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Building an Expat Empire: One Tax Practitioner’s Story

David Stewart: Welcome to the podcast. I'm David Stewart, editor in chief of Tax Notes Today International. This week: having it all in tax. Life is a balancing act. At one point or another, we've all got multiple plates in the air, whether it's career, kids, elderly parents, or hobbies. Is it possible to have it all? Our guest this week is a tax practitioner who has juggled a career abroad, teaching, parenthood, and writing. Here to talk about her interview with that practitioner is Tax Notes international contributing editor Nana Ama Sarfo. Ama, welcome back to the podcast.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Thanks, Dave. It's great to be back.

David Stewart: Can you tell me who you talked to and what your interview was about?

Nana Ama Sarfo: I spoke with Virginia La Torre Jeker, and she is a U.S. tax attorney who has become a really well-known expert for U.S. expats and foreign individuals who have U.S. tax issues. And her career journey is really fascinating because over her past 35 years of practice, she has invented and reinvented herself in many different ways. To start off, she's spent all of those years abroad, first in Hong Kong and now in Dubai, where she is currently based and operates her own firm. And over the years, she's had to navigate various cultural adaptations. And when her son was young, she also had to figure out how to work part time in tax law and still grow her career. And then on top of that, she's also worked on the nitty gritty of establishing her name as an expert and building her brand and building her own practice. And just like a true tax technician, she also shared with me some of the big ticket issues that she's been watching regarding FATCA and how U.S. tax law and Sharia law intersect.

David Stewart: All right, let's go to that interview.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Hi, Virginia. It's great to have you on the podcast.

Virginia La Torre Jeker: Hey, thanks for having me. And I'm delighted to be here.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Well, we are very lucky today to have this opportunity to sit down with you and discuss your career and your career lessons. Especially since so many people know you for the tax advisory work that you do for Americans abroad and also for foreign nationals with U.S. tax issues. And this conversation really is a continuation of a recent profile of you that we ran in Tax Notes.

But for those who haven't yet had a chance to read the piece or are just becoming acquainted with you. I'm hoping that you can tell us a little about your international career journey and the countries in which you have worked and the roles that you have held over the years.

Virginia La Torre Jeker: Sure. I'd be happy to. Well, it goes way back to, I guess, 1983, when I started my tax law career with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in New York City. And a scant two years later, I met the man who would later become my husband. Tony was a Swiss national, and we met literally six weeks before he was scheduled to return to Europe. He had been on a short work program in the States with one of the Swiss banks and we fell madly in love. We decided we wanted to get married. And for the first time ever, I got a U.S. passport.

And that changed my life because Tony didn't really want to live in the U.S., so we had to find a country where we could both be happy with our work. And the headhunters I spoke to had strongly recommended I look in Asia, especially in Hong Kong. And so we started to look around what was available in Hong Kong for each of us. And we were very lucky. Tony got the perfect position with the Swiss bank he was with to head up the far East office there. And I was very lucky landing a job with Coudert Brothers, which was an American law firm at the time with international offices. And I worked for Coudert for about a year. And when I became pregnant and was having my son, I knew that full-time lawyering as a tax attorney was not going to be in the cards for me.

And so what I decided, and I know now it doesn't sound like it's very unique, but at the time it was extremely unique. I decided I wanted a position as a U.S. tax attorney that's part-time flex time so that I can pretty much raise my son. And finding that was quite a task. It didn't happen all at once. As you can imagine, remember, we're talking about the late 80s. We had no internet then. This idea of flex time and part-time and women doing these things was just not really in the cards.

So I was very lucky and found a very interesting position with Deloitte Touche, where the partner there in the tax department was also an attorney. And she wanted someone who could speak the same language. The accountants have their forms and their numbers, but attorneys deal with statutes and code language and memoranda and research. She wanted someone who could handle that aspect of U.S. Tax. And luckily that was me.

And starting off with my work with Deloitte, so I moved on and branched out, working for other organizations, such as a trust company, smaller tax advisory firms, or smaller law firms, where they needed someone to handle certain aspects of the work, but they couldn't really have somebody full time. I started to work with HSBC in their tax department. I was helping some of the Swiss banks with their tax issues. And it all just seamlessly seemed to fall together over the years, building that chapter of my life. And that lasted for 15 years while we were in Hong Kong. Later on, we left Hong Kong in 2001, and I left, honestly, kicking and screaming. I absolutely adored my life in Hong Kong, but sadly my husband developed a pollution-related asthma due to a lot of the factory work going on in China. So from a health perspective, we knew we couldn't stay.

And we were then in the position we were in back in 1986, when we got married and said, "Where will we live?" That was déjà vu happening again, and we had to look for a new place. And we did, and my husband had worked at some point in Bahrain. So I said, "What about Bahrain? Because I liked Bahrain." And he said, "Yeah, Bahrain would be fine, but I don't know that you'll find tax work there." And one of our friends who had worked in Bahrain and also worked in Dubai, suggested Dubai. I never heard of Dubai. What is Dubai? Where is Dubai? And of course now Dubai is well on the map so everyone knows where Dubai is.

So when we came to Dubai, that was 2001. We came on our own. We had no company backing us up, no employer sending us here. And so we were starting from scratch. And that in itself has been an amazing journey because it was a little bit more difficult to build up my name and reputation in Dubai. And back then, we literally had only a handful of skyscrapers that we called landmarks. So that if you wanted to meet someone, you would always say, "Well, let's meet near the ... World Trade Center building." And then you would have an idea where they were. So you would meet there and maybe move on to another location. Other than a few buildings, everything was just palm trees. And of course, Dubai is so very different today.

I think that gives you a little bird's eye view of the positions we've had over the years and where I've been. And I was doing some building up of my career in Dubai because it took a bit of a longer time here. I was teaching as an adjunct professor of law at some of the American universities while I was building up my practice. And in due time, of course, it all fell together, especially when we had the UBS scandal with Bradley Birkenfeld. And then later on the enactment of FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. People were desperate for U.S. tax help and U.S. tax advice. And there I was. I was sitting in the prime location.

Nana Ama Sarfo: So let's talk a little about Dubai. My question for you is why did you decide to open your own firm in Dubai? And secondly, can you speak about any challenges that you faced in becoming an entrepreneur and practicing law in your new cultural environment?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: Those are very good questions. So the first one, why did I decide to open my own firm in Dubai? As I said, it did take time to build up my name and reputation in the region. You have to remember that when we came here in 2001, U.S. tax was not at all a big issue for people overseas, and the United Arab Emirates is a tax-free jurisdiction. So people had no understanding or appreciation of the fact that U.S. tax is really all pervasive and far reaching. They started to appreciate this more when we had the watershed in 2007 with the UBS scandal and Bradley Birkenfeld, and then the enactment of FATCA in 2010. That's when people started to wake up and my expertise became in greater demand. So, because the workload was increasing so much, I decided, "Let me see about opening my own business." But doing that here is not that easy. You've got to comply with a lot of different rules and regulations as to the kind of business you're running. It was much easier for me in those earlier days to just be an employee of another firm instead of opening up my own practice.

But as time went on, I decided it's really better to have my own practice and just go forward that way, because then you're not beholden to anyone. For example, to renew visas, or do they want to keep you on, et cetera. So all of that was then in my hands, when I opened up my own practice here.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Now, when I think about your career, one word comes to mind and that's the word prolific. As you had mentioned, you've worn multiple hats over the course of your career. Aside from practicing law, you've taught in universities, you are an extremely well-known blogger, and you've also written three children's books. So did you always intend to have such a diverse career? And secondly, what is your advice for practitioners who may want to follow a similar path and also want a varied, but also interconnected career?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: I definitely have worn multiple hats. That is true. And as you know, I love fashion, so I do love hats. I think because I've always really enjoyed learning and I've always loved to write and I've always enjoyed exploring. And in a certain way, I think I've always been a bit of a rebel and I've always enjoyed acting as a mentor and sharing knowledge. So if you take all of those different facets, it only seemed natural to me to undertake various endeavors and rise to certain challenges.

And you had mentioned before about some of the challenges I faced as an entrepreneur and practicing in a new cultural environment. I realized I didn't really answer that, but I'll just put in very briefly here in the early days, women professionals were very few and far between in the Middle East. That is changing and has changed over the past 19 years that I've been here. The culture and attitudes toward women in the Middle East has been developing and it's not been without its challenges.

So as a professional, I felt like I was constantly proving myself. And to be honest, and in certain meetings and so forth, I would feel the respect wasn't really there because I was a woman. That has changed very dramatically. And I'm very happy to see that because I think that, you know, women are an extremely fantastic asset, especially here in the Middle East, where they have wonderful education opportunities. And they can add so much to a business. So I'm happy to see that that's changing.

But getting back to the various hats I've worn, as I said, it only seemed natural for me to undertake these various challenges. And it all started, if you think about it, when I married a foreigner. I mean that wasn't done back in the early 1980s. Leaving the United States to move to a foreign country and starting from scratch. This is just something that I felt somewhat comfortable with. I mean, I won't say that it was easy, but I wasn't afraid to do it to the degree that I wouldn't go forward with the plan.

Writing the children's books for my son came out of the fact that there were not really any books for children about Hong Kong and the culture and the festivals we celebrated while living there. I wanted him to always have those memories of where he was born and where he grew up. So I decided, "Well, I'll have to write my own books for him." Everyone loved them. My friends wanted copies and so forth. So I decided I would publish them on my own. Again, this was in the early '90s, so we didn't even have internet. So finding out about the topics I was writing about, for example, the Chinese festivals, it was a big chore to find the information. I couldn't just go to Dr. Google and plug in a few search words. I would speak to a lot of elderly Chinese people who were willing to talk to me and they would tell me what the significance of various festivals were and so forth.

So I had that love of learning. I've always had that. I always loved teaching. So when I was in the UAE and had the opportunity to teach at the university and teach law, I jumped at that. I've always been writing articles from way back about tax, and it was a good way to get my name known while we were in Hong Kong. And I continued that when we moved to United Arab Emirates. And then when we were big into the internet, the blog was just the perfect way to satisfy my love of learning and writing and sharing information. And of course, all of these things have helped to get my name well known in the international tax community and have helped to establish my reputation.

So it's all been a win-win, and it makes me feel very good. I get a lot of emails from people who read my blog, who have subscribed to the blog, comments on LinkedIn. They tell me how much the posts have really helped them understand certain concepts. And this is from average people as well as professionals. And that makes me feel great to know that my work is being read and useful.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Well, that's really wonderful. Now, taking a step back and looking at the big picture here, what do you wish you had known when you were just starting your career?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: I think what I really wished I had understood much better was that there is no such thing as a perfect work-life slash motherhood balance. I struggled with that a lot back in the early days when we had our son because I think, you know, from my career and what I've accomplished and what I've done, that I absolutely love tax law. And I didn't want to give that up, but yet I also wanted to be a good mom. I didn't want to be a mom that never saw my son and didn't raise him. And when you want to do two things and you want to do them well, it's not that easy. And I think it's a disservice to women to let them think they will have a perfect work-life balance. I just tell you it doesn't exist. And I don't think that I lack something; that I couldn't find it. I think it just isn't there. And compromises will always have to be made, and women just have to stop feeling guilty about that. We just do the best we can. And I wished I'd known that 30 years ago, but slowly it sunk in over time.

And whenever I counsel younger women today who are embarking on their careers and maybe are mothers as well, I think that's the best thing I can tell them. And I always get this like sigh of relief. It's like, "Is it really that way, Virginia? Is it?" And I'm like, "Yes, it is. Don't, don't beat yourself up because you're not getting the perfect balance because it's not there. It doesn't exist." Some days it'll be great. Other days it's going to be terribly difficult and you're going to feel guilty. And you've got to just try and stop beating yourself up with negative thoughts because you didn't do everything perfectly in motherhood or your work life. So I would say that that's the biggest lesson I would pass on.

Nana Ama Sarfo: That's really honest advice. Thank you very much for that. Now, pivoting in a different direction, you do a lot of work with a group of people who are commonly known as "accidental Americans." I'm hoping that you can explain for us what that term means and why this group of people has been garnering more attention within the tax world. And if you could also explain some of the most common tax issues affecting that group of clients.

Virginia La Torre Jeker: I think back to when I was born and raised and living in Brooklyn, New York, and then living in Manhattan. If someone said to me, "So-and-so is an accidental American," I wouldn't have a clue what they were talking about. And I didn't learn about accidental Americans until we had moved to Hong Kong. And we had some clients that were wanting to give up their United States citizenship. I couldn't fathom. Why would someone want to do this? And this is when I started to learn about the "accidental American." The "accidental American" is someone who was usually born in the United States or otherwise acquires U.S. citizenship by happenstance. So if someone is born in the United States, it doesn't matter that their parents are not American. Once you are born in America, you are automatically a United States citizen, unless there's an exception. If your parents were in the diplomatic service, but let's put those people aside and just take your average person.

So if you're born in the States, you automatically become an American citizen. Many of the people that I deal with were born in the States, but left when they were infants. Maybe they were a few days old, a few weeks old, or maybe they were a year old. But they had no significant contact with America once they left. That was it. They were gone and they never thought about anything about America again. Well, they are U.S. citizens.

The other way someone can be a United States citizen, even if he is born outside of the United States, he can become a U.S. citizen at birth. Well, this will typically happen if at least one parent is a U.S. citizen and that parent has lived in the United States for a certain period of time. I'll take my son as an example. My husband is a Swiss national. I was an American citizen. We were living in Hong Kong. That's where our son Mark was born, in Hong Kong. When he was born, he was automatically a U.S. citizen because my U.S. citizenship was basically passed down to him because I had lived in the United States for a certain number of years. And just that alone makes the child, even if he is born outside of America, a U.S. citizen.

So we have these people who are U.S. citizens by happenstance. That does not take away their obligation to pay tax and deal with all of the U.S. tax laws in the same way as the U.S. citizen who lives in New York City. So even though the person is living overseas and is working for a non-U.S. employer, has foreign income, has no U.S. income whatsoever, he is still responsible to pay tax on that income. Our system is based on worldwide income.

If you are a citizen, you are responsible to pay tax on everything you earned, no matter where it's earned. And for the person who is living abroad, such as this "accidental American" or any American who's living overseas, there are certain very tricky rules that we have in place that prejudice the person who is abroad.

So for example, this person living in a foreign country who happens to be an American citizen, whether he knows it or not is not important at the moment. Just think of him. Do you think he is investing in U.S. mutual funds? No. That guy is looking at foreign funds because he's in a foreign country. And what about his life insurance, for example? Do you think he is going to a U.S. life insurance provider? No. He's going to insurance provider where he lives. So these kinds of investments cause all sorts of U.S. tax problems for people and they can actually kill the investment.

If you have a foreign life insurance policy, for example, it could be treated as something called a passive foreign investment company investment, which will totally destroy your life. Let me put it that way. You can read up on all of these things. I think getting into the tax nitty gritty might be a little bit too heavy for people, but the problems they face are real. So, even the simple matter of acquiring assets, they may think when they pass away that they have nothing to do with America. But if you are a U.S. citizen, your estate tax is based on the fair market value of all of the assets you own, every place in the world. And it can be a maximum of a 40 percent hit. So these people that are living, for example, in Saudi and have perhaps inherited family businesses and so forth, when they pass on, their estate tax for the U.S. will be based on their worldwide assets.

They're clueless about all of this, of course, until they come and see me. So, sometimes ignorance is bliss, but most of the time it really isn't. So really what I tell all of my clients is that when there's any connection with the United States, they have to be very, very careful and make sure that they understand the rules.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Now, accidental Americans aside, you have also flagged that foreign nationals also need to be aware of U.S. tax issues. And we're talking about people who have never traveled to the U.S. or have only done so briefly. Why is that the case? And what are some unexpected ways in which U.S. tax liability may arise for these individuals?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: Right. So you're talking now about the person was completely a foreigner. What can happen to him vis-à-vis the U.S. tax system? Well, I joke around, but it's pretty serious. I tell all of my foreign clients that they can't even breathe American air without consulting me first because it may have U.S. tax consequences. So maybe if I give you a few examples, it will help.

You have your typical foreign family. They often do want to invest in the U.S. stock market, and they do so. Sometimes they may even have a U.S. brokerage account and engage in very active trading. Now, once you have U.S. assets such as U.S. corporate stocks, you will be having a U.S. estate tax problem exposure down the road. If you were a foreign person, you have an exemption amount of only $60,000 USD. So once you have U.S.cited assets that go over that $60,000 amount, you will be subjecting your estate to this estate tax. And for any amount that's over $1 million, the rate will be 40 percent.

So if you think of the foreign person who really likes to travel to the States from time to time and wants to have a penthouse apartment in New York, he is clearly going to be over that $60,000 mark. So we have people that do not really understand that when they are investing in the United States, they need proper tax advice. I have a lot of foreign families that need that kind of advice.

We also have the typical student who is studying in the United States. We have wonderful universities in the States and many foreigners want to study there. What we typically see happen is that the parents will send the child, the student, into the U.S. They'll be sending funds to cover the tuition, the books, the rent, entertainment monies for the child and so forth. What that parent does not know is that he has now exposed himself to something called our U.S. gift tax. And that gift tax can be assessed at a rate of 40 percent as well as the maximum. So that simple act, the parent thinking they're taking care of their child at university can cause the foreign parent to have this gift tax exposure.

The other area where I see the foreign family running into problems with the U.S. tax regime is the family will often have a business that they've been running in the foreign country and they're thinking of succession planning. And so, they start giving shares in the company to the younger generation. It's quite often the case that the younger generation, some of those people in the younger generation, will start to study in America. They may later obtain a green card. They may later obtain U.S. citizenship. And once that person has obtained U.S. status, they have just exposed the family to the Internal Revenue Service learning all about the foreign business. Because the U.S. tax system requires a lot of information reporting about foreign assets that are owned by U.S. people. So once you get one person in the family who becomes a U.S. green card holder or citizen, or spends a lot of time there and meets the substantial presence test for U.S. tax residency, you are then exposing the rest of the family assets to at least information reporting.

So those are just some of the typical areas that we see and all of these can be planned for and taken care of. You can do tax planning to make sure that these problems won't arise. But if you don't know the problem is there, then of course you won't be fixing it before it happens. So the best advice I have for people who are foreigners is that they really need to be very aware of anything with the United States. I've actually prepared a checklist for my clients. It goes on for several pages, asking them about any contact with the United States, and that will often help people understand, "Oh, I've got a U.S. tax issue."

As they say, the simple thing of having a brokerage account confuses people because they say, "Well, I know that if I have a U.S. bank account and I pass away, there is no estate tax on the bank deposit." That's true, but that's not the same rule, for example, for the brokerage account, if they have cash in a brokerage account. That is not the same as having it in a bank in a deposit. So the cash sitting in the brokerage account is subject to U.S. estate tax. And I see many, many people with cash in a brokerage account, certainly exceeding $60,000, which is the only exemption amount the foreigner will get. So yes, the U.S. tax laws have a very, very long reach and people need to be aware.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Now, you have also written quite a bit about how Sharia law and U.S. tax law intersect. Why is this an important issue and why do you think that it needs more attention from the IRS?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: OK. That's a very good question. And I think to start off, people have to understand that as a tax professional, we are faced with various kinds of transactions all over the world. And we have to, because of the way the U.S. tax system works, that it's based on citizenship, that it's based on worldwide assets. We have to be very aware of what's going on for our clients on an international level. So I think the topic of Sharia law and U.S. tax should not be viewed as a matter of religion because this will only stymie constructive discourse about the matter. I think the entire topic really has to be viewed from a very professional standpoint. Right now we have absolutely no guidance from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. courts or the U.S. Congress on how to deal with the issues that arise when Sharia law and U.S. tax law intersect.

And I think that people have to understand that principles of Sharia are followed in financial transactions on a daily basis in the United States. So you have U.S. multinationals engaging in Sharia financial transactions directly and indirectly through their foreign subsidiaries and affiliates. You have U.S. financial institutions with Islamic finance department. You have companies like General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and even the World Bank. They have all issued a commonly used instrument in Islamic finance called Sukkot. So this is going on day in and day out. You have major financial firms like Fidelity that are active participants in the supermarket. You have the average Muslim American in the U.S., he's buying a home in the U.S. with a Sharia compliant mortgage. Or he's a student, and he's taking out student debt, which is Sharia compliant, so he can attend school. It's not something that's so mysterious that you don't see it happening.

I think people have to look at it in a very realistic way and say, "Wow, this is going on every day in America, but we don't know how to deal with it from a tax perspective." That isn't good. We do need some action on the part of the U.S. to guide the tax professionals and taxpayers in remaining compliant when Sharia impacts their transaction. And very few people seem to have a grasp of that. And as far as I know, I don't want to say I'm the only person writing about it, but I think I'm one of truly a handful that has any idea these issues arise and is bringing it to the fore and writing about it and letting people know that we do need guidance. And I think it's a sad thing. If you go onto the IRS website and you look for some help, there's absolutely nothing. And it impacts lives every day. And it impacts transactions every day. So I think it's time for more attention.

Nana Ama Sarfo: All right. Well, to wrap up, I'm just going to end with a general career question. So before we go, can you share with us some of your greatest career lessons and your advice for aspiring tax practitioners?

Virginia La Torre Jeker: I think when I work with younger tax professionals, I see this happen a lot. And I think that this needs to be corrected in a sense. The U.S. Internal Revenue Code and the Treasury regulations and the Internal Revenue Service revenue rulings, and so forth. They're complicated. They're very difficult to understand. So people want to bypass them a lot of the time. They want to find an article on Google that will explain things. You can't do that as a tax professional. You don't rely on the rehash. You've got to go to the source. That means you've got to go to the Internal Revenue Code. You've got to plow through the Treasury regulations. You've got to look at the legislative history. Yes, it is more difficult, but there is absolutely no substitute for that.

And speaking of substitute, my other advice for anyone aspiring to do anything is that there is absolutely no substitute for adequate preparation. And that was something I had heard said by, I believe it was a Tax Court judge. He was quoting a judge from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which is the highest court for the District of Columbia. And the judge's name was Hubert Pair. And he would always tell young lawyers, "There is no substitute for adequate preparation." And I can't emphasize that enough. That is absolutely the truth. So cutting corners won't really work with U.S. tax. And if you're the kind of person that doesn't like detail, and doesn't like to really dig in and research, then maybe U.S. tax is not the area for you. But it is an area that's fascinating. It's always changing. You will always be challenged. And as I said, it enabled me to move everywhere in the world. I've had a global career thanks to U.S. tax.

Nana Ama Sarfo: Well, Virginia, it is a delight to speak with you as always. And thank you so much for your generous advice. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Virginia La Torre Jeker: I've enjoyed every minute. And I look forward to speaking to you again

David Stewart: And now, coming attractions. Each week, we highlight new and interesting commentary in our magazines. Joining me now from her home is Content and Acquisitions Manager Faye McCray. Faye, what will you have for us?

Faye McCray: Thank you, Dave. In Tax Notes Federal, four tax professionals explain tax planning opportunities using qualified small business stock. Matthew Stevens considers what securities are subject to the mark-to-market method of accounting. In Tax Notes State, Kendall Houghton and Matthew Hedstrom discuss potential challenges of a holder’s escheat compliance process for traditional and Roth IRAs. Joseph Endres and Joshua Lawrence discuss the unique sales tax compliance challenges facing the art industry in the post-Wayfair era. In Tax Notes International, Thomas Horst explains how U.S. parent companies use partnerships with subsidiaries in tax havens to avoid U.S. tax. Yue “Daisy” Dai examines China’s permanent establishment rule. And on the Opinions page, Joseph Thorndike argues that if Joe Biden wins in November, he may face an economic calamity that hasn't been seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first presidential term. Marie Sapirie interviews Beverly Winstead about her path to becoming a lawyer and community fixture for low-income taxpayers. And finally, the editors in chief of our three magazines have shared what topics they hope to see writers tackle in the latest editors' wish list.

David Stewart: You can read all that and a lot more in the pages of Tax Notes Federal, State, and International. That's it for this week. You can follow me online at @TaxStew, that's S-T-E-W. And be sure to follow @TaxNotes for all things tax. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for a future episode, you can email us And as always, if you like what we're doing here, please leave a rating or review wherever you download this podcast. We'll be back next week with another episode of Tax Notes Talk.

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