Our Spotlight series highlights the careers and lives of tax professionals across the globe. This week’s spotlight is on cross-border tax adviser Marina Hernandez.
Marina is Argentinian and Spanish by birth, but, she says, American by choice. In 2009, after a career in corporate finance at large multinational companies on three continents, she started a tax firm, MHTax, to provide tax consulting, preparation, and representation services to U.S. immigrants and expats. A few years later, she became a CFP® professional and started a wealth advisory firm, Swiss American Wealth Advisors, to serve the complex planning needs of globally mobile families with U.S. and Swiss ties.
What’s your official title, and what does it mean? I am a U.S.-Swiss Crossborder Wealth, Tax & Value Advisor. I advise individuals and families with U.S. and Swiss interests, such as Americans living in Switzerland or Swiss families living in the U.S. My main areas of focus are international tax and cross-border financial planning, and I particularly enjoy advising business owners and entrepreneurs whose businesses and professional projects cross the U.S. and Swiss borders.
Free time: book, audiobook, or podcast? Audiobooks and podcasts all the way! I can listen to them while doing another of my favorite solo activities—taking long walks and hikes. It’s my favorite form of multitasking. I love flipping through book pages, smelling them, and looking at the pictures, but my eyes are usually too tired from reading tax laws and analysis all day to want to read for fun after work. I fall asleep right away when I try!
Tax is a huge subject. What’s your area of special interest? Although I spend a lot of time doing tax compliance, personal income tax planning is my main area of interest, particularly the interaction between the U.S. tax rules and those of foreign countries and how they impact Americans when they live overseas. The U.S. is unique in taxing its citizens on their worldwide income even when they live abroad, creating conflict with local tax laws and potentially leading to double taxation. This can be a big problem, but on the other hand, every time there’s conflict, there’s also opportunity. I enjoy finding opportunities to improve tax efficiency and/or reduce tax complexity for my clients when the pieces don’t quite seem to fit together. Leonard Cohen said it so well: “There is a crack…in everything, That’s how the light gets in.” You can always find me looking for that tax silver lining.
What’s the last movie or show that you watched and loved (DVD, Netflix, or in the theater)? I recently got Apple TV just to watch “Ted Lasso.” I love Ted Lasso. He embodies everything I admired so much about Americans when I first moved here—relentless positivity, generosity, believing in yourself and others, seeking out the best in everyone. It’s the perfect show for these challenging times. Plus, it’s also all about soccer, or as I prefer to call it, real football, and footballers! I grew up in Argentina, where football is a passion. Leo Messi, anyone? Everything football-related resonates with me.
What college did you attend, and what did you study? I attended the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), where I studied accounting and became a National Public Accountant, the Argentine equivalent of a CPA. Later, when I moved to the USA, I got an MBA from the University of Georgia. More recently, when I turned 40, I attended Temple University in Philadelphia to become a Certified Financial Planner.
Go to pick-me-up: Coffee or tea? Why limit ourselves to one or the other? Let’s have both. I have Spanish and Italian heritage, so espresso coffee has been my morning friend from an early age. But in my early 30s, I lived in London for a couple of years and fell in love with English black tea. Not a day goes by without me having a cuppa since then!
What’s the best tax or financial advice that anyone ever gave you? When I was in high school, a CPA who talked to our class on Career Day told us that if we wanted to not ever have to worry about unemployment, we should become CPAs. “There are never enough CPAs,” he said. “People will be fighting to hire you.” I think he was trying to be funny because accounting was perceived as uncool and undesirable. He was wearing glasses, a bow tie, gray sweater....you get the picture. I was probably the only one paying attention. Argentina is constantly going from one financial crisis into another, and high unemployment is the norm, so guaranteed job security sounded amazing to me. I was sold. I got my accounting degree, and alas, I have never been unemployed since then! Whether intended that way or not, it was the first bit of financial advice I remember paying attention to and benefiting from.
If you weren’t working in the tax profession, what would your dream job be? Teacher. I love teaching. I am a part-time continuing education instructor for CPAs, EAs and CFPs, and I write tax education newsletters, so in a sense, I am still teaching, but my first love was teaching little munchkins. I worked as an early years teacher to pay for my college education, teaching kindergarten through second grade for five years. It was a blast. I don’t think I have the stamina to go back to teaching five-year-olds, but I loved doing it when I was in my twenties. Teachers do not always get the respect, gratitude, or compensation they deserve, but they can be true heroes. Many lives have been transformed by a great teacher, like Miss Riley in “October Sky.”
If you had the opportunity to make one change in the tax world—an extra credit, a disallowed deduction, whatever—what would it be? That’s a no-brainer: transitioning away from citizenship-based taxation to more sensible residency-based taxation rules. The burden that our current citizenship-based taxation system places on Americans living overseas makes no sense. It’s not even clear that it brings in positive net revenue to the Treasury once the administration cost is considered. Every year I receive calls from Americans asking me to help them renounce their U.S. citizenship because of the banking restrictions and job limitations that they encounter overseas due to our tax, FATCA, and FBAR rules, or the stress they suffer from having to complete complex tax forms that can easily result in thousands of dollars of penalties for innocent mistakes. We can, and should, do better than this.
Favorite food, snack, or candy during tax season (or other busy time)? Skittles! I can think of nothing better than a colorful bowl of delicious Skittles sweetness to keep me going close to tax deadlines.
What tax news or move made the most impact on your practice or clients this past year? The Economic Impact Payment checks, or as people generally refer to them, stimulus checks, impacted both clients and newsletter readers last year. Many Americans overseas were eligible to receive these payments, but they faced special challenges, such as the challenge of having to cash a U.S. Treasury check abroad. Not all U.S. expats have U.S. bank accounts, and not every foreign bank accepts U.S. checks for deposits. Some countries do not even use checks anymore, so checks are completely useless! People needed help filing for the first time to receive the payments, updating their foreign addresses with the IRS, opening U.S. bank accounts from overseas to deposit the checks, filing separate tax returns from their foreign spouse to avoid becoming ineligible for the payments, directing the IRS to deposit the payments to their U.S. accounts for the first time, or even having their payments re-issued, because the checks got lost in the international mail. It kept us quite busy for a while! It looks like we are about to have tax reform again, so I’m sure we’ll get busy planning for the new provisions in the coming year.
If you received a big tax refund check right now, what would you do with it? Since I am a tax accountant and self-employed, the real me would likely apply it towards my next estimated tax payment. Sad, isn’t it? In a fantasy world, though, I can imagine using it to rent a quiet little waterfront home with no cell phone reception for miles, where I could sit outside and listen to the waves crashing and the birds chirping without being interrupted by emails or calls. A tax girl’s dream come true!
You can find Hernandez on Linked In.
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