Charles Crew and his wife worked in Saudi Arabia for 36 years before retiring to Minneapolis. They adjusted their planning to not count on Social Security.

Ben Garvin, New York Times

Overseas finances can trip up Americans abroad

  • Article by: paul sullivan
  • New York Times
  • April 13, 2013 - 5:19 PM

Living and working abroad may sound romantic. But having a financial life in more than one country — if one of those countries is the United States — is becoming increasingly complicated.

Managing an international financial life was once solely the purview of the super-rich, who jetted around the world. But given the still-high unemployment rate in the United States, opportunities for middle-class jobs abroad, in areas like finance, oil and construction, are becoming more appealing.

By taking those jobs, though, many middle- and upper-middle-class Americans have found it more and more difficult to comply with requirements on reporting the existence and value of bank accounts overseas and to reconcile the taxes of different countries.

At the same time, Americans from immigrant families who have bank accounts in their home countries that they may have overlooked are being swept up by the same laws used to ferret out millionaires and billionaires stashing money in secret Swiss accounts. The IRS has increased its examination of such accounts, lawyers said, with serious penalties for those who have not reported them.

So how should Americans working abroad or with a financial life in two countries manage their finances?

Basic confusion

One of the great enemies of people working abroad is bad advice, especially since there are fewer sources to counter misinformation thousands of miles from home.

For example, Americans working abroad are eligible for the foreign earned-income exclusion, which in 2012 exempted the first $95,100 from tax. But even if Americans earn less than that or are paying higher taxes in the country where they are working, they still need to file a tax return with the IRS.

“Some think if you’re paying taxes in Germany and the Netherlands and the taxes are higher than in the U.S., you don’t have to file a return,” said Ian M. Comisky, partner at the law firm Blank Rome and co-author of “Tax Fraud and Evasion.” “That’s not accurate. You have to file a U.S. return, and you get a credit for it.”

Increased IRS scrutiny of bank accounts abroad under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which began to take effect this year, means foreign banks must report more information on American account holders. Comisky said he had received calls from people with undeclared overseas accounts who asked if they could transfer the money to a friend who was not an American citizen and have that person transfer it back to them as a gift to avoid the penalties from years of not paying their taxes.

“I said, ‘You can do it, but it’s illegal,’ ” Comisky said. “That’s pure tax evasion.”

There is also the issue of other countries’ taxes that the United States does not recognize. Marylouise Serrato, executive director of American Citizens Abroad, a lobbying group, said many wealth, social and value-added taxes in Europe were not eligible for credits or deductions on American taxes. “They could be a significant part of your foreign tax bill, but you can’t apply them to your U.S. taxes, so you just pay them,” she said.

Serrato said her group had heard of many instances of Americans abroad having their accounts closed in the United States because the banks did not want to deal with the reporting requirements. On the other end, she has heard that opening accounts in different countries has become more difficult.

“We support the crackdown on tax evasion, but there has been a lot of blanket legislation put out there that can hit the unknowing or the unwitting,” she said.

Proper planning

Americans who work abroad for foreign companies rather than companies with American ties may not be required to contribute to Social Security, which can affect the benefits they are eligible for when they retire. This puts a premium on saving on their own and creating a realistic financial plan.

Charles Crew, a chemical engineer, and his wife worked in Saudi Arabia for 36 years until they retired to Minneapolis. Crew, 62, said that when he was around 40 he realized he was not going to be able to count on Social Security. So he began saving through the plans offered by his employer, the oil company Saudi Aramco.

“They had a qualified retirement plan and a 401(k) plan, and both were administered by Vanguard in dollars,” he said.

Like many expatriates who became used to living somewhere with far lower costs — and spending like tourists when they returned to the United States — Crew said he needed to adjust his expectations quickly and stick to the financial plan he had put together.

“You get excited being back and say, ‘I lived away — I should be able to treat myself,’ ” Crew said. “You can, but you need to look at some of these things and their impact on the long term and do that without the emotional element to it.”

That’s good advice for anyone.

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