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Expatriation from the United States: The Exit Tax

Nov 01 2020

Article Written for:  Florida Bar Journal

Abandonment of U.S. citizenship or long-term residency (by non-citizens) may trigger U.S. income tax. The “expatriation tax” consists of two components: the “exit tax” and the “inheritance tax.” Both may be triggered upon abandonment of citizenship or (for non-citizens) abandonment of a green card by a long-term resident. In this first of our two-part series, we explain some of the principal terms of the exit tax.

Tax Expatriation Generally

U.S. citizens may expatriate by renouncing their U.S. nationality at a U.S. embassy or consulate.[1] The consul files a certificate of loss of nationality with the U.S. State Department. The effective date of expatriation is the date of renunciation of citizenship.

Long-term (non-citizen) residents[2] may similarly terminate residency for federal income tax purposes upon formal relinquishment of the resident’s green card. The residency termination date for a green-card holder is the first day (the then non-resident alien (NRA)) is no longer a lawful permanent resident.[3]


Section 877

Section 877 was added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1966 and, although revised (1996/2004), remains the principal legal structure for the expatriation tax. Section 877 treats an expatriate as a U.S. resident for U.S. income, estate, gift, and generation-skipping tax purposes for any calendar year during the 10-year period following expatriation (before June 18, 2008), if present in the U.S. for more than 30 days.[4] Thus, although expatriation may have occurred in (for example) 2008, §877 characterizes a former resident as a U.S. resident for tax purposes for any year between 2008 and 2018, during which the former resident is physically present in the U.S. for more than 30 days.

If an expatriate is subject to §877, but not physically present in the U.S. for more than 30 days, he or she is potentially subject to an alternative tax regime. The alternative regime covers the 10-year period following the close of the taxable year in which 1) he or she expatriated, and 2) is not physically present in the U.S. for more than 30 days. Under §877, the term “alternative tax regime” subjects the covered expatriate to tax on U.S.-source income at rates applicable to U.S. citizens for a period of 10 years following the date of expatriation, and only if the alternative tax regime produces a higher tax liability than would have been imposed (on the non-resident alien) under §871 of the code. Therefore, two tax calculations are necessary to determine which calculation produces the higher tax liability. The income tax liability (calculated under §871 of the code, which is the income tax scheme applicable to non-resident aliens under normal circumstances) is compared to the tax liability calculated under §877(b) and (d) (the alternative tax regime). The covered expatriate is subject to the higher tax liability.

The principal income tax effect of §877 is to impose income tax on U.S.-source income that is otherwise tax-exempt in the hands of a non-resident alien. For example, the covered expatriate may not avoid income tax on 1) bank account interest, 2) portfolio interest, or 3) capital gains earned from trading in U.S. stocks and bonds (generally avoided by NRAs).

The Exit Tax Under §877A

The Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 (HEART Act) added §877A, effective for individuals who expatriate on or after June 17, 2008. Section 877A(a) imposes a “mark-to-market” tax regime on “covered expatriates.” Under §877A(a)(1), all property of a covered expatriate is treated as being sold on the day before his or her expatriation date for its fair market value.[5] The exit tax is an income tax on 1) unrealized gain from a deemed sale of worldwide assets on the day prior to expatriation; and 2) the deemed distribution of IRAs, 529 plans, and health savings accounts (taxed at ordinary income rates).

A covered expatriate is deemed to have sold any interest in property held worldwide, other than property described in §877A(c) (deferred compensation, specified tax-deferred accounts, and interest in a nongrantor trust (discussed below)), as of the day before expatriation.[6] The property subject to the mark-to-market regime of §877A(a) is of a type whose value would be includible in the value of a decedent’s U.S. gross taxable estate (on the day before expatriation).[7]

The mark-to-market regime imposes an income tax on the unrealized gain (on the covered expatriate’s worldwide assets), but only to the extent the deemed gain (as of the day before the expatriation date) exceeds an inflation adjusted safe harbor ($737,000 for 2020).[8] The rates of tax differ with the type of asset involved. Long-term capital gain assets and qualified dividends receive the applicable preferential rates. However, the unrealized gain in a life insurance contract is generally taxed at ordinary income rates. The exit tax is generally payable immediately (i.e., April 15 following the close of the tax year in which expatriation occurs).

The HEART Act also added the “inheritance tax,” a 40% flat tax on the gross value of a “covered gift” or “covered bequest” made to a U.S. beneficiary. The inheritance tax is imposed on the recipient of the gift (rather than the donor). We discuss the inheritance tax in our next article.

Covered Expatriate

  • Long-Term Permanent Resident (Green-Card Holder) — An expatriated green-card holder is subject to §877A as a covered expatriate only if a long-term permanent resident prior to expatriation. A long-term lawful permanent resident is a person who has been a green-card holder during eight of the previous 15 years prior to expatriation. If a green-card holder expatriates before this eight-of-15-year test is met, §877A does not apply. A U.S. resident alien (under the U.S. substantial presence income tax test)[9] is not subject to the §§877 or 877A tax if the resident has no green card.[10] 
  • Statutory Tests — Section 877A applies to only covered expatriates who meet any one of the three tests, set out in §877(a)(2)(A)-(C).[11]

1) The Net Worth Test: Having a net worth of $2 million or more on the date of expatriation. The $2 million threshold considers all assets worldwide. The expat is considered to own any interest in property that would be taxable as a gift under Ch. 12 of the code (i.e., the gift tax provisions) if the individual was a citizen who transferred that interest immediately prior to expatriation.

2) The Average Annual Income Tax Liability Test: Earning an average annual net income tax for the five years ending before the date of expatriation of more than a specified amount, adjusted for inflation ($171,000 for 2020).[12] An individual who files a joint tax return must take into account the net income tax reflected on the joint return.[13]

3) Failure to Certify Tax Compliance: Failure to certify satisfaction of federal tax compliance to the Secretary of Treasury for the five preceding taxable years or failure to submit such evidence of compliance as “may be required.”[14] Individuals without considerable assets or income may nonetheless become covered expatriates by failing to certify tax compliance. 

  • Exemption Amount $600,000 (Adjusted for Inflation) — Under §877A(a)(3), if a taxpayer’s deemed gain is less than $600,000 (adjusted for inflation), there is no tax due.[15] For 2020, the exemption amount is $737,000. If the covered expatriate’s gain exceeds this amount, he or she must allocate the gain pro rata among all appreciated property.[16] Such allocation generally involves allocating the exclusion amount of each gain asset over the total built-in gain on all gain assets.[17] 
  • Special Deferral Rules of §877A(b) — The exit tax deemed sale or distribution may leave insufficient liquidity to cover the tax, as no actual sales proceeds are available. Under certain circumstances, payment of the tax may be deferred until an actual sale of the property (or death). Section 877A(b) provides detailed rules permitting a covered expatriate to defer payment of the mark-to-market tax (on a property-by-property basis). Payment is tolled until the property is actually sold or exchanged, death, or the security required to make the deferral election fails to meet statutory requirements (whichever is earlier). To make the deferral election, the covered expatriate must provide “adequate security” and agree to pay statutory interest on the deferred tax.[18] If the covered expatriate elects deferral, gains deferred are based on the value of property as of the taxing date (i.e., as of the day prior to expatriation). 
  • Reporting Compliance Under §877A — Under §6039G, IRS Notice 2009-85 requires additional reporting for covered expatriates for the years following expatriation.[19] Under the prior tax regime of §877, covered expatriates were to file annual informational returns on Form 8854 for a 10-year period following their expatriation, regardless of actual income tax liability. Moreover, if a covered expatriate realized U.S.-source income on which U.S. income tax was recognized, he or she was required to file a Form 1040-NR. 

Under the §877A mark-to-market regime, a covered expatriate with an interest in a nongrantor trust (or certain deferred compensation assets) must annually file Form 8854. Form 8854 reflects distributions from the trust. The filing requirement appears to have no time limit under IRS Notice 2009-85. The notice also affirms that a covered expatriate must file a Form 1040-NR in the event he or she earned taxable income and U.S. income taxes are not fully withheld at the source.[20] As foreign institutions or persons will likely not withhold at the source (under §1441), this requirement usually creates a mandatory filing obligation for covered expatriates. 

Lastly, Notice 2009-85 affirms that a covered expatriate with a beneficial interest in a nongrantor trust (or deferred compensation asset) must file Form W-8CE (which identifies the payor). This filing is required on the earlier of the date of the first distribution from the trust (subsequent to expatriation) or 30 days after the date of expatriation. 

  • Tax Basis — Section 877A(a) requires “proper adjustments” for any gain or loss realized with respect to an asset deemed sold. Basis is adjusted upward (stepped up) by the amount of gain attributable to the deemed sale, to avoid double taxation upon the later actual sale of the property. Similarly, basis is reduced to the extent of a deemed loss.[21] Certain types of property are ineligible for the in-bound step up. Assets or property that would have been taxed if the individual had never become a permanent resident (e.g., U.S. real property interests or property that was used or held for use in connection with the conduct of a trade or business within the U.S.) are not eligible for the step-up.[22]
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Potential Planning Strategies

  • Outright Gifts to Spouse and Others — The proposed expatriate may gift assets sufficient to reduce his or her net worth below the $2 million net worth test (for characterization as a covered expatriate). For example, before expatriation, an expatriate may use the §2503(b) annual exclusion (currently $15,000 per donee) to make non-taxable gifts or, alternatively, make larger gifts by utilizing his or her unified estate and gift tax credit. 

Gifts should be made at least three years prior to expatriation to avoid §2035, which adds the value of gifts made within three years of a decedent’s death (or deemed expatriation death) to the deceased’s taxable estate. Unless an exception applies,[23] all gifts made during the three years prior to expatriation are not only included as assets subject to deemed sale, but are likely included in calculating the inheritance tax (discussed in our next article). 

A potential expatriate may also make unlimited tax-free gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse (prior to expatriation).[24] Interspousal gifts are generally not subject to the three-year “clawback” rule of §2035.[25] If, however, the recipient spouse is also expatriating, the marital gifting strategy will function only if the recipient spouse avoids covered-expatriate status. Otherwise, the proposed transfers will subject the spouse to §877A.

For potential non-citizen covered expats (long-term green-card holders), another possible strategy (to avoid U.S. transfer taxes on foreign assets) is to make transfers after permanently departing the U.S. (but before actually expatriating). Although the green-card holder would remain a U.S. resident for U.S. income tax purposes, domicile (for estate and gift tax purposes) may be moved outside the U.S.[26] Transfers made while a non-resident, non-citizen for estate and gift tax purposes are not subject to U.S. transfer taxes, unless the property gifted is tangible and located in the U.S.[27] Under such circumstances, the mark-to-market tax regime may arguably be avoided on assets gifted (three years before expatriation) and completely avoided if the gifts sufficiently reduce new worth.[28] 

  • Gifts to Trusts/General Transfer Tax Strategies — As a permanent legal resident (green-card holder), the future covered expatriate (domiciled in the U.S.) may take advantage of a full unified estate and gift tax credit ($11,580,000 in 2020) by implementing general U.S. transfer tax avoidance strategies before expatriation (three years before expatriation). These include utilizing valuation discounts for potential transfers, gifts to domestic irrevocable trusts, grantor retained annuity trusts, qualified personal residence trusts, intentionally defective grantor trusts (with the toggle-off switch), charitable lead trusts, charitable remainder trusts, etc. 
  • Use of an Expatriation Trust — As an alternative to outright gifts or other general estate tax-saving vehicles, a potential expatriate may fund an irrevocable (self-settled) trust for himself, his spouse, and descendants. Gifts to a properly structured “expatriation trust” may likely be used to lower net worth (to avoid the $2 million net worth threshold). 

One strategy is to establish an expatriation trust, to reduce the potential expatriate’s net worth below the $2 million net worth test. The expatriation trust should be formed as an irrevocable nongrantor discretionary U.S. domestic trust in a state permitting self-settled discretionary trusts. The expatriation trust should be drafted to complete the transfer for U.S. transfer tax purposes (harvesting the settlor’s unified credit). The trust must also qualify as nongrantor for U.S. income tax purposes (with trust income taxed to the trust). To avoid potential inclusion under §877A, the potential expatriate should also release any powers over trust assets (i.e., powers of appointment). As this vehicle remains a domestic trust under §7701, §684 (deemed mark-to-market sale) would not apply to the transfer of assets into the trust. The potential expatriate may retain the ability to remove and replace independent trustees. Following the passage of three years from funding, §877A would not apply to the assets held in trust. [29] Moreover, future distributions from the expatriation trust to U.S. beneficiaries (or the expatriate) would also avoid the §2801 inheritance tax (discussed in our next article). 

  • Use of Domicile Planning — Alternatively, as discussed above, the non-citizen settlor may utilize foreign domicile transfer tax planning before expatriating. While maintaining U.S. income tax residency, the proposed expatriate establishes domicile outside the United States. Transfers of non-U.S.-situs assets are then not subject to U.S. transfer tax. Moreover, the transfer of certain U.S.-situs intangible assets avoids U.S. gift tax (including gifts to U.S. donees). For a resident alien with substantial non-U.S. assets and U.S.-situs intangibles, U.S. transfer tax may be avoided. Following the passage of three years from such transfers, §877A does not apply the deemed sale rule to the assets transferred.[30] This strategy may also permit the potential expatriate to completely avoid the exit tax (if transfer brings his or her net worth below $2 million). 
  • Sale of Personal Residence — The sale of the expatriate’s personal home (prior to expatriation for cash), removes the value of the home from the $2 million net worth test.[31] The actual sale prior to expatriation reduces net worth and avoids taxable gain. Note that, in the event of a deemed sale of the homestead upon expatriation, the popular §121 income tax exclusion (excluding gain from the sale of a personal residence) is likely not available to a covered expatriate.
 

Conclusion

U.S. citizens and long-term residents must carefully plan for any proposed expatriation from the U.S. abandonment of U.S. citizenship or long-term residency triggers both the exit tax and the inheritance tax. The current form of exit tax deems sold all assets held worldwide by the expatriate. Tax may be potentially avoided by limiting income and net worth (through gifts, transfer tax avoidance strategies, and sale of the principal residence). We explain the inheritance tax in our next article.

[1] 8 U.S.C. §1481.

[2] Under I.R.C. §877(e)(2), the term “long-term resident” means any individual (other than a U.S. citizen) who is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. in at least eight taxable years during the period of 15 taxable years ending with the taxable year during which the relinquishment occurs.

[3] Abandonment of permanent U.S. residency is accomplished by signing and submitting Form I-407 to the U.S. consulate. Long-term residents abandoning residency after June 3, 2004, must file a tax information statement with the IRS for any taxable year in which §877(b) or §877A applies on Form 8854 (expatriation information statement). The NRA may also prove residency termination for a partial year by establishing residency at foreign tax home for the remainder of the calendar year and a closer connection to that foreign country.

[4] I.R.C. §877(g)(1).

[5] Topsnik v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 146 T.C. No. 1 at *12 (U.S. Tax Ct. 2016).

[6] Deferred compensation, specified tax-deferred accounts and interest in non-grantor trusts are taxed independently of the mark-to-market tax, under §877A(c).

[7] Topsnik, 146 T.C. No. 1 at *15.

[8] John L. Campbell & Michael J. Stegman, Confronting the New Expatriation Tax: Advice for the U.S. Green Card Holder, ACTEC J. 266 (2009).

[9] I.R.C. §7701(b)(3); see Treas. Reg. §301.7701(b)-1(b)(3).

[10] Note that I.R.C. §877A(g)(1)(B) provides two technical exceptions to “covered expatriate” status. The two exceptions exclude individuals 1) born with dual citizenship, taxed as a resident of the other country (as of the expatriation date), and who have not lived more than 10 out of the last 15 years in the U.S.; and 2) who have relinquished U.S. citizenship before attaining the age of 18½, and have not lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years before the expatriation date.

[11] Note that statutory exceptions may apply to exclude certain persons from covered expatriate status (even if the tests are otherwise satisfied). These statutory exceptions pertain to certain persons who are dual citizens at birth and minors who have relinquished U.S. citizenship prior to reaching age 18½ years old and have been income tax residents of the U.S. for no more than 10 years within the 15-year period ending with the taxable year of the expatriation.

[12] I.R.C. §877(a)(2)(A); Rev. Proc. 2019-44.

[13] Section 2(B) of Notice 2009-85, referencing §III of Notice 97-19.

[14] Topsnik, 146 T.C. No. 1 at *13, quoting I.R.C. §877A(a)(2)(C). The IRS has promulgated guidance regarding 877A in Notice 2009-85 (the notice). Although courts (including the U.S. Tax Court) are not legally bound by the notice, it is an official statement of the IRS’ position and may, thus, serve as persuasive authority a court may consider in interpreting §877A. The notice explains that for purposes of certifying tax compliance for the five years before expatriation pursuant to §877(a)(2)(C): “All U.S. citizens who relinquish their U.S. citizenship and all long-term residents who cease to be lawful permanent residents of the United States (within the meaning of section 7701(b)(6)) must file Form 8854 in order to certify, under penalties of perjury, that they have been in compliance with all federal tax laws during the five years preceding the year of expatriation. Individuals who fail to make such certification will be treated as covered expatriates within the meaning of section 877A(g).”

[15] I.R.C. §877A(a)(1); Rev. Proc. 2019-44; See also Robert W. Wood, Expatriating and Its U.S. Tax Impact, BNA Daily Tax Report, No. 17 (Jan. 26, 2011).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] IRS Notice 2009-85 contains detailed rules on the deferral election.

[19] Notice 2009-85, 2009-2 C.B. 598 (Oct. 15, 2009).

[20] Treas. Reg. §1.6012-1(b).

[21] I.R.C. §877A(a), (h)(2).

[22] Notice 2009-85 at §3.D.

[23] See, e.g., I.R.C. §2053(b)-(f).

[24] I.R.C. §2523.

[25] I.R.C. §2053(c)(3).

[26] See discussion in Part V regarding the establishment of domicile; see Treas. Reg. §25.2501-1(b).

[27] I.R.C. §2501; Treas. Reg. §25.2501-1(a).

[28] Note that §877A is located in Subtitle A (Income Taxes); see also I.R.C. §7701(b)(1).

[29] I.R.C. §2035; Treas. Reg. §25.2501-1(b).

[30] Id.

[31] If seller took back an installment note, however, the note would be property subject to the mark-to-market tax regime. Upon expatriation seller (if a covered expatriate) would have to recognize gain on the deemed sale of such installment obligation at fair market value. As noted, separate estate tax principles are used to determine what property is subject to the mark-to-market tax. Section 20.2033-1(b) of the estate tax regulations lists examples of property includible in a decedent’s gross estate and provides, in relevant part, that “[n]otes or other claims held by the decedent are likewise included.” See also Topsnik v. Comm’r, 146 T.C. 1 at *16 (U.S. Tax Ct. 2016).

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