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Aug 09

Top 5 Financial Mistakes Made by Foreign Nationals Living In the US

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Top 5 Financial Mistakes

Made by Foreign Nationals Living in  America

Approximately 1.5 million foreign nationals move to the US every year to study, work and live. Many come on green card visas, and others on working and other temporary visas.  They come from all walks of life. They are engineers, scientists, physicians, academics.

Anyone who has moved to another country can testify that it is a daunting task. Everything is new. A lot of what was known must be relearned. What number to call for emergencies? How much to tip at restaurants if at all? And how to deal with investment and other financial matters?  

Engineers, scientists, physicians, academics, and business people moving to the US often continue to hold assets in checking,  investment accounts and in real estate in other countries. Some may even inherit assets in other countries while living in the US.  Eventually many move back to their home country or a third country.

All newly arrived people in the US  face the common dilemma of how to efficiently reinvent their financial lives.  In many ways the US financial system may seem odd. Many of the differences relative to their former home base can be found relatively easily.

However, there are financial pitfalls specific to foreign nationals living in the US to be aware of. Here are five of them.  

  1. Failure to understand US reporting requirements

Unless they have been in a monastic retreat, US citizens will know that their government cares about their foreign income and assets. Ugly acronyms such as FATCA and FBAR have been designed to ensure tax compliance from all Americans.  What is often overlooked is that the reporting requirements of foreign income and assets also apply to all residents of the US, including foreigners living in the US.

Foreign nationals in the US routinely underestimate the impact of necessary reporting requirements.  They do so at their own peril. Whether they are citizens or not, residents of the US are subject to taxation on their worldwide income. In many cases, taxes paid overseas can be offset by credits to US taxes, thus limiting the monetary impact. The real challenge is the obligation to report. Laws, including the aforementioned FATCA and FBAR, obligates all US residents to report foreign income and assets.  

In a routine instance, a foreign national may own a checking account, a brokerage account, or even real estate in their home country. When moving to the US and focusing on the excitement and challenge of a new life, it is easy to forget about these assets or believe that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IRS.Such an assumption would be wrong.

All these assets are subject to reporting to US government authorities. Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 (FATCA) the US government set up a global reporting infrastructure to mandate foreign banks and governments to report foreign-held assets owned by US residents to the US government. To ensure compliance, foreign institutions are subject to stiff penalties when they fail to report assets owned by US residents.  In other words, if you own a foreign asset, it is unlikely to be a secret to the US government.

Reporting requirements don’t stop with banks and governments. Taxpayers are also responsible for reporting their own information through FBAR and IRS form 8938 filings. Information in those forms is then compared with the bank and government reports. Discrepancies and failures to report can be considered tax evasion and fraud. They are subject to penalties that can be punitive. Ignoring this issue is not a sustainable strategy, because eventually, the government will catch up. If in doubt check with a professional.

  1. Get overwhelmed by US tax complexity

Foreign nationals who come to America are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the U.S. tax system.  As a result, they often become paralyzed by the complexity and end up missing out on taking care of their financial needs. On average, foreign nationals in the US have the advantage of being stronger savers than Americans. However, to gain a sustainable advantage you need to invest your savings to allow the laws of compound growth work for you and fructify your savings. For every problem, there is a solution.

Although it looks daunting, US tax complexity can also be overcome. Because software solutions are not typically designed to handle the complexities of foreign assets and income, it is advisable to hire professionals who have experience with international matters.

  1. Not being aware of tax treaties

The US maintains tax treaties with some 68 foreign countries that determine rules and exceptions for the treatment of various taxable events. The treaties provide a framework to avoid or minimize double taxation on a variety of active and passive income. Failure to be aware of the tax treaties, their provisions, and their implementation can result in unnecessary withholdings and taxes.

Tax treaties can also provide benefits. If you have worked in the US for a while, you will have accumulated social security credits, potentially qualifying you for social security retirement benefits. Through “totalization” agreements with 26 countries, those credits can be transferred to a number of social security peer systems in those countries, thus improving retirement benefits in those countries.  The reverse is also true. If you have social security equivalent credits in those 26 countries and retire in the US, they could be counted towards your US social security benefits. In the case where there is no totalization agreement and the foreign national has contributed to US social security for 10 years or longer (technically 40 quarters), the foreign national is usually eligible for a US social security retirement benefit.

  1. Cashing out retirement accounts upon leaving the U.S.

Foreign nationals often accumulate substantial U.S. retirement account balances during their American career. Most companies offer a 401(k) retirement plan; foreign national employees are also eligible to participate.  It is often an easy decision: 401(k) plans provide an easy saving mechanism and an immediate tax reduction. It allows a maximum annual saving for people under 50 of $18,500 a year including the company match, if applicable.

When they look to return to their home country, people are often conflicted about how to handle those accounts. Broadly speaking the choices are to leave the accounts unperturbed or to cash out and go home. Often the decision is to cash out.

Cashing out of a deferred tax retirement account such as a 401k or an IRA before age 59 ½ results in punitive taxation.  The distribution is taxed as income. Usually, it propels the account owner to a higher tax rate resulting in additional costs. For instance, a taxpayer that was in the 24% tax bracket could find himself or herself in the 32% bracket as a result of a retirement account distribution.  

To add insult to injury, the distribution is also subject to a 10% penalty for those who take when they are younger than 59 1/2.  It is easy to see that cashing out is an expensive proposition that robs you of the benefits of saving and tax-deferred growth.

The other possibility is to leave the account in the US or roll it over to an IRA if it is in a 401k or other company sponsored plan.  The immediate advantage is that there is no immediate income tax or penalty. In addition, the investment options are usually much stronger and less expensive than in other countries. The downside is that the assets may be subject to estate taxes if the foreign national dies owning the asset.  And, as with Americans, distributions in retirement are subject to income taxes. For those who choose to leave the retirement accounts in the US, a plan can be built to optimize income and estate taxes to ensure that you can benefit from the fruits of your savings.

  1. Not recognizing the advantages of keeping U.S. investment accounts when leaving.

The US investment environment is more favorable to individual investors than most others.  Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios are lower, transaction costs are lower, and management fees are lower.  Market liquidity is usually higher even for many investments that are focused on specific foreign markets. And the range of investment options available to individuals is wider. For instance, there are 80 ETFs listed in Singapore and 134 listed in Hong Kong, compared with 1,707 in the US (August 2018).

It should be noted that although financial assets held by foreigners are not `subject to US capital gains taxes, dividends and interest are subject to withholding taxes of 10% to 30%, depending on whether there is a tax treaty.  Often tax treaties can help mitigate the impact of income and estate taxes, including the withholding tax. Again this is an area where financial professional familiar with the intricacies of cross-border families can really help.

On balance, when they leave the US, foreign nationals can continue to enjoy the generally stronger US investment climate.

Last Word

Moving to the US to continue a thriving career is often a dream of many foreign nationals. A new lifestyle, upward progress and a taste of American culture. What is there not to like about such an adventure? But that dream may not turn out to be that great in real life if you don’t properly address the complexities and uniqueness of the US tax system. However, the five mistakes outlined in this note can be easily addressed with the help of the right professional. Do so, and you will reap the rewards