On December 4th 2015, an unprecedented bill was passed into law that allows the US State Department to revoke your passport if you owe $50,000 or more to the IRS. This law, part of H.R. 22 – the massive transportation funding act known as the “FAST Act,” adds a new section to the Internal Revenue Code. This added IRS regulation, first proposed in 2011 as part of a Government Accountability Office report on collection techniques, was buried in the transportation bill, the section first appearing on page 1,113 of 1,301 total pages. This law was passed very quickly and quietly and will seriously impact the US expat community starting immediately on January 1st, 2016.
Who does this affect?
If you have $50,000 or more in Federal income tax debt, the IRS will issue a notice to the US State Department. The US State Department will then revoke or deny your US passport. At $50,000 or more, the IRS considers this “seriously delinquent tax debt,” but an American living abroad can rack up IRS debt pretty quickly due to interest and penalties on non-filing or delinquent filing of certain tax forms.
What process will the IRS and US State Department follow?
- When a taxpayer’s IRS tax debt exceeds $50,000 and is considered “seriously delinquent,” the IRS will issue a certification notice to the US State Department.
- The US State Department will notify the taxpayer that a lien or levy has been issued in court against the taxpayer.
- Once the debt has been satisfied, or the taxpayer(s) are under an official payment plan with the IRS, the US State Department will be notified and issued a certificate of release for the passports.
- Certain circumstances will allow the issuance of a passport after a delinquent tax debt notification has been filed, but these will be generally limited to emergency and humanitarian purposes (as determined on a case by case basis)
How can this affect you as a US expat?
As an expat, your US passport is the key to your identity; integral in all international and domestic travel, work visas, residency visas, banking transactions, and many more uses. Revocation of your US Passport could mean more than just being unable to travel, it could mean the loss of your employment and home!
The right to travel has been recognized as fundamental, both between states and internationally. And although some restrictions have been upheld, it is not clear that this measure will pass the constitutional test if it is challenged. – Forbes
Most US expats don’t end up owing money on their tax returns; due to tax breaks from the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, Foreign Tax Credit, and various tax treaty provisions. There are plenty of penalties and interest that come from not filing your tax returns though, as well as penalties for not filing the correct forms with your tax return. These penalties can add up, and if not taken care of, can result in the “seriously delinquent tax debt” that will eventually lead to passport revocation. Because of this, it’s important that you file your tax returns in a timely manner, and report all income and assets necessary on the appropriate forms. With the new FATCA regulations, and the increase of IRS focus on expat returns and filings, it’s not feasible to ignore your US tax filing obligations. Penalties for not filing, or under reporting can add up quickly, and the longer you put them off, the more they increase.
What forms are high risk for US expat tax debt?
While the idea of $50,000 of tax debt seems like a staggering number, it can easily be amassed due to interest and penalties from non-filing or delinquent filing of certain tax forms. For example: the FATCA form 8938 – Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets – incurs a penalty of $10,000 for failure to file and increases for continued failure to file.
While these penalties can be disputed and abated by the IRS once they have been assessed, that process can take time and your passport may be revoked in the meantime. In order to protect yourself, it’s best to get your filings completed in a timely and accurate manner. – David McKeegan
What is everyone talking about regarding domestic travel and passports?
This bill affects all Americans, whether or not you are an expat. Passports are the universal identification when it comes to travel, they are accepted above all other forms of ID. Domestic travel has come under scrutiny lately with stricter identification regulations coming from the Real ID act, enacted May of 2005.
The Real ID act was a strengthening of standards pertaining to security, authentication, and issuance of state driver’s licenses and ID cards. If the states did not conform their driver’s licenses and ID card standards to meet the Real ID act regulations, their cards would not be considered “official” to the Department of Homeland Security, and would not be able to be used for air travel, entering federal buildings, or other federal uses. The law takes effect immediately in 2016.
Currently there are several states that have not conformed to the Real ID act, and many more that have been granted extensions. What does this have to do with your passport? Well, if your state ID is not considered “official” by the Department of Homeland Security, you will need an alternate form of ID in order to travel. This is where your passport comes into play. You will need to have a valid passport in order to make up for the lack of state ID, and if you have debt with the IRS, your passport may be revoked!
Consider especially the roughly eight million Americans living overseas, many of whom are already reeling from FATCA compliance problems. Moreover, although we think of passports as useful only when traveling internationally, even stateside flights may soon make passports even more fundamental. – Forbes
The states that do not currently conform to the Real ID Act are Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York. If you have a state ID from any of these states, you may need to start using your passport to fly domestically.
Now that there is more than a financial reason to keep on top of your tax return filing, it’s important to make sure that you have all your paperwork together, all your information current, and be knowledgeable of what you are required to file for your tax returns!
Have questions or concerns about this new law and your US expat taxes?
This is big news for the US expat community and it goes into effect immediately on January 1st, 2016. As US expats ourselves, we understand how scary moves like this from the IRS are and we are happy to help you figure out if and how this affects you. Get in touch with Greenback now. If you are behind on US expat taxes (or FBAR filings) and want our help catching up, our expert CPAs and IRS Enrolled Agents can assess your specific situation and help you get caught up and stay compliant. Get started with Greenback here.