Effect of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion on the Self-Employment Tax on Business Activities Oversees

In this essay, I would like to explore the relationship between the self-employment tax and the tax exclusion of income earned by the U.S. businesses abroad.

The self-employment tax is a social security and Medicare tax on net earnings from self-employment. A self-employed U.S. citizen or resident must pay self-employment tax if his net earnings from self-employment are at least $400. In tax year 2009, the maximum amount of net earnings that is subject to the social security portion of the tax is $106,800, while all net earnings are subject to the Medicare portion of the tax.

Despite the commonly-held belief, in calculating his self-employment tax liability, a U.S. citizen or resident must take all of his self-employment income into account, even if this income is exempt from income tax because of the foreign earned income exclusion. For example, suppose A, a U.S. citizen, provides consulting services in a European country as part of his business activities. Under the independent contractor agreement, A is paid $120,000 for his services; A’s total business deductions are $50,000, and his net income is therefore $70,000. A can successfully exclude $70,000 from taxable gross income (the exclusion for year 2009 is up to $91,400). He, however, must pay the self-employment tax on all of his net profit, including those $70,000 that he excluded from taxable income.

Similar rule applies to U.S. citizens or residents alien who own and operate a business in the U.S. possessions (Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Self-employment tax must be paid on all of the self-employment income (as long as it is $400 or more) derived from such businesses, even if the income is exempt from the U.S. income taxes. Schedule SE (Form 1040) must be attached to the U.S. income tax return. If the owner of the business is a resident of any of the U.S. possessions and he does not have to file Form 1040, then the self-employment tax should be determined on Form 1040-SS. Residents of Puerto Rico may file the Spanish-language Form 1040-PR, Self-Employment Tax Form — Puerto Rico (Spanish Version).

While non-resident aliens generally are not subject to the self-employment tax, they still have to pay the tax on self-employment income received while they were resident aliens, even if such income was paid for services performed while they were non-resident aliens. For example, royalties received by a U.S. resident for the intellectual property created while this person was non-resident alien.

Finally, one must be aware that the United States has entered into social security agreements (also known as Totalization Agreements) with foreign countries to eliminate duel coverage and duel social security tax payments for the same work. Hence, the social security taxes (including the self-employment tax) are paid only to one country. If a person’s self-employment earnings should be exempt from foreign social security tax and subject only to U.S. self-employment tax, he should request a certificate of coverage from the U.S. Social Security Administration, Office of International Programs. The certificate will establish this person’s exemption from the foreign social security tax.

To establish that one’s self-employment income is subject only to foreign social security taxes and is exempt from U.S. self-employment tax, this person must request a certificate of coverage from the appropriate agency of the foreign country. If the foreign country will not issue the certificate, he should request from the U.S. Social Security Administration a statement that his income is not covered by the U.S. social security system.