Under I.R.C. §911, if certain conditions are met, a qualified individual can exclude as much $91,400 (for tax year 2009) of foreign earned income from taxable gross income. Two questions arise: what is earned income, and when is such income considered to be foreign earned income?
Earned income usually means wages, salaries, or professional fees, and other amounts received as compensation for personal services actually rendered, but does not include that part of the compensation derived by the taxpayer for personal services rendered by him to a corporation which represents a distribution of earnings or profits rather than a reasonable allowance as compensation for the personal services actually rendered.
The issue of earned income becomes complicated in a situation where a taxpayer engaged in a trade or business in which both personal services and capital are material income producing factors. Capital is a material income-producing factor if the operation of the business requires substantial inventories or substantial investments in plant, machinery, or other equipment. In this case, a reasonable allowance as compensation for the personal services rendered by the taxpayer, not in excess of 30 percent of his share of the net profits of such trade or business, shall be considered as earned income (I.R.C. §911(d)(2)(B)). This rule, however, would not apply where the capital is merely incidental to the production of income (see Rousku v. Commissioner (Tax. Ct.1971)).
In a situation where the services rendered abroad culminate in a product that is either sold or licensed, it is difficult to determine whether the proceeds are earned income. Usually, such issues are resolved on a case-by-case basis.
Foreign Earned Income
Earned income is usually considered as “foreign earned income” if it is attributable to services actually rendered by the taxpayer while oversees. The place at which the taxpayer receives the income is not relevant. For example, an employee working abroad for a U.S. employer does not lose the exclusions by having her compensation paid into a bank account in the United States. Note, however, that services rendered in anticipation of, or after the conclusion of an oversees assignment are not covered by the exclusion. I.R.C. §911(b)(1)(A) and §911(d)(2)