401K and IRA for foreigners in the United States?

We have been busy with other things in life since more than a year ago and just responded to questions/comments sparingly. I (Yannick) didn’t expect to do another post for a long time but obviously changed my mind because of the excellent question from Abhishek: are there any strings attached to these retirement accounts for foreigners?

If a foreigner plans to stay in US until retirement, then the answer is a straight-forward “no extra string”. For tax purpose, Abhishek has been in the States long enough (6 years) to be treated as a Resident Alien, same as a US citizen. So same rules and penalty apply regarding distribution and early withdraw.

If on the other hand, Abhishek plans to return to his home country after a few years, the answer depends on the tax policy of his home country and the tax treaty (if there’s one) between that country and US. It may very well be less strings (or one more way out) for foreigners. The key questions are usually:
How does the foreigner’s home country treat retirement accounts in US? Is the investiment in a US 401K or Traditional IRA treated as tax deferred as well? Is the Roth IRA treated as tax-free? If not, there’s little reason to use them except contributing to the minimum level in a 401K to get employer match.

If the answers for above questions are yes, then you can have the option to leave the money grow tax-defered or tax-free in US until you reach retirement. US still has the most efficient captial market and lots of long term potenial. So this could be a good diversification investment strategy. Be sure to choose an institution/custodian which keep accounts open when you leave the country. I also recommend to roll-over 401K balances into an IRA accont before you leave. 

What if I need to leave US and also need the money before retirement? First, you want to file a W8BEN with your US custodian to avoid a automated 20% tax withholding at the time of withdraw.  To avoid 10% early withdraw penalty, you need to see if a tax treaty allows a trustee-to-trustee transfer of your money from a US account to a pension fund in your home country.  If not, you want to see if you are okay with annuitizing your traditional IRA money (roll-over 401K to traditional IRA first) or just withdraw your Roth contributions. A SmartMoney article  summarized this approach very well. This applies to all US residents.

If however, you want all of your money within a few years and your home country doesn’t double tax you for incomes in US, then maybe the best bet is to bite the bullet of 10% penalty, while managing the withdraw in each year low enough to avoid US income tax. Income tax is usually much higher than 10%, therefore you may be better off doing withdraw this way, which is not available for most folks staying in US all the time. 🙂

In summary, if you don’t know your long term plan yet, you are likely better off by contributing to 401K and Roth IRA as long as your home country doesn’t double tax you for income earned in US. Please check out our ranked list for savings to manage the trade-off between tax-advantage and liquidity. BEST OF LUCK to Abhishek and all you visitors!

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Lower tax with Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet

Today I was about to mail out my state tax return and saw a blank space in my schedule D line 22. It asked if I had any qualified dividend, which we did have. I was surprised Taxcut didn’t fill in this blank for me. So I decided to follow the instruction and take a look at the worksheet myself.

Dividends are usually taxed at the marginal tax rate of your ordinary income. However, take a look at the form 1099-DIV and you may find some of them are qualified dividends, which are taxed at the tax rate of long-term capital gain (15%).

Now the good news is that some people may qualify for an even lower tax rate at 5%. Please take a look at the following to see if you qualify:
1. If you have qualified dividends or long-term capital gains;
AND
2. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is
less than $30,650 if single or married filing separately;
or less than$61,300 if married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er);
or less than $41,050 if head of household
Then you could lower your tax with the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet (Page 38 of 1040 instructions for 2006 and Page 35 of 1040 instructions for 2007) on line 44 of Federal tax form 1040.

I believe many graduate students and young fellows with lower income qualify for this. I used to be quite skeptical about usefulness of all kinds of the worksheets in 1040. This time, it really saved us hundreds of dollars in tax!

Salary survey for H1B — Are you getting there?

Yannick and I are struggling with Green Card application. We (mainly Yannick) were (was) so lazy and did not bother to work on our immigration stuff and now we had to pay a little cost — Yannick may now have to decline a job offer because of the H1-B. The H1B quota was used up on the very first day!

I am worried, but can’t really push him too much on things he does not like to do. Besides, he has picked up things that I do not like to do — tax, asset allocation… So, it is my turn now.

I can apply for green card through PERM with my company’s sponsorship now. For perm, salary is a key factor–you have to have a salary higher than the average salary in your area to get your visa. So, I found this H1B salary survey.


Surprisingly, Washington has the highest median annual salary of $76K. The average annual salary is usually close to the median value. New York has a very high average of $74k compared to a median value of 55k. I suppose that’s because many were
earning well above 100k. In any case, the good message is that my salary is higher than the median or average in my state. At least, I have met one important condition in getting PERM approved.

The data is a little old, but it tells more than just H1B salary. The most interesting thing to PF bloggers is average household income and house value. California has the highest average house value, but its average household income is actually lower than NJ and CT, or even Maryland!

The average household income in CA is 30% higher than that in Texas, the rent is 40% higher that that in Texas, but the average house value in California is 157% higher than that in Texas! MA is comparable to CA in this respect. So, if someday Yannick and I have to work in CA or MA, I will have a rational plan in head– rent, rent, rent, till we retire in TX and Florida!

BTW, I found it interesting that the average H1B’s salary in New York state is $74K, higher than the average household income ($69K). NYC is really single man’s paradise.

Win a free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file by sharing your tax filing experience

Our dear readers:

Thank you for visiting our blog. Yannick and I shared our tax filing experience on various topics such as filing as a non-resident alien or resident alien, claiming tax treaty benefits after becoming a resident alien for international students, an unpleasant experience with encrypted pdf tax forms, contributing to a 2006 Roth IRA and most recently how to deal with incomes from two states as a double-income couple.

Now here is the fun part. Someone from TaxCut came across my last post and thought my sharing was good. He has kindly given me a free coupon code to download a copy of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. I have no use of it and will give it away to one lucky reader through a lottery.

Here is how to enter the lottery:
You can either
1. Comment on this post and leave your email and nickname to enter the lottery for one chance to win,
or better yet, 2. share your tax filing method (manual, TaxCut, Turbo Tax, Turbo Tax+Quicken, or TaxCut+MS Money like us) to double your chance to win,
or the best, 3. share with us your experience briefly on how well the approach works for three times your chance to win.
You can enter the lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT and the winner will be announced by Sunday night.

How to decide the winner:
Each entry will be assigned to 1, 2 or 3 unique numbers sequentially starting from 0. I will use a random number generator to generate a winner from the above numbers.

We were really satisfied with the TaxCut interview process and how seamless it generated 1040, Schedule A, B, Ds after pulling data out of MS Money. We are curious about how well the other approaches work.

Questions and comments? Good luck!!!

Free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file at latestartersblog.com!

Please enter a lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT, for a free download of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. at my other web site: http://www.latestartersblog.com. I have only one copy to give away, thus, it’s only hosted there.

Good luck!

Tax returns with incomes from two states, file jointly or separately?

NOTE: Enter a lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT, for a free download of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. at my other web site: http://www.latestartersblog.com!

I finished our tax return last weekend, which was much more time-consuming than I had expected. For 2006, Jacqui and I need to file income taxes with two states because both us graduated and moved. Jacqui had income from her job in the current state, while my full year income was from the previous state.

Starting from Federal tax return, we needed 1040 because we had over $1,500.00 in interest and capital gains respectively, and a tax treaty benefit to claim. I used TaxCut to extract our financial transactions and categorized spending from our Microsoft Money account. It filled in 1040, lacking the tax treaty benefit; automatically produced Schedule B, D and schedule D-1 with short term capital gain and long term CG separated, which was very slick. I downloaded 1040 etc. and fill in the forms electronically in Acrobat Reader to claim a treaty benefit which TaxCut does not include. So the 1040 in TaxCut was not usable directly, but the Schedule B and D were. I knew what change I need to make on 1040, thus, I was able to reference the TaxCut 1040 often to make sure I wasn’t missing any deductions. We did not have a mortgage to pay, therefore Schedule A was empty.

Getting into State tax returns, I was first surprised to see the states claim tax on both in-state income and out-of-state income for state residents; and in-state income for non-residents. To be concrete, the first state is a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin) which claims all my income derived in the state and half of Jacqui’s income as taxable as long as we were the residents of that state. The 2nd state is better in the sense that it will claim Jacqui’s 100% income as taxable while my income as taxable only if I am a resident of the state.

Generally speaking, married filing jointly shows less Federal tax compared to filing separately. On the other hand, filing separately would allow us to claim resident status in two states separately, which minimizes our state taxes. However, you cannot mix and match. You need to have the same state filing status as the Federal filing status. Filing separately disqualifies us as a couple from Roth IRA contributions (AGI > 10000), which we already made in early 2006. We could withdraw our IRA contributions and pay taxes on capital gains before this April 16th; however that will be quite a hassle. For the reasons I stated before, I do not want to lose this tax benefit.

As the state income taxes do not amount that much compared to federal taxes, my strategy is to file tax return jointly, but try to minimize state taxes. The solution is to establish the domicile for both of us (permanent legal address) in the new state with lower income tax rates as soon as possible (since Jacqui moved there), so that Jacqui’s job income (higher than my PhD student stipend) will be taxed only in the new state. Of course, as I moved to the current state, my income in the 2nd half of the year become taxable in the current state as well. However, I found a schedule to claim a tax credit for the tax rate paid and the previous state. Most states have similar schedules for you to claim credits on taxes paid to other state governments, however, usually the lower-rate states give credits only up to an allowance computed using lower-rates. So you could avoid being double-taxed, but will still be taxed at higher rate if unlucky.