Interview with Doris Speer | President of the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO)

Doris Speer
Doris Speer President at AARO
Interview with Doris Speer | President of the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO)

We are hosting an insightful interview with Doris Speer, the President of AARO (Association of Americans Resident Overseas). In this interview, Doris delves into the numerous challenges US expats face when relocating, with a particular focus on tax and banking issues. She sheds light on the historical context that led to the formation of AARO, explaining how archaic voting laws, citizenship complications, and employment barriers at US embassies motivated a group of American women to establish the association in 1973. Additionally, she shares insights into the global presence of AARO, which now has members in over 40 countries, and elaborates on the strategies being implemented to expand its reach and engagement with the American expatriate community worldwide.

1. Could you provide an overview of AARO, including the motivations behind its establishment and the countries you are present?

In the early 1970s Americans abroad were faced with numerous obstacles to the full exercise of their rights as citizens, such as:  archaic voting laws made voting by absentee ballot almost or totally impossible; children born abroad to an American parent were denied U.S. citizenship because of unmet residency requirements; young adults lost their U.S. citizenship because of similar residency requirements; Americans who acquired another nationality were stripped of their U.S. citizenship. In addition, for various reasons, U.S. embassies would not hire local Americans. Faced with these injustices, a small group of American women founded AARO in 1973. Due to their efforts and those of others, these problems have been partially alleviated.

AARO, headquartered in Paris, France, has become a global, non-partisan non-profit volunteer association with members in over 40 countries on 6 continents, advocating in the areas of citizenship, taxation, banking, financial reporting, voting, Social Security and Medicare. We have just recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of our founding.

AARO’s mission is to build awareness in the U.S. of the issues affecting Americans overseas and the inequities regarding their fiscal and civil rights; to seek fair treatment for Americans abroad by the U.S. government; and to inform our members of issues affecting them and of their rights and responsibilities as American citizens. AARO’s Motto is “Americans Helping Americans Abroad.”

 

2. What strategies is AARO implementing to grow its membership and expand its reach to more Americans living in various parts of the world?

For strategizing our outreach, web-based technology is an invaluable tool. Webinars, Meetups and Zoom have become regular features of event planning.  Most of our meetings are hybrid (in-person and online) when feasible. We have increased our online presence and have a growing network of followers on social media with Facebook, LinkedIn, X and MeetUp. The AARO website contains a wealth of resources to highlight our advocacy and provide information for members and non-members alike.

We find that our unique health insurance plan, discussed below, is a valuable tool to encourage potential members to take a look at AARO, so we are ramping up the marketing of the health plan. AARO’s Directors, who live in several countries – France, Taiwan, China, India and the U.S., do outreach for us.

We strive to increase our visibility. AARO Directors are writing increasingly on our issues; some have been published in prestigious publications. AARO is consulted increasingly by news organizations to speak on overseas American issues. Also, in September 2023, AARO filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court of the United States on an important taxation case.  We will continue to write and speak.  Our goal is to be “top of mind” when it comes to overseas American issues.

expats

 

 3. How does AARO engage its members across different countries, and what initiatives are in place to ensure their voices are heard and represented?

As mentioned above, AARO uses web-based technology, which greatly helps us to engage with members worldwide. We had to move to Zoom MeetUps and other meetings during Covid as everyone else. We have continued to use this technology to hold events, meetings and seminars both virtually and physically, as we see that this helps us engage better with those members outside our home base.   We have instituted online voting at our Annual General Meetings so members worldwide can now easily vote absentee (as opposed to “snail mail”).

In the fall of 2020, we conducted a comprehensive survey of our members and other expatriates to aid us in our advocacy efforts. Its 70 questions covered the topics of FATCA, banking, investment and retirement accounts, taxation, Social Security, Medicare, voting, U.S. citizen services, passport renunciation and representation in Congress. The results of the survey were highly informative and gave us fuller insights into our members’ issues, which we then used in our advocacy going forward. We had asked respondents to make specific comments, and we received thousands of comments, rich in details, real human stories. We wrote a “Survey Series,” a series of 11 articles informing our members of the results of the survey and providing context and background on these issues. In 2023, we used the results of this survey, as well as the results of another survey conducted by an AARO Director for another organization, in our Dear 535 Campaign, whereby we wrote a letter to each member of Congress, with comments of their constituents attached, to highlight the difficulties faced by overseas Americans.  In our News & Views (bi-weekly newsletter distributed worldwide) we often ask for input and feedback.  We welcome input from all members wherever they live.

As it had been some time since our we conducted the survey, AARO has recently held a Town Hall meeting (online to encourage worldwide participation), during which we summarized our priorities for the coming year and asked for input. We received several comments and suggestions, which we plan to implement.  AARO advocates for all Americans abroad wherever they live.

 

4. What types of support services do AARO provide to its members, and are there any new services or programs being introduced?

AARO’s mission includes informing its members of the issues affecting them and of their rights and responsibilities as American citizens. To satisfy this mission:

  • Throughout the year AARO organizes educational seminars on such vital topics as taxation, absentee voting, citizenship, banking, estate planning, and Social Security/Medicare. We also publicize seminars of interest held by third party providers.
  • AARO has an “Ask an Expert” feature on its website whereby members and potential members could ask for advice on various topics: Tax, banking, Social Security, Medicare, voting, etc.
  • AARO publishes its informative News & Views on a bi-weekly basis, which keeps members informed of policy updates, current events, topics of interest and relevant articles.
  • On AARO’s website one can find videos of past events and a host of other information.
  • AARO hosts social events (MeetUps), during which members exchange stories and overseas experiences with each other.
  • Members engage with each other on our various social media platforms, monitored by AARO’s Social Media Coordinator

While AARO typically focuses on the “hard” (i.e., substantive) issues, such as laws and regulations in the areas of tax, banking, citizenship and voting, we recognize that Americans abroad also face challenges involving family, local customs, distance and separation. So, we have just created a new webpage entitled “Living Abroad,” which will have a “Perspectives” section to focus on these “softer” (i.e., practical, emotional) issues.

This webpage is still in its “infant” stage, but we plan to populate it more in the coming months to provide our members with practical information, such as U.S. government contacts and travel tips. The Perspectives section of this webpage will showcase articles addressing challenges Americans face when living abroad, including adjustment issues for those immersed in new countries and cultures. We will soon invite our members to contribute articles.

 

5. You mentioned in our previous conversations that AARO is setting up a new health insurance for American expats. Can you talk more about it?

Since 1987 AARO has provided a reasonably priced medical insurance plan designed for Americans resident outside the U.S. The health plan is backed by the internationally recognized insurer Groupama GAN Vie and administered by MSH International, which operates worldwide 24/7 with 5 regional centers around the world. The health plan was created to meet the unique needs of Americans living abroad. It is open to AARO members and their immediate family members.

Top features of the health plan include: Availability in almost every country worldwide; English-speaking representatives to assist members worldwide; easily portable (with few conditions) if you move from one country to another outside the U.S.; possibility to have two countries of residence for reimbursement purposes; emergency medical coverage in non-resident countries, including the U.S.; coverage in the U.S. for up to 30 non-consecutive days per year; no age limit ; no annual limit of benefits and competitive family pricing and third child coverage without charge.

There are three choices in the level of benefits:  Hospitalization only, medical coverage, and comprehensive (medical plus dental and optical coverage). Different rates of reimbursement can also be chosen. The plan can provide comprehensive coverage or, in France and a few other European countries, be used as a supplement to the national medical insurance system. More information can be found here:  AARO Health Plan.

americans oversea

 

 6. What are the current legislative priorities for AARO, and how are these priorities determined based on the needs of Americans living overseas?

As part of its advocacy, AARO monitors legislation that is proposed in the House of Representatives and the Senate for their impact on Americans abroad. We then publicize on our website the bills that we think are important. Below are the bills that we support in this 118th Congress (Jan. 2023 – Jan. 2025), and why:

In the tax area:   

  • “Tax Simplification Act” (H.R. 5432), intended to create a short form tax return, expand the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, and consolidate FBAR reporting into FATCA.
  • “CLEAR Act of 2023” (H.R. 3789), which would require Treasury to submit proposed or temporary regulations to the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) for comment and to consider the NTA’s comments.

On banking issues:  

  • “Bank Privacy Reform Act” (H.R. 1220), which would require a search warrant before financial institutions report certain financial information to government agencies.
  • “Prohibiting IRS Financial Surveillance Act” (S. 453), which would prevent a FATCA-type reporting situation in the United States.

On representation of overseas Americans in Congress, we support “Commission on Americans Living Abroad Act of 2023” (H.R. 2729), which would create a commission to report on how federal laws and policies affect U.S. citizens living abroad.

Finally, there are two bills in the Social Security / Medicare areas:  

  • “Social Security Fairness Act of 2023” (H.R. 82 / S. 597), which would eliminate the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and
  • “Earned Benefits Equality and Family Reunification Act” (H.R. 5299), which would create a demonstration program in 10 countries for overseas Medicare coverage.

 

7. We are aware that you might not want to share information about your members, but without being specific, can you share some recent successes in AARO’s advocacy efforts on behalf of Americans abroad?

As mentioned above, AARO was successful on citizenship and voting problems after its founding. Significant and challenging issues persist despite our concerted efforts to reform the U.S. legal and regulatory frameworks impacting Americans abroad. These include citizenship-based taxation, the duplication of FBAR and FATCA filings due to low reporting thresholds, the elimination of WEP, and other pressing matters. AARO is convinced, however, that its efforts have recently influenced Congress from passing legislation that would increase the burdens already placed on Americans abroad.

AARO’s working through its network of experts and AARO Directors’ interventions with various officials has on numerous occasions been able to help individual overseas Americans secure or retain their access to financial accounts; to navigate the difficulties in Social Security; to legally avoid WEP; to vote in federal elections; and to contact their individual congresspersons on individual issues or questions. In addition, through contacts with executive agencies, AARO has been able to secure changes in how certain agencies operate (e.g., difficulties in contacting social security from overseas telephone numbers).

 

8. How does the organization influence policy decisions in the U.S.?

AARO’s active advocacy programs focus on persuading Congresspersons (House and Senate) of the need to enact or modify legislation to reduce the tax, financial and administrative burdens arising from citizenship-based taxation, FATCA/FBAR declarations, WEP and the inability of certain persons to vote. Our advocacy is constant, persistent and year-round. Its focal point is Overseas Americans Week (OAW) when a delegation of AARO Board members, joined by our sister organization FAWCO (Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas), visits Washington D.C. to meet with Congressional Offices as well as private organizations such as think tanks and the Americans Bankers Federation, the State Department and the IRS.

 

9. How does citizenship-based taxation affect Americans residing abroad, and do you foresee any potential changes to the [citizenship]-based tax system in the near future within the U.S. Additionally, could you elaborate on how AARO engages with U.S. policymakers to advocate for reforms in this taxation system?

U.S. tax rules are written under the assumption that all non-U.S. assets are “foreign” and the only reason to own a “foreign” asset is to avoid paying U.S. tax. As a result, economic activities that are normal, necessary, and domestic in an overseas American’s country of residence are heavily penalized by the United States. This includes retirement plans and other investments, small businesses, bank accounts, and home ownership, which are subject to punitive tax treatment as well as complex and intrusive compliance and reporting requirements. The only way to escape these policies is to renounce U.S. citizenship; this is why renunciations have spiked in recent years. We believe that Americans should not feel compelled to renounce.

Changing the laws is difficult. Overseas Americans are incorrectly presumed to be wealthy ”fat cats” whose purpose in living outside the United States is to avoid U.S. taxation. Because of this misperception, many policymakers consider the rules in place to be necessary, if not desirable. This is why AARO’s work to educate policymakers and others not only about the policies but also about who overseas Americans really are is so important.

In addition to our efforts to educate, AARO also advocates for change. We do this by our publications and by our submissions to members of Congress, to Congressional committees and to other governmental agencies. In addition, during our annual OAW, an AARO delegation visits Washington D.C. in order to bring our issues personally to the attention of members of Congress and their staff and other policymakers.

interview doris speer

 

10. What inspired you to take on the role of president at AARO, and what has been your most rewarding experience in this position so far?

I had been living and working in Paris for several years, unhappy with how I was being taxed, when I heard from a friend about an association that was focussed on rectifying tax issues. I joined AARO. I saw that AARO’s dedicated volunteers were working hard to help Americans abroad, so I was quite pleased when I was invited to join its Board a few years ago. I did my best to become familiar with the issues, many of which I had not known of before, which showed me that matters were worse than I had thought.  When the opportunity to become President arrived, I took the plunge as I thought that I could contribute my skills in organization, legal analysis and strategy to help the association. I had not thought of doing volunteerism for volunteerism’s sake but was simply focussed on joining the fight to improve the situation of overseas Americans, a situation that I had come to care about deeply.

Coming from the New York and French business world (I was Deputy General Counsel of the Alstom Group, responsible for the legal aspects of its worldwide mergers & acquisitions activity), I had not met many people in the volunteer world. My most rewarding experience has been meeting the many people in AARO who care passionately about the issues and who are willing to dedicate hours of their precious personal time to help others.