Can a Non-Tax Treaty Country Resident Obtain a Refund of Gambling Withholding from the IRS?

Every year during the World Series of Poker (WSOP) I receive several inquiries like the following:

I’m a resident of Brazil and I cashed in an event at the WSOP and won $100,000 (net). The Rio withheld 30% of that for your Internal [Revenue] Service. Can I get any of that back?

The good news is that a tax benefit is available. However, it’s not what you might think. Let’s look at the four methods of obtaining a tax benefit:

1. Tax Treaty. The US and Brazil don’t have a Tax Treaty, so there’s no way of getting the money back by claiming a Tax Treaty benefit.

2. Conducting a Business in the US. An individual conducting a business in the US must file a US tax return, and will owe tax based on the net income of the business. A poker player conducting a business in the US who has $100,000 of winnings and $100,000 of losses will have an income of $0 and not owe tax. Thus, that individual would be able to obtain a refund.

There’s a problem here, though: Is this individual conducting a business in the US? To be conducting a business in the US requires regularity: A business isn’t playing in one poker tournament or one event in one poker tournament. So is it possible for a non-American to be conducting a business in the US? Absolutely.

Consider a professional golfer from (say) Brazil playing on the PGA tour. That individual would almost certainly be conducting a business in the US, and be able to deduct losses and business expenses. (Indeed, that individual might even be considered a resident of the United States based on days in the US and have to file a Form 1040 rather than a Form 1040NR.)

Let’s go back to our Brazilian poker player. The IRS would almost certainly reject such a return at audit unless the person could demonstrate the regularity of a business. Playing in one tournament or one tournament series does not mean you’re conducting a business in the US. This means that for most non-Americans the conducting a business in the US method is not available.

3. Claim Gambling Losses on Form 1040NR. There’s a problem here: Only residents of Canada can claim gambling losses on a Form 1040NR. The IRS used to have a problem with this. However, the IRS redesigned Form 1040NR and put on the form that gambling losses can be taken only by residents of Canada and no longer issues incorrect refunds. This method will not work.

4. Claim a Foreign Tax Credit on a Brazil Tax Return. Almost every country has the ability on their tax returns to claim a foreign tax credit to avoid double taxation. It is likely that this method is available for a Brazilian poker player. It won’t be a refund from the IRS, but it will give you a tax benefit such that you will pay the higher of the two countries’ marginal tax rates. This is the only method that is available for most in this situation.

Yesterday I happen to be at the Rio and overheard someone saying that anyone can apply for a refund of the withholding. That is simply incorrect. The reality is that most individuals subject to withholding on their gambling winnings will not be able to obtain a refund of their withholding.

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