Employment Income Sourcing | International Tax Lawyer & Attorney

Employment income sourcing is a very important tax issue for employees of US corporations sent overseas, employees of foreign corporations stationed in the United States and employees who work in different countries during a tax year. For employees who are tax residents of a foreign country, this issue will determine whether their income will be taxed in the United States; whereas for US tax residents, the source of income rules will determine the amount of the allowable foreign tax credit. In this article, I will focus on the employment income sourcing rules concerning monetary compensation of employees.

Employment Income Sourcing: General Rules

The source of income rules concerning employees are very similar to the rules that apply to self-employment income, but there are some differences. The main rule is that the location where the services are rendered determines whether this is US-source income or foreign-source income. If an employee works in the United States, then his salary would be considered US-source income; if he works in a foreign country, his salary would be sourced to that country. See §§861(a)(3) and 862(a)(3).

If the employer pays for work partly performed in the United States and partly outside of the United States, then the salary needs to be allocated between the countries. Treas. Reg. §1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(A). The key issue arises here – how does an employee allocate this income between the countries?

Employment Income Sourcing: Time Basis Allocation

The first methodology for allocation of income between the countries is stated directly within the regulations – time basis. Id. Here, the IRS offers two choices to the employees: allocation based on specific number of days working in the United States versus separate time periods.

Under the “number of days” variation, the employee adds together the number of days worked in the United States and the number of days worked in a foreign country, figures out the percentages for each country and sources the income according to the percentage allocation. Treas. Reg. §1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(F).

Under the “time periods” variation, a tax year is split into distinct time periods: one where employee spends all of his time in the United States and one where employee spends all of his time in a foreign country. The compensation paid in the first period is allocated entirely to the United States, whereas the salary paid in the second time period is considered to be foreign-source income. Id.

Employment Income Sourcing: Multi-Year Compensation

An interesting situation occurs with respect to employees with multi-year compensation contracts. A multi-year contract in this context means a situation where the “compensation that is included in the income of an individual in one taxable year but that is attributable to a period that includes two or more taxable years.” Reg. §1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(F).

Generally, the employment income sourcing in this case occurs in the following manner: (1) employee first aggregates his total contract compensation for the entire year; (2) then, the employee sums up all of the days worked in the United States and all of the days worked in a foreign country for the period covered by the multi-year contract; and (3) the employee sources the income to the United States based on the number of days worked in the United States vis-a-vis the total number of days worked under the contract; the rest of the income is considered foreign-source income. Id. While this approach is specifically described in the regulations, the regulations also generally refer to the “time basis” allocation. Hence, it appears that an employee may have a choice between the “number of days” approach that was just described and the“time periods” variation.

Employment Income Sourcing: Alternative Basis Sourcing

Employees have the right to disregard completely the time basis approach to employment income sourcing and adopt an alternative basis approach. Treas. Reg. §1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(C)(1)(i).  An employee can do so as long as he is able to establish that “under the facts and circumstances of the particular case, the alternative basis more properly determines the source of the compensation than a basis described in paragraph (b)(2)(ii)(A) or (B), whichever is applicable, of this section.” Id.

An employee is not the only person who has this right; the IRS also has the right to utilize an alternative basis for employment income sourcing “if such compensation either is not for a specific time period or constitutes in substance a fringe benefit.” Treas. Reg. §1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(C)(1)(ii). The IRS can do so as long as the “alternative basis determines the source of compensation in a more reasonable manner than the basis used by the individual pursuant to paragraph (b)(2)(ii)(A) or (B) of this section.” Id.

A taxpayer does not need to obtain the IRS consent in order to use the alternative basis for employment income sourcing. He should, however, keep the records in order to be able to show how his method is better than the time basis approach. TD 9212, 70 FR 40663, 40665 (07/14/2005).

Special requirements apply to employees who received $250,000 or more in compensation and use the alternative basis for employment income sourcing. Not only must such employees answer the relevant questions on Form 1040, but they should also attach a detailed statement to their tax returns. Id. The statement must contain the following information: “(1) The specific compensation income, or the specific fringe benefit, for which an alternative method is used; (2) for each such item, the alternative method of allocation of source used; (3) for each such item, a computation showing how the alternative allocation was computed; and (4) a comparison of the dollar amount of the compensation sourced within and without the United States under both the individual’s alternative basis and the basis for determining source of compensation described in § 1.861-4(b)(2)(ii)(A) or (B).” Id.

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