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How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship

Family research for a book required author Paolina Milana to explore her Italian heritage in greater depth. Eventually, it led her to reconnect with her family’s past and her Sicilian identity.

How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship
Paolina's journey to engage with her family history took her to Sicily. Photo: Getty Images

When writer Paolina Milana’s father, Antonino, was a child in Custonaci, Sicily, he dreamed of hopping on a cloud that would take him all the way to America. As fate would have it, it was the beginning of a great story of migration and survival. It is also a story of citizenship granted by descent, through the hard work of Italian Citizenship Assistance.

It starts almost a century ago. Fleeing both the rise of fascism in the late thirties and organised crime problems closer to home, Antonino boarded a boat to America, making fast friends onboard with a gentleman named Salvatore. 

As Paolina told The Local: “Salvatore showed my dad a picture of his unmarried sister, Maria who happened to be dressed as a mandolin player for Carnivale. My mother was beautiful and at that moment, my dad – who love to play the mandolin – decided he wanted to marry her.” 

After settling in Chicago, Antonino married Maria, who came from the Sicilian city of Nicosia. Together they had four children. Antonino owned his own barbershop while Maria had a professional seamstress business. When Paolina left Chicago for Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being a writer, Maria shared some of her experiences of moving to America.  

“She told me, when I called her feeling alone, that this is part of moving forward and soon I would love having embarked on such a journey, just as she did leaving Sicily for the United States.”

Paolina’s father, Antonino, and mother, Maria, in the late 1940s. Photo: Supplied

Paolina has fond memories of her upbringing with two Sicilian parents. 

“Growing up, my parents would need to make their own recipes when they cooked something because they came from two very different places. Not that we were forced to choose but it was pretty funny because of the rivalry. 

“Being raised Italian is something that I wish everyone could experience. Because it is truly about family and it’s truly about love.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Milanas, however. Throughout Paolina’s childhood and adolescence, her mother struggled with severe mental illness and was hospitalised several times. Combined with the challenges of migrating to a new country, these experiences formed the basis of Paolina’s books Committed: A memoir of madness in the family and The S Word.

La vita è bella: Paolina Milana now has her Italian citizenship. Photo: Supplied

“My mother was very sick. She had a mental illness. Also, we did not have a lot of money at all and there were times when my father had to sell personal belongings to pay bills. Yet we never, ever felt – with all the troubles we had – that we weren’t loved or cared for.”

As a consequence, Paolina has spent much of her life exploring her upbringing and in particular, the Sicilian culture in which she was raised. It was while researching Committed, that she decided she wanted to reclaim her Italian heritage by becoming an Italian citizen. 

“I was incorporating a lot of journal entries from my mother, letters from my father. I was reliving their journey from Sicily to the US and experiencing their hopes and dreams of having a family from their words. It was so powerful that I thought to myself: I love being Italian. I loved growing up Italian.

“It sparked me into reclaiming my Italian citizenship.  

Do you have Italian parents or grandparents? You may be able to obtain Italian citizenship and reclaim an important piece of your heritage 

“It’s me honouring them, but it’s also me recognising the importance of my roots, of different kinds of cultures, and what it means to really live this life.”

It was at this point that Paolina approached Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA) for help with her citizenship by descent application.

“It took me almost two years with ICA at my side, doing all the work. I don’t know where I’d be if I had to do it myself. They found all of the documents for me and they did all the translations. They took care of everything.”

ICA’s researchers even visited several towns across Sicily to obtain the necessary documentation regarding Paolina’s parents and secured the required apostilles to confirm their authenticity. 

“I’ve heard some people have to actually go to Italy or go to the consulate and plead their case. I didn’t have to lift a finger. ICA even sent me an incredible binder that had all of the documents – all I had to do was send it in.

“Now I have my Italian passport and it took 21 months. Yet it was so worth it.”

Maria’s family collecting silkworms in the late 1920s. Photo: Supplied

With an Italian passport in hand, Paolina feels a new-found connection to her heritage, as well as optimism about the opportunities that the future provides. 

“This Italian passport gives me the freedom to unite my past with my present and my future. My husband and I are actually thinking now that maybe we will just end our days by getting a place in Sicily.

“Next year we are planning to visit my extended family across the island. My husband has never been to Sicily. And we are also going back to check out places we may want to settle.

“We’re also going to hit the international couscous festival. My father loved the various flavours that came to Sicily from different areas and he taught us all how to cook couscous – a dish that came to Sicily from Morocco.

“This trip is going to be very different because I will arrive not as a US citizen, not as the daughter of Italians, but as an actual Italian citizen myself. That’s going to mean a lot.”

You could say that the story of Paolina and the Milana family has a happy ending – one that was enabled by the work done by Italian Citizenship Assistance. 

“To have ICA moving things forward and obtaining all the documents required from some very small towns was amazing, just amazing – and I didn’t have to do anything! They even traced my father’s journey, via the ports he transited through, to ensure that he didn’t have any additional citizenship documents. It was so serendipitous that I found ICA to help me secure my Italian citizenship. I can only say it was meant to be.”

Over 80 years since Antonino and Maria made the move of a lifetime to America, their daughter Paolina has returned, passport in hand, to experience the land in which her parents grew up. Perhaps her visit will provide the inspiration for another book.

Begin the next chapter of your family’s tale. Ask ICA about how you can obtain your Italian passport

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TAXES

The bumper Italian tax guide for 2024

From filing deadlines and rules on foreign income to second homes and tax breaks, these are the things you need to be familiar with as Italy's tax season gets underway.

The bumper Italian tax guide for 2024

With income declarations now open in Italy, there are several details of the Italian tax system that you need to know, especially if this is the first time you file.

From deadlines to rules on foreign income and assets to second homes, here is our guide to the 2024 tax season.

2024 tax deadlines

Late spring is generally the busiest time of year for Italian taxpayers as that’s when the window to file the yearly income tax declaration (or dichiarazione dei redditi) opens.

Barring some rare filing exemptions, anyone who’s considered an Italian resident for tax purposes (or fiscal resident) is required to file income taxes in Italy.

But even if you’re not an Italian tax resident, you may still have to file and pay Italian taxes on any income generated in Italy.

Depending on your personal tax situation and income source, you’ll have to file one of two forms, whose official deadlines for this year you can find HERE. The window to file either form is open as of May 20th. 

It is strongly advisable to keep the main income tax dates in mind as the Italian taxman shows little in the way of leniency when it comes to late filing and failure to file.

Besides income tax deadlines, there are two other dates you need to be mindful of if you own property in Italy. The first instalment of Italy’s tax on second homes IMU (Imposta Municipale Unica) is due by June 16th, whereas the second instalment is due by December 16th. You can find these and other key tax dates for 2024 in our calendar.

First-timers

If this is your first time declaring tax in Italy, your first task will be to request a codice fiscale (a personal identification number similar to an American Social Security number or a British National Insurance number) if you don’t already have one. Find a guide to doing that HERE.

The 2024 income tax declaration covers the 2023 tax year, which runs from January 1st 2023 to December 31st 2023. As a result, if you moved to Italy after January 1st 2024, you will not have to complete the declaration until next year.

On the other hand, IMU payments are always relative to the year when you make the payments – in this case 2024.

Online v paper

Most people in Italy file their tax declarations and make payments using the personal profile area (area riservata) of the Italian tax office (Agenzia delle Entrate) website. 

This is also where taxpayers can find a pre-compiled version of tax return form 730 (or modulo 730) – which is the income tax declaration form generally used by employees and retirees in Italy. 

Though most tax declarations can be filed online, there are provisions for people who don’t have internet access or are not comfortable completing tasks online. In this case, you can visit or call your local tax office and request paper versions of the forms, which you can then submit at the same office or, in some cases, at local post offices. 

Income tax brackets 

Italy’s income tax Irpef applies to employees, many self-employed workers (regular partita Iva holders, but not those on the flat tax rate) and pensioners.

The Italian government cut the number of available tax brackets from four to three last December, but the change only applies to income generated from January 1st 2024. 

This means that your 2023 income will be taxed based on the four-bracket system below:

  • Up to 15,000 euros: 23 percent
  • Between 15,001 and 28,000 euros: 25 percent
  • Between 28,001 euros and 50,000 euros: 35 percent
  • Over 50,000 euros: 43 percent

Like income taxes in many other countries, Italy’s Irpef is a progressive tax, meaning that you only pay the higher rate on the portion of your income that is over the relevant threshold (for instance, 43 percent on the portion of income exceeding 50,000 euros).

Foreign income 

It’s not unusual for foreigners in Italy to have some or all of their income coming from outside Italy – whether that is a pension paid from an overseas country, remote working for a non-Italian company or rental income from a property outside of Italy.

If you’re an Italian tax resident, you’ll be required to declare your global income – that is income generated not just in Italy but anywhere in the world. 

It’s important to note though that declaring your foreign income does not necessarily mean you will have to pay tax on it. 

Italy has dual taxation agreements with most countries, including the UK and US, meaning that if you have already paid tax on your income in another country, you won’t be taxed on it again – though you’ll still have to tell the Italian taxman about it. 

Foreign assets and bank accounts

Italian tax residents who hold financial assets abroad – this includes real estate, financial investments, unit trusts, and even foreign bank accounts – are required to declare them by completing the foreign assets section of their yearly tax return form (section W of form 730 and section RW of form Redditi PF).

Depending on the types of assets you own abroad, you may have to pay Italy’s tax on foreign real estate (IVIE) and/or a tax on foreign financial activities (IVAFE).

It’s worth noting that retirees who’ve opted for Italy’s special seven-percent flat tax rate are exempt from the requirement to declare (and pay IVIE and/or IVAFE on) foreign assets.

READ ALSO: How many people successfully apply for Italy’s flat tax for pensioners?

You can find further info about declaring foreign bank accounts HERE.

Tax breaks 

Italy has a number of tax breaks to help taxpayers, especially those with lower incomes, reduce their tax bill each year.

These are generally divided between tax deductions (deduzioni fiscali), which lower your taxable income, and tax reductions (detrazioni fiscali), which lower your final tax bill. 

Tax reductions for 2024 apply to anything from rent to public transport to education expenses, and include a 19-percent tax break on medical expenses applicable to amounts exceeding 129.11 euros. You can find a full list (in Italian) of tax reductions and deductions here

It’s also worth noting that Italy offers a number of favourable multi-year tax regimes for residents – these include the so-called ‘impatriate’ tax scheme and the seven-percent flat rate for foreign pensioners – as well as a number of home renovation bonuses.

Tax for second-home owners 

If you live outside of Italy but you own property in the country which you use as a second-home or holiday home, there are a few things to be aware of, with the first being whether or not you are an Italian tax resident. 

If you use your Italian property just for holidays then you probably won’t be. But if you tend to spend a significant amount of time in your Italian property, you should keep in mind that Italy’s tax office will consider you a tax resident if, for at least 183 days a year, you are registered with Italy’s National Registry of the Resident Population (or Anagrafe) or have your place of “residence or habitual residence” in Italy.

The other thing to consider is whether you have any Italian income through renting out your property, including on Airbnb. If you do, you will need to declare this income in Italy.

Finally, even if you’re not an Italian tax resident and don’t generate any income in Italy, you’ll still have to pay Italy’s property tax IMU (Imposta Municipale Unica), which is owed by all owners of second homes. You can find this year’s IMU deadlines HERE.

Getting help

If you’re completely daunted by the Italian tax system, don’t panic: help is available.

If you have a fairly simple tax situation (e.g. you have a single employer and no other sources of income) and speak some Italian, you may be able to get the assistance you need at one of Italy’s tax support centres (Centri di Assistenza Fiscale, or CAF).

READ ALSO: What is an Italian commercialista and do you really need one?

If, however, you are self-employed, are starting or operating a business, are earning income in multiple countries, or simply find the whole process too difficult, you may need the help of a chartered tax accountant, or commercialista in Italian. 

Please note that The Local is unable to advise on individual cases. Find more information on the Italian tax office’s website or seek independent advice from a qualified tax professional.

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