In my nearly 30 years of helping Americans "internationalize" themselves, there are four giant obstacles I have watched my clients overcome before finally taking action:
Inertia, fear, complacence, and hopelessness.
All four of these obstacles are self-imposed, by the way. There is certainly nothing illegal about moving assets outside the US.
Of the four, the one that probably comes up the most is hopelessness – the belief that it's "too late" to do anything. The idea that "no matter what I do, Uncle Sam will find a way to grab it." That objection has come up a lot more in the last year or so, now that laws like the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) have increased restrictions on offshore bank secrecy with respect to the IRS.
Here's how one client put it:
Won't the IRS just add up the total value of my assets – here and abroad – apply the tax rate, and collect (or confiscate) domestic assets as needed to cover the tax due? So if I can't leave, renounce, and take ALL assets offshore, is there any really dependable asset protection to be achieved?
Here's what I tell clients when they raise this objection:
First, you don't know if a confiscation of assets will occur in your lifetime. The older you are, the less likely it is to happen. Sure, it's a great pitch for selling newsletter services, but at the end of the day, we just don't know how it's going to play out.
Second, if a confiscation does occur, you don't know if the assets you have will be affected. In the grand scheme of things, we're all small fry compared to institutional investors and pension plans. It's probably not even worth the paperwork to try and seize our relatively small holdings when the big guys have trillions of dollars just sitting there.
Third, if the government goes after an entire asset class (e.g., gold) that you own, they will come for your domestic assets first. They're just easier to grab. As soon as you go offshore and more than one government is involved, things get complicated quickly.
Fourth, even if the US government somehow did seize an entire asset class and then (improbably) took more of your domestic assets to offset what you had offshore, you still have those offshore assets. In my mind, that's the biggest benefit to offshore in the first place. Even if you lose a portion of your domestic assets, you'll still have a nest egg rather than an empty basket.
Fifth, if you think the US government might throw you in jail until you turn over the offshore assets it wants to confiscate, you can set up your affairs in such a way that you don't have the ability to comply with this kind of order. This has actually happened a handful of times, and in every case, the government wound up getting only a small portion of the assets it was demanding up front.
Sixth, you can always opt for non-reportable offshore assets like real estate and "direct" ownership of precious metals. What Uncle Sam doesn't know about (legally, of course) is a lot harder to grab.
At the end of the day, hopelessness is just another excuse. And if you think about it in another way, I think you'll see my point. I call it the "Final Destination" line of reasoning, after the series of horror movies in each of which a character has a premonition of his or her own death.
Imagine you're getting up one morning to go to work. You're thinking about the upcoming day and all the unpleasant things that could happen once you open your front door and step outside.
It's raining, and you might catch a cold, which could turn to pneumonia from which you die. Or you might get sideswiped by a car when you're backing out of your driveway and be paralyzed from the neck down. Once you've arrived at the building you work at, the elevator cable could snap and plunge you and your co-workers 50 stories to your deaths.
If by some miracle you arrive safely at your office, terrorists could fly a jet plane into it. And if you somehow avoid death, dismemberment, or lifetime paralysis in the course of the day, you could be fired by your boss or humiliated by a co-worker.
So what do you do? Do you stay at home and cower in the corner? No. You start up your car and back out of the driveway, because you know that all these risks are extremely unlikely. Not to mention that you're paid to take on certain responsibilities and that others depend on you.
If you operate your own business, the Final Destination line of reasoning is even more apt, because, frankly, the odds of disaster are higher. Today might be the day that your business gets sued. That your loans get called in by your bank. That a trusted employee embezzles everything. That armed agents from the IRS bust down the door and confiscate everything you own. Not to mention the most obvious risk: The business might not succeed.
Does that mean you give up? No. You accept the risks and get on with trying to make your business successful. And if it does fail – and I've personally walked away from three or four unsuccessful business ventures myself – you dust yourself off and go on.
Offshore works pretty much the same way. Are there risks? Sure. Welcome to life.
But you'll lose out from any possible benefits if you give up before you even start.