriateness of using “citizenship” as a criterion for levying taxes one must ask the question:

What is it about citizenship that makes it an appropriate criterion to impose taxes?

Legal Status of Citizen vs. The Engagement Required By Citizenship

Is the “legal status” of being a citizen sufficient? Is there a difference between the “legal status” of being a citizen and the “voluntary engagement” that is required by “true citizenship”? The “legal status” of being a citizen may NOT be voluntary. But, the voluntary engagement required by “citizenship” is voluntary.

The legal status of “citizen” vs. the voluntary engagement of “citizenship”

There is a difference between the “legal status” of being a citizen and the voluntary engagement with the community that is required for meaningful “citizenship”. To put it another way: Citizenship involves more than the “legal status” of being a citizen. As President Obama said in his 2013 State Of The Union Address:

“We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story”

It is clearly true that many people born in the U.S. and NOT living in the U.S., have the “legal status” of being a citizen, but have not accepted the voluntary engagement that is required for meaningful “citizenship”. The story of London Mayor Boris Johnson (who was born in the U.S.) is a case in point.

Does the “legal status” of being a citizen justify imposing taxes on a person who does NOT live in the country?

The U.S. currently takes the position that the “legal status” of being a citizen is sufficient to impose taxes on a person who does not live in the U.S. Some of those with the legal status of U.S. citizen were born in the U.S. (making them 14th amendment citizens) and some were born outside the U.S. (making them citizens by an Act of Congress). There are many categories of people born in the U.S.

Five Possible Categories of Those Deemed to be U.S. Citizens Abroad and Their U.S. Connection

Those Born In The U.S. – 14th Amendment Citizenship – Who at a young age are taken by their parents to live outside the United States

The vast majority of U.S. citizens acquired U.S. citizenship because they were born in the U.S. The U.S. is aggressively taking the position that the following types of people, born in the U.S., but residents in other countries, with no economic connection to the U.S. are required to pay taxes to the U.S.:

A. Border babies: Those who were born in the U.S. and returned to Canada within months. (If their parents were Canadian citizens those border babies (who were dual citizens from birth) can renounce their U.S. citizenship without paying an Exit Tax. If their parents were U.S. citizens (meaning the children were not a dual citizens from birth) they are NOT permitted to relinquish U.S. citizenship without being subject to the Exit Tax.)

B. Children born in the U.S. who permanently left the U.S. with their parents as children (before reaching the age of majority) and who never returned to the U.S. They have never worked in the U.S. and have no connection to the U.S.

Members of Group A or Group B do not have and have never had a “voluntary connection” to the U.S. that could convert their “legal status” of citizens to the “voluntary acceptance” of the obligations of “citizenship”. Their birth in the U.S. and their moving from the U.S. were the results of decisions made by their parents. It’s hard to see how the “legal status” of being a U.S. citizen, is sufficient to require the payment of taxes to the U.S. Surely a demonstration of a “voluntary connection” to the U.S. should be required before an obligation to pay taxes is triggered.

Those born outside the U.S. – They choose neither their parents nor where they are born

C. In certain cases, the children of U.S. citizens who are born outside the U.S. are considered to be U.S. citizens. Examples include (but are not limited to), those born in Switzerland to U.S. parents. U.S. laws for the transmission of citizenship from U.S. citizen parents to children born abroad, have a long and complicated history. In fact – “American Citizens Abroad” – was founded to facilitate the acquisition of U.S. citizenship for children born abroad to U.S. citizen parents.

It is clear that that those born outside the U.S. have no connection whatsoever to the U.S. At most they have a connection to a U.S. citizen (that may or may not have a connection to the U.S.)

Those who choose to leave the United States as Young Adults Adults

D. U.S. citizens who were “Born In The USA” but who moved to other nations as young adults (not forced to move with their families), have developed their careers outside the U.S., married, had children and raised their families outside the U.S., done their financial and retirement planning outside the U.S., never had an economic connection to the U.S., and whose lives are have become citizens of their countries of residence.

Many in this group may have left the U.S. under unclear circumstances. Some may have left the U.S. with the intention of returning, some with no thoughts on whether they would return, and some with the clear intention of never returning. Regardless of their intention when leaving the U.S., many gradually become citizens (in a legal and voluntary sense) of their new countries and gradually lost any connection to the U.S. that they may have had.

Members of this group (especially in Canada and Western Europe) fully consider themselves to be primarily citizens of their new countries and no longer U.S. citizens. Example: “You know you are Canadian when you start rooting for Canada over the U.S. in hockey.”

Adults who moved from the USA with the intention of returning to the United States

E. U.S. citizens who move outside the U.S. for short periods of time with the full expectation and understanding that they are returning to the U.S. They live outside the U.S. as Americans and typically neither become citizens of their country of residence, nor disconnect from the U.S. In other words, they are truly “U.S. citizens abroad”. Their situation is very different from those described in Categories A, B, C and D. They have more than the “legal status” of being U.S. citizens. They have a voluntary connection to the U.S.

Citizenship-based taxation and a voluntary connection to the U.S.

It is clear that many of those with the “legal status” of U.S. citizen (Categories A, B, C, and D) do NOT have the “voluntary” (or any other) connection to the U.S. that could reasonably justify U.S. taxation.

The fact that those in Category (E) have a voluntary connection to the U.S. does NOT mean that good tax policy would subject them to U.S. taxation. It does mean that (if citizenship requires a connection to the United States that this is the group which might be subject to “citizenship-based taxation”).

Therefore a “Voluntary connection” to the U.S. is a necessary but NOT a sufficient condition for the taxation of Americans abroad

Is “citizenship-based taxation” justified even with respect to Americans abroad who DO have a voluntary connection (Category E) to the U.S.? It’s hard to understand the justification. No other country imposes taxes on its citizens abroad. Americans abroad already pay taxes in their country of residence. No scholar has ever explained exactly what it is about a “voluntary” connection to the U.S. that justifies taxation. Life is full of “voluntary connections” that do NOT require the payment of taxes. What is it about a “voluntary connection” (by way of citizenship) to the U.S. that means Americans abroad should be taxed at all, or (worse yet) taxed according to the same rules as U.S. residents?

U.S. Citizenship law of the present – Breaking The U.S. Connection – Relinquishment

Relinquishing acts – How to lose U.S. citizenship – S. 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act

Once upon a time, the U.S. would “strip citizens” of their U.S. citizenship for voluntarily becoming naturalized citizens of another country. Like many aspects of U.S. nationality law, this was considered to be a “punitive measure”.

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Afroyim and Terrazas, S. 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, mandated an automatic loss of U.S. citizenship for those who became citizens of another country. S. 349 now clarifies that, U.S. citizens who become citizens of another country, will lose their U.S. citizenship only if they intended to relinquish their U.S. citizenship by becoming naturalized citizens of the second country. In other words, U.S. citizens have the right to NOT (absent their consent) be stripped of their U.S. citizenship even if they maintain neither ties nor “connection” to the U.S.

U.S. citizenship law of the past – The requirement of a voluntary connection

Conditions Subsequent – Automatic Loss of Citizenship For Those Born In The U.S.


Conditions subsequent to the retention of citizenship – Retention requirements for those born in the U.S.

In the past, U.S. nationality law has included provisions which resulted in the automatic loss of U.S. citizenship for those born in the U.S., and find themselves in the circumstances described in Categories A and B above (born in the U.S.). This was reflected in the old S. 350 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (which has been repealed) and pre-1986 S. 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The general principle was that children who:

– acquired U.S. citizenship as children; and
– subsequently left the U.S., and
– did nothing to assert a VOLUNTARY connection to the U.S.,

would lose their U.S. citizenship. This was a clear recognition that “citizenship” was more than a “legal status” and required a “voluntary affirmation of citizenship” and/or “connection” to the community.

Automatic Loss of Citizenship For Those Naturalized in the U.S

Interestingly the old S. 352 of the Immigration and Nationality Act mandated the loss of U.S. citizenship (in some circumstances) for naturalized U.S. citizens who left the U.S. after becoming U.S. citizens.

To use an analogy to contract law, there were “conditions subsequent” for certain 14th Amendment citizens to retain their U.S. citizenship.

Conditions Precedent to Citizenship – Inability To Gain Citizenship For Those Born Outside The U.S.

American Citizens Abroad was a pioneer in fighting for the rights of “American Citizens Abroad”. Much of their early work was aimed at ensuring that children born outside the United States to Americans abroad would become U.S. citizens. At one time the U.S. had laws which required those born abroad to U.S. parents to establish residence in the U.S. or lose their U.S. citizenship. As Phyillis Michaus author of The Unknown Ambassadors notes:

“It all started back in 1961, when Phyllis Michaux, an American woman married to a Frenchman and living in France since 1946, found a friend in a similar situation. They began talking about the future of their children, their American and French citizenship and wondered whether there were other women “out there” in a similar position.

They had a question and an idea. The question was, “How many people are affected by the citizenship law 301(b)?” At the time under section 301(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1960, children born overseas of one American parent would lose their American citizenship unless they lived five consecutive years in the United States between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight. Essentially, the children would have to move to the United States sometime before their twenty-third birthday to retain their American citizenship. The idea was to find out how many families were affected. This they did. And they did a lot more along the way.”

For this reason, I submit that the problems of Americans abroad, may be more rooted more in the laws of citizenship than in the law of tax.

U.S. citizenship law no longer based on the assumption that “citizenship” requires a voluntary connection to the community. Combining “citizenship” with “taxation” means that the U.S. claims the right to tax large numbers of people with no connection to the U.S.

Significance of U.S. citizenship law of the past …

There was a time when a voluntary affirmation and connection to the U.S. was required to retain U.S. citizenship. One would lose U.S. citizenship without the voluntary affirmation – an “citizenship opt in”. This ensured that those without a connection to the U.S., would NOT be subjected to U.S. taxation.
The repeal of Sections 350, 352, 301(b) (of the 1960 law) and the 1986 amendment of S. 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, mean that, it is NO longer a requirement that the children described in Categories A, B and C, affirm a connection to the U.S. in order to retain U.S. citizenship. Absent an “relinquishing act”, the circumstances of birth will be sufficient to establish (under U.S. law) citizenship and a lifetime of tax obligations.

U.S. citizenship law of the present. A relinquishing act is now required to terminate U.S. citizenship – an “citizenship opt out” (with all the horror of possible Exit Taxes

“For those who had no choice of where or to whom they were born, surely there should be an “opt-into” US citizenship – rather than an “opt-out” of US (or any other country’s) citizenship. Anything else is ENTRAPMENT. I find that very punitive.”

For those with the “legal status” of U.S. citizens abroad, the evolution from the “opt in model” to the “opt out model” reflects a principle that citizenship is defined more in terms of a “legal status” (conferred by birth) than a “voluntary acceptance” of citizenship. This is neither desirable nor consistent with a world of increased mobility and multiple citizenships.

The problems of U.S. citizenship have been exacerbated by the twin principles that:

1. U.S. citizenship has become less and less dependent on the existence of a “voluntary” connection to the U.S.; and
2. U.S. citizenship is now a status imposed on the individual, rather than a status chosen by the individual. (Although the 14th Amendment may have been motivated by a desire to “end slavery” it is now being used  as a mechanism to “create tax slavery”.)

To put it another way: U.S. citizenship has become less “something that one chooses to voluntarily connect to” and more something “one is through an accident of birth, chosen for”. This is of huge significance because the U.S. (under the guise of citizenship-based taxation) attempts to control the lives of its citizens living abroad.

What is the justification for “place of birth” taxation? The closest rationale that can be discerned is the idea that:

1. All U.S. citizens must pay taxes to the U.S.
2. U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live are still U.S. citizens.
Therefore, U.S. citizens regardless of where they live have to pay taxes to the U.S.

Interestingly, U.S. Taxation Abroad includes, but is not limited to U.S. citizens

A recent post on the Isaac Brock Society included:

“According to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution anyone born in the United States is a de facto US citizen regardless of whatever other citizenship they may hold in the course of their lifetime. Therefore, with the existence of CBT anyone with a United States birth certificate is forever taxable by the US even if they have never lived there as an adult or earned any money there.”

Are those “born in the U.S.” really doomed to a lifetime of U.S. tax servitude?

What the U.S. calls citizenship-based taxation is actually a U.S. claim that  it has the right to:

1. Tax residents of other countries; on

2. Income earned in other countries or property situated in other countries.

(The U.S. also taxes its corporations on profits earned in other countries. This has led to “inversions” which are the corporate equivalent to renouncing U.S. citizenship.)

Under the guise of what the U.S. calls “citizenship-based taxation, it actually taxes people who are NOT U.S. citizens. The two obvious examples are:

A. Green Card holders who do NOT live in the United States (having either moved away or in some cases having never moved there); and

B. Non-citizens who are NOT Green Card holders. The obvious example here would be people who have lost their U.S. citizenship for immigration purposes but are still treated as taxable U.S. property. The S. 877A Expatriation rules clearly contemplate this. Furthermore, there are certain U.S. tax treaties that specifically allow the U.S. to tax people who were U.S. citizens.

My point is that the U.S. has long since separated the idea of being “taxable U.S. property” from being a U.S. citizen.

Therefore, although birth in the U.S. makes on a U.S. citizen, a U.S. birth should NOT make one taxable U.S. property for life. Surely citizenship should mean more than taxation.

The U.S. is laying claim to people because they were born in the USA. There is no reason why it has to. They just do it because they think they can. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that attempts to control the lives of its citizens (under the guise of taxation) when they move from the United States. This is an intolerable and grossly unfair policy.

The discussion and debate at the Toronto Conference on “U.S. Citizenship-based taxation” demonstrated that citizenship should be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for taxation. Taxation should be based on some kind of voluntary connection to the United States. It is submitted that those in Categories:

(A) Border babies

(B) Those who move from the U.S. with their parents as children

(C) Those non-U.S. residents who were born outside the U.S. to U.S. citizen parents

(D) People who left the U.S. as young adults, have never returned to the U.S., and have accumulated all of their economic assets outside the U.S.

do NOT have any connection to the U.S. that could possibly justify U.S. taxation. In each of these cases, taxation is NOT based on a connection to the U.S., but only on the circumstance of a U.S. birthplace! Can it really be that the United States of America is the only advanced country in the world where:

The circumstances of your birth determine the outcome of your life?

To tax those who are not residents of the United States solely because they were born in the United States:

Is unjust and is inhumane. People do NOT choose where they were born!

What about the person in Category (E) above? This is the U.S. citizen and resident who leaves the United States temporarily with the intention of returning. This is the ONLY kind of U.S. citizen that could rationally be subjected to U.S. taxation while living temporarily outside the United States. But, to tax even this person is incompatible with the realities of the modern world.

Citizenship imposed vs. citizenship chosen

The current practice of U.S. “place of birth taxation” is much more analogous to a “property interest” that a country has in it’s citizens than a voluntary commitment to the engagement that should characterize good citizenship.