What is Foreign Earned Income? Reviewing Sources of Income

Understanding US vs. Foreign Earned Income

There is a lot of talk about the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) and the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) in the US expat community, but not much is said about how the income is classified.  The IRS tax rules for both the FEIE and FTC stipulate that the income being excluded or used for the credit needs to be foreign earned income. So what is foreign earned income exactly?

 

What Is Foreign Earned Income?

Generally, the IRS classifies income by where it is earned. So if you are living and working abroad, then your income is considered to be foreign earned income, even if you are being paid by a US company.

The opposite is true as well. If you are working in the US, your earnings are considered to be US earned income. This is true no matter who pays your salary, whether it is a US company or a foreign company.

What Qualifies as Foreign Earned Income for Businesses?

If you own your own business and the primary income comes from personal service (such as lawyers and doctors), the source of the income is wherever the services are performed. So if you work from a foreign country, your income will be foreign earned.

For businesses whose primary income comes from selling products (like a store or direct sales business), the source of the income will depend on whether you purchase or produce the items you sell. If the company purchases the items it sells from a foreign country, the income is foreign earned. If the company produces the items it sells, then the country where the items are produced is the source of the earned income.

Passive or Unearned Income

Passive income is any income that you are not “working” to earn. This type of income includes interest, dividends, capital gains, rental property income, retirement income, etc. This category of income is a bit more complicated to determine whether it is considered US or foreign earned income. Here is a chart to help:

Type of Income  Source of Income
Interest Residence of the payer – If outside the US, then the  income is considered to be foreign. If from the US, then the income is US earned.
Dividends Location of the corporation – Foreign corporations produce foreign earned dividends. US corporations produce US earned income. Where the company is incorporated determines if it is foreign or US (note: some foreign earned dividends may be considered US earned if the corporation is partially owned by US shareholders).
Rents Location of the property – If the property is located outside the US, then the income is foreign earned. If the property is within the US, it is considered US earned income.
Royalties – Natural resources (Oil, Gas, etc.) Location of the corporation – Foreign corporations produce foreign earned dividends. US corporations produce US earned income.
Royalties – Patents, Copyrights, etc.(Intellectual Property) Where the property is used – If the patents or copyrights are used outside the US, it is foreign earned income. If the royalties are from intellectual property used inside the US, then it is US earned income.
Sale of Property – Real Estate (Land and buildings) Location of the property – If the property is located outside the US, then the income is foreign earned. If the property is within the US, it is considered US earned income.
Sale of Property – Personal  (Any property that is not land or building) Location of the seller’s tax home – A tax home is where the taxpayer primarily lives and works.
Pensions and retirement income (Not including Social Security) Location of where the services were performed to earn the pension/retirement income
Scholarships/Fellowships Generally, the residence of the taxpayer determines whether scholarships are considered to be foreign or US earned. Residences outside the US are considered to be foreign earned, and residences within the US are considered to be US earned.

Why You Need To Know The Difference

How does foreign earned income affect your US taxes? Well, like a lot of things, it depends upon your tax situation as a whole. All your worldwide income must be reported on your tax return, including foreign earned income as well as US earned income. This does not mean that you will pay tax on this income though. There are several tax treatments that can be applied to a return that has foreign earned income, either excluding the income from taxation (the FEIE) or preventing you from being double taxed on it (the FTC).

Everyone’s tax situation is different. If you have foreign earned income on your tax return, you should make sure to consider all the possibilities that are available to you to mitigate any potential tax difficulties.

Have More Questions About Your Sources of Income?

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