Parallels
1:42 am
Thu February 20, 2014

Why More Americans Are Renouncing U.S. Citizenship

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 6:32 am

A few times a year, the Treasury Department publishes a long list of names announcing all of the Americans who have lately abandoned their U.S. citizenship.

According to the legal website International Tax Blog, the number hovered around 500 a decade ago. Last year, it hit a record high of nearly 3,000.

This was not a gradual change. It was a sudden spike. It's a story of dominoes falling, one after another, leading to an unexpected outcome.

The first domino fell in 2008, when federal prosecutors accused the Swiss bank UBS of helping wealthy Americans hide their money tax-free in overseas accounts. It was a big case, leading to indictments, fines and prison time.

The U.S. Congress wanted to make sure it didn't happen again. During the economic recession, lawmakers saw a chance to bring in massive sums of money and stop tax cheats at the same time.

"They just found UBS in a terrible scheme to encourage tax evasion," Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told NPR in 2009. "I think there are clearly tens of billions that can be recovered there."

The next year, in 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act. The law affects every foreign bank that does business with the U.S. And not just banks: It also applies to retirement accounts, mutual funds, and more.

Renouncing citizenship is not as easy as throwing a passport onto the fire. It's a lengthy process, involving interviews, paperwork and legal procedures. So people who do it generally have a compelling motivation. And while individual reasons for renouncing may vary from person to person, experts in the field say the recent dramatic spike has more to do with the 2010 tax law than any other factor.

Wisconsin financial adviser David Kuenzi works with Americans overseas who are affected by the law.

"[Congress] said to all of these institutions, 'You need to follow this set of criteria to determine all of the Americans who are your clients," says Kuenzi, "and you need to report directly to us on their holdings.' "

Shut Out Of Foreign Banks

Foreign banks looked at the new law and decided that the regulations would be a huge hassle. Many of them decided to wash their hands of American account-holders.

"They canceled the accounts of just about every American in Europe," says retiree John Mainwaring, "including me."

Seventy-year-old Mainwaring grew up in Ohio, served in the U.S. Army, and has lived in Munich, Germany, for about 40 years.

After his old German banks kicked him out, he tried to find new ones that would take him in.

"I went everywhere," he says, "to every bank in Germany. The problem is, the ones here don't deal with Americans."

Congress wanted to catch tax cheats. But the net also snagged Americans whose foreign bank accounts let them pay their bills in the countries they now call home.

U.S. Taxes Americans, No Matter Where They Live

The United States is very unusual in this respect. Most countries in the world don't tax their citizens living abroad. So, for example, a Spaniard living in Canada won't pay Spanish taxes. Instead, he'll pay Canadian taxes. But the U.S. taxes American citizens wherever they are in the world.

"If I can compare it to romance, I say the U.S. is like Fatal Attraction," says Suzanne Reisman, a lawyer in London who advises Americans abroad. "Once they've got you, they never let you go. You have to renounce your citizenship, or you have to die."

So today, Americans who don't like the Fatal Attraction relationship are giving up their U.S. citizenship in record numbers.

In Switzerland, so many people want to renounce their citizenship that the U.S. Embassy actually has a waiting list.

"I want to be clear: It's not about a dollar value of taxes that I don't want to pay," says Brian Dublin, a businessman who lives near Zurich. "It's about the headache associated with the regulations, filing in the U.S., and then having financial institutions in the rest of the world turn me away."

Dublin says he is ready to renounce, despite the ties he feels to the country of his birth. "I grew up in America. I love my country. But I just feel that the current regulations are onerous."

Officials from the Treasury Department, the State Department, the IRS and Congress spoke on background for this story. None would talk on tape.

They all generally agree on the facts of the situation. Even so, there is very little pressure to change it. As one Senate staffer pointed out, nobody in Congress represents overseas Americans. And government officials think this law is succeeding at catching the tax cheats. That may be worth the side effect of losing a few thousand American citizens every year.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Americans who live overseas are renouncing their U.S. citizenship in record numbers. The reason has nothing to do with ideology or politics.

NPR's Ari Shapiro explains.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A few times a year, the Treasury Department publishes a list of Americans who have renounced their citizenship. According to a legal website called the International Tax Blog, the number hovered around 500 a decade ago.

Last year, it hit an all time high of nearly 3,000. This was not a gradual change. It was a sudden spike. And the reason is a story of dominos falling, one after another, leading to this unexpected outcome. The first domino fell in 2008.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The U.S. probe of UBS and its handling of American account holders is widening into a global search.

SHAPIRO: Federal prosecutors accused the Swiss bank UBS of helping wealthy Americans hide their money tax-free in overseas accounts.

During the economic recession, lawmakers saw a chance to bring in huge sums of money and stop tax cheats at the same time. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank spoke to NPR in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE)

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: They just found UBS in a terrible scheme to encourage tax evasion. I think there are clearly tens of billions that can be recovered there, and it's an across-the-board thing.

SHAPIRO: The next year, in 2010, Congress passed a law called the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act. It affects every foreign bank that does business with the U.S. And not just banks - retirement accounts, mutual funds, and more.

David Kuenzi is a financial advisor in Wisconsin who works with Americans overseas.

DAVID KUENZI: They said to all of these institutions, you need to follow this set of criteria to determine all of the Americans who are your clients. And you need to report directly to us on their holdings.

SHAPIRO: Foreign banks looked at the new law and said these regulations are a huge hassle. We don't want to deal with them.

KUENZI: They cancelled the accounts of just about every American in Europe.

SHAPIRO: Including you?

KUENZI: Including me.

SHAPIRO: John Mainwaring is 70 years old. He served in the U.S. Army, and he's lived in Munich, Germany, for about 40 years. After his old German banks kicked him out, he tried to find new ones that would take him in.

JOHN MAINWARING: I went everywhere. To every bank in Germany. The problem is, the ones here don't deal with Americans.

SHAPIRO: Congress wanted to catch tax cheats. But the net also snagged Americans whose foreign bank accounts let them pay their bills in the foreign countries they call home.

The United States is very unusual in this respect. Most countries in the world don't tax their citizens living abroad. So for example, a Spaniard living in Canada won't pay Spanish taxes - he'll pay Canadian taxes. But the U.S. taxes American citizens wherever they are in the world.

Suzanne Reisman is a lawyer in London who advises Americans abroad.

SUSAN REISMAN: And if I can compare it to romance, I say the U.S. is like fatal attraction, you know once they've got you they never let you go. You have to renounce your citizenship, or you have to die.

SHAPIRO: And so today, Americans who don't like the "Fatal Attraction" relationship are giving up their U.S. citizenship in record numbers. In Switzerland, so many people want to renounce that the embassy actually has a waiting list.

Brian Dublin is a businessman who lives near Zurich.

BRIAN DUBLIN: I want to be clear. It's not about a dollar value of taxes that I don't want to pay. It's about the headache associated with the regulations, filing in the U.S., and then having financial institutions in the rest of the world turn me away.

SHAPIRO: What would it mean to you to give up your American citizenship? Would that be, symbolically, emotionally, a difficult thing?

DUBLIN: I grew up in America. I love my country. But I just feel that the current regulations are onerous.

SHAPIRO: I spoke with officials from the Treasury Department, the State Department, the IRS, and Congress. None would talk on tape. But on background, they all generally agree on the facts of the situation.

That said, there is very little pressure to change it. As one Senate staffer pointed out, nobody in Congress represents overseas Americans. And government officials think this law is succeeding at catching the tax cheats. That may be worth the side effect of losing a few thousand American citizens every year.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.