International Tax

10 IRS Warning Signs for American Expats

This elevated scrutiny towards expats is primarily due to inadvertent triggers of IRS red flags. To assist you in avoiding these pitfalls, we've assembled a comprehensive list of ten things to be aware of when preparing your tax return to help you avoid an audit with the IRS.

The prospect of an IRS audit is a concern that resonates with many Americans and US taxpayers. While IRS audits are relatively uncommon as opposed to notices, the likelihood increases for expats dur to the additional forms whether it be 1116 because of foreign tax credits or Form 2555. In fact, according to IRS statistics, Americans residing overseas face a tenfold higher chance of being audited compared to their domestic counterparts.

1. Overlooking Worldwide Income Reporting

For American expats, the tax landscape is a bit more intricate than for those residing stateside. One of the most common pitfalls is the oversight of reporting worldwide income. As U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live, they are mandated to report all forms of income earned globally. Here are some types of worldwide income that are often overlooked:

  • Freelance or Consultancy Income: Whether you're a freelance writer in Bali or a consultant in Berlin, any income earned from these ventures must be reported.
  • Rental Income: If you own property abroad and earn income from renting it out, this too needs to be declared, even if the property is not in the U.S.
  • Foreign Investments: Dividends, interest, or any capital gains from investments in foreign stocks, bonds, or mutual funds are taxable.
  • Pensions and Retirement Distributions: If you're receiving distributions from a foreign pension or retirement account, it's crucial to report this. The tax treatment can be complex, depending on the country and the nature of the pension.
  • Foreign Business Earnings: If you own or have a stake in a foreign business, your share of the profits must be reported, even if those profits are reinvested and not directly received by you.
  • Foreign Trusts: Any distributions or benefits received from foreign trusts are typically taxable and need careful reporting.
  • Sale of Assets: Profits from the sale of assets, be it real estate, stocks, or personal property, abroad are subject to U.S. taxes.

The era of concealing foreign income has long passed, especially with the implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in 2010. With foreign banks now sharing information about accounts held by U.S. citizens, the IRS is more informed than ever about overseas income. Overlooking any of the above can not only lead to an audit but also result in penalties.

The Official Tax Tip: To ensure you're on the right track, consider maintaining a detailed record of all your income sources and regularly checking IRS guidelines or consulting with a tax professional familiar with expat taxation. Contact us here today to speak with a tax professional on 

2. Escalating Income Levels

With higher income levels comes an increased likelihood of an IRS audit. There are various reasons for this trend, including the IRS's scrutiny on low-income taxpayers. In response to criticisms, the IRS has shifted focus to wealthier individuals for audits.

If your income surpasses the average, exercising meticulous care when reporting your earnings is advisable. Concealing your income will only exacerbate your situation.

3. Failing to File Tax Returns

One of the most significant missteps expats can make is failing to file their annual tax returns. Despite living abroad, all US citizens are obligated to submit these returns. Surprisingly, many expats are unaware of this requirement, leading to a substantial number not meeting their tax obligations.

The failure to file taxes is a key indicator that can trigger an IRS audit. Ignorance of this requirement doesn't excuse the lapse, and it can result in substantial penalties. However, there is recourse if swift action is taken. The IRS offers the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures, enabling expats to rectify their status without facing fines.

To avail of this program, follow these steps:
  • Acknowledge that the failure to file was due to lack of awareness, not intentional evasion.
  • File the three most recent overdue income tax returns.
  • Settle any outstanding taxes from the three delinquent returns.
  • Submit a Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR) for the past six years.

Completing these steps will help reestablish compliance with the IRS.

4. Failing to Report a Foreign Bank Account

US citizens are required to file a Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR) if they have at least $10,000 stored in one or more foreign financial accounts at any point during the year. This law is designed to prevent Americans from evading their tax obligations by hiding their wealth overseas.

If you fail to file an FBAR when required, the IRS may mark it as a red flag for a tax audit.

5. Incomplete Reporting of Offshore Assets

Failure to report offshore assets is a serious IRS red flag. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requires Americans with substantial foreign financial accounts to report these holdings. The penalties for non-compliance are severe, including substantial fines and potential criminal charges.

6. Erroneous Deductions and Credits Claims

Expats have the advantage of claiming deductions and credits that are not accessible to most Americans. These include the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, Foreign Tax Credit, and Foreign Housing Deduction. Nevertheless, incorrectly claiming these benefits can raise flags at the IRS. They vigilantly monitor taxpayers who attempt to claim deductions and credits they aren't eligible for. If you're self-employed, the risk of an audit escalates, particularly if substantial losses are claimed.

While capitalizing on eligible deductions and credits is advantageous, ensure your eligibility and retain supporting documentation.

7. Making Large Cash Transactions

Similar to cryptocurrencies, cash transactions can sometimes evade the IRS's notice. As a result, the IRS pays close attention to cash transactions, particularly those involving substantial amounts.

8. Taking an Early Payout from an IRA or 401(k) Account

Making an early withdrawal from a traditional IRA, 401(k), or other retirement plans usually results in tax penalties. Although exceptions exist, a significant number of Americans remain unaware of these penalties. An IRS review in 2015 revealed that nearly 40% of individuals had made errors related to retirement fund accounts on their tax returns.

Expats making early withdrawals from retirement accounts often attract IRS scrutiny to ensure compliance.

9. Inaccurate Reporting of Foreign Business Interests

Expats engaged in foreign business ventures must accurately report their interests in these enterprises. Failure to do so can trigger an IRS audit, especially if the foreign business generates substantial income.

10. Involvement with Cryptocurrencies

The surge in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum has captured many investors' attention. However, the decentralized nature of these digital assets has led some to believe they can evade taxes. The IRS is well-aware of this trend and is actively countering tax avoidance strategies tied to cryptocurrencies. The IRS even sought customer data from Coinbase, a virtual currency exchange, to monitor cryptocurrency activities.

Cryptocurrencies are classified as property for tax purposes, making them subject to capital gains taxes. Accurately reporting these holdings in your annual return is essential, as any suspicious activity can trigger an audit

Dealing with an IRS Audit Notice

Even with precautions, IRS audits can occur, particularly for expats. If you receive an audit notice, ensure its authenticity. The IRS communicates audit matters solely through mail, so be cautious of text messages, emails, or phone calls claiming audit notifications, as these are likely scams.

If the notice is genuine, remain composed. Most audits are routine and aimed at reviewing financial information rather than causing disruption. Maintaining tax-related records for at least three years after filing your return can expedite the audit process, which typically occurs within two years of filing.

During an audit, seeking guidance from an expat tax professional can be invaluable, especially for complex cases. Regardless of the situation, always maintain a respectful demeanor when interacting with the IRS. While frustration or anxiety may arise, maintaining composure is crucial.

Expert Assistance for Expat Taxes

Engaging a seasoned expat tax professional is a prudent strategy to minimize the risk of IRS audits while residing abroad. These professionals are well-versed in the intricacies of tax return filing and can help you avoid setting off IRS red flags.

For reliable assistance with your US expat taxes, consider Tax Plug. Our experienced experts possess a deep understanding of accurately and promptly filing US taxes for expats worldwide. Reach out to us to explore our services and transparent flat-fee pricing. Your peace of mind is our foremost priority.

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