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Pros and Cons of Taking a Foreign Tax Credit vs. Deduction


For U.S. citizens with foreign income, knowledge of foreign tax credits and deductions is a crucial aspect of financial planning. These mechanisms are designed to prevent double taxation – when someone pays both foreign and domestic taxes on the same income. Both options have their advantages and drawbacks, and understanding them is crucial for making informed financial decisions. A financial advisor can potentially help you with tax planning decisions like using tax credits and deductions.

What Is a Foreign Tax Credit?

The IRS defines a foreign tax credit as a non-refundable tax credit for income taxes paid to a foreign country as a result of foreign income tax withholdings. Simply put, if you have foreign income and pay or owe taxes to a foreign government, you can claim this credit to reduce your U.S. tax liability. However, the foreign tax credit is subject to certain limitations and restrictions, which we’ll discuss in detail shortly.

Pros of a Foreign Tax Credit

One of the most significant advantages of the foreign tax credit is that it provides a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your U.S. tax liability. If you’ve paid foreign taxes on your income, you can directly offset your U.S. tax bill with these credits, reducing your overall tax burden. For example, if John owed $10,000 in U.S. taxes and had paid $4,000 in foreign taxes, the foreign tax credit could reduce his U.S. tax bill by $4,000. 

The foreign tax credit helps prevent double taxation. By claiming this credit, you avoid this unfair burden. Additionally, the foreign tax credit is generally more versatile than the foreign tax deduction and can be applied to various types of foreign income, including passive income, such as dividends and interest.

Cons of a Foreign Tax Credit

However, calculating the foreign tax credit can be intricate and time-consuming. It requires meticulous record-keeping and adherence to specific IRS rules. You may want to consult a tax expert when filling out forms like Form 1116, which the IRS requires (in many circumstances) for claiming this credit. 

There are also limitations on how much foreign tax credit you can claim, particularly if you have foreign income from high-tax countries. For example, the credit can’t exceed the total U.S. tax liability on foreign income. If that happens, you can carry the unused portion of the credit back for one year or forward for 10 years, after which the credit expires.

What Is a Foreign Tax Deduction?

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A foreign tax deduction is different altogether. It allows taxpayers to deduct taxes paid to a foreign country from their taxable income. This can be claimed by any U.S. taxpayer who has paid or accrued foreign taxes to a foreign country or U.S. possession. Unlike the tax credit, the tax deduction lowers a person’s overall taxable income and doesn’t directly reduce the amount of tax owed.

Pros of a Foreign Tax Deduction

One of the main advantages of a foreign tax deduction is its simplicity. This quality can be appealing for taxpayers who prefer straightforward tax operations. 

Unlike the foreign tax credit, claiming a deduction doesn’t require a special form and can be included as an itemized deduction on Schedule A of Form 1040 (if you itemize deductions).

Cons of a Foreign Tax Deduction

Deducting foreign taxes reduces your taxable income, but it doesn’t provide a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax liability. The actual tax savings might be less compared to using the foreign tax credit.

Opting for the deduction could also increase the risk of double taxation. You might still owe U.S. taxes on income that has already been taxed abroad, depending on the tax rates in both countries.

Available Foreign Tax Credits

There are two main types of foreign tax credits: the general category and the “passive income” category.

The general category encompasses taxes paid on income from a wide range of foreign sources, including wages, dividends and interest income.

The passive income category, on the other hand, applies specifically to income earned from passive activities such as dividends, interest, rents and royalties.

Available Foreign Tax Deductions

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The foreign tax deduction applies to all taxes paid to a foreign country including VAT, sales taxes and property taxes. And for individuals working abroad, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) can be a game-changer.

This deduction allows you to exclude a certain amount of foreign-earned income from your U.S. taxable income. As of 2023, the maximum exclusion is $120,000 per taxpayer and $240,000 for married couples who work abroad. 

Expatriates also may face higher living costs in foreign countries. The Foreign Housing Deduction or Exclusion enables taxpayers to deduct or exclude certain housing expenses incurred while producing income and living abroad. This helps mitigate the financial burden of maintaining a residence in both the U.S. and a foreign country.

Either of those can affect the amount eligible for the foreign tax credit.

Tips for Effective Tax Planning

Tax planning requires a clear understanding of the tax rules that apply to your situation. This allows taxpayers to maximize credits and deductions while avoiding potential penalties. Here are four general tips to help you plan around foreign tax credits and deductions more effectively: 

  • Review your eligibility: Ensure you meet the requirements for each option. The FTC often has broader effectiveness, but the FTD can be more advantageous in specific situations.
  • Income type: Different types of income may qualify for either the foreign tax credit or foreign tax deduction. For instance, some non-income related taxes may only be eligible for the FTD.
  • Optimize deductions: If you opt for the FTD, make sure to itemize other deductions to maximize your tax savings.
  • Consult a tax professional: Tax laws are complex and subject to change. Seek advice from a tax professional well-versed in international taxation to navigate these intricacies effectively.

Bottom Line

Both foreign tax credits and deductions play pivotal roles in managing your taxes if you are earning income overseas. The right choice between the two requires careful consideration and even advice from tax professionals. While a foreign tax credit enables you to reduce your U.S. tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis, a deduction allows you to reduce the taxable income you report to the IRS.

Tax Planning Tips

  • Consider speaking with a financial advisor with tax expertise. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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