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Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.” - Daniel Defoe

Most U.S. nonresidents are aware these days that if you move to the United States or have U.S. investments, you may become subject to U.S. income tax laws. But what may not be as well known is that you may also be subject to U.S. estate tax, even if you don’t earn any income or file income tax returns.

The Internal Revenue Code is notoriously complex and this area is no exception. The Internal Revenue Code actually has two separate determinations for taxing a foreign person: residency for the income tax, and domicile for the estate tax. Even if you are not a resident for income tax, you can still be considered domiciled for the estate tax.

The IRS defines residency for income tax under a number of different tests, including whether the taxpayer holds a green card or if they’ve been in the country for a substantial portion of the year. You can also make the First-Year Election to declare your residency on the first U.S. income tax return you file.

When it comes to the estate tax, federal regulations determine a “domicile” as living somewhere for a period of time without any immediate plans of leaving. Domicile depends on both physical presence and intention to stay in the country. Simply put, if you intend to stay, you’re domiciled, but if you plan to leave, you need to actually leave.

If a person is deemed to be a U.S. resident for estate tax, their worldwide assets are subject to the estate tax. If someone is a nonresident, only assets with situs in the United States are subject to inclusion in his or her estate.

What Can You Do if You Are Subject to U.S. Estate Tax?

At this point, you may be thinking, “I have U.S. and foreign assets, so how can I reduce or avoid U.S. estate tax?”

The answer to that question largely depends on your current situation.

If you’re a nonresident alien who has a domicile in the United States, there’s a certain amount of preplanning you can do in anticipation of this tax, such as gifting intangible property before establishing a domicile in the U.S. There are other measures you can take, such as having U.S. real estate and equities owned by a foreign corporation, to make sure you are in the most advantageous position in the U.S. and the foreign country.

It’s also important to consider whether a nonresident’s country of citizenship has a tax treaty in force with the United States. The U.S. has active tax treaties with many countries, and depending on the country, a nonresident individual may be entitled to the full $5,495,000 estate exclusion or only a statutory $60,000 exclusion.

Expatriation might seem like a good way to avoid the U.S. estate tax—and this may be the case in certain situations—but Section 2107 of the Internal Revenue Code makes nonresident aliens subject to U.S. estate tax if they were domiciled in the United States for a period of five years or more. The window for being subject to this tax is ten years and you are taxed on any assets (tangible or intangible) that are situated in the United States.

If you are a foreign national living and owning property in the U.S. and have concerns that you may be subject to U.S. estate tax, we can help you sort out your options. We at Freed Maxick pride ourselves on our experience and expertise with these and other international tax matters. Please contact us if you have any questions.

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