By Sophia Yan - Tuesday March 11, 2014
3,000 Americans around the world renounced their citizenship last year. Meet five U.S. citizens who have given up their passports -- or are thinking about it -- to escape an overly complicated tax code.
I threw up after renouncing
Name: Donna-Lane Nelson, 71
Lives in: Geneva, Switzerland
I renounced my U.S. citizenship in 2011. After I did it, I was so emotional that I threw up outside the embassy.
During my renunciation, I broke down. It was like getting a divorce. America gave me my education, a good career path, and I came from a beautiful part of the country. This was very hard.
Before I took the last oath, I asked if I could change my mind. The embassy worker said maybe, with official permission. But I still went through with it.
My decision to renounce was triggered when my bank threatened to close my account because I was American. What would I do without a bank? Americans in Switzerland were having trouble with their investments, getting credit cards, and some weren't even getting loans.
I've been in Switzerland since 1990, and became a citizen in 2005, because I wanted the right to vote where I was living. The Swiss can tell I have an American accent, and I'm often explaining that I grew up in the U.S. and have a daughter who still lives in the Boston area.
Filing taxes from abroad had always been a real pain. I was double taxed on my full pension, but it didn't bother me so much to pay taxes -- it was the annoying paperwork. I used to do my own taxes, but I started going to a professional when I learned about the new disclosure laws. I'm glad I did, because there were a lot of forms. Tax prep costs me about 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,123) a year.
'We're ostracized for being American'
Name: Ezra Goldman, 28
Lives in: Dongguan, China
I was born a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Germany -- the U.S. through my father, and Germany through my mother.
After graduating from college in 2008, I moved for work to Dongguan, China, and I've been here ever since.
Germany doesn't require me to report, file or pay taxes on my income earned abroad, even though I am a German citizen. But as an American citizen, I am required to file taxes on my worldwide income. I always knew that even as an expat, I would have to file.
I have a tax service in the U.S. handle it for me. There's just too much for me to possibly know what's going on with tax laws and regulations -- I can't keep up with it. It costs me several hundred dollars every year, but if a tax expert can keep me in good standing and in compliance, then I see it as the single best investment I make every year.
I am increasingly conflicted about giving up my U.S. citizenship. I plan to live abroad for a while for my career, and I don't know when I'll move back. It doesn't make it any easier as there also seem to be more and more restrictions for expats -- we're ostracized for being American.
On numerous occasions, I've gone to banks to talk about investment opportunities, and they will blatantly tell me, "We do offer them to our customers, but because you're American, those opportunities are not available." I've even had health insurance companies tell me they'd prefer I sign up as a German citizen.
Ultimately, I don't know what I'm going to do as time goes on, but I do know that I will always feel and be American, regardless of my passport.
'I still feel American'
Name: Laurie Lautmann, 58
Lives in: Gisborne, New Zealand
I went traveling through the Pacific, and landed in New Zealand in my mid-20s. I just loved it, and ended up staying, buying a home, finding a partner -- the whole works.
My partner, Frank, and I are pretty average middle class types. Frank is a local gym teacher, and I have a part-time job as a cleaner. Over the years, we have each separately owned our own businesses. Frank still has his, giving surfing lessons.
The tax obligations imposed by the U.S. drove us crazy! We live in a small town, and it was difficult to find an expert who knew the ins and outs of the U.S. tax system. When we did find a firm, it cost us more than 4,000 New Zealand dollars ($3,360) for them to do our U.S. taxes each year. We looked at the money we paid the accountants as the price we paid to retain our U.S. citizenship. But as we got older and U.S. tax laws became more convoluted, it just didn't seem worth it anymore.
The accountancy fee is the main reason why we both renounced our U.S. citizenship last year. It wasn't an easy decision -- super stressful, and very emotional. But at the end of the day, I think it was the right thing for us.
We made an embassy appointment, all the time thinking long and hard about it. I was nervous during the long drive to the consulate in Auckland. I couldn't eat; I couldn't think; I couldn't sleep.
From the time that you're young, you pledge your allegiance to the flag at school, and you always hear the U.S. is the best country. And here we were, cutting off our ties to America.
I still feel American -- it's where I grew up. If someone asks me what I am, well, hey, I'm an American! I can't say I'm a Kiwi, a New Zealander. I sound like an American, and I really am one. I just don't have the passport anymore.
'Invasion of privacy'
Name: Christina Ammann, 56
Lives in: Belp, Switzerland
When you're an American -- and I've always been patriotic -- it's extremely troubling to think about giving up your citizenship. But it's an option I am considering due to the invasive reach of the IRS and the U.S. government into my personal life.
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and went to college in California. After I graduated, I entered the Peace Corps, stationed in Costa Rica. That's where I met my husband, who is Swiss. I moved to Switzerland to be with him in 1984, and received Swiss citizenship when we married.
The fact that I have signatory rights on my Swiss husband's financial accounts means that I must report them to the U.S. government, which I find quite unfair. I have no problem paying taxes -- I have problems with reporting my non-American husband's assets. It's an invasion of privacy. I've always filed my taxes with the help of my brother, who is an accountant, but neither of us knew I had to report those accounts until my bank here sent me a letter about it.
We also didn't realize until recently that my daughter, who has U.S. citizenship through me, was required to file taxes after she turned 18 three years ago. I didn't think she had to, because her wages from a part-time job as a university student are very low.
I'm now working with a lawyer to sort this out. I think it will cost me in the range of $10,000 when it's all done, which hurts.
My conclusion is that new disclosure laws have caused an enormous amount of grief for an overwhelming majority of expats, just to get a few bad apples. They may be hiding millions, but the target persons are a small percentage of the millions of Americans abroad.
A burden for my son
Name: Richard Sikes, 65
Lives in: Toronto, Canada
When I first moved to Europe in 1973, I didn't pay attention to my U.S. taxes for a few years. I am a native Oregonian who became something of a gypsy, living all over the continent -- Ireland, England, Switzerland and Germany. I hardly earned anything at the time as a ballet dancer, so I figured I probably didn't owe taxes.
After a while, I started to make a bit more. I went straight to a U.S. consulate in Germany and filed about eight years of tax returns all at once. Even then, I don't recall owing any taxes. That put me in compliance, and since then, I've always filed my returns.
When my older son, now 21, was born in Germany, I applied for U.S. citizenship for him immediately, because I thought I might eventually return. As things worked out, I ended up in Canada -- my wife's country and where I found a job in the IT industry. My oldest son and I now both have Canadian citizenship as well.
What I'm worried about these days is whether to apply for U.S. citizenship for my younger son, who is 16. He was born in Canada, and currently holds Canadian citizenship. He has the right to be an American citizen through me, and I wouldn't want to deny him that.
But do I want to impose a lifetime of paying to have U.S. tax returns prepared upon him? There are benefits -- having a U.S. passport would make it easier for him to study and work in the U.S., if that's what he wants. But at his age, he doesn't know yet what career direction he wants to follow.
As for myself, I have considered renouncing my U.S. citizenship -- my Canadian wife feels it is incredibly invasive that we are required to report our joint assets. But even after 40 years as an expat, I've kept my citizenship, because I still cherish the privilege of voting in national elections.