Roland Sabates is the Founder and Managing Member of Expat Legal Services Group. The firm provides unique services for American expatriates and foreign nationals, including legal advice, foreign adoption consultancy, international tax advice, and real estate planning. He’s also the President of American Tax Partners.
Roland devotes his time to developing creative strategies and solving tax issues for international clients. While at the Tax Institute at H&R Block, he managed a tax research team focused on the needs of American expats, foreign nationals' US tax exposure, and tax filers in Puerto Rico and other US possessions. Roland was the Director of Operations at H&R Block for over two years before practicing tax and real estate law at The Hood Law Group.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- The US tax obligations for remote workers in different countries
- How expats should handle their tax planning
- What to account for before permanently moving abroad
- How to incorporate your business as an expatriate entrepreneur
- The intersection of taxes for remote workers with immigration visas
In this episode…
Migrating to another country to start a new life can be an exhilarating experience. However, it can also be a daunting undertaking due to the many complex requirements. What should Americans be aware of before jetting off to work from a foreign destination?
Tax expert Roland Sabates explains that American citizens who hold a US passport should understand that even if they move overseas, they’re still obligated to file taxes annually. In addition, filing an information report is crucial if you possess an out-of-country bank account with a balance over $10,000. This protects individuals from penalty exposure or assumptions of nefarious activities. However, there are some benefits, as Roland defines the foreign-earned income exclusion, which could save you from paying US taxes on amounts of $120,000 or more.
In this episode of Remotely Cultured with Jeanna Barrett, Roland Sabates, Founder and Managing Partner at Expat Legal Services Group, breaks down everything you need to know about taxes as an American expat. Roland discusses tax complexities and responsibilities for Americans working abroad, including how to incorporate a business as an expat entrepreneur, and the intersection of tax and immigration visas.
Resources mentioned in this episode
- Roland Sabates on LinkedIn
- Email Roland Sabates: Roland@expatlegal.com
- Expat Legal Service Group
- “Remote Work Taxes, Visas, Financial Tips, and What It’s Like Working in Barcelona With Elliott Locke of Abroaden”
Jeanna: Hey, everyone, welcome to Remotely Cultured. I'm your host Jeanna calling in from Roatán, Honduras where I run FPS and host this podcast. This episode is brought to you by First Page Strategy. At FPS, we use data and big ideas to produce exponential growth for product-led brands who need to nail their acquisition goals and want to work with a flexible, non-traditional agency. For example, in one year we've grown a client's total revenue by 197%, their organic revenue by 300%, and their paid revenue by over 1,000%. If you're a SaaS, FinTech, or startup and need to hit your 2023 high-growth acquisition goals, check us out at firstpagestrategy.com. Today we have with us Roland Sabates, who is a tax attorney by trade and has been focused on working with the US cross-border community his entire career. He also manages tax planning representation and ongoing tax filing for American expats and assists with US immigration estate planning business services for small and mid-sized operations. Specifically, his practice is focused in Spain, UK, and Portugal but he also works with clients globally. Welcome, Roland! Tell our listeners, where are you calling in from?
Roland: Thanks very much, Jeanna. Appreciate you having us. I'm calling in from lovely Morristown, New Jersey. Wish I was in Roatán, Honduras right now. Yeah, cloudy, hot day, but our practice is located in Kansas City, Missouri. So that's where it all happens from and we work with the expat community globally. And this whole nature of remote work is kind of what our practice is based on where we can provide you know, good cross-border tax services, no matter where you may be living or working.
Jeanna: Yes, love that. It's something that definitely I've had to have help with while living in Central America, and shout out to Elliott Locke, who you are connected with. He's the founder of abroaden.co. We had him on a previous podcast so Elliott introduced us to Roland. Together, the two of them working with abroad.co and Roland's expat tax services should get anyone working remote in a good spot with understanding tax and financial implications of living in other countries. So let's dive in. Roland, I know you have a lot to talk about with this, you know ongoing tax responsibilities for American expats, what they need to think about. Let's start off with, if we have someone listening who might be moving for the first time to another country, they might be working remote or they decided to kind of like give up lifestyle in the US like guy did and and found a company or live in another in another culture across the globe. What are some of the things that that you should think about right off the bat?
Roland: Well, the first you know, big counterintuitive detail is that even if you move to a foreign country, if you're an American citizen, you have a US passport, you have to keep filing tax returns annually.
Jeanna: For the rest of your life.
Roland: For the rest of your life, that's exactly right. So it doesn't matter if you owe any tax there's still a stack of tax documents. That you need to send into the IRS and the US government each year. The other detail is it's not just the tax returns. So any American that has a bank account outside of the United States, is required to file a separate information report if the highest balance is over $10,000 at any point during the year. Now these are the accounts that you know an expat is you know opening to buy groceries and just do business or do whatever they have going on in that country. But these are the same accounts that you know a dentist in Baltimore, Maryland is using to hide offshore profits in the Cayman Islands. So you have the same information reporting obligations that were not designed for you but you still have the same penalty exposure that somebody who may be using these types of accounts for nefarious purposes would have. So the stakes are a lot higher with filing. Number one is you got to do it and the penalty exposure can be tremendous for non-compliance.
Jeanna: And let's — would you give someone the advice to just keep an account lower than $10,000? Like if you're getting paid, like through another account, would you just transfer it back over to your US account or is there a good way to go about that?
Roland: You know, I get that question quite a lot. And the truth is it's just an information report. So it's something you need to be aware of, it really does not complicate the situation. So you know, I don't know if that doesn't create logistical challenges for you, you know in your day to day life and you're able to keep most of your finances stateside, or manage an account without creating you know, lifestyle impact for you in that country, then that's great, but you're not saving yourself any taxes. You're just saving yourself an obligation to tell the IRS or Department of Treasury about that account. So I wouldn't call it a tax planning strategy but it does you know, save you some compliance really is just making sure you know about that obligation and are keeping up with it. Now, you know, the penalties for non compliance can be $10,000 Just for you know, negligent filing that you know, you didn't necessarily know about. The IRS is not in the business of penalizing an American expat who didn't know about their account to buy groceries with the flat fee $10,000 penalty, but they do have that leverage. They have that the ability to do that. So we don't see that happening, but it's really just a requirement to have on your radar and make sure you're staying up with it because it's you know, it's it's terrifying obligation to find out about after you've been living outside of the US for a decade and just learned you need to send in the IRS tax return every year.
Jeanna: Yeah. Yeah, I have to say like if this is not like a testament to your expertise, I've gone through I think four tax accountants and the eight years I've lived in Central America and not one of them have told me that.
Roland: It's counterintuitive. That's the biggest challenge. But it's also you know, a strong argument in your defense if somebody does happen to find themselves sideways with one of those reporting obligations, that it's a right. The most important thing is to be you know, filing them voluntarily. There are a number of programs available to get caught up with those filing responsibilities. You don't want to be filing them in response to an IRS notice or when they've already got your number. So that's the only thing it's you know, it's very understandable to be in that situation because it's not advice as being broadly provided by US-based accountants. So you know, making sure you're doing it voluntarily, you're being proactive and not you know, the IRS isn't finding out about it in the course of some extended audit, that's going to be the best foot forward for you.
Jeanna: Okay, cool. Let's talk about the two different use cases there. Because you can be someone living — let's just pick a country, right — let's pick Portugal. Popular place to be working remote these days. Let's say you're living in Portugal, but you are working for a US-based company. Let's talk about the tax obligation there. And then let's talk about if you're working in Portugal for a Portuguese company and the tax obligations there, as far as reporting to the US government.
Roland: Absolutely. So to be honest, you know, the rules are mostly the same with respect to somebody working as an employee. So, income from working — so wages — or income from self-employment is generally sourced to the location where you're actually performing those services. So if you're in Portugal, performing services for an American company, that's still foreign source income, even though it's a US company paying you the same would be true of your pay by Portuguese company. Now the challenge is, you know, for an American who's living and working in Portugal being paid by a US company, you know, the challenge is more complying with your Portuguese taxes in that scenario. Now, Portugal has been kind of one of the countries has been a leader in the forefront for helping digital nomads and people who are working remotely, you know, find a path forward without creating a number of compliance challenges. So that's a country where you can find a path forward. The issue more becomes for your employer. So that's what we kind of see happen where now I'm a US company, and I have an employee that's based in Portugal. So the reason that US company may not want that is because now they're potentially subject to labor laws in Portugal and that kind of deal. So making sure that you're not going to have a challenge with your company and they have sent you and you're not just hey, I'm, I'm working remotely. The company thinks I'm in Florida, but I'm actually in Portugal, that's something that we see come, you know, quite quite often and we advise, hey, you know, again, just make sure that you've got a plan if your company finds out you know, you're not in the United States and you find yourself without a job. Kind of the path forward from there would be now.
Roland: You know, on the flip side, you got a visa, you know, you're working in Portugal and Portugal is, you know, they offer a reduced tax rate for, you know, for individuals who are what's called a non-habitual tax resident. So you have a 10 year period after you move to Portugal where you know, if your your wages, or the type of income you're generating in your profession, fits in a certain category, they charge you only, you know, a reduced rate at tax, a flat rate of 20% on what you're generating. So, you know, that puts you in a scenario where actually you may owe some tax back stateside, depending on what you're generating. So it is a fairly nuanced scenario and but who the employer is does not really impact your personal taxes.
Jeanna: Okay, so I was under the impression, let's see if I got this wrong, that if I was like, you know, I'm in Roatan, Honduras, and I have a US company. So obviously, that's a US company, I'm making us money, and so I report everything to the US government, we do our taxes through the US. But what if I were in Roatan, Honduras and I was working for a Honduran company and making money on Honduran soil? I wouldn't be taxed on that by the US government. Right?
Roland: Well, you would be, but what you'd be able to do — there's two benefits available to you and one technically when you know somebody who's working remotely for a US company — there's two benefits available. If you're, you know, an expat or living outside of the United States to reduce US tax. The first is the foreign earned income exclusion, which basically lets you take $120,000 off the top of your wages. You don't pay tax on that on the US side. So that's the first benefit. The second is you get dollar for dollar credit for any foreign tax you're paying. So really, the rate of tax in that country is going to be relevant to exactly how you approach your US taxes. So for somebody who's not subject to local taxes because of the scenario the you know, they had the visa they have is either protected from taxes locally, or they're working in a country that does not actually have income tax on that type of income. You know, there's some tremendous tax savings by using this foreign earned income exclusion because you know, there are two ways to qualify one is through bona fide residence, the other is just through presence outside of the United States. So if you're outside of the country for 330 days in a 12 month period, you know, you may not have to pay US tax on up to 120,000 and it really doesn't matter whether or not you're paying Honduran or any foreign tax in that scenario.
Jeanna: Okay, gotcha. So you will not be taxed on the first $120,000 you make?
Roland: Generally, and there's a few requirements that you need to meet but yeah, that's the main benefit. But you know, for example, somebody who's in Spain and is paying a 45% tax rate on anything that they're making over 60,000 Euro, you're going to claim a credit for the tax you're paying because all of that excess credit that you're generating, can apply against future foreign earnings if you find yourself in a country with reduced tax rates, or earning some income that is not actually taxed in a foreign country.
Jeanna: Okay, let me see if I translated this correctly, so it let's say I have to pay $60,000 taxes into Spain, because I'm living and working in Spain. I have to pay my US taxes but I get that $60,000 back plus 120,000 for foreign income exclusion?
Roland: You kind of have to choose between the benefits.
So that's what you need to optimize and those are really the variables you look at. One, are you paying tax in that foreign country? Two is that rate of tax higher than you would be paying on the US side? And then the third would be Are there any you know, child related benefits or anything else that you know may be impacted by your decision to either exclude the income or claim a credit for the foreign taxes?
Jeanna: Gotcha. Complicated.
Roland: Well, there's, you know, even for fairly straightforward scenarios, there is some, you know, very important decision-making kind of from the outset that having a plan in place is really the most important thing.
Jeanna: Yeah. Is there anything else that people that work remote in other countries should be thinking about besides the ones we've already talked about?
Roland: Well, I think the second you know, you know, call out I would have is really for someone who is, you know, formalized their situation in this country. You're not a digital nomad, you're not working in the interim for a US employer with, you know, plans to change in the foreseeable future. You know, you've moved to this country you're living there, you have a local, you know, you have a local employer. The rules for foreign retirement and savings vehicles are not going to be the same. So just because you have a pension scheme that's tax protected in one country doesn't mean that those same pension benefits are going to be tax efficient on the US side. So before you start making investments locally, it's crucial to understand the, you know, the US implications of those investments. Now, we've got tax treaties in place with a number of countries, you know, the United Kingdom has a very robust treaty provision that basically allows Americans to participate in any, you know, broadly in UK pension schemes. In Honduras, we don't have an income tax treaty. So, if you were working for a Honduran company, and they were funding a pension scheme in amounts that were not taxable in Honduras, you would technically still be subject to US tax. That would be a taxable account, it wouldn't be treated as a 401k or an IRA would with US taxes. So that's one, you know, detail to make sure that, you know, you're thinking about retirement. And that's what these guys at Abroaden are really thinking about is trying to figure out how to save for retirement when you don't have a lot of the same incentives while you're an American living abroad.
Roland: It's a hill to climb and you have to be, you know, thinking about it a number of different ways.
Jeanna: Interesting. And what about tax planning, like steps that expats should be taking before April 15, or whatever it is that I always do extensions, but our tax planning season is what should we be doing?
Roland: Yeah, I think you know, the main question is you know, how are you optimizing your US tax exposure while you're living outside of the United States? Are you paying foreign tax? Are you eligible for this foreign earned income exclusion and you know, really, rather than doing it before April 15, you know, these are things you want to think about before the end of the calendar year, typically. If your days of presence in this foreign country are going to be important, are there opportunities to maximize expenses? You know, that's going to be a November process that you know, you want to start to make sure you've been able to make the moves you need to but before the end of the year. At the tax desk, you know, for expats, it really comes down to optimizing this choice of the foreign earned income exclusion and tax credit.
Roland: If, you know, Americans who have children raising families overseas and the children are US citizens, you can still be entitled to fairly generous child tax credits on an annual basis. Americans living abroad are also eligible for the economic impact payments under essentially the same rules as applied to US-based Americans. So, you know, making sure that you are qualifying for those benefits and not making some type of election to report your foreign income in a way that jeopardizes you know those payments.
Jeanna: Yeah. And what about, do you work with or do you support business owners like the LLC versus Corporation versus an S corp? Like along with that foreign income exclusion and how that whole ecosystem is and how business owners should be thinking about like how to set up and incorporate their business as an expat?
Roland: Absolutely. It's a huge question that comes up and it's not just you know, what type of business, where should should I have my business, and it's not a one-size-fits-all solutions. So a lot of Americans, you know, it's the solution to you know, I can set up an LLC in an afternoon and I can have that off to the races. But the challenge is, you know, is this company now considered to be doing business in a foreign country and that can come with its whole host of tax challenges in that country. So often, Americans are thinking, well, I'm going to be doing business in Spain, or I'm going to be doing business in Portugal, should I set up a company here locally, and that may make sense in a number of scenarios, but that also comes with a whole host of US tax challenges to think about where Americans who control non-US companies have very robust annual information reporting for those businesses. So you know, it can you know, for example, in the UK, you can really optimize your tax exposure through use of a limited company both with, you know, social security or National Insurance taxes and income and dividend taxes as well. In Spain, it really doesn't work that way where, you know, there's generally not a great incentive to reduce your income under Spanish law by operating through a limited company. So the cost of compliance on the US side is likely not going to be worth it unless you actually have tax savings or a business plan where it makes sense to have a non-US company.
Jeanna: Yeah, and I think something that people don't understand is like, you can incorporate your business really anywhere in the US, right, like when I first started my remote business, I incorporated it in the state that I was living in, but you don't have to do that, right? Because some states have worse taxes for businesses than others. So what does that look like if you're someone that is like, maybe going to leave the US but run a US company?
Roland: That's exactly right. So you're gonna need to have a registered agent and in the states, so if you don't have presence, it may cost you some fees to have that but no, it's really more you know, if you're outside of the US, you really don't do any business in the United States and your connection is that you're a US citizen, you're obligated to file and pay your taxes. And you don't really have a formal, you know, work visa or employment arrangement outside of the United States. So you know, when you're in that scenario, you do want to think about state taxes and state residency. So if you're living and working full time in Honduras and have no connection stateside, you don't want to be paying state level income tax. So you have a business that's located in a state that has income tax, you may end up having some exposure, you know, in that location. Now, it's doesn't always work that way. But there certainly are states that are going to be more efficient than others when it comes to that.
Jeanna: Right. That's exactly the mistake I made. I set my LLC up in California, which has a 10% income tax and then ended up disolving it and actually reincorporating in Washington State.
Roland: Exactly. And that's a great move because you don't have anything going on in California. You don't have any reason to be filing tax returns. And so I think that's the benefit of having your business in the state like Washington, or Wyoming is the state that a lot of American expats use because of ease of compliance and you know, straightforward initial filings. Now where it becomes problematic is if you move back to California or you move back to that state and are still trying to do business, you know, through the Washington LLC or through a Nevada LLC, and that's kind of, you know, California Franchise Tax Board is, you know, well, well aware of, you know, people spending a few days in Nevada and trying to say that they're not California residents, so, you know, it works for the American expat community, but it's not a strategy for US based Americans to have, you know, a company in one state and not the other. So it sounds like it's being done nefariously in a lot of scenarios, but it's really not, it's because hey, you don't want to have additional compliance for a business entity that's doing no US business, and it's based outside of the United States. So it is a good move and, you know, but then returning to the US is going to require some additional tax planning and consideration for the business.
Jeanna: Right. Okay. Let's talk next a little bit about the intersection of taxes and immigration visas. What does, what does that mean for remote workers?
Roland: Well, you know, the main details that a lot of, you know, these visas that your American expats are getting to work remotely, don't necessarily give you the privileges of working remotely in that country. And so, you know, that nuance creates a whole host of tax challenges stateside, where it's more of a challenge to claim the foreign earned income exclusion that we discussed previously, if you've made a statement to foreign tax authorities that you are not a resident for tax purposes. The other challenge is if you want to renew a visa or this visa requires that you are you know, not working or that you're spending a certain amount of time in that country. There's not a great way to comply. So I think that's the, you know, that that's the issue is, you know, if you're traveling around the world on a tourist visa or one of these temporary visas that don't allow you to work, you need to be cautious about the type of work you're doing, making sure you're not getting yourself and potentially your company into a tax challenge there locally.
Jeanna: Right. So I think the best advice there's like really just to dig into the place you might be living and what kind of visas they offer to make sure that you if you need to work, you're getting the right visa. Because that's kind of, the places I've been, they have, you know, many different types of visas and I've had to tell a lawyer like look, I need to work remote. I need you to give me a visa that allows me to work remote, and I've had a challenge where that visa doesn't exist yet, because they don't think people are like working remote. You know that's why we're in like a weird in-between stage where a lot of countries don't even have a visa for that right now.
Roland: Absolutely. No, you're exactly right about that. And it's not that, hey, I'm not doing this nefariously or I'm not trying to you know, be dodgy with my taxes. It's simply, I want to live in Spain and I want to keep earning my income and you know, I'm paying tax in the US, I spend my money here, you would think that I'm fulfilling the terms of the visa but that's kind of the problem and you know, what we see happen when somebody has been on a non-lucrative or a visa that does not allow you to work but they have been working, you know, then things are formalized and at some point if, if they ended up sticking around in that country or they do end up formalizing and becoming part of the local tax system. There can be a question about what happened during these, you know, intervening years before you started the compliance. So, that's where we see it become a problem is, hey, you can be flying pretty close to the sun and then plans change. And now you've got several years of non-compliance to worry about in that country and it may be a very high tax country that you know, it could be a big bill that someone may be looking at.
Jeanna: Right. That's not fun. I'll try to avoid those big bills, tax bills. And what about like, what kind of compliance is you say like, you know, complying the tax that you're in, the country that you're in to their taxes, but what other compliance should Americans living abroad think about when it comes to banking, voting, driver's licenses, Social Security and all that kind of stuff?
Roland: Yeah, I think you know, the, the length of the move abroad is very important. If you're saying, I'm moving to the UK or I'm moving to Honduras, I'm going to be there for one year, and then I'm coming back to California or I'm coming back, you know, that's a different scenario than somebody who's breaking the champagne bottle on the front of the ship and saying, hey, I'm never coming back here again. And now I live in Honduras or I live in Spain. So I do think the planning details are very different in those two scenarios, and what you're thinking. So for example, one big detail is in the US, if you own your principal residence or the home you live in and you've lived there for two of the last five years, you're not going to pay capital gains tax on up to $250,000 of gain that you would get from selling that property. So if you're going to sell that home or if you're moving out of that home, and you're going to move to Spain, and that property may sell a year from now, Spain is not going to give you that same flat $250,000 exclusion that you would have. So it's important to understand, you know, if you do have assets that have appreciated in value, or you have a principal residence or a main home, you know, making sure you know how that foreign country is going to tax that transaction before you move and optimizing things before you actually set sale is really a very important detail. Moving retirement accounts around you know, some countries may not tax Roth IRAs, but they may heavily tax 401k's or other plans. Or, you know, a Roth conversion of where you move your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in a taxable transaction. You may want to do that before you're paying 45% rate of Spanish tax. So those are the kinds of things you want to be thinking about and how long the move is going to be. Really, if you know that at the outset, it really helps in coming up with a solid tax plan.
Jeanna: Gotcha. So basically just listening to all this I already I thought I was pretty by-the-book in the eight years I've been in Central America. I've tried to work with the right people, but you've already kind of told me some things I'm listening to that I don't feel like I'm doing right. So I think that I'm just gonna tell everybody listening that I found it super important to find somebody try to find somebody that is an expert in expat taxes, because it is such a frickin complicated space to live in. What kind of like packages or how do you work with people like what kind of relationships do you offer with the people that you do taxes for?
Roland: Absolutely. So we, you know, my standard engagement for tax matters is what we call a tax management engagement. So it includes, you know, it's going to be a flat fee. Generally, we do have some hourly engagements, but primarily we work on a flat fee basis, which is going to include all of the US filings, but also some advice in addition to that, so you know, this is not something where it's just putting the numbers in the tax return if you know somebody has a straightforward enough situation. There are, you know, resources for expats to DIY their taxes, but that really, you know, you're gonna get yourself into trouble. You know, the more income you're generating, the more different irons you have in the fire. You know, you have questions that come up throughout the year. So that's really what you know, it's not just filling out the numbers in the tax return. It's when you're thinking about opening a new business here, or opening one there, buying a home, or selling some stocks. You know, we want to make sure that you've got a you know, a holistic view of that and, you know, I think as I mentioned, we do help specifically in Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. So for clients there we don't do those taxes in-house, but we will coordinate your local tax filing obligations to make sure there's one lens being looked at, you know, looked through to view the entire situation instead of the different pieces kind of happening in a vacuum which, you know, maybe fine one year but 10 years of that where your Spanish tax guy is not talking to your US tax guy, that's where things can get, you know, a little bit out of line.
Jeanna: Yeah, awesome. Okay. Um, well Roland, let's go through our final three questions to wrap up this podcast. Um, first, what is your one work from anywhere item or tool that you can never live without?
Roland: I have a portable monitor that I can plug in anywhere.
Roland: So it's kind of one of those things, but in addition to that, you know, WiFi, you know, travel WiFi devices when you've got you know, I can't really plug into a hotel WiFi with, you know, the nature of the work we're doing. So, you know, having one of these travel portable WiFi devices really are phenomenal these days. I'm not gonna plug any brand we have a couple different ones that we use.
Roland: I guess that was two, so I'm gonna I'm gonna put the WiFi above the portable monitor.
Jeanna: Okay. I do love both though. And what is a remote-work productivity hack that you might do that you could share with our listeners?
Roland: What I find, and this may be more about my practice, but managing email communications. I think when you're working remotely, so much, you know, that would have become an in-person conversation email correspondence. So I think when you're a remote worker, you can find yourself really bogged down in communications. So I would say having a strategy for managing your inbox is the, you know, remote tool, you know, strategy that we would employ there.
Jeanna: Yeah, that's great advice. That is true. Cool. And if someone wanted to learn more about you and your expat tax business and support that they could leverage where should they go online?
Roland: Right, so they can contact me directly by email at email@example.com or expatlegal.com is our website there. So you can put in a contact through there as well. If you mention that you heard about us through the podcast, we'll waive our consultation fee.
Jeanna: Oh, I love that. Cool. Thanks for doing that. Awesome, Roland. Well, thanks for coming on today and telling us all about how to avoid making a mistake in our taxes.
Roland: Thank you for having me, Jeanna. hope I didn't bore everyone to tears here.
Jeanna: Thank you!