Inside the long-awaited package, six pages of government paperwork dryly affirmed Carol Tapanila’s anxious request. But when Tapanila slipped the contents from the brown envelope, she saw there was something more.
“We the people ...” declared the script inside her U.S. passport – now with four holes punched through it from cover to cover. Her departure from life as an American was stamped on the same page: “Bearer Expatriated Self.”
With the envelope’s arrival, Tapanila, a native of upstate New York who has lived in Canada since 1969, joined a largely overlooked surge of Americans rejecting what millions see as a highly sought prize: U.S. citizenship. The U.S. government reported a record 2,999 people renounced citizenship or terminated permanent residency in 2013.
Most widely are assumed to be driven by a desire to avoid paying taxes on hidden wealth. The government’s pursuit of tax evaders among Americans living abroad is indeed driving the jump in abandoned citizenship, experts said.
The reality, though, is more complicated. Renouncers – whose ranks have swelled more than five-fold from a decade ago – often contradict the stereotype of the financial scoundrel. Many are from very ordinary economic circumstances.
Some call themselves “accidental Americans,” who recall little of life in the United States, but long ago happened to be born in it. Others said they renounced because of politics, family or personal identity. Some said signing away citizenship was a huge relief. Others recall being sickened by the decision.
At the U.S. consulate in Geneva, “I talked to a man who explained to me that I could never, ever get my nationality back,” said Donna-Lane Nelson, whose Boston accent lingers though she’s lived in Switzerland 24 years. “It felt like a divorce. It felt like a death. I took the second oath, and I left the consulate and I threw up.”
When Americans do hear about compatriots rejecting citizenship, it’s more often people keeping their U.S. citizenship and dropping that of another country.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas acknowledged the Canadian citizenship he was born to, but said he would renounce it. In 2012, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota saying she was “100 percent committed to our United States Constitution,” announced she was giving up Swiss citizenship gained through marriage.
One of the few times rejected U.S. citizenship has gotten significant ink was Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s 2011 decision to turn in his American passport after moving to Singapore. Saverin likely avoided millions of dollars in taxes by doing so shortly before Facebook’s initial stock offering.
But some of those surrendering citizenship said their reasons are as much about life as about taxes, particularly since the U.S. government does not tax Americans abroad on their first $97,600 in earned income, a figure annually adjusted for inflation.
Decisions to renounce “are driven by a whole range of emotional considerations. ... You’ve got anger, you’ve got fear, you’ve got a strong sense of indignation,” said John Richardson, a Toronto lawyer who advises people on expatriation. “For many of these people, this is not a tax issue at all.”
Even some who acknowledge tax worries said decisions to renounce are far more complicated than a simple desire to avoid paying.
Peter Dunn, born in Chicago and raised in Alaska, moved to Canada to pursue a graduate degree in theology. He met his wife, Catherine, and they made Toronto home when her work as one of the owners of an aviation maintenance firm made her the breadwinner.
Dunn remained an American. But he was alarmed by a change in U.S. law requiring those with more than $2 million in assets to pay an exit tax if they gave up citizenship. He didn’t have $2 million. But his wife was doing well enough that he imagined one day they could get there. The idea of the U.S. government taxing his Canadian wife’s money didn’t seem right.
“When I learned about that, I decided that to protect my wife, I better expatriate,” he said.
Corine Mauch arrived at the same decision by a different route. Mauch was born a U.S. citizen to Swiss parents who were college students in Iowa. They lived in the U.S. until she was 5, then again for two more years before she turned 11. Mauch maintained dual citizenship even after she was elected to Zurich’s city council. But when she became mayor, she reconsidered.
During the last American presidential election, “I asked myself ‘Where do I feel at home?’ And the answer is clear: In Zurich and in Switzerland. My attachment to America is limited to my very early youth,” Mauch said.