One of the most important issues in US international tax law is the sourcing of income – i.e. the determination of whether the income is foreign or domestic for US tax purposes. In this article, I will introduce readers to US tax rules concerning dividend income sourcing (note, I will not be discussing substitute dividends and so-called “fast-pay” stocks as part of this article).
Dividend Income Sourcing: General Rule
Aside from limited exceptions, the source of dividend income is determined by whether the corporation that pays the dividends is foreign or domestic.
Dividend Income Sourcing: Domestic Corporations
Generally, if a US domestic corporation pays a dividend to its shareholders, the income is sourced in the United States. IRC §861(a)(2)(A).
There are three limited exceptions to this general rule, but only the first exception is really relevant at this point. The first exception is found in the complex rules concerning a Domestic International Sales Corporation (“DISC”). Basically, under IRC §861(a)(2)(D), dividends from a DISC are US-source income unless the dividends are attributable to “qualified export receipts”. In other words, if all of the gross income of a DISC satisfies the definition of qualified export receipts, then the entire gross income will be considered as derived from a foreign source. This is the basic rule and there are important exceptions and considerations that must be considered if one engages in a detailed analysis.
The second exception was a dividend paid by a Section 936 corporation. A Section 936 corporation was a special type of a domestic corporation that did business in US possessions. At this point, the repeal of IRC §936 makes this section largely irrelevant.
Finally, the third exception existed mostly prior to 1987. At that time, if a taxpayer was able to show that 80% of the gross income of the payor corporation for the relevant period of time consisted of foreign-source income, then the dividend was also foreign-source even if it was paid by a domestic corporation. The relevant period of time for making this determination included the three fiscal years of the corporation preceding the year in which the dividend was declared (obviously, if the corporation existed for less than three years, then the period of time was reduced to the number of years the corporation had been in existence). Interestingly, with the exception of mergers and consolidations, the dividends were foreign-source even if the payor corporation filed a consolidated return with an affiliated group which did not meet what was known as the 80/20 rule.
This third exception became largely irrelevant as of January 1, 1987. However, the 80/20 corporations were exempted from tax withholding even as late as prior to 2010. At that time, the Congress finally repealed the 80/20 company rule, though it still left a grandfather clause for it.
Dividend Income Sourcing: Foreign Corporations
Dividend income sourcing with respect to foreign corporations is more complex. Generally, dividends from foreign corporations are considered to be foreign-source income unless 25% or more of the corporation’s gross income for the three years preceding the taxable year (in which the distribution occurred) was from income that was effectively connected with a trade or business in the United States. This is the so-called “25% exception”.
If the 25% threshold is satisfied, then the dividend is apportioned according to the percentage of the corporation’s income effectively connected to the United States versus foreign-source income. This rule obviously affects the ability of a US person to take full foreign tax credit.
Now, let’s look at the 25% exception from the perspective of a foreign person receiving a dividend from a foreign corporation. Again, if a foreign dividend was paid to a foreign person from a company that did not satisfy the 25% exception, then no part of the dividend was sourced to the United States. If, however, the 25% exception was satisfied, then a foreign person had US-source income according to the apportionment rule described above. In other words, a foreign dividend paid from a foreign company to a foreign individual may result in US-source income even though none of these persons are US tax residents!
Moreover, prior to 2005, such a foreign individual would have to declare this US-source income in the United States and, theoretically, pay tax on it. Obviously, this was unlikely to happen because either the foreign corporation was subject to the branch profits tax which offset the tax on dividends paid by the corporation or a tax treaty prevented the taxation of such dividend. Nevertheless, if neither exception applied, a foreign person could find himself in noncompliance with US tax laws (and there was even some litigation on this subject).
When it passed the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, the US Congress finally relented and exempted from US taxation all dividends that fell within the 25% exception and were paid to foreign persons on or after January 1, 2005. IRC §871(i)(2)(D).
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Professional Help with Dividend Income Sourcing
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