In every U.S. election, there are always threats by Americans that they’ll flee to Canada if the candidate they hate wins. Those threats rarely come to anything.
But thanks to a 2014 intergovernmental agreement committing Canada to provide the banking information of Americans living here to the IRS, there appears to be mad rush by some Americans to renounce their U.S. citizenship, and stay here - forever.
According to Global News, almost four times as many U.S. citizens as normal dumped their citizenship in March. The reason is an obscure regulation that forces Americans to fill out a Foreign Bank Account Report if they have an account abroad that totals over $10,000 in a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. While income earned abroad is mostly exempt from U.S. taxes, the penalty for not filling out the necessary paperwork can equal up to 50 per cent of the value of the account. In 2010, the U.S. passed FATCA, a law forcing Americans abroad to turn over banking information, and started going after people who weren’t reporting their money.
After that law came into effect, Patricia Moon had a choice: either renounce her citizenship and avoid the enforcement of IRS penalties, or risk fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and face a lifetime of reporting and sending cash back to the U.S, she told the Wall Street Journal. Moon, who lives in Toronto, gave up her passport, rather than face the prospect of exposing her husband’s finances to the U.S. government and paying U.S. capital gains tax on their house in Canada. After she did it, she said, she “bawled her eyes out.”
Now, Americans who haven’t played by the rules could find their banking information handed over to the IRS anyway. The 2014 agreement means Canadian banks will turn over that financial information directly. The first reports are due May 1, which is why Americans who don’t want their financial data sent to the IRS are scrambling to become non-Americans in a hurry.
Despite a hefty fee - which jumped from U.S.$450 to U.S.$2350 last summer, according to Global News - the backlog to book a renunciation appointment at some U.S. consulates in Canada is now nearing a full year.
Global News cited a U.S. army veteran who has lived in Canada for 42 years, who flew from Ontario to a U.S. consulate in Calgary in March to complete his loss-of-nationality paperwork, because it was the earliest appointment he could get.
“I’ve lived Canadian for 42 years – give me a break,” said the man identified only as ‘Dale.’
“I’m not going back to the U.S., I have no ties to the U.S., I don’t own property down there. Why would I not formalize this and get my certificate?”
While Dale’s case seems cut and dried, others aren’t as lucky. Ruth Freeborn of Kingston, ON told Reason.com that the decision to give up her U.S. citizenship was “a gut wrenching experience that I do not think I will ever be over.”
Freeborn doesn’t make any of her own money, but she said banks were likely to err on the side of handing over too much information, putting her family’s finances at risk.
“They say they cannot afford to ferret out all Americans and anyone related to them every year and then on top of that ferret out who met the thresholds so to save money they are jU.S.t going to report on everyone with any ‘U.S. indicia.’ They don't even have to be American, just share joint accounts with one,” she told Reason.com.
Freeborn’s choice is one that more and more people are making, according to a study by the University of Kent (at Brusssels) this past winter. The survey found that 31 per cent of U.S. citizens and former citizens have actively thought about renouncing U.S. citizenship and 3 per cent were in the process of doing so.
The reason, the survey found, isn’t income; it’s the increasing pressure to meet U.S. financial reporting requirements. At best, Americans abroad face thousands of dollars in accounting fees to prove they don’t owe the U.S. any money; at worst, they can be penalized tens of thousands of dollars for not reporting properly. It’s a lot of effort, and a lot of risk, for people who have already chosen to live elsewhere.
The report also found another subsector of Canadians who could get caught in the U.S. tax trap: those born along the border to parents of both nationalities. One survey respondent said:
“Canada is home to many border babies, born in the U.S. because that was the location of the closest hospital, and 'accidentals' like myself who left the U.S. as young children with no say in where they were born.” For those children, U.S. citizenship, while a birthright, has never been more than a matter of convenience, and is easily cast away when financial hardship is on the line.
In fact, a U.S. State Department representative told Global News that Canada now leads the list of countries where Americans are willfully handing in their passports. On May 1, it could get even worse.