NEW YORK (MainStreet) If you've dreamt of moving abroad and living a supposedly glamorous international lifestyle, then you may also want to consider the financial implications. On one hand, online banking and voice over IP (VoIP) calling have made it easier for Americans to manage their money and stay in touch with financial advisors or accountants from anywhere in the world.
But the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA), which Congress approved in 2010, has created additional headaches for many. In fact, CNN Money reports that 3,000 Americans renounced their U.S. citizenship last year, three times as many as the average over the previous five years, a fact it attributes in part to these new regulations.
The financial impact of moving overseas will, of course, vary depending on the laws in your new country and other factors, but here's a look at areas to consider.
Americans working abroad are generally exempt from paying U.S. tax on their first $97,600 (in 2013) in foreign earned income, but they are still required to file a return with the IRS and report all worldwide income regardless of where it's earned. "Generally if you move to a higher tax jurisdiction, you're going to pay to that jurisdiction," says Grafton "Cap" Willey, Managing Director at national accounting firm CBIZ MHM. Many countries have tax treaties with the U.S. so that U.S. citizens living in those countries can avoid double taxation. Under FACTA, Americans living abroad are also required to report financial bank accounts held outside the United States.
A few states may try to collect income taxes even after you move abroad unless you actually terminate your residency. For people who live in those states, "I'd change my license, change my voting registration and establish a domicile in another state [before moving abroad]," Willey says.
Some companies that hire lots of Americans as employees also have a "tax equalization" policy to offset additional taxes created by working in a foreign country. "There may be some assumptions who gets which deductions and where they live," says Larry Feibel, international tax partner at accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin. "Some employers will go ahead and pay that. Some companies will have the employer file their returns and at year end they will settle up."
Depending on the country you're moving to, you can typically keep existing retirement accounts like an IRA, but you may not be able to continue adding pretax dollars to them. Any pensions or retirement accounts you set up in a foreign country may also be subject to different rules in that country versus the U.S. "If you own a non-U.S. annuity, the IRS might not give that annuity the same tax qualifications that they would give to an American annuity and it would in fact be taxable to you," says Douglas Goldstein, president of the international investment advisory and financial planning firm Profile Investment Services, which is based in Jerusalem, Israel. He's also the author of The Expatriate's Guide to Handling Money and Taxes.
Having a foreign pension could also lower your eventual Social Security benefits due to the Social Security Administration's Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). "If you are an American and you receive a foreign pension, you're likely going to be subject to WEP," Goldstein says. "If someone worked in America for 10 or 15 or 20 years, he might expect to get a certain amount a month, because he gets a report from Social Security that says exactly how much he's going to get. But as a result of the foreign pension, they've done a recalculation and this is a killer for people."
And now the (in some cases) million-dollar question of where to live. Will you find a furnished rental in your new country, ship your furniture or buy new? If you own property in the U.S., will you sell it or rent it out? If you're planning a long-term relocation, will you buy instead of renting? Can you get financing in your new country? That depends.
"If you still continue to own property [in the U.S.], that is an indication of a person who expects to come back and may impact your tax domicile," Feibel says. "And of course you need to report rental income or loss."
The cost and availability of housing can vary widely depending on your new country, so research housing and cost of living before agreeing to a new salary. "Housing costs are often a big issue," Willey says. "Costs of living in some of these countries is much higher than it is here."
For expats who receive employee benefits such as housing or a car, those benefits may be taxable (though the IRS does offer a foreign housing exclusion of up to $15,616 for 2013).
If you still have expenses like a mortgage or credit card bill in the United States, then money earned in a foreign currency could have more or less spending power in the U.S. depending on currency fluctuations over time.
"One of the things that we always consider is whether they decide to dollar-cost average their exchange rate -- exchanging a little at a time to hedge against currency risk -- or exchange it all at one time to get the best exchange rate," says Cristina Briboneria, a certified financial planner and vice president at oXYGen Financial, an Atlanta investment company that advises Gen X and Yers. "I think it depends on the country."
The fees for exchanging money and transferring it to the U.S. are based on the amount of money. "For some banks that have international arms you can transfer money from the U.S. to your foreign bank account and vice versa with no fees," Briboneria says. "You will have to pay the exchange rate, but typically the wire transfer can be waived."
Investments & Banking
Investing and banking can get trickier when you move abroad. "A lot of the big wire houses will not take people who have a foreign address," Goldstein says. "They send these people what we would nicely call a Dear John letter. I open U.S. brokerage accounts for people living outside the U.S. and of course you have the benefit that everything is in English."
In many cases, it's a good idea to keep a U.S. bank account open for when you travel back to the states or if you have rental or business income in U.S. dollars, according to Briboneria. She adds that you don't have to ditch your U.S.-based advisor when you leave. "Because of technology through Facetime, Google Hangout, GoToMeeting and emails, advisors can continue to work with their clients abroad as long as they have proper documentation," she says.
Still, you may want to tweak your approach based on tax rules in your new country and your own financial goals.
"I think it's important to have an advisor who understands cross-border issues," Goldstein says. "A lot of times people will stay with their American advisor and they'll continue to use the same investment tactics that they've always used."
--Written by Susan Johnston for MainStreet