Stashing money in a Swiss bank account sounds like something best left to corrupt corporations and villains in espionage novels. “In the movies, it’s always portrayed as a shady thing,” says Scott Sargent, an attorney with legal firm Baker Donelson in Birmingham, Alabama.
However, the reality is there isn’t anything illegal about banking in a foreign country. What’s more, there are many good reasons why someone would want to put money into an offshore account, including added convenience while traveling and a broader diversification of assets. Still, there’s always the risk of currency devaluations – and the IRS has additional reporting requirements for money in foreign accounts.
Before you opt to move your cash to the Cayman Islands, weigh the benefits and drawbacks, and consider the following factors to decide whether putting money into an offshore account is right for you.
Understand the legitimate reasons to use offshore accounts. Not everyone uses offshore accounts to hide their money and avoid paying taxes. Jeffrey Moss, a tax and estate planning attorney with Dawda, Mann, Mulcahy & Sadler PLC in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, says there are numerous reasons why someone might want to have an account open in another country.
People may inherit accounts from an overseas relative, or they may want to be able to easily send gifts to family members in another country. Moss says he’s had clients choose to open foreign accounts in locations they visit frequently. “Particularly [in] India, people don’t want to carry a lot of money,” he says.
“It’s only lately that we’ve become so global that we can go to another country and take money out of an ATM,” says Zhanna Ziering, member of Caplin & Drysdale Attorneys in New York City. Even then, there may be foreign transaction fees or other costs associated with converting currency. Retirees who buy a condo in another country may find it beneficial to have a bank account in the local currency to pay their bills.
Other people may choose to open a foreign bank account for currency diversification. This investment strategy involves holding assets in several different currencies to minimize the risk of losing value should the purchasing power of the dollar weaken. What’s more, interest rates may be higher in other countries as compared to what is currently offered at U.S. banks.
Don’t discount the drawbacks to foreign banking. Keeping money in a foreign bank account isn’t risk-free. A country hit with a recession could see its currency devalued and that could mean a person’s bank account will be worth significantly less.
Another concern is political instability, which could lead to policy changes. Although the chance is rare, Sargent says a new regime could decide to nationalize banks and seize foreign assets.
More likely, in his opinion, is the chance of identity theft or other cybercrimes. “Believe it or not, we have some good security in the [U.S.] information services sector,” Sargent says. Other countries may not have the same level or security, or their consumer protection laws may not protect people who lose their money because of fraudulent transactions on their account.
Don’t plan to use an offshore account to evade taxes. For some, offshore accounts have been used as a tax shelter. Money placed in a foreign bank account could be invested, and the IRS would never know about income earned from those assets.
Instead of paying U.S. tax rates, affluent households could set up a second residence in a country like Monaco, where there is no personal income tax, and keep their money in accounts there. “It’s not you or me,” Sargent says of those who use foreign tax shelters. “It’s people who live a different life [than the average family].”
The problem is this strategy is illegal. By law, U.S. citizens need to pay taxes on all income, regardless of where it is earned. That means any interest or gains earned on foreign investments must be included on federal tax returns. However, in the past, countries such as Switzerland and Bermuda didn’t require information about U.S. account holders to be released, which meant people could easily conceal their earnings and avoid paying taxes.
That’s changed in recent years, as the U.S. has been actively working to eliminate the use of these tax shelters. Most notably, agreements have been made between countries to facilitate the release of banking information from traditional tax havens like Switzerland.
It’s no longer a question of if someone will be caught for foreign tax evasion but when, Ziering says. “[It] was simple before the IRS enforcement,” she says, “[but] a using offshore account to hide money doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Understand the IRS requirements for offshore accounts. As part of its attempt to crack down on tax evaders, the IRS now requires people to declare whether they own any foreign assets or have signature authority on a foreign bank account. Failure to make this declaration could result in a penalty equal to half the balance held in the account.
Any interest or capital gains earned on money in another country must be declared at tax time as well. Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, some foreign banks will report this information to the IRS to help ensure U.S. residents meet their tax obligations. Finally, those who have more than $10,000 in assets across all foreign accounts must submit an annual Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts form.
Having money in a foreign bank account isn’t illegal, and it can be convenient for those who maintain a second home outside the U.S. or travel frequently. However, before you open an offshore account, make sure the benefits outweigh any risk from lax consumer protection laws and any inconvenience posed by IRS regulations.