He has “Big 4” audit and corporate accounting experience during his time with PricewaterhouseCoopers, involved in Fortune 100 audit engagements and M&A transactions, giving him the knowledge to perform analysis in valuation, corporate finance, and technical accounting issues. More recently, Vincenzo has served as partner in 4 Corners Inc., focusing on individuals and businesses for accounting and tax preparation matters as well as advising high net worth individuals in private equity investing.
He has both a Masters of Accounting and Bachelors of Business Administration with distinction from the University of Michigan’s Stephen M Ross School of Business.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the JetSetter Show, where we explore lifestyle-friendly destinations worldwide. Enjoy and learn from a variety of experts on topics ranging from upscale travel at wholesale prices, to retiring overseas, to global real estate and business opportunities, to tax havens and expatriate opportunities. You’ll get great ideas on unique cultures, causes, and cruise vacations. Whether you’re wealthy or just want to live a wealthy lifestyle, the JetSetter Show is for you. Here’s your host, Jason Hartman.
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JASON HARTMAN: It’s my pleasure to welcome Vincenzo Villamena! He is founder of onlinetaxman.com, and today we’re going to talk about tax implications for expats, and a whole bunch of other things as well. Vincenzo, welcome. How are you?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: I’m doing well. Thank you for having me.
JASON HARTMAN: Good, good. And oddly, we’re talking about living overseas, and so forth, but you’re coming to us today from New York, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I’m based in New York. I do actually split time between New York and South America, particularly Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, but right now I happen to be in New York.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, fantastic. Now, one of the show notes I have to ask you—since we’re talking about it, we might as well cover this now, rather than later—it says that you recently moved to Medellin, Colombia, last December. And so, do you have two homes? Or is New York your primary base? Or Medellin?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I’d say essentially I have two homes. You know, I take advantage of living abroad, both tax wise as well as just quality of living an opportunities, etcetera. Right now, I live primarily in Medellin, although, as you said, I’m in New York now. And I think, Colombia, there’s a lot of opportunity there, both investment wise, and just the amount of expats living there. So, you know, recently I kind of set up show there, to take advantage of that, and all the movement and shaking going on, as well as just a large expat community down there.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, great, great. Well, so, this kind of leads into a good question. So, you mentioned to take advantage of the tax advantages of being an expat, I believe. So, are you technically considered an expat by the IRS? Even though you live part of your time in New York? Or—is there some rule—I’m expecting you to say something like, as long as you spend 181 days out of the country, you’re considered an expat, or you know, something like that.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah. Yeah, there is—I am considered an expat, and really, the reason is that I have established my residency in Colombia, both in the form of visas, and just having a place down there. Having a bank account, etcetera. And so, I qualify under what’s known as the bona fide residency rule.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, tell us about that. The bona fide residency rule?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Correct. And then, that is not—there’s no, let’s say, clear cut sort of rule. I mean, there’s two rules. One is physical presence test, which means that you have to be outside of the US for 330 days out of a 365 day period. So, you can only be in the US for 35 days. Now, that’s pretty cut and dry as far as timing, and there’s, you know, a little more intricacy about that, but that’s essentially the rule. The second rule is what’s known as the bona fide residence test. Now, there’s no sort of set time, as far as being abroad, or being in a certain country, but you know, generally, you want to clearly spend more of your time abroad than in the United States, which of course I do, and then also have, you know, other support to show that you’re a resident of that country. So, again, having a visa, and having a, you know, bank account, with utility bills, you know, obviously an actual residence, be it a rental property or a property that you own. And really, spending the majority of the time in that country. And that—that essentially would qualify you for what’s known as bona fide residence. And then, it would allow you to take up to $97,600, which again, that’s for 2013, and that goes up, indexed by inflation per year. But it allows you to earn this $97,000 number tax-free, meaning that you do not have to pay income tax on that.
JASON HARTMAN: So, you get the $97,000 or so, you know, we’ll just round it off, tax-free, every year. That’s the first $97,000. So if you make $500,000, you’re still gonna pay taxes on the other $403,000 in that example, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Correct.
JASON HARTMAN: Because the IRS taxes all worldwide income. Which is—I hear they’re the only taxing agency on the planet that actually has the audacity to do that. You know, when citizens of other countries move out of the country, from what I understand, their taxing authority stops taxing them until they move back. Is that mostly correct?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Mhmm.
JASON HARTMAN: Well, that’s the IRS for you. So, you mentioned there are two ways to qualify for the bona fide residency, is that correct?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Well no, there’s two ways to qualify for this foreign earned income exclusion of the $97,000, one being bona fide residency, and the other being physically present outside the United States.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. And so, the physical presence rule—so, if I understand you correctly, you said that the bona fide residency rule is somewhat ambiguous, into, you know, there’s not like a specific amount of days, or something like that. But you mentioned utility bills, having a place in that other jurisdiction. Having a visa, etcetera. So, on the physical presence rule, is that a certain number of days? I’m looking to quantify this as much as possible.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: That is, again, 330 days, out of a 365 day period. And when I say 365 day period, it doesn’t have to be a calendar year. So, let’s say, one moves out of the United States July 1st of 2014. You know, if they’re out of the states from July 1st 2014 through July 1st of 2015, then they would qualify for physical presence tests. And you know, we would have to pro rata their portion of days and earnings that they were outside the United States let’s say for tax year 2014. But to your point, it’s a lot more kind of cut and dry, as far as how long you have to be outside the United States.
JASON HARTMAN: So, but that’s 330 days, you said, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right.
JASON HARTMAN: Out of—so that’s a lot of time. You can only be in the US for 35 days a year. So, you don’t have to be in the particular jurisdiction where you’re claiming residency; you just have to be out of the US. Is that correct?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right.
JASON HARTMAN: To qualify for that one?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, okay, good. Okay, well, we kind of got off on a bit of a tangent, and I didn’t ask you for some background, which I’d like to do now. So, when did you found Online Taxman?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: So, I’ve been a CPA for roughly 12 years, and I founded Online Taxman back in 2009, with a few partners I used to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and, you know, the Big Four, etcetera. So, that Online Taxman actually started in 2009, and we’ve been obviously growing and serving the international community ever since. Both US expats, divested clients with international reporting requirements, investments abroad, etcetera, and then also just non-residents that want to do business in the United States.
JASON HARTMAN: It seems like this is really just a minefield to navigate this stuff. The IRS is—they’re making it difficult. The Patriot Act is a complicated thing to navigate; it’s sort of easy to go afoul of these laws, isn’t it?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, definitely. The IRS is obviously putting new guidance out there, and there’s new compliance requirements for having foreign bank accounts, and owning up to 10% of foreign companies in trusts, etcetera, and when you couple that with just the very Draconian rules and regulations that the IRS has, right, that are essentially—you know, the last time any code was really updated and revamped was in the 50s. And you know, that was obviously before the Internet age, and before this sort of concept of digital nomads, and people that are working remotely, etcetera. You know, there’s all sorts of types of complications, and just—interpretations that have to be made off of these laws that are a little bit outdated.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. So, can you pick maybe two or three of these laws that are the biggies that people really need to know about and watch out for?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Sure. I think the biggest is the fact that if you have—a) if you have foreign bank accounts over $10,000 at any point in time, you have to report that. And you know, that’s either a bank account that’s a personal account, or if you have a business account—you know, if you’re a signer on a business in which you have financial interests, etcetera, you know, you do have to report those bank accounts. Another one is for foreign financial assets. So, if you have foreign financial assets, and when I say that, I mean either mutual funds, pension funds, bank accounts of course—if you have gold in custodial accounts—you know, of course, if you have any of the sort of stocks, bonds, even if you have land or real estate, but it’s being held in a foreign company, that’s considered a financial asset. And so, if you have any of these, and again, it really just depends on if you’re living in the United States, or married filing jointly versus single, because the thresholds are a little bit different. But, you know, essentially, if you’re living in the United States and you’re single and you have it and it’s over like $100,000, or if you’re married and you’re living abroad and it’s over I think $400,000—I mean, it depends. But if—if you essentially have, let’s say, over $100,000 in assets that are foreign—obviously depending on your living situation you should be aware of this, and you have to report these assets on Form 8938.
JASON HARTMAN: Now, the one thing I hear that has some special treatment though, when it’s foreign, and of course we’re talking about Americans here, so—Americans living abroad and investing abroad is the topic of the day. But real estate is treated differently, right? Don’t you not have to report real estate?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: You don’t have to report real estate, except if the real estate is owned in a foreign corporation.
JASON HARTMAN: Oh. So—that’s interesting. That’s an interesting twist. So if you set up a foreign corporation, do you have to report that the corporation exists?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right, and report the real estate as a financial asset. So like, you know, in the United States, and also abroad, people put real estate in an LLC, for asset protection purposes and this and that. Now, if you do the same abroad, then you’d have to report that asset.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. So, you have to report the asset, but if you own it in your personal name you don’t?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Exactly, correct.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, so, you can own real estate abroad in your personal name, and you don’t have to tell the IRS anything about it. But if you set up an entity, and I assume when you say corporation, you mean an LLC or a corporation.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right.
JASON HARTMAN: So you set up an entity of any type, to hold the real estate, then you have to report it.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Correct.
JASON HARTMAN: So it behooves you not to set up an entity, oddly. Sort of counterintuitive
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. It really almost discouraged people from setting up entities, if you will. At least from a reporting requirement.
JASON HARTMAN: We hear a lot about what’s known as the IBC—the International Business Corporation. And promoters are constantly encouraging people to set these up. I know that some countries have—I believe Mexico, for example—has a rule that, you know, if you’re gonna own a business there, or a piece of real estate there, you want to partner with a citizen, because then you have some advantages. But, you know, so that’s a whole nother level of complexity. But—I mean, is it wise to set up the IBC? Or not?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: I mean, the IBC could definitely be helpful. You know, it really depends on the facts and circumstances. But, I think that, you know, one must be aware of just the reporting requirements. You know, if you have an IBC, and to your point, there’s certain levels of reporting, really depending on the ownership and your role in the company. So, if you set up an IBC with another American—let’s say the ownership is 100% US—then it’s no bonus to control a foreign corporation. And there are certain rules and just more in-depth reporting that’s required, for an IBC or any foreign company that’s considered in control of foreign corporation. Versus, if a US person owns, under the 50% threshold, so, you know, the rules are poor requirements. It could be more stringent, and obviously, it’s one nother thing for Americans who own foreign corporations to look out for. Because they do tend to vary based on the role, and the amount of ownership.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. So, some other pitfalls and things to know about?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, again, I would just say that, you know, one must be really aware of their [unintelligible] both for foreign corporations, if you have any ownership; also foreign trusts. And just making sure that you’re crossing your t’s, dotting your I’s, because again, if you incorrectly file a foreign corp or the FBAR, which is foreign bank accounts, or any of that, you could be hit with major fines, you know, up to $10,000, per filing, per return that might either not have been filed, or incorrectly filed. So, it’s just really important to either do your research or engage a professional, just to make sure you’re getting this stuff right.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, makes sense. So, you know, let’s talk about maybe reasons for doing this. I mean, it seems like such a minefield. Is it worth it? You know, you mentioned opportunities in Medellin. What are they?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Well, I mean, I think in Medellin in particular, the real estate market is definitely growing. There’s a lot of expats coming down there, etcetera. So, like a real estate market—
JASON HARTMAN: What kind of real estate? Can you—did you buy properties there?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I’m actually currently looking to buy a property there.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, what type of property? Residential, or—
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, residential. They have actually the larger residential properties, so, the three, four bedroom penthouses I think actually are really well priced. Again, I think just looking abroad, if one wants to somewhat diversify their investment holdings, you know, some place like Colombia or Chile might be good. You know, again, if you want to look into Asia, like you know, Hong Kong or Singapore, something out there, just to hold certain assets, I think you know, that’s probably one of the first odd concepts that you learn in finance class, is just diversification, right? So, you know, I think obviously, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, but you want to be able to diversify, and have certain pockets of investment around the world. So—
JASON HARTMAN: So, you know, I would—let me play devil’s advocate with you for a moment, if I may. And it should be noted a couple things—number one, I’ve been to 71 countries, so I’m a big traveler; I’ll be in Singapore next month, I’ll be in the Philippines, Thailand, and possibly Myanmar, actually, if I can get a visa in time. And so, I’m quite intrigued by this. And I obviously do a show on it. I do lots of guests on the whole topic. But I find that a lot of these countries are really quite primitive. Belize is a big one that lots of promoters are talking about, and I’ve been to Belize a couple of times. And I’m just struck by how primitive it is. And you know, corruption’s a big problem in a lot of these places too. Of course, in the US we sort of legalize and institutionalized our corruption. But, we have something called lobbyists.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right, right. No, I actually, I do agree with you. I think one really has to be careful. I mean, I’ve had clients that have, you know, set up in Belize or Saint Kitts and Nevis, or what have you. So, these IBC jurisdictions—and then they just complain about how the banking system is, you know, not up to par, and you know, that they can’t operate, and this and that. And I think—
JASON HARTMAN: And God forbid, you expect a decent wifi connection. I mean, wow!
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right. So, you—
JASON HARTMAN: It’s amazing what we take for granted over here.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right. So you know, you have to really be kind of careful of what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to accomplish there. When people talk about kind of setting up an offshore company, generally I do like the Hong Kong and Singapores of the world, just because, you know, obviously their governments are efficient, they’re somewhat less bureaucratic, and you do have the flexibility of having a good banking system there.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah. I mean, there are two very modern jurisdictions. And I particularly like that. I’ve had Jim Rogers on the show a couple of times, and he loves Singapore, and China. But, obviously, different perspectives.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah. Yeah. No, but I mean, that’s the point, is, you know, it depends on what you’re doing, and if you’re able to deal with kind of bureaucracy. I mean, if you’re gonna use one of these jurisdictions for daily transactions, like one of the islands, or whatnot, and it’s not—it’s not gonna be good, versus Hong Kong or Singapore. But if you just want to park a certain amount of capital somewhere, or do something kind of as a long term play, then you know, then it might be a right fit for you. So, I mean, I think it really just depends on the situation, and what the person wants to do, so to speak.
JASON HARTMAN: Right. So, what are—let’s talk about the modern jurisdictions for a moment. One of the other interesting interviews I did was with John McAfee, the McAfee Security software guru and founder. And you know, he talked about his experience in Belize, which was—wow. Nothing short of horrifying. It’s interesting, when we talk about this stuff. But, what would someone do in Singapore, for example, or Hong Kong? They would want to open up a bank account? I mean, the IRS—or, not the IRS per se, but the Patriot Act, the US government, makes it so difficult for an American to open a bank account off shore! I mean, it’s a huge—you know, we always have sort of thought it’s an advantage to be an American, I think, and boy, not if you’re trying to open a foreign bank account! They don’t want to do business with you! It’s like you have a scarlet letter on you!
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, basically. I mean, you’re right. I think it really depends, but it could be definitely quite tough. Some of the banks in Hong Kong, like the HSBC, and some of the larger banks might be open to it, but I’ve definitely heard that some other banks aren’t. And again, if you want to hold multiple currencies, I know that, you know, some of those accounts that you hold in Hong Kong dollars, Euros, Australian dollars, obviously USD—so again, if you’re kind of doing some sort of, let’s say, virtual business with your clients around the world, and you’re running it through a Hong Kong company, there could be some tax optimization there. Same thing with Singapore. And it also just depends on, you know, if you want to do business in China, if you’re looking to invest somewhere, etcetera—you know, having those sort of bank accounts obviously, it’s a help. And could easily help you facilitate certain transactions. You know, I think it’s a crapshoot when it comes to being an American. I think you’re right. I’ve seen a lot of times where the American passport really doesn’t work, or people kind of shun you, or turn you away. And then obviously that always brings the other question, which is well, what if I had a second passport? But, you know, at the same time, I mean, there’s definitely still opportunities and ways for Americans to hold these bank accounts and assets. Of course you still have to report them, and file the fact that you hold them, but yeah, I mean, it’s not a crime in the United States—at least not yet, right?
JASON HARTMAN: At least not yet, yeah.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: To hold—to hold this stuff. So, you know, I would obviously take advantage if the opportunity presents itself and it works for you.
JASON HARTMAN: So, what would someone do? How would someone go about opening a bank account in, say, Singapore, so that they can—do they need to set up an entity? Do you help them set up the entity? Where do you come in? Do you do entity formation?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, so we do entity formation, we do trust formation. So again, when you look at entities, in general you do want to have an entity. It depends on the banking rules. The first thing is, you really can’t go and open up bank accounts in Singapore or Hong Kong remotely. So you have to actually go physically to the bank and open one up. Again, we do open up entities etcetera beforehand, that the entities can be opened up beforehand, and that can be done remotely. But the actual physically opening a bank account has to be done in person.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. So, you just set up an entity, through your firm, for example, and then where would the entity be located? That’s not necessarily where the bank account’s located, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Not necessarily, but in the case of like a Singapore or Hong Kong, I would recommend just setting up the entity in Singapore or Hong Kong respectively.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, so what do you set up, an LLC or a corporation?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: A limited company.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. A limited company…? And how much does it cost to do that?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: You know, again, depending on the amount of transactions—I mean, just to set up is around $1500. Maybe a little bit more.
JASON HARTMAN: For the entity formation?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Correct.
JASON HARTMAN: And then, once you have the entity, you can, when you’re in Singapore or Hong Kong, just walk into a bank and open an account? Or it’s not that easy?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: No, I mean, you could essentially go to a bank and open up an account. I mean, as long as you have all the documentation in place, the formation documents, your passport, etcetera, you could walk into an HSBC or a DBS in Singapore and open up a bank account.
JASON HARTMAN: And, those banks, I would assume, are pretty stable and secure, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yes. Yes.
JASON HARTMAN: Are the accounts insured? Like our FDIC, which a whole nother discussion would be—if we start having bank failures in the US, the FDIC can in no way afford to pay the claims. But, that’s another show in and of itself.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right.
JASON HARTMAN: So, I wouldn’t get too impressed with that insurance. I’m just telling the listeners.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah. Exactly. They are insured. I forget up to what amount. I’d have to look into it. But I know there’s a certain level of insurance.
JASON HARTMAN: And what about the asset protection angle? We haven’t really talked about that at all. We talked about diversification, maybe more from an investing perspective. But, if you get sued in the United States, can a creditor go to the bank in Singapore and say, hey, pay this judgment?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I mean, that stuff, it’ll take a long time, and if one really wants asset protection, my recommendation would be actually to look into setting up a trust, like in Cook Islands. You know, Cook Islands really does offer the most asset protection.
JASON HARTMAN: What kind of trust is that? What is the type of trust?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: A foreign granter trust.
JASON HARTMAN: A foreign granter trust? And what can someone expect to do that?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Foreign granter trust—well, in the Cook Islands, that—it depends. But you know, obviously given the language of the trust, and you know, the type of assets, etcetera, that are being put in the trust, you could see it upwards of $5, $10,000, maybe more.
JASON HARTMAN: And I’ve heard higher prices than that, by the way. I should just point that out.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah. Yeah. That’s kind of the bare minimum. I would say it’s probably more than that. 10, 10-$15,000 range.
JASON HARTMAN: So you set up the trust, and the trust holds the corporation? Is that how you do it?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yes.
JASON HARTMAN: And—you can’t just have the trust open the bank account directly?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right. You want to have it done through the corporation.
JASON HARTMAN: And, the bank in Singapore or Hong Kong will actually open that account for you, as long as you have the corporation, right?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Right. Correct.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. Very good, very good. Okay, well, what else should we know, just as we wrap up here?
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Yeah, I mean, I think that you know, again, when you look at trusts, and foreign companies, that there’s definitely some advantages, as far as asset protection, as far as you know, potential tax optimization, as far as you know, estate planning. So, I think that there’s a lot of advantages to Americans, or anyone else for that matter, by examining these foreign jurisdictions for their personal or business purposes. And it’s just really a matter of consulting the right guidance, and you know, the right advisors to make sure what’s a good fit for you, and really what is good for your term. Your needs and your circumstances. But you know, it’s definitely not to be overlooked, and as long as you’re in compliance, and doing everything in the United States, there really shouldn’t be any problem with taking advantages of these other countries.
JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Well, Vincenzo, give out your website one more time, tell people where they can find you.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Sure. So, my website is—it’s www.onlinetaxman.com. You could just find me at www.onlinetaxman.com. You could always feel free to write me an email directly; that’s [email protected], and we’ll be happy to help any of the listeners out there.
JASON HARTMAN: Thanks so much for joining us today.
VINCENZO VILLAMENA: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company. All rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com, or email [email protected]. Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate, or business professional for any individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively.
Transcribed by David