US Airspace and the Definition of the United States | US Tax Lawyers

This article is a continuation of a recent series of articles on the exploration of the definition of the United States. As it was mentioned in a prior article, the general definition of the United States found in IRC § 7701(a)(9) has numerous exceptions throughout the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”). The US airspace is another example of such exceptions. In this article, I would like to outline some of the ways in which the borders of the United States are defined in the context of the US airspace.

General Tax Definition of the United States Does Not Mention US Airspace

The general tax definition of the United States is found in IRC § 7701(a)(9). According to IRC § 7701(a)(9), the United States is comprised of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the territorial waters. There is no mention of the US airspace.

This, of course, does not mean that US airspace never constitutes part of the United States. Rather, as I had explained it in a prior article, one needs to look at the specific tax provisions and determine if there is a special definition of the United States that applies to them.

Examples of Various IRC Provisions Including and Excluding US Airspace from the Definition of the United states

Indeed, there is a rich variety of treatment of US airspace that can be found within the IRC. Here, I will just mentioned three examples that demonstrate how differently the IRC provisions define the United States with respect to its airspace.

1. There is an esoteric but important IRC § 965 which deals with the Dividends Received deduction for repatriated corporate earnings. IRS Notice 2005-64 provides foreign tax credit guidance under IRC § 965 and specifically follows the general definition of the United States with the addition of the Continental Shelf. Then, the Notice states: “the term ‘United States’ does not include possessions and territories of the United States or the airspace over the United States and these areas”. Thus, the US airspace is excluded from the tax definition of the United States under IRC § 965.

2. The treatment of the US airspace is the opposite for the purposes of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (“FEIE”). Since FEIE allows a taxpayer to exclude only “foreign” earned income, the tax definition of the United States is crucial for this part of the IRC.

In general, the courts have ruled that the airspace over the United States is included within the definition of the United States with respect to IRC § 911. This means that, if you are flying over the United States, you are considered to be within the United States for the purposes of FEIE.

3. When we are dealing with the analysis of whether an individual is a US tax resident under the Substantial Presence Test, we are again back to the same situation as in example 1 – the US airspace is not included in the definition of the United States.

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