The tax definition of the United States is highly important for US tax purposes; in fact, it plays a key role in identifying many aspects of US-source income, US tax residency, foreign assets, foreign income, application of certain provisions of tax treaties, et cetera. While it is usually not difficult to figure out whether a person is operating in the United States, there are some complications associated with the tax definition of the United States that I wish to discuss in this article.
Tax Definition of the United States is Not Uniform Throughout the Internal Revenue Code; Three-Step Analysis is Necessary
From the outset, it is important to understand that the tax definition of the United States is not uniform. Different sections of the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”) may have different definitions of what “United States” means.
Therefore, one needs to engage in a three-step process to make sure that the right definition of the United States is used. First, the geographical location of the taxpayer must be identified. Second, one needs to determine the activity in which the taxpayer is engaged. Finally, it is necessary to find the right IRC provision governing the taxation of that taxpayer engaged in the identified specific activity in that specific location; then, look up the tax definition of the United States with respect to this specific IRC provision.
General Tax Definition of the United States
Generally, for tax purposes, the United States is comprised of the 50 states and the District of Columbia plus the territorial waters (along the US coastline). See IRC § 7701(a)(9). The territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from the US shoreline are also included in the term United States.
General Tax Definition of the United States Can Be Replaced by Alternative Definitions
As it was pointed out above, this general definition is often modified by the specific IRC provisions. The statutory reason why this is the case is the opening clause of IRC § 7701(a) which specifically allows for the general definition to be replaced by alternative definitions of the United States: “when used in this title, where not otherwise distinctly expressed or manifestly incompatible with the intent thereof … .”
Hence, instead of relying on the general tax definition of the United States in IRC § 7701(a), one needs to look for alternative definitions specific to the IRC provision that is being analyzed. Moreover, the fact that there is no express alternative definition is not always sufficient, because one may have to determine the intent (most likely from the legislative history of an IRS provision) behind the analyzed IRC provision to see if an alternative tax definition of the United States should be used.
General Tax Definition and Possessions of the United States
While the object of this small article does not include a detailed discussion of the alternative tax definitions of the United States, it is important to note that the Possessions of the United States (“Possessions”) are not included within the general tax definition of the United States. They are not mentioned in IRC § 7701(a)(9); IRC 1441(e) even states that any noncitizen resident of Puerto Rico is a nonresident alien for tax withholding purposes. Similarly, IRC § 865(i)(3) defines Possessions as foreign countries for the purposes of sourcing income from sale of personal property.
On the other hand, Possessions may be included within some of the alternative tax definitions of the United States. For example, for the purposes of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, Possessions are treated as part of the United States.
Thus, it is very important for tax practitioners and their clients who reside in Possessions to look at the specific IRS provisions and determine whether an alternative definition applies to Possessions in their specific situations.
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