PFICs for Australian expats

Demystifying PFICs for Australians in the United States

Demystifying PFICs for Australian Expats in the US: A Comprehensive Guide (In-Depth Exploration)

For many Australians who live and work in the United States, navigating US taxes can be a nightmare, especially when it comes to declaring your Aussie investments in your US return? Managed funds, ETFs, even superannuation – these familiar investments can become a source of confusion when you become a US tax resident (i.e. when you become a resident alien for US income tax purposes).

And that brings us to the US tax concept known as Passive Foreign Investment Companies, or PFICs for short. This seemingly innocuous term can leave even the most seasoned investor, and sometimes even their accountants, scratching their head.

What Exactly is a PFIC?

A PFIC stands for Passive Foreign Investment Company. It’s a designation by the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for certain non-U.S. corporations or trusts that meet either one of following two tests:

  • Income Test: If 75% or more of the company’s gross income comes from passive sources (like interest, dividends, rents, royalties, or capital gains from selling shares etc), it qualifies as a PFIC.
  • Asset Test: If 50% or more of the average value of the company’s assets produce or are held for the production of passive income, then it’s also considered a PFIC.

Many Aussie investments, such as managed funds, ETFs, and even superannuation, can be classified as PFICs under US tax law. This can be surprising for Australian expats who may not be aware of the implications. That means your trusty managed funds and ETFs back home can morph into PFICs once you become a US tax resident. Even superannuation, your Aussie retirement nest egg, might be viewed as a PFIC by Uncle Sam. Confusing, right?

Here’s a key takeaway though: PFICs are subject to potentially harsh tax treatment in the US compared to US-domiciled investments and that tax treatment can involve highly complex calculations, high tax rates, and generally, a mountain of paperwork.

Many Aussie managed funds and ETFs meet these criteria due to their investment strategies and asset holdings. This throws a wrench into the tax plans of unsuspecting Aussie expats who suddenly face a new set of complexities when dealing with their investments in the US.

Why PFICs Can Be Tax Headaches for Aussie Expats:

Here’s the rub: Unlike US-domiciled investments, PFICs can be subject to much harsher tax treatment in the US. We’re talking about complex calculations, potentially hefty tax rates, and a mountain of paperwork. This can significantly erode your investment returns.

The main difference lies in how income and gains are taxed:

US Investments: Typically, income and gains from US investments are taxed in a relatively straightforward manner, with capital gains and dividend income taxed at specific rates.

PFICs: These are subject to one of three punitive tax regimes:

  • Excess Distribution Method,
  • Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) Method, or
  • Mark-to-Market (MTM) Method.

Each method comes with its own complexities and tax implications, often resulting in higher tax rates and significant reporting burdens.

Let’s break down these three methods to understand the potential tax pitfalls:

Excess Distribution Method (EDM):

This is the default method for PFICs and is considered the most complex and punitive. It involves complex calculations to determine “excess distributions” – essentially, distributions that exceed a certain threshold based on the average distributions received in prior years.

These excess distributions, along with any capital gains on the sale of PFIC shares, are taxed at the highest marginal rate for that year, regardless of your actual tax bracket.

Additionally, an interest charge is levied for deferring taxes on the income attributed to each day of your holding period. This method can significantly diminish the after-tax value of your investment.

Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) Method:

This method offers a seemingly more favourable option.

You can elect to include your share of the PFIC’s earnings (both ordinary income and capital gains) in your gross income annually, regardless of whether you actually receive any distributions. This aims to treat PFICs more like US mutual funds, with income taxed as you earn it.

However, there are drawbacks. Electing QEF treatment locks you into this method for subsequent years, and you may face higher yearly tax liabilities if the PFIC generates significant income.

Mark-to-Market (MTM) Method:

This method allows you to recognise the increase in fair market value of your PFIC shares each year as ordinary income.

This can simplify tax planning to some extent, but it also means you’ll pay taxes on any gains, even if you haven’t received any distributions. Losses from selling PFIC shares are considered capital losses, which have limitations on how much they can offset your ordinary income.

Additionally, this method is only available for PFICs with shares that are “marketable,” meaning they are regularly traded on a stock exchange.

PFIC Reporting Requirements: A Paperwork Nightmare

Owning PFICs also means navigating a complex web of reporting requirements. Each of the tax treatment methods outlined above necessitates meticulous record-keeping and for each PFIC owned, an annual filing of IRS Form 8621 detailing the calculations made under your chosen method.

Before Moving to the United States: Tax-planning for Your PFIC Investments

The decision of whether to sell or keep your PFIC investments before moving to the US is a crucial one. Here’s a breakdown of the considerations and potential strategies:

Selling Your PFICs:

Pros: This simplifies your tax situation in the US, eliminating the complexities and potential tax burdens associated with PFIC reporting. You’ll also avoid the ongoing record-keeping requirements.

Cons: Selling will trigger Capital Gains Tax (CGT) in Australia, which could impact your overall financial plan. Additionally, you might forgo potential future growth on these investments.

Keeping Your PFICs:

Pros: You retain ownership of your existing investments and their potential for future growth.

Cons: You’ll face the complexities of US PFIC tax treatment, potentially leading to higher tax liabilities and a significant reporting burden.

The Importance of Tax Planning:

Review Your Investment Portfolio: Before setting sail for the US, partner with a US tax advisor familiar with both Australian and US tax laws. They can help you identify which of your investments are PFICs and analyse the tax implications of keeping or selling them.

Consider US-Domiciled Investments: For future investments, think about US-domiciled managed funds and ETFs. These typically bypass the PFIC headache, streamlining your tax filing process.

Explore Tax-Efficient Strategies: If you decide to keep your PFICs, there are ways to potentially minimise the tax pain.

  • Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) Method: This can be a more favourable option compared to the default Excess Distribution Method, but it comes with its own considerations.
  • Mark-to-Market (MTM) Method: This might simplify annual reporting for appreciating investments, but it also means you’ll pay taxes on unrealised gains.

  • Stay Updated on Superannuation Treatment: The US tax treatment of Australian superannuation is a bit of a grey area. Seek professional advice on navigating this, considering potential tax treaties and the latest IRS guidance.
  • Seek Professional Help: Given the complexities and potential tax pitfalls of PFICs, don’t try to go it alone.

A tax professional with expertise in both US and Australian tax law can be invaluable. They can help you:

  • Make informed decisions about your PFIC investments.
  • Choose the most appropriate tax treatment method for your situation.
  • Complete the necessary IRS forms accurately.
  • Develop a tax strategy to minimise your overall tax burden.

Remember: By planning ahead and seeking professional guidance, you can effectively manage your Australian investments while complying with US tax obligations. This will allow you to focus on enjoying life in the US without unnecessary tax worries.

Sample Calculations for Each Method:

To further illustrate the potential tax implications of each PFIC tax treatment method, let’s revisit the scenario of Ben, an Aussie expat residing in the US, who has an investment in the ASX-listed ETF, Vanguard Australian Shares Index Fund (ASX code: VAS).

We’ll assume Ben purchased 1,000 shares of VAS at $50 each (total investment of $50,000) at the start of the tax year and that the ETF qualifies as a PFIC under US tax law.

We’ll also assume that VAS distributed $5,000 of dividends comprising $4,000 of ordinary income and $1,000 of distributed capital gains.

Excess Distribution Method (EDM):

Scenario: At the end of the year, VAS distributed dividends of $5,000. Ben sold all his shares at the end of the year for $55 each (total value of $55,000), realising a capital gain of $5,000.

Tax Implications: Ben faces a high tax rate on the excess distribution (total of $10,000 including dividends and capital gains) compounded by the interest charge, significantly reducing the after-tax value of his investment.

Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) Method:

Scenario: VAS reports $4,000 of ordinary income and $1,000 of net capital gain for the year.

Tax Implications: Ben includes $4,000 of ordinary income and $1,000 of net capital gain from VAS in his income, taxed at his marginal tax rate. This avoids the punitive tax and interest charges associated with the Excess Distribution Method. However, actual distributions from VAS are not taxed again when received.

Mark-to-Market (MTM) Method :

Scenario: VAS share price increases to $55 by the end of the year.

Tax Implications: Ben includes the $5,000 increase in fair market value of his VAS shares ($55 per share – $50 per share) as ordinary income for the year, even though he hasn’t received any distributions.

This can simplify reporting but may create a tax liability on unrealised gains. Additionally, if Ben sells his shares at a loss in the future, the capital loss deduction may be limited.


Understanding PFICs and their onerous tax implications in the United States is crucial for Aussie expats managing their investment portfolios.

By familiarising yourself with the different tax treatment methods, their advantages and drawbacks, and seeking professional advice, you can navigate this complex landscape and make informed decisions about your investments.

Remember, proactive planning and professional guidance can help you minimise your tax burden and ensure you’re complying with US tax regulations.

Additional Considerations:
This is a general overview, and you should consult with a tax professional for personalised advice on your specific situation.
Tax laws can change, so staying updated on the latest developments is essential.

There are other types of PFICs beyond ETFs and managed funds, such as controlled foreign corporations (CFCs). Understanding how these are classified and taxed is also important.

Got some questions?

If you have any questions about your Australian investment portfolio, your managed funds, ETFs, and/or superannuation (especially if you have a SMSF) and how they’ll be taxed by the United States, feel free to book an appointment with our expatriate tax specialists, or contact us here at Expat Taxes team as we’d be happy to run through how these rules apply to your circumstances and more.

With over 18 years of experience working in the expatriate tax space and clients located in over 112 countries worldwide, our team of experienced expatriate tax professionals are well-placed to assist specific solutions tailored to your unique situation.

We understand the complexities and nuances of tax issues faced by Australian expats in the United States (and elsewhere) and we’re dedicated to helping you navigate these challenges efficiently, and effectively.

Feel free to book an appointment with us or contact us or to discuss your unique circumstance so that we can jointly explore how we can assist.

Shane Macfarlane CA
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