Who are the ‘accidental Americans’?

One term that gets a lot of airtime these days is ‘accidental American,’ but what does it mean? An ‘accidental American’ is someone with ties to the US so loose that they may not even realize that they are citizens.

According to American law, you are a US citizen if you are born in the US. For many US-Canadian dual citizens, the timing of their birth may be the only connection they have to the country, but it’s enough to hold them liable to IRS reporting requirements (and possibly to taxation) for the rest of their lives. In some cases, even this is lacking and they may simply be the children of American immigrants.

Janet Selby spent only a few days in the US, where she was born to Canadian parents pursuing graduate work at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill.

Esther Thompson, 70, and her sister Betty, 69, both married to retired farmers living near Prince Albert, Sask. The two were born in Minnesota but are long-time Canadian citizens. Both sisters share joint accounts with their husbands and worry that penalties will be assessed on the days in which the accounts held significant sums after a big grain sale, for example, despite the fact that they were quickly drained to pay bills.

Ohio-born Julie Veilleux spent the first eight years of her life in the United States but has lived in Canada for nearly 40 years. She became a Canadian citizen in 1995 and was told by the citizenship judge she was no longer an American.

Kerry Knoll’s two teenage daughters have never had a US address or earned a a penny there, but they have dual US-Canadian Citizenship. Now, they’re being told that their savings account from summer jobs are considered illegal offshore accounts and they may owe thousands out of their RESPs.

Anthony Smith isn’t a US citizen at all. He spent 11 years working as a network designer for Nortel Networks in Dallas. Ending his obligations to the IRS after he surrendered his green card and returned to Canada in 2004 took years and cost him thousands of dollars.

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