Retiring in Panama – Tax Traps for U.S. taxpayers

In recent years, a new retirement trend emerged among U.S. citizens – retirement abroad in relatively peaceful countries of Latin America. Panama appears to be one of the preferred destinations. Retirement is a process, though, and it takes time to set up properly. Therefore, U.S. citizens typically start their preparation for retirement abroad in theirs 50s, before they actually retire. In this article, I wish to discuss some of the most prominent U.S. tax issues that these potential retirees may face.

Typical Retirement Process

At lot of U.S. citizens who make the decision to retire in Panama start the process by retaining a local attorney to acquire land. They open up an account in Panama to finance the deal. Then, they sign a contract with a construction company to build a house. At that point, most Panamanian lawyers typically advise to organize a Panamanian corporation and put the house into the corporation for the purported reasons of liability and privacy. The house construction is then financed by the owner’s funds through new Panamanian corporate accounts. After the house is built, the lawyers will then attempt to obtain an exoneration of the property from Panamanian taxation for a fixed number of years allowed by law.

Throughout the process, the U.S. citizens are advised by Panamanian tax advisors that there are not tax consequences for structuring the retirement home purchase and construction through a corporation.

Tax Problems with this Process

Despite the apparent innocence of this project, there are potentially large problems with it if the U.S. tax citizens are not independently advised of the U.S. tax consequences of structuring their retirement in this manner.

Let’s take this scenario apart and focus on the three most common problems here. First, the opening of the bank accounts. If the aggregate balance on these accounts exceeds $10,000, then the Report on Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts must be filed by U.S. taxpayers. Failure to do so may bring tremendous IRS penalties, civil and criminal.

The interesting point here is that, in calculation of the aggregate $10,000 balance, a U.S. taxpayer should take into account the corporate accounts over which he has signature authority if owns more than 50% of the corporation (directly or constructively).

Second, organizing a Panamanian corporation owned by U.S. taxpayers may bring forth another highly-complicated U.S. tax compliance feature – Form 5471, Information Return of U.S. Persons With Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations. Depending on the asset valuation (under US GAAP) and some other features of the corporation, Form 5471 can become a truly monstrous compliance requirement for this seemingly simple transaction of buying a retirement house through a corporation. Failure to file Form 5471 can lead to substantial penalties depending on circumstances.

Third, there is a new Form 8938 that requires U.S. taxpayers to disclose information with respect to specified foreign assets as long as these assets exceed a certain threshold. The Form has its own penalty structure.

The truly tragic aspect of this scenario is that a large number of Panamanian attorneys are completely oblivious to these U.S. tax reporting requirements as well as the penalties associated with them. Therefore, they fail to advise their U.S. clients about these IRS requirements and that the clients should consult a U.S. tax attorney experienced in these matters.

This is why it is highly important that you consult with a U.S.-based international tax attorney regarding U.S. tax consequences of your particular foreign retirement plan.

Contact Sherayzen Law Office to Learn About U.S. Tax Consequences of Your Foreign Asset Ownership and Retirement

The above article does not summarize all of the tax forms that should be filed in such situations, but merely points out the most prominent ones.  The exact U.S. tax compliance requirements will also depend on your particular situation.

If you are a U.S. citizen who is planning to retire in Panama or you wish own a property or do business there, you should contact Sherayzen Law Office. Our experienced international tax firm will analyze your situation in depth and offer professional legal advice with respect to your particular situation.