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PRESENTED BY TAXES FOR EXPATS

‘The age of financial privacy is over’

Jonathan Weiss hasn’t lived in the US for 25 years. But that didn’t keep his foreign bank account from being frozen in the wake of new US tax laws. Find out how you can avoid the same fate at the hands of FATCA.

'The age of financial privacy is over'
Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

“I had been living in Switzerland for ten years, and then out of the blue I got a letter from my bank, saying that since I am an American citizen I had to file some extra paperwork,” Jonathan Weiss tells The Local. “Two weeks later my bank account was frozen.”

Weiss was born in the US, but has lived abroad since age ten, in both Asia and Europe.

“I was just living in Switzerland, working there, minding my own business,” Weiss recalls. “And then I was caught up this net.  I had no idea what to do.”

That was his first encounter with the long arm of US tax law – FATCA.

If you’re an American living abroad, chances are you’ve heard of FATCA. And if you haven’t, you probably should have. Or there may be serious consequences.

“FATCA requires foreign banks to report information to the IRS regarding all financial accounts held by American clients,” Ines Zemelman, a tax agent specializing in expatriate taxes, tells The Local.

“The age of financial privacy is over.”

Over 100 nations have already agreed to provide the IRS with such information, including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

The acronym (which stands for Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) has been floating around since about 2010, when it was signed into US law. However, the new rules only came into effect in July 2014.

“FATCA was attached as a rider to the 2010 jobs bill,” Deedee Gierow, an American expatriate living in Sweden, tells The Local. “The purpose of it was to go after wealthy people hiding money off-shore. But, as is often the case, it was not well thought-out.”

Americans who fail to report their foreign assets can face hefty delinquency fines – but it’s even more complicated than that.

“Most Americans living abroad do not make enough money in their country of residence to owe tax in the US, but they must nevertheless file taxes with the IRS,” Gierow explains.

“The US is one of only two countries in the world which has citizenship based taxation, the other being Eritrea.”

Gierow is chairman of Democrats Abroad in Sweden, and has spent the last year trying to inform fellow American expatriates about the complications of being a US taxpayer abroad. Many Americans in Sweden have been contacted by their banks about limiting services.

“There is no escaping anything anymore, even if you are perfectly innocent,” she says.

Weiss was one of those “perfectly innocent” American expats stung by the legislation.

“It’s targeted at people who are stashing money off-shore, but I just happened to live abroad,” Weiss says. “Anyone who has relations to the United States is being caught up in this net.”

Indeed, Zemelman says it’s not just people with US passports or green cards who are targeted, though they are among the first.

“That would be too simple,” she says.

Foreign banks have a list of various criteria to examine when determining if clients have a significant connection to the US. Every account is evaluated individually.

“A client may have transferred funds to the US or may have an American address,” Zemelman says.

In such cases the bank will send a form to the client asking if he or she is American – and lying on the statement is considered perjury.


Passport photo: Shutterstock

If foreign banks refuse to comply with FATCA, they are slapped with a 30 percent fine on all transactions they have with US banks.

But many countries have secrecy obligations and cannot hand information directly over to the IRS – so they send the information first to their own tax authorities, which then forward the information to the IRS.

“This is very expensive and time-consuming for the banks, and so many banks are closing or denying financial services to US citizens living overseas,” Gierow says.

Foreign banks that provide services to Americans have to ensure that all US tax obligations are met – which means that American clients must provide proof that they are current on their tax filing obligations and their FBAR (Foreign Bank Accounts Report). If not, their accounts can be frozen.

Weiss learned this the hard way.

“I wasn’t aware of any of these things and they only gave me two weeks to respond, and after that they froze my account without warning,” he explains. “They told me I needed to get a professional certification showing that I was compliant, that I had filed all of the FBARs and everything.”

And according to Zemelman, it’s only a matter of time before every American abroad has been contacted about compliance matters.

Zemelman, who has been working with expatriate taxes for 23 years, is also the founder and director of Taxes for Expats, a New York-based tax preparation firm that focuses solely on assisting Americans living abroad.

“Filing back taxes and missing FBARs can be a daunting task when approached solo,” Zemelman says. “But this is something we specialize in. We helped numerous individuals with frozen accounts in Switzerland last year.”

Weiss was one such client.

“I needed someone to help me take care of it urgently,” Weiss says. “It took three weeks to finish everything with Taxes for Expats, and they provided a letter of certification which I took to the bank, and they unfroze my account.”

While the initial compliance shock took him by surprise, Weiss now says that the process of staying compliant is fairly straightforward: he simply files his annual returns with Taxes for Expats who in turn make sure everything is sorted.

Luckily for Weiss, the IRS recently announced a new amnesty programme allowing delinquent American expatriates to get up to date on their FBARs without penalty.

“If you are still in a state of noncompliance, now is the time to act by taking advantage of the Streamlined Filing Procedures,” Zemelmansays. “We’ve helped hundreds of customers since the programme was announced.”

The programme includes filing three years of delinquent tax returns and up to six years of missing FBARs.


IRS photo: Shutterstock

“However, time is of the essence,” Zemelman says, noting that Americans who have already received multiple non-filing notices will have slimmer chances the longer they wait.

“There is nothing permanent at the IRS,” Zemelman remarks. “The IRS uses carrot methods all the time, but this is the fifth programme of its type. Will the next one be better or harsher? There’s no way of knowing.”

The current amnesty programme was introduced during the summer of 2014, but there’s no telling how long it will last. For those who may not have been aware or up to date on their US tax obligations, the time to act is now.

“It’s a hassle-free process,” Zemelman says. “You provide us with an overview of your financial situation, and we prepare and file the return.”

Now that he understands the laws and precisely what is expected of him, Weiss said he is not resentful of the new regulations. But he does wish he had known earlier.

“It was scary,” he says. “People should be aware of FATCA and deal with it proactively so they don’t have to go through what I did.”

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by Taxes for Expats.

For members

WORKING IN SWEDEN

CHECKLIST: Here’s what you need to do if you move away from Sweden

What authorities do you need to inform before you leave, are you liable to Swedish tax and how can you access your Swedish pension? Here's a checklist.

CHECKLIST: Here's what you need to do if you move away from Sweden

Tell the relevant authorities if you’re leaving for more than a year

If you’re planning on leaving Sweden for more than a year, you will have to let the authorities know. The main authorities in question are Skatteverket (the Tax Agency) and Försäkringskassan (the Social Insurance Agency).

Försäkringskassan

You have to tell Försäkringskassan when you leave so they can assess whether or not you still qualify for Swedish social insurance. As a general rule, you aren’t eligible for Swedish social insurance if you move away from Sweden, but there are exceptions, such as maternity or paternity benefits if you’re moving to another EU country.

This also applies to any family members who move with you – any over-18’s should send in their own documentation to Försäkingskassan about their move abroad. If you’re moving abroad with anyone under 18, you can include them in your own report to Försäkringskassan.

If both legal guardians are moving abroad together, both need to include any children in their application. If one legal guardian is moving abroad and the other is staying in Sweden, you need the guardian staying in Sweden to co-sign your application. If you are the sole legal guardian of any under-18’s travelling with you, you don’t need any documentation from the other parent.

You can register a move abroad with Försäkringskassan on the Mina sidor service on their website, here (log in with BankID).

Skatteverket

If you are moving abroad for a year or longer, you also need to tell the Tax Agency. This also applies if you were planning on moving abroad for less than a year but ended up staying for longer.

If you move to another Nordic country, you will also need to register your move with that country’s authorities if you will be there for six months or more. You’ll be deregistered from the Swedish population register the same day you become registered in another Nordic country’s register.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll lose your personnummer – you’ll still be able to use it if you ever move back to Sweden – but you will no longer be registered as resident in Sweden.

Similarly to Försäkringskassan, you will also need to report any children you are bringing with you, and both legal guardians must sign the form, whether or not both guardians are moving abroad or not.

In some cases, you may still be liable to pay tax in Sweden even if you live abroad – particularly if you are a Swedish citizen or have lived in Sweden for at least ten years. This could be due to owning or renting out property in Sweden, having family in Sweden, or owning a business in Sweden.

You can tell the tax agency of your plans to move abroad here.

Contact your a-kassa, if relevant

If you are member of a Swedish a-kassa (unemployment insurance), make sure you tell them that you’re leaving the country. As a general rule, you have unemployment insurance in the country you work in, so you will most likely have to cancel your a-kassa subscription.

If you are moving to another country with the a-kassa system, such as Denmark or Finland, it may pay to wait until you have joined a new a-kassa in that country before you cancel your membership in Sweden.

This is due to the fact, in some countries, you only qualify for benefits once you fulfil a membership and employment requirement. In Sweden and Denmark, you must have been a member for 12 months before you qualify. In Finland, the membership requirement is 26 weeks.

If you qualify for a-kassa in Sweden before you leave the country, you may be able to transfer your a-kassa membership period over to your new a-kassa abroad and qualify there straight away, but this usually only applies if your period of a-kassa membership is unbroken.

Check what applies in your new country before you cancel your membership in Sweden – your a-kassa should be able to help you with this.

Contact your union, if relevant

Similarly, if you are a member of a Swedish union or fackförbund, let them know you’re moving abroad.

If you’re moving to another Nordic country, they might be able to point you in the direction of the relevant union in that country, if you want to remain a member of a union in your new country.

If you’re moving to another EU country, you may be able to remain a member of your Swedish union as a foreign worker with the status utlandsvistelse.

If you chose to do this, you will usually pay a lower monthly fee than you do in Sweden, and they can still provide assistance with work related issues – although it may make more sense to join a local union in your field with more knowledge of the labout market.

If you don’t want to be a member of a union in your new country and don’t want to be a member of a Swedish union, you should contact your  union and ask them to cancel your membership.

Collect relevant documents regarding your Swedish pension

If you have worked in Sweden and paid tax for any length of time, you will have paid in to a Swedish pension. You retain this pension wherever you move, but you must apply for it yourself.

To do so, you will need to give details of when you lived and worked in Sweden, as well as providing copies of work contracts, if you have them. If you have these documents before you leave Sweden, make copies so that you can provide them when asked.

If you move to the EU/EES or Switzerland, you may also have the right to other, non-work based pensions, such as guarantee pension for low- or no-income earners, or the income pension complement (inkomstpensionstillägg).

Currently, you can receive your Swedish pension once you turn 62 – although there is a proposal in parliament due to raise pension age to 63 for those born after 1961 from 2023, so this may change.

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