How Americans in Britain became "toxic citizens"

After FACTA.

"We have become toxic citizens," says Andy Sundberg, the founder of American Citizens Abroad. To what is he referring? Congress passed FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) in 2010, designed to address the issue of US citizens evading tax by using Swiss bank accounts. Those financial institutions wishing to retain their US clients must in future report US account holders to the relevant authorities. This has resulted in several leading private banks deciding to withdraw from the fray, thus rendering their US clients orphans.

This has caused great consternation in the UK, where there are 177,000 Americans (according to the 2011 Census), many of whom have been here a long time. Indeed, some have chosen to settle here permanently or perhaps indefinitely, marrying non-American spouses and educating their children at British schools and universities. Many of them have earned substantial salaries and bonuses in financial services or in law, and until recently, their wealth management needs have been serviced by the full gamut of British and European private banks. Now all this has changed.

Essentially, FATCA is forcing foreign financial institutions to identify and report the accounts and investments of their American clients. The reporting obligation is what is driving many institutions into pushing their US clients away. All the banks, custody houses, trust companies, and insurance companies in Britain that have US citizens as clients now have an obligation to identify who meets the definition of a ‘"US person" and then they have to furnish such information to the authorities who in turn will provide the information to the IRS.

It is certainly having the desired effect as far as the IRS is concerned, since over 600,000 US citizens living overseas filed a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) in 2011 following greater awareness of FATCA, compared to fewer than 300,000 in 2009. FATCA is flushing everyone out into the open and forcing them to sort out their affairs. Nonetheless, those 600,000 are one-tenth of the 6.3 million US persons living in 160 countries around the world.

Companies like mine, Vestra Wealth, have decided to respond differently to FATCA, preferring to see it less as a catastrophe and more as an opportunity. When FATCA was introduced, the partners agreed that there was a significant opportunity to let us create the infrastructure for a dedicated US team. This was driven primarily by client need, as we found that there are a number of British nationals resident in the US as well as US citizens living in the UK, all of who were seeking investment services. So as of May this year we have been registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US as well as being fully regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK.

The US is one of the few countries in the world who taxes its citizens on their worldwide income and gains, regardless of residency status. US residents and non-resident citizens (including Green Card holders) have therefore always had an obligation to report their annual income and gains to the US authorities. All that a US citizen with wealth management requirements in the UK needs to know is that their chance of being caught up in the FATCA net has vastly increased, so they should ensure their affairs are structured and reported correctly.

When a new client comes to us at Vestra US we conduct a rigorous assessment of their affairs to ensure everything is in line. If the client has been unintentionally delinquent in the past, or possibly even misadvised, then we put them in touch with the appropriate legal advisers and accountants, so that we are able to start with a level playing field before giving them investment advice.

Most of our clients are US professionals working in the City of London or Mayfair, who are often too busy to manage their own affairs let alone understand both the UK and US consequences of different investments. For example, some investments set up in the UK to be tax-efficient in the UK are inefficient in the US, and some investments set up to be tax-efficient in the US are inefficient in the UK once you have been resident here for over seven years.

The standard UK-based wealth management solution often involves funds, unit trusts and OEICs. Yet from a US perspective these are considered to be Passive Foreign Investment Companies (PFICs), with all the gains accrued therein liable to US income tax at 39.6 per cent. There is also a reporting requirement with a PFIC, so the problem compounds itself if you fail to declare such investments for several years.

If you hold a PFIC for long enough without reporting it, you could find yourself paying up to 100 per cent tax on any realised gain because of all the penalties and compounded interest charges that would be applied. Therefore we look to structure investment portfolios which would not attract negative tax in either jurisdiction.

As pension lifetime limits keep coming down, along with annual pension contribution limits, so investments in EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) companies are becoming more popular. However, it has to be the right type of EIS. It is necessary to ensure the client has sufficient foreign tax credits to offset the relief in the UK, otherwise you are simply reducing UK tax and increasing US tax.

You also have to ensure you do not breach any of the other rules around percentage ownership or the number of Americans that own assets within the EIS. Managed correctly, it is a great way for a US client to utilise their foreign tax credits (under the Double Taxation Agreement) while at the same time increasing their overall tax efficiency.

With mixed marriages between one US citizen and one non-US citizen, the wealth manager needs to make sure that ownership of assets and their respective wills are structured correctly. Certainly in my experience there are a large number of UK-resident Americans who have been shoe-horned into inappropriate products, whether PFICs within ISAs, non-qualifying pensions or insurance policies.

We know the red flags and we know the people who can help resolve the situation. There are scenarios where a client and their estate could end up paying dual inheritance tax for example. US clients need a triumvirate of advisers – a wealth manager, an accountant, and attorney – who are fully aligned and work in a cohesive, not competitive, manner.

Vestra US also advises professionals going to work on Wall Street or elsewhere in the US, who often have investments and pensions that can be structured correctly for US tax purposes or which permit deferral of US capital gains tax and income tax while they are US-resident for tax purposes. We would look to establish a fully US-compliant life insurance wrapper for the client that defers the annual taxation and allows investments to be made into PFICs without penalty or annual reporting.

I have enjoyed playing British American Football, for the London Warriors, in a small British summer league, and I often think the US tax regulations are similar to the rules governing American football. The first time you watch the game it is very difficult to understand what is happening. But once you know that there is an offence and a defence, and that you have four attempts to move the ball ten yards otherwise the other team gains possession, it is suddenly not too difficult to comprehend.

It is the same with running money for US citizens in the UK. There are numerous rules and regulations to consider, but once you know what they are, there is no need to feel intimidated.

Paul Nixon is a director of Vestra US

This piece first appeared on Spear's.

American tourists in Madame Tussards. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.