Teaching Overseas & Staying Clear of the Tax Man
“Nothing is certain but death and taxes,” Ben Franklin wrote. But for international school teachers, even taxes aren’t certain. Uncle Sam cuts us a break known as the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, and allows us to exclude up to $91,400 (for 2009) of earned income from US income tax if we meet certain requirements. Of course, there’s always a catch, or in this case, several, and even if you owe no tax, you’re still usually required to file an annual tax return.
The Hard Way
Unfortunately, many expatriates are not well-versed in how the “overseas tax thing” really works. Given fairly moderate salaries, teachers tend to turn to one of three options: blunder through it alone with mass-market tax software; go to a one-stop-shop tax office during vacation; or procrastinate for years on end, not filing at all, and dreading the day the IRS notices their lapse. The difficulty is that tax software doesn’t explain all the overseas issues very clearly, leaving you unsure whether everything is done correctly. And local tax offices in the States are usually very unfamiliar with the details of overseas tax issues, potentially costing you a lot of money both in fees and in errors resulting in extra tax. Long-term procrastination, meanwhile, is hard on your blood pressure and may lead to problems with the IRS sooner or later. None of these is a very attractive choice!
The Easy Way
There are, however, tax preparers such as myself who specialize in overseas issues. We make it our business to master the intricacies of how the tax laws apply to expatriates. We can help you stay in Uncle Sam’s good graces, while making sure you don’t pay taxes unnecessarily. Whether you hire such a specialist or go it alone, make sure you understand the basic rules to avoid getting into trouble. Learn what you must know by reading the main IRS publication for Americans living overseas, Publication 54.
Things to Know
Following are a few useful points to keep in mind, regardless of who will be preparing your taxes:
US citizens and residents living and working outside the US are allowed an automatic two-month extension to file (to June 15), plus additional time depending on circumstances. But any tax owed is still due on April 15; you’ll owe some interest if you pay later.
Your first year living overseas you will often need an extension beyond June 15 if you expect to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. The extension request should be filed by the regular deadline.
If the school grants you a tuition break to allow your kids to go to the school where you teach, the tuition amount is generally not considered taxable income.
Housing benefits, on the other hand—even school-provided housing—are taxable in most cases.