Each year, I have the privilege of representing countless men and women serving U.S. interests abroad. Whether federal civilian employees, contractors, or members of the Armed Forces, they’re generally a spirited, adventurous, and world-wise bunch with plenty of interesting stories to tell. To a person, they’ve also learned from experience that the expat lifestyle comes with some unexpected logistical hurdles.
One of the biggest hurdles – indeed, the reason why many of these clients require my services in the first place – is managing one’s U.S.-based finances, taxes, and other legal obligations from the other side of the world. Many new expats, particularly those who are unable to secure an “APO”, “DPO” or similar U.S. address, overestimate the reliability and/or timeliness of foreign mail service. Others fail to understand the nuances involved with filing tax returns or legal documents while living abroad. And still others don’t consider the extent to which dramatically varying time zones can impact their ability to engage with U.S.-based customer service representatives when billing disputes or questions arise.
The result is that a good number of U.S. citizens working abroad in service to Uncle Sam actually find themselves running afoul of the tax man, courts, or creditors. This in turn causes security clearance problems that, if left unchecked, can spiral into a career-killer.
So, what is a new or aspiring expat to do? Get one’s financial, tax, and legal ducks in a row before actually moving abroad. Here are a few ways to do that:
SIGN-UP FOR E-BILLS, AUTO-PAY, AND A MAIL DIGITIZATION SERVICE
Signing up for e-bills and automatic payments is one of the simplest ways to ensure that recurring financial obligations and final bills (e.g. utilities) from a prior stateside address don’t get sent to collections. It’s also free.
Inevitably, however, there will be important financial, legal, and tax documents that cannot be received digitally from the sender. That’s where mail digitization services come into play. There are several businesses out there including Earth Class Mail that offer a physical, U.S. address expats can use to receive mail. When mail is received, it is digitized (scanned) and emailed to the customer for a relatively nominal price.
RETAIN AN ACCOUNTANT EXPERIENCED IN DEALING WITH EXPATS
The U.S. tax code is complicated enough for U.S. residents; in many cases, it becomes significantly more complicated when one moves abroad – particularly if the taxpayer has opened a local (foreign) bank account. Over the years, I’ve heard an endless stream of crazy misinformation and rumors, including that U.S. citizens living abroad are not required to file U.S. income tax returns (false). I strongly recommend against anyone living abroad attempting to navigate their taxes without professional assistance. There are a number of excellent accountants in the Washington, D.C. area who do a considerable amount of work with U.S. government employees and contractors serving abroad. Find one and spend the money to have your taxes done professionally.
BOOKMARK OTHER CUTTING-EDGE SERVICES FOR LATER USE
Finally, there are a number of other expat-friendly services that have sprouted up in recent years on the internet. Two of my favorites are Notarize.com and DocuSign. The latter allows users to electronically sign and email important documents and the former allows for the ability to have documents notarized electronically by hosting Skype-like meetings with a live Notary Public. Its super cool technology that expats ten or twenty years ago could only have dreamed about.
With a little bit of advance planning, moving abroad in service to our country can be both a career accelerant and the opportunity of a lifetime. Best wishes and safe travels.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.