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  • Writer's pictureLewis Grunfeld, CPA

US Citizenship for Expats, Part II: Covered Expatriates and “Accidental Americans”

Updated: Mar 5

Last time, we discussed what makes a US citizen, the citizen’s obligations when it comes to tax filing, and various ways to renounce your citizenship, assuming that this would be the direction you chose to go.

We ended off on a bit of a cliffhanger (come on, how long do you want these posts to be???), and touched on the topic of the “Exit Tax”, which is levied upon certain people who give up their citizenship, who are determined to be what the IRS calls “covered expatriates”. Let’s go into some of the details of who these covered expatriates are, and what you can do if you find yourself in a situation like this with a big tax bill breathing down your back and no interest in being a US citizen.

Covered Expatriates

For US citizens who expatriated on or after June 17, 2008, the IRS levies an Expatriation Tax (or “Exit Tax”) if any of the following conditions apply:

  1. If your average income tax liability over the last 5 years before your expatriation is more than the stated threshold ($168,000 in 2019, indexed for inflation);

  2. Your net worth on the date of your expatriation is more than $2 million; or

  3. You fail to certify that you have complied with all federal tax obligations for the last 5 years on Form 8854, the expatriation statement which goes along with your last tax return as a citizen.

The Exit Tax

If you are a covered expatriate, you will be required to pay an “exit tax” on all of your property on your final tax return. The exit tax is calculated by pretending that you sold all of your property (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate, artwork, precious metals, etc. are all included) at its fair market value on the day before you expatriated. You then subtract your cost basis (what you paid for the property) and the exclusion amount ($725,000 in 2019), and add the rest to the appropriate capital gains section on your final tax return.

There are other rules for the exit tax, which we won’t get into here, because (as you may have noticed), the thresholds for being subject to the exit tax are actually quite high, and the vast majority of potential US expatriates won’t have to worry about them.

Form 8854

The main thing that potential expatriates need to worry about is the third requirement on the list above, Form 8854. On Form 8854, an expatriate is required to certify, under penalties of perjury, that he or she is current with their US tax obligations for the last five years, leading up to the year of expatriation. Therefore, if a US citizen expatriates in 2020, he needs to make sure that his 2015 through 2019 US tax returns (and all ancillary forms that go with them, such as Form 8938, Form 5471, and the FBAR) have been properly filed. If the expatriating citizen has not filed the last five years of returns, he or she may be able to get current using the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures.

Former Green Card Holders

A US legal permanent resident—i.e., a Green Card holder—is taxed like a US citizen for all intents and purposes. A permanent resident who gives up his or her Green Card, either by letting it expire or by returning it to the Department of Homeland Security, is still considered a US person for tax purposes until he or she files Form 8854. Someone who gives up a Green Card can also be considered a covered expatriate for purposes for the exit tax, so they should pay special attention to their last five years of returns to make sure that Form 8854 is completed correctly.

The “Relief Procedures for Former Citizens” Program

In 2019, the IRS introduced a new program aimed at certain expatriates who were being unfairly victimized by a system they never chose to participate in. The new program, “Relief Procedures for Certain Former Citizens” (IRS and those fun names again), is aimed at so-called “Accidental Americans” who never had any real connection to the United States and who would not be subject to the exit tax anyway.

“Accidental Americans”

The Relief Procedures are aimed at a very specific subset of former citizens who either never knew or never cared that they were American in the first place.

“Accidental Americans” are people who acquired US citizenship by virtue of being born in the US to non-citizen parents or by being born abroad to US citizen parents. They generally have no connection to the United States, and may not even have a Social Security number, especially if they were born abroad. Oftentimes, Accidental Americans are the ones most severely affected by the United States’ tax laws, and they are legitimately perplexed as to why they need to file returns in a country they literally have nothing to do with.

Eligibility for the Relief Procedures

Accidental Americans can apply for the new Relief Procedures if they meet the following criteria:

  1. They renounced their citizenship after March 18, 2010;

  2. They have never filed a US tax return as a citizen or resident;

  3. Their failure to file was not willful;

  4. They are not a covered expatriate due to tax liability;

  5. Their net worth is less than $2 million;

  6. The combined tax liability for the five years before expatriation and the year of expatriation is less than $25,000;

  7. They submit six years of returns (the year of expatriation and the five prior years), including FBARs and information returns;

  8. If the expatriate meets all the criteria above, they can submit their six years of returns together with Form 8854, a copy of their foreign passport, and their Certificate of Loss of Nationality that they received from the State Department, and the IRS will waive all tax, interest, and penalties. The expatriate is then free to live his or her life without being interfered with by the IRS forever.

No Social Security Number? No problem!

A Social Security number isn’t required to use these procedures, which is an extra bonus. Up until now, a US expat who wanted to give up his or her citizenship was required to apply for a Social Security number (a process that can take more than 6 months from abroad) just so they could file their tax returns, and then they would never use the number again once they expatriated. Under this program, that step is no longer necessary.

Summary and Conclusion

Let’s go over the rules we’ve covered over the last couple of posts so we can put a neat little bow on the issues of citizenship and taxation.

  1. US citizens and Green Card holders are taxed on their worldwide income, no matter where they live. (Yes, I’m going to keep repeating this, because some people missed it the first hundred times).

  2. Virtually anyone born in the United States, or born outside the United States to married US citizen parents, is automatically a citizen, whether they like it or not. Many other people can also acquire US citizenship at birth.

  3. You can give up your US citizenship if you are generally up-to-date on your obligations to the IRS.

  4. A “covered expatriate” may have to pay an exit tax to the IRS upon expatriation if his or her net worth or income is above a certain level.

  5. “Accidental Americans” can apply for relief under the IRS’s new program and avoid paying any tax at all, assuming they meet all of the program’s criteria.

  6. In summary, renouncing citizenship is an act that should not be taken lightly, but is not out of the question for many US expats. If renouncing is an option that you feel makes sense, you should contact a competent attorney and make an appointment at your local US embassy or consulate. Then, you should contact CPAs For Expats to make sure your obligations to the IRS are satisfied before you leave the red, white, and blue behind for good.

Need Help With Filing Your U.S. Taxes From Overseas?

At CPAs for Expats, we specialize in helping US expats stay compliant with their US taxes. Our low fees and 4.9/5 rating on independent review platforms attests to our commitment to excellence and client satisfaction. Contact us today, and let our tax experts simplify your life and taxes.

Article by Lewis Grunfeld, CPA

Lewis Grunfeld, CPA, is a renowned expert in international and U.S. expat taxation, with expertise spanning over ten years. He has successfully helped thousands of expats around the world navigate complex international U.S. tax regulations, and achieve significant tax savings. His work is driven by a strongly rooted passion for assisting the expat community through a wide range of tax situations, ensuring tailored solutions for each unique situation.


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