Inside the long-awaited package, six pages of government paperwork dryly affirmed Carol Tapanila’s anxious request. But when Tapanila slipped the contents from the brown envelope, she saw there was something more.
“We the people....” declared the script inside her U.S. passport – now with four holes punched through it from cover to cover. Her departure from life as an American was stamped final on the same page: “Bearer Expatriated Self.”
With the envelope’s arrival, Tapanila, a native of upstate New York who has lived in Canada since 1969, joined a largely overlooked surge of Americans rejecting what is, to millions, a highly sought prize: U.S. citizenship. Last year, the U.S. government reported a record 2,999 people renounced citizenship or terminated permanent residency; most are widely assumed to be driven by a desire to avoid paying taxes on hidden wealth.
The reality, though, is more complicated. The government’s pursuit of tax evaders among Americans living abroad is indeed driving the jump in abandoned citizenship, experts say. But renouncers – whose ranks have swelled more than five-fold from a decade ago – often contradict the stereotype of the financial scoundrel. Many are from very ordinary economic circumstances.
Some call themselves “accidental Americans,” who recall little of life in the U.S., but long ago happened to be born in it. Others say they renounced because of politics, family or personal identity. Some say signing away citizenship was a huge relief. Others recall being sickened by the decision.
At the U.S. consulate in Geneva, “I talked to a man who explained to me that I could never, ever get my nationality back,” says Donna-Lane Nelson, whose Boston accent lingers though she’s lived in Switzerland 24 years. “It felt like a divorce. It felt like a death. I took the second oath and I left the consulate and I threw up.”
When Americans do hear about compatriots rejecting citizenship, it’s more often people keeping their U.S. citizenship and dropping that of another country.
Last year, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz acknowledged the Canadian citizenship he was born to, but said he would renounce it. In 2012, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, saying she was “100 percent committed to our United States Constitution,” announced she was giving up Swiss citizenship gained through marriage.
One of the few times rejected U.S. citizenship has gotten significant ink was Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s 2011 decision to turn in his American passport after moving to Singapore. Saverin likely avoided millions of dollars in taxes by doing so shortly before Facebook’s initial stock offering.
Other wealthy Americans also have relinquished U.S. citizenship. Denise Rich, the ex-wife of pardoned trader Marc Rich, expatriated in 2012 and lives in London. Last fall, singer Tina Turner, a resident of Switzerland since 1995, relinquished her U.S. passport.
But Saverin’s decision, in particular, hit a political nerve, along with scandals surrounding UBS and Credit Suisse, which were caught matching wealthy Americans with offshore accounts.
In recent years, federal officials have stepped up pursuit of potential tax evaders, using the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act which requires that Americans overseas report assets to the IRS or pay stiff penalties. Those trying to comply complain of costly fees for accountants and lawyers, having to report the income of non-American spouses, and decisions by some European banks to close accounts of U.S. citizens or deny them loans.
But some of those surrendering citizenship say their reasons are as much about life as about taxes, particularly since the U.S. government does not tax Americans abroad on their first $96,600 in yearly income.
Decisions to renounce “are driven by a whole range of emotional considerations. ... You’ve got anger, you’ve got fear, you’ve got a strong sense of indignation,” said John Richardson, a Toronto lawyer who advises people on expatriation. “For many of these people, this is not a tax issue at all.”
Even some who acknowledge tax worries say decisions to renounce are far more complicated than a simple desire to avoid paying.
Peter Dunn, born in Chicago and raised in Alaska, moved to Canada to pursue a graduate degree in theology. He met his wife, Catherine, and they made Toronto home when her work as one of the owners of an aviation maintenance firm made her the breadwinner.
Dunn remained an American. But he was alarmed by a change in U.S. law requiring those with more than $2 million in assets to pay an exit tax if they gave up citizenship. He didn’t have $2 million. But his wife was doing well enough that he imagined one day they could get there. The idea of the U.S. government taxing his Canadian wife’s money didn’t seem right.
“When I learned about that, I decided that to protect my wife, I better expatriate,” he says.
Corine Mauch arrived at the same decision by a different route. Mauch was born a U.S. citizen to Swiss parents who were college students in Iowa. They lived in the U.S. until she was 5, then again for two more years before she turned 11. Mauch maintained dual citizenship even after she was elected to Zurich’s city council. But when she became mayor, she reconsidered.
During the last American presidential election, “I asked myself ‘Where do I feel at home?’ And the answer is clear: In Zurich and in Switzerland. My attachment to America is limited to my very early youth,” Mauch said. Double taxation was “not the crucial factor for my decision. But I will not miss the U.S. tax bureaucracy either.”
Taxes play little or no role in other decisions.
Norman Heinrichs-Gale’s parents were missionaries from Washington state who raised him in Asia and the Middle East. In 1986, he traveled to Austria with his American wife, and they found work at a conference center in an alpine valley town of 6,000. The jobs were supposed to last a year. But the couple stayed, sending their children to local schools.
On yearly trips to the U.S. he felt increasingly like a stranger. “I never forget going into a grocery store and just being stunned by my choice of cereals,” Heinrichs-Gale says. “I was stunned by just the pace of life compared to what we have here, stunned by the extremes of wealth and poverty that I encountered.”
There wasn’t one single thing that pushed him away. But his children wanted to attend Austrian colleges and he and his wife wanted to vote in the country they considered home. The family was tired of renewing visas and work permits. And so they signed documents giving up U.S. citizenship. Now, one of the last vestiges of American culture in their home is watching Seattle Seahawks games online.
Sports played the central role in Quincy Davis III’s decision. Davis, raised in Los Angeles and Mobile, Ala., played professional basketball in Europe after three years as Tulane University’s leading scorer. By 2011, he was home studying to become a firefighter when he was offered a spot on a Taiwanese pro squad. He’s since helped lead the Pure Youth Construction team to two championships.
When the team’s owner suggested last year that he join Taiwan’s national team, Davis says he found little motivation to keep his U.S. citizenship.
“When you think about who I am as a black guy in the U.S., I didn’t have opportunities,” he says. “You get discriminated against over there in the South. Here everyone is so nice. They invite you into their homes, they’re so hospitable. ... There’s no crime, no guns. I can’t help but love this place.”
Many others cutting their U.S. ties say tax laws drive decisions that have nothing to do with secreting wealth.
“I wish I were wealthy,” said Nelson, who says she takes in about $50,000 a year from pensions and earnings from publishing an online journal covering credit union news.
Nelson has vivid memories of growing up in the U.S. Even after moving to Europe, she continued sending five to 10 emails a week to members of Congress, opposing the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. After 15 years, she acquired Swiss citizenship so she could vote. But she began considering expatriation only in 2010 after a banker told her that, because of new U.S. financial reporting laws, it was closing the accounts of many Americans and a mistake as minor as an overdraft could mean the same for hers.
“How would my clients pay me?” says Nelson, who is 71 and also an author of mystery novels. “Where does my Social Security get deposited? Where does my pension get deposited?”
The jump in renunciations reflects evolving views about national identity, said Nancy L. Green, an American professor at the L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. When the U.S. got its start, citizenship was defined by “perpetual allegiance” – the British notion of nationality as a birthright that could never be changed.
American colonists rejected that to justify becoming citizens of a newly independent country. But changeable citizenship wasn’t widely embraced until the mass immigration of the late 1800s, says Green, a historian of migration and expatriation.
Even then, U.S. artists and writers who moved to Europe in the 1920s were criticized, suspected of trying to avoid taxes. Until the 1960s, U.S. citizenship remained a privilege the government could take away on certain grounds. It’s only since then that U.S. citizenship has come to be viewed as belonging to an individual, who could keep – or surrender it – by choice.
But Carol Tapanila’s life in Canada has tested that redefinition.
Six years after Tapanila’s husband lost his job at a Boeing factory in Washington state and they moved to Canada for work, the couple became citizens of their new country. She says U.S. consular officials told her that, by swearing allegiance to Canada, she might well have lost her American citizenship.
After retiring from a job as an administrative assistant at an oil company in Calgary, Tapanila began putting $125 a month into a special savings account for her developmentally disabled son, matched by the Canadian government. In her will, she authorized creation of a trust fund to draw on retirement savings and other assets to provide for her son, who is now 40, after her death.
Tapanila says she didn’t know she was required to file U.S. tax returns until 2007, when her daughter raised the subject. Her troubles were compounded by her decision to apply for a U.S. passport after a border officer told her she should have one. She has since spent $42,000 on fees for lawyers and accountants and paid about $2,000 in U.S. taxes, including on funds in her son’s disability savings account.
In 2012 she turned in the passport, renouncing U.S. citizenship to protect money saved for her retirement and her son. Tapanila, 70, has tried and failed to renounce U.S. citizenship on his behalf, saying officials told her such a decision must be made by the individual alone.
“You know, we are not rich people and we are not tax evaders and we are not traitors and I’m more than tired of being labeled that way,” Tapanila says.
“I’m sorry that I’ve given my son this burden and I can do nothing about it ... I thought we had some rights to go wherever we wanted to go and some choices we could make in our lives. I thought that was democracy. Apparently, I’ve got it all wrong.”