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Five Things for Americans to Know Before Moving to the United Kingdom

Five Things for Americans to Know Before Moving to the United Kingdom

With our historical links and common language, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands (at least 200,000) American citizens reside in the United Kingdom. London has long been a truly international city and many Americans live and work in the greater metropolitan area. In my professional experience, more U.S. expats in the United Kingdom choose to remain in the UK than may be the case in any other foreign country. In fact, many clients come to identify as Brits and hold U.S./UK dual citizenship. 

However, whether you are considering a short, intermediate, or long-term move to the United Kingdom, there are a variety of planning topics that are best considered prior to making the move. In this blog, I discuss five key issues, but there are many, many more unique tax, estate planning, and investment issues that Americans in the United Kingdom may have to deal with once they become a resident in the United Kingdom. Each one of these issues below would merit a separate article, so consider this a cursory examination of these five topics that hopefully lead to further inquiry and discussion with your accountants, attorneys, and/or financial planners.

UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REMITTANCE BASIS AND ARISING BASIS TAXATION

Unlike the United States tax policy of taxing its citizens on their global income regardless of where they reside, most countries, including the UK, subject only those who are tax residents of that country to income taxes on both their country-sourced and non-country-sourced income (i.e., their worldwide income). To attract affluent foreigners and foreign companies to the UK, the UK has created a temporary tax status for non-UK nationals who chose to become residents of the UK called the “remittance-based” election. 

Accordingly, during the first seven years of UK tax residency, a non-UK national may elect the remittance basis on their UK income tax return, and thereby pay UK income tax only on two types of income: (1) UK-sourced income, and (2) non-UK-sourced income that is remitted to the United Kingdom. Remitting generally means that the funds are physically moved to the UK or used to pay UK obligations or purchase goods, services, or other assets in the United Kingdom. This election can be freely made for the first seven years; but, there are substantial fees/taxes paid to the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) to extend that privilege for a limited period (up to eight more years) thereafter. For those that do not elect the remittance basis, or for those whose remittance-basis term has expired, UK taxes income on the “arising basis,” meaning simply that all income from all sources (foreign and abroad) is taxed in the year in which it is received by the taxpayer.

At first blush, remittance basis sounds like a proverbial no-brainer for any expatriate that will derive any income from outside of the UK, whether that income is earned through business conducted outside of the UK, earned through passive investments in real estate, stocks, bonds, etc., or otherwise is characterized as non-UK-sourced income. However, the decision to elect the remittance basis in any of those initial seven years of UK tax residency is one that should be very carefully considered. Without going into considerable detail (and the rules surrounding remittance taxation contain meticulous details) the remittance basis can create accounting headaches, perhaps even nightmares, whenever funds are eventually remitted to the UK and the UK taxes come due on that part of the remitted funds that are attributable to income earned during the period in which remittance basis was claimed. The process of attribution involves what has come to be known as the “clean capital ordering rules,” and pitfalls abound when trying to track and trace the underlying UK tax characteristics of offshore funds (in particular investment accounts) when some of those resources are remitted to the UK. 

Accordingly, there are circumstances where remittance basis makes perfect sense. To the extent that:

  • The U.S. expat is confident that the UK stay will not evolve into something longer-term or even permanent, and/or;
  • The U.S. expat has considerable non-UK-sourced income (e.g., from a very large investment within a U.S. taxable brokerage account, or perhaps through partnership income in a global concern where only a fraction of earned income is attributed to UK sources);

then remittance basis should be very seriously considered to lessen the UK income tax burden. Conversely, where the U.S. expat has modest income from non-UK sources or where the UK tax residency may become longer-term or even permanent, then the calculus may well favor UK income taxation on the arising basis from the onset of becoming a UK tax resident. In all cases, this is a decision facing all Americans moving to the UK and should be carefully contemplated with the advice of experienced professionals.

UNDERSTAND U.S. (PFIC) AND UK TAX RULES (NON-REPORTING FUNDS) REGARDING “OFFSHORE FUNDS” AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS FOR YOUR INVESTMENT ACCOUNTS

It is fundamental that American expats, who obviously live and transact outside of the United States, understand the perils of “offshoring” their taxable investments. By offshoring, I mean owning foreign-registered pooled investments, such as ETFs that are not registered with the SEC and trade predominantly on foreign securities exchanges, mutual funds that are registered with foreign financial regulators and are not subject to U.S. laws and regulations, as well as foreign private equity funds and hedge funds (both of which are usually organized as limited partnerships). The IRS has created special regulations regarding the tax treatment of such foreign pooled investments, known as the “passive foreign investment company” (or “PFIC”) rules. 

A detailed discussion of how these offshore funds are taxed in the U.S. is beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes, it is simply important to understand that “offshore” funds lose their capital gains character because of the PFIC rules, and, therefore, all gains are taxed as ordinary income. That’s for starters – with income recharacterization to prior years in the holding period, interest, and penalties, the tax rate could be 50% and, in some cases, even higher! The bottom line: buying foreign mutual funds, ETFs and other pooled investments outside of a treaty-recognized foreign pension is usually tax toxic to U.S. tax residents.

So an American living in the UK would do well to avoid the temptation to “go native” and open brokerage accounts in the UK and invest in non-U.S.-registered funds. Can the American expat then avoid offshore tax rules by just keeping their investments in the U.S. and purchasing U.S. mutual funds or ETFs? For the American expat in the UK, the answer is usually “NO,” because the UK has similar tax rules with regards to offshore funds and, from a UK perspective, U.S. mutual funds and ETFs are offshore funds. The general HMRC tax rules in the UK therefore would deprive gains on the sale of these offshore funds of the lower and more favorable capital gains rates and instead levy taxes on realized gains at ordinary income tax rates, which tend to be higher than U.S. ordinary income tax rates. What a mess the U.S. expat investor might find themselves in trying to navigate the offshore funds rules of two different national tax authorities!

One way the U.S. expat might avoid these onerous tax rates would be to avoid “pooled” investments by just buying individual securities and building a fund-free portfolio of individual stocks and bonds. Naturally, this may be an imperfect solution at best for investors that don’t have the capital to adequately diversify such a portfolio. Moreover, even with ample capital to do so, most investors have their own careers, families, and social lives to manage and don’t want to be their own portfolio managers. 

Fortunately, the HMRC’s offshore funds tax rules do provide an important exception: where the foreign fund provides adequate accounting through reports sent annually to the HMRC, investors in these offshore “reporting funds” will be exempted from the special tax rules and will be entitled to capital gains treatment on gains generated from these reporting funds. Although the vast majority of U.S. mutual funds and U.S. ETFs do not qualify as reporting funds in the UK, there are enough decent U.S. funds that are in fact UK reporting funds that a fairly quality, low cost, and well-diversified portfolio can in fact be constructed. The main challenge is scouring the HMRC’s spreadsheet with thousands of reporting funds and identifying those that are indeed U.S.-registered. Beware the foreign “clones” of U.S.-registered funds that carry the same names of their U.S. counterparts but are, in fact, PFICs!

UNDERSTAND THE INTERPLAY OF U.S. AND UK RULES REGARDING RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS, INCLUDING THE INCOME TAX TREATY

There are some advantageous and truly cooperative nuggets in the income tax treaty (and the technical explanation thereof) between the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly in the area of retirement accounts or “pensions.” For example, because of the treaty, distributions from a U.S. Roth IRA in retirement will enjoy the same tax-free qualities for a UK tax resident (expat or otherwise) as they do for domestic American taxpayers. Additionally, those horrid PFIC and Reporting Fund rules discussed in the previous section will be irrelevant to investments in retirement accounts in either country so long as the treaty benefit is claimed. There are other special rules regarding the special tax-free 25% lump-sum distribution from a UK pension that may benefit a former U.S. expat that participated in a UK pension scheme but thereafter returns to the U.S. before taking the lump-sum distribution. It is critical to work with advisors that can help the U.S. expat position their accounts to truly navigate the tax rules and take full advantage of these types of beneficial treaty provisions.

Unfortunately, for high-net-worth individuals, there have been severe limits put in place in the UK in recent years on how much can be contributed in tax-advantaged pension schemes. These newer rules tend to severely limit the contributions by and on behalf of higher earners in the UK to their company pension and even personal pension (SIPP) accounts. Interestingly, these rules will also dramatically affect the tax deductibility on UK tax returns of contributions to U.S. qualified retirement plans as well. Therefore, for Americans working and earning in the United Kingdom, it is particularly crucial to get the input of a UK tax accountant to assist in determining how much should or can be contributed to retirement plans and pensions regardless of where they are held for each and every UK tax year. Moreover, U.S. retirement contribution eligibility rules, rules on the deductibility of retirement plan contributions, and so forth require the U.S. expat to also discuss all (not just domestic) retirement plan contributions with their U.S. accountant to ensure that the investor’s strategy is tax optimal under U.S. tax rules, too. 

“COMMON LAW?” – CAUTION WHEN BRINGING A U.S. TRUST WITH YOU TO THE UK

Trusts, like most estate planning issues and tools, are a creature of local law. It is a common folly of many expats, and even domestic U.S. attorneys, to believe that an estate plan carefully crafted under the laws of a particular state in the U.S. can be taken abroad and continue to operate as intended. It usually won’t, and, in some instances, a good domestic estate plan may well backfire spectacularly when the family, or one or more of its members, moves abroad. That’s a very broad and general statement, but consider it is based on my experiences as an expat advisor who has witnessed the unintended consequences materialize from a domestic estate plan when the legal and tax issues unfold in the cross-border/expat environment. To put it bluntly: when you move somewhere else, new rules apply, and it is highly unlikely that the original estate plan was crafted with any of the new rules in mind.

Another broad and general statement can be made about trusts: The more sophisticated an estate plan, the more likely that it will backfire in the cross-border environment and the more costly the unintended consequences that will materialize. However, we’re talking about moving to the United Kingdom – the birthplace of trust instruments– and one might think that a U.S. trust would always work just as well in the UK as it would in the domestic U.S. scenario, but one could pay a dear price for such an innocent assumption. 

For example, a U.S. expat family has utilized trusts that provide that one or more of the expat family members who serve as trustee. If the trustees of a U.S. trust become UK tax residents, the trust becomes a UK tax resident. From the UK perspective, the trust has been “on-shored” so to speak, and the trust is now a UK tax resident. Things can get even more complicated from there: what if the trustee(s) returns to the United States thereafter? From the UK legal and tax perspective, this could represent an “off-shoring” of the trust – the trust will no longer be characterized as a UK domestic trust, but as an offshore trust. The tax implications that flow from offshoring a trust are usually that an “exit tax” must be paid, which means that all unrealized gains from trust property are thereby realized and capital gains from the recognition of gain are now owed to the HMRC. 

Quite often, a few minor (or less minor, depending on the trust) changes to the trust could have been made before the trustee(s) moved to the UK, which may have prevented this issue from ever materializing. If minor changes do not suffice, the trust might need to be dissolved prior to the move. Accordingly, when family wealth is in any manner managed or protected by trusts, some legal advice (i.e., an estate plan review) from an estate planning expert in the future country of residency (in this case, the United Kingdom) can be critically important.

UNDERSTAND UK “DOMICILE” AND IT’S IMPLICATIONS

U.S. and UK income taxes differ in a variety of ways (e.g., the tax liability on the sale of a primary or secondary residence) and there may be a substantial income tax-rate divergence between the two countries for a given U.S. expat living in the United Kingdom, depending on the expat’s current income. However, the taxation of wealth transfers (gifts during your lifetime, or bequests/transfers upon death) should also be considered as the expat accumulates wealth. Like the U.S, the UK may tax gifts made during the life of the donor and will also tax the estate of a decedent before their wealth is transferred via their estate plan. Unlike the U.S., there may be income tax owed by the donor (known as a “deemed disposition”). Here, the opportunity for divergence between U.S. and UK tax exposure can be quite profound, due largely (but not exclusively) to the different exemption levels under the current tax laws of both countries. 

For example, in 2021, the United States provides a very generous lifetime personal exemption for gift and estate taxes of $11.7 million ($23.4 million for a U.S. married citizen couple). In stark contrast, the UK individual estate (IHT) exemption is only £325,000 (£650k for a UK domiciled couple), with possibly an additional allowance of £125,000 for the decedent’s primary residence. That differential puts a tremendous premium on estate tax planning and financial planning in general. 

A crucial part of determining the current and future UK IHT tax exposures for a U.S. expat family centers on whether the family, or individual members thereof, have voluntarily or involuntarily attained the status of a UK domicile. If a person is determined to be domiciled in the UK, then their worldwide estate would be subject to IHT. If tax residency and entrenchment have not yet crossed the threshold of domicile, then only the UK situs property will be subject to potential IHT tax liability. Domicile is a common law term that combines residency and long-term intention. Accordingly, there is a degree of subjectivity when determining whether an American expat has become entrenched in the UK to the point that this key threshold has been breached. 

It can be difficult to ascertain in close cases whether an expat’s behavior demonstrates enough intent to assure an HMRC finding that the expat is a UK domicile. On the one hand, if an expat moves to the UK on a work assignment (secondment) and spends five years living with family in a home that is rented by the company, it is certainly less likely that the status of domicile has been achieved. However, if that expat and family buy a home, apply for citizenship, sell their U.S. home, and effectively cut most ties with their old American community, the probabilities increase dramatically that the family would be considered UK domiciles. 

To combat the efforts for long-term UK tax residents to evade domicile status, the UK has created a “deemed-domicile” status or threshold based on the more objective criteria of how many years an individual has held UK tax resident status. Under the rules that went into effect in 2017, once the expat has held UK tax residency for 15 years of a 20-year period, that expat is thereafter deemed a domicile of the United Kingdom, regardless of any other circumstances. Beyond IHT exposure, this will also mean that the expat can no longer utilize the remittance basis of taxation (which requires substantial payments beyond year seven but is now unavailable at any cost after year 15).

Prior to obtaining domicile, steps can be taken to protect non-UK wealth from IHT exposure, but such planning is going to require retaining very specialized estate planning counsel. Given that the deemed domicile status is, in a temporal sense, the maximum but by no means a minimum time within which domicile can occur, an important first step for such planning would be to have counsel conduct what is sometimes referred to as a “domicile audit,” which may be a series of meetings and/or detailed questionnaires to first determine the current status of an expat, as well as determine what, if any, wealth might be strategically sheltered from the expat’s taxable (IHT) estate.

PLANNING AND INVESTMENT ISSUES ABOUND

Please consider this a very cursory examination of five key issues that should be considered and incorporated into your financial planning and your portfolios before completing the journey to live in the United Kingdom. This is by no means an exhaustive inventory, nor a complete examination of the financial, tax and legal issues within each area. It is our intention at Walkner Condon to enrich the expat communities around the world through sharing knowledge about such topics and to assist Americans who are or may be contemplating a move abroad in the near term or in the future. Through a little pre-move planning and strategic positioning, we believe that the transition to a new home can be less stressful and, ultimately, more rewarding. If you find these issues resonating with your personal situation, I, or one of my team members here at Walkner Condon, would be happy to schedule an introductory meeting with you.

Stan Farmer, J.D., CFP®️

 

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Seven Things to Know about ESG and its Role in “Sustainable” Investing

Seven Things to Know about ESG and its Role in “Sustainable” Investing

What is ESG? 

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and corporate Governance. They represent three categories that are commonly analyzed when looking to invest in a company or a fund. One common phrase that might sound familiar is “aligning your investments with your values.” Many financial advisors and institutions use that phrase to lead into a discussion around an investment portfolio that has incorporated ESG factors. More recently, ESG has been viewed as a material risk factor. Ultimately, this means that regardless of whether the portfolio aligns with your values or not, incorporating ESG may mitigate certain risks within your portfolio. ESG isn’t just for “tree huggers”; it is becoming more and more mainstream as people are looking to utilize it to make a more robust portfolio. 

What is included in ESG?

ESG includes dozens of criteria that fall under the three main categories. Common examples within the Environmental category are climate change vulnerability, emissions & energy use, and raw materials & other resource use. Common examples within the Social category are human capital management & labor practices, employee health & safety, and diversity & inclusion. Common examples within the corporate Governance category are board compensation & structure, executive compensation, and business ethics.

Is there a rating or scoring system to determine how “sustainable” a particular fund is?

Yes. Third-party rating providers include MSCI, Sustainalytics (acquired by Morningstar), Just Capital, Arabesque S-Ray, ISS, S&P Global, and more. Most of these services require paid subscriptions if you really want to dive into the weeds and compare several companies side-by-side and their respective product involvements related to animal testing, for example. One of the easiest ways to get a quick 30,000-foot view is to reference the Morningstar Sustainability Rating of a company or a fund. Historically, Morningstar is known for its five-star rating system, which is focused on financial performance. Their Sustainability Rating system is based on a 5-globe scale instead. A 5-star fund indicates that it has outperformed its peers from a financial return perspective; a 5-globe fund indicates it has outperformed its peers from a sustainability perspective when it is scored using ESG criteria. Usually, a company or fund will receive a score for E, a score for S, and a score for G, and then a blended overall sustainability score. You also may be able to get some ESG information from your financial advisor.  

How can I research or explore socially responsible funds? 

There are many ways to research Environmental, Social, and corporate Governance funds. You can do it by yourself or have a financial advisor knowledgeable about this space help you out. A common way to start is to set a screen to only include ESG funds. For example, let’s say you are looking to invest in a US Large Cap fund. Many brokerages have screeners that allow you to filter out the funds that do not incorporate ESG. At this point, you might have a list of funds that simply have “ESG” in the name of the fund. Just because a fund has ESG in the title doesn’t mean that the fund has the same criteria that you are looking for. Not all ESG funds are the same! A deeper dive can be more tricky. In the case of a fund, you may want to see how the fund scores in the E, S, and G categories as well as an overall sustainability score (see section above). You can also look at the latest holdings report to see what companies the fund owns. This will help you gauge if the fund owns the companies that you want (or don’t want) to invest in. You can also read through the investment objective and prospectus of a fund to get additional information. A statement might be as simple as “The Fund employs a passive management (or “indexing”) approach, investing primarily in large-capitalization U.S. equity securities that exhibit overall growth style characteristics and that satisfy certain environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) criteria.” The previous statement described was directly from one of Nuveen’s ESG Exchange Traded Funds (ticker: NULG).

What has contributed to the rise in popularity of ESG?

ESG has become more popular due to changing investor preferences, generational differences, and published studies that show returns do not need to be sacrificed by incorporating it into a portfolio (some studies even show outperformance in bull markets and increased downside protection in bear markets). Investors are demanding more from their investments, not just in financial return, but in their societal impact. Generally, younger investors (e.g. Millennials, Gen Z) are applying a more scrutinous lens to their investment portfolios compared to older investors (e.g. Baby Boomers). There are also gender differences: women generally have more interest in ESG than men. Fund companies and money managers are listening. They are incorporating ESG criteria into their investment process not only because investors are asking for it, but also because they believe incorporating ESG into a portfolio can help manage risks.

What is the difference between Sustainability and ESG?

ESG generally falls under the umbrella of sustainable investing. US SIF describes it well: “A key strategy of sustainable and responsible investing is incorporating ESG criteria into investment analysis and portfolio construction across a range of asset classes.” One way to think of it is companies that have high ESG scores are more sustainable, resilient, and therefore (theoretically) will be able to generate superior earnings over time. Of course, superior earnings over time would be reflected by positive portfolio performance.

Can a “big oil” company be included in one of these funds?

Yes. Remember when I mentioned that not all ESG funds are the same? Some funds have a “higher bar” than others. Or some simply have a different approach to inclusion within their fund. For example, one fund, Nuveen’s ESG Large Cap Value ETF (ticker: NULV), includes oilfield services company Baker Hughes and the energy company Valero. It does not include companies like Exxon and Chevron, which are part of the S&P 500 Value Index. Another fund, BlackRock’s iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF (ticker: ESGU), not only includes Baker Hughes and Valero, but in addition, it also owns Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon! Why is this the case? For the most part, these funds start with the same “basket of goods.” In other words, U.S. publicly traded companies. But their processes are different. Nuveen excludes a wave of companies that do not live up to a set of predetermined ESG criteria, then selects the “best-in-class” ESG leaders in their respective sector, and then applies a carbon emissions/intensity screen. When it is all said and done, NULV has fewer “big oil” companies in their portfolio. BlackRock applies business involvement screens to their ESG Aware funds. The five screens they outline are civilian firearms, controversial weapons, oil sands, thermal coal, and tobacco (see definitions here). After applying their screens they still include the aforementioned companies in the fund. Again, not all ESG funds are the same.

– Mitch DeWitt, CFP®, MBA

What to Consider Before Moving to Portugal as a US Expat

What to Consider Before Moving to Portugal as a US Expat

Portugal has been a very attractive retirement destination for foreigners for a long time, and I suspect that in places such as the coastal towns of the Algarve, you might wonder whether Portugal was part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, given the abundance of retired Brits. Portugal has grown tremendously in recent years as a popular destination for Americans, too, and the amount of clients that we serve that now call Portugal home has been an undeniably prominent trend recently. 

In this article we’ll explore five topics that every American moving to Portugal, or considering a move, should know. Whether you plan to work, start or continue a business, or retire in Portugal, these are subjects that you may pique your interest, and perhaps invite further conversations with us as you refine your plans to move to Portugal as an expatriate.

Portugal is H-O-T 

(… and we’re not just talking about the pleasant Mediterranean climate!)

Portugal has long been an expatriate haven, but largely for Europeans. In recent years, however, the growth of the expat population has been rather explosive. In 2018, for example, the Portuguese immigration service (SEF) reported that the number of expats in Portugal grew 13.9% to over 480,000 – a very significant number for a relatively small country. U.S. expats are catching on, too, and there are many reasons to ride the expat wave to Portugal. Some of the legal/immigration and fiscal/tax advantages of Portugal are considered in other sections, but it would be remiss not to lead with the quality of life considerations. A very pleasant climate, a very welcoming and neighborly culture, low crime, affordable health care, great food and wine, and a relatively low cost of living compared to its Western European neighbors all come together to make Portugal a particularly attractive option for expats of all ages. In fact, International Living rated Portugal fifth on its Global Retirement Index, which is based on a study of a comprehensive list of metrics. European neighbors France and Malta came in at eighth and ninth, respectively, making Portugal the top European country on the list.  

Get to Know and Understand the NHR Program

One of the factors that can make Europe a problematic option for expats would be the relatively high taxes that dot the European landscape. Higher income tax rates, wealth cases, inheritance taxes, gift taxes, stamp duties, solidarity taxes, etc. seem to be a daunting fiscal obstacle for expats. Since 2009, Portugal has endeavored to make itself a more attractive option through the Non-Habitual Residence Program, or NHR. It’s not a very apt name, because you have to be a tax resident before you can apply to the NHR program. Participation in the NHR program lasts only up to 10 years, at which point the expat remaining in Portugal would be taxed at Portuguese income tax rates (which can exceed 50% for higher incomes) on their worldwide income. 

If you do opt in the NHR program, most income that is non-Portuguese source income will not be taxed in Portugal. We say “most” for two very important reasons. First, as of March 31, 2020, Portugal started to tax foreign pension income flowing to NHR participants, but only at a rate of 10%. If you have a U.S. pension or IRA and tax distributions, it is very unlikely that you are not paying a higher federal income tax rate than 10%, and the amount you pay in Portuguese income tax on these distributions will produce a foreign tax credit that you can use to directly reduce your U.S. tax liability from this income. Second, and this is where things get rather gray in terms of how Portugal taxes income, it is not clear that all passive income from investments outside of Portugal will not be subject to Portuguese income tax, and opinions, even from accountants, vary on this subject. It is clear that rental income and capital gains from the sale of investment real estate outside of Portugal is not taxed in Portugal. However, income from securities investments (intangible assets) – capital gains, interest, and dividends – may, in fact, be taxed at the standard Portuguese rate in Portugal. You will read many expat sites that state otherwise, but much of the literature is directed at non-U.S. expats (particularly Brits), and it may well be that the specific wording on taxation of dividends and capital gains on intangible property within the income tax treaty between the U.S. and Portugal augers a different, unfavorable outcome. We would encourage you to find and consult with a tax preparer in Portugal to make the final determination on that issue. Either way, the tax treatment of passive income for NHR expats will rate competitively against the tax rates experienced in other developed countries. 

No Wealth Tax in Portugal 

While other countries in Western Europe have conceived new ways to tax their most affluent tax residents based on the level of their affluence (examples include the Swiss Wealth Tax and the Netherlands “Imputed Income” (Box 2) tax), Portugal does not have these types of taxes. However, similar to the French “Impôt sur la Fortune Immobilière” (IFI), which we discussed in this blog post, Portugal recently (2017) has also developed a national property tax on it’s wealthiest property holders. This tax applies only on properties valued above €600,000 for individuals or €1.2 million for property owned jointly by married couples, with annual property tax rates ranging from 0.4% to 1.0%. Of note, unlike the French wealth tax on real property, Portugal’s national property tax applies only to high-value Portuguese real estate and does not apply to properties owned outside of Portugal. 

No Transfer Taxes in Portugal (Sort Of) 

Another differentiator in favor of Portugal is the absence of wealth transfer taxes, which is to say taxation upon the gifting of wealth during one’s lifetime and/or taxation upon inheriting wealth. Western Europe can be a great region of the globe to live, especially given their evolved healthcare systems, but it can be a terrible place to die (or to generously share your prosperity with others beforehand), namely because of their draconian taxation of inheritance and gifts. Since 2004, Portugal became a major exception to that general rule, when it abolished gift and inheritance tax. However, the affluent owner of assets within Portugal should become keenly aware of the stamp duty, which applies to the transfer of Portuguese assets through gifts or by inheritance. The stamp duty applies to transfers to someone other than the owner/decedent’s spouse or lineal descendant (children, grandchildren, etc.) and is imposed at a hefty rate of 10%. Additionally, for income tax purposes, the recipient does not receive a step-up in basis on the gifted or bequeathed property in Portugal, which means potentially significant capital gains

taxes (28% for residents, 25% for non-residents) if the benefactor turns around and sells the Portuguese property. 

Trusts May Surprisingly Work Reasonably Well If You Relocate to Portugal 

First, as a rule, an expat should always have their estate plan reviewed by a local estate planning expert in their prospective country of residence before moving abroad with an incumbent estate plan, particularly if that estate plan has trusts featured within the plan. It is worth emphasizing that most Civil Law countries (of which Portugal is most certainly a member nation with a Roman law heritage) do not recognize trusts and, therefore, trusts usually create legal and tax chaos when applied in a civil law context. 

However, 2015 legal reforms introducing the concept of “fiduciary structures,” and more recent court decisions in Portugal applying these newer laws to trusts have surprisingly led to income tax outcomes on trust distributions that appear much more benign, surprisingly akin to U.S. taxation of trust distributions. For example, these tax decisions have held that ordinary distributions to Portuguese beneficiaries from trust investments receive capital gains treatment (28% tax rate), and no income tax would be assessed upon terminating a trust and distributing its assets to the beneficiaries. In that latter case, only the stamp duties would likely apply to the beneficiary who is not the spouse or lineal descendant of the settlor of the trust. This compares quite favorably in comparison that such distributions would receive in most European civil law jurisdictions (such as France or Germany). With such tolerance for common law structures, perhaps it is not surprising that so many Brits feel very much at home in retirement in Portugal! 

Whether you are already residing in Portugal or contemplating moving to Portugal as a U.S. expat and are looking for someone to help you with wealth management, please feel free to reach out to Walkner Condon Financial Advisors to discuss your specific situation.

Stan Farmer, J.D., CFP®

Five Things to Know For Americans Moving to France

Five Things to Know For Americans Moving to France

The US embassy in Paris estimates that over 150,000 Americans reside in France, and the country remains a popular destination for Americans, both on a temporary and permanent basis. Whether you are making the move for family, professional or lifestyle reasons, there are a number of things to consider before you leave. This short article will cover five important topics that may make France a more ideal place for Americans to settle than its high tax reputation may indicate: income, wealth and inheritance taxes, Assurance Vie and trusts.

Income Tax May Not Be As Bad as You Think

Most people naturally think of France as a typical high-tax western European jurisdiction, with generous social benefits coupled with punitive income tax rates. While this is generally true, the reality is more nuanced for Americans living there. In many ways, France is a bit of a reluctant tax haven for American expats. Certain provisions in the France-USA double taxation treaty allow Americans living in France to effectively exclude a lot of their US-sourced retirement and investment income from French taxation. This is particularly useful for American retirees, who may be able to use treaty benefits to live in France while really only paying US taxes.

No More Wealth Tax

For a long time, France was known as a prominent member of the small group of countries that apply a wealth tax as part of their fiscal arsenal. I still speak to Americans who worry about wealth taxation if they decide to relocate to France. The good news is: France no longer has a wealth tax. Everything changed with the 2018 Macron tax reform, which largely rescinded the wealth tax, but not completely. The traditional French wealth tax was replaced with something called “Impôt sur la Fortune Immobilière” (IFI), which is a tax imposed specifically on real estate wealth. Functioning much like a national property tax, IFI could still represent a significant liability if you happen to be heavily invested in real estate, but for the average American professional or retiree it’s unlikely to amount to any meaningful sums.

Death and Taxes, and Death Taxes

As benign as income and wealth taxation may seem for US expats in France, there is no sugar coating the fact that living in France may expose Americans to the dreaded “droits de successions”, France’s inheritance tax. Compared to US estate tax, French inheritance tax is a completely different beast: while a US estate enjoys an 11.58 million dollar exemption per person, the beneficiary of a French estate only gets a EUR 100,000 exemption in the case of first-degree relatives (children and parents) and likely much less for more distant relations. In the most extreme cases, inheritance tax rates can go up to 60% for transfers to unrelated inheritors. 

Learn What “Assurance Vie” Means

Regardless of your French proficiency level, there are two words you may want to quickly familiarize yourself with if you are considering moving to France: “Assurance vie”. While the term translates literally into “Life Insurance”, a french Assurance Vie has nothing to do with what we would call life insurance in the US. Instead, the Assurance Vie works more like a tax-advantaged retirement account. It’s almost impossible to talk about French financial life without mentioning its most ubiquitous investment vehicle. French residents have collectively squirreled away over 1,656 billion euros in Assurance Vie, representing roughly 40% of total French savings. If you ever walk into a French bank, or interact with any French financial services provider, it’s likely that they will try to sell you an Assurance Vie.  In most cases, these products are not suitable for Americans, so be very careful. A French Assurance Vie will often involve underlying investment in non-US registered mutual funds, which may be taxed punitively in the US (see IRS rules on Passive Foreign Investment Companies, or PFICs, for more information).

Trusts Don’t Travel Well

They just don’t. Over the years we’ve repeated this motto to a number of clients in various parts of the world, but this is especially true in France. In 2011, on the back of the UBS tax evasion scandal, French authorities introduced new regulations aiming to clarify the taxation of foreign trusts. The new set of rules also introduces specific disclosure requirements for anyone involved in any sort of French-connected trust arrangement (broadly defined as any trust having French resident grantor, trustee, beneficiary or holding French situs assets). The new rules eventually led to the creation of a public register of trusts, which included names of settlor, trustee and beneficiary, and was publicly available through the French tax administration website, all in the name of transparency. In 2016, the French constitutional court ruled that the public nature of the trust register violated fundamental rights to privacy, and public access to the register was suspended. While trust data is no longer public, the reporting requirements remain in place, and an American moving to France with a US trust will be required to make certain disclosures to French fiscal authorities, or face hefty fines for non-compliance. The required disclosures include a recurring annual filing, as well as an event-based filing to disclose any changes made to the trust. Beyond disclosure requirements, trying to reconcile US trust provisions with Napoleonic French civil law is likely to feel like the proverbial square peg in a round hole, and could create more problems than it solves. If you plan to move to France and retain existing trust arrangements, be sure to seek legal advice. 

Whether you are already residing in France or contemplating moving there as a U.S. expat and are looking for someone to help you with wealth management, please feel free to reach out to Walkner Condon Financial Advisors to discuss your specific situation.

 

Syl Michelin

Why are My Brokerage Accounts at UBS Being Closed as an Expat?

Why are My Brokerage Accounts at UBS Being Closed as an Expat?

In early December, we received several messages from prospective clients who are U.S. expats with brokerage accounts held at UBS. They’ve indicated to us that UBS was requiring them to move their accounts to another brokerage, as they would no longer be servicing these accounts. It was not clear whether or not the requirement from UBS to move accounts was specifically related to the country of domicile or all U.S. expats. In any case, Walkner Condon has helped many individuals in similar situations find solutions.

Why Did This Happen?

For major brokerages houses like UBS, this is not a new phenomenon. We have written extensively on the subject before in a white paper, “Why is it so Hard to Open Accounts for American Expats?” The passage and implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in addition to myriad regulations that encompass anti-money laundering laws may leave some financial services companies deciding that the compliance burden is simply too high for the revenue.

Who Should I Use for Brokerages?

While the answer depends on your particular situation, we delved into the pros and cons of some custodians that are well known for working with U.S. expats in a blog post, “What is the Best Brokerage for Expats?Interactive Brokers, TD Ameritrade, and Charles Schwab all provide services to U.S. expats, though it varies by country as to what is specifically available.

How We Can Help

Walkner Condon Financial Advisors dedicated U.S. expat group helps our clients with wealth management, including investments that comply with country specific restrictions, the complexities of navigating through currency and taxation, and cross-border financial planning.  We touch on those subjects and more in our Expat Investment Guide.Visit our website today to learn how we help our U.S. expat clients achieve confidence and clarity about what they are trying to accomplish in the future.

Five Critical Estate Planning Considerations Before Moving Abroad

Five Critical Estate Planning Considerations Before Moving Abroad


NOTE:  Keith Poniewaz originally wrote about Three Estate Planning Considerations for Expats Moving Abroad in February of 2019. With Stan Farmer joining Walkner Condon as Director of International Financial Planning this September, Stan and Keith thought this might be a great topic to revisit and expand upon. There are many planning considerations that take on additional complexity when individuals move abroad and their wealth becomes subject to multiple, different, and perhaps even conflicting legal and tax jurisdictions. We consider five critical areas that every expat should examine before moving abroad.

As part of the 2017 tax reform bill (Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017), the United States estate tax exemption amount was raised to approximately $11.58 million per individual in 2020 or $23.16 million per couple. As a result, the estate planning and financial planning concerns of most Americans have changed radically. According to the Washington Post, only about 2000 individuals per year will end up owing estate taxes under the current limits. While they should still be worried about an effective estate plan to help ensure that minor children, spouses, and family are protected, under the current regime, few Americans have to worry about effective estate planning in order to avoid future tax bills.  

However, if an American decides to move abroad, they can bring local estate or inheritance tax laws into play and, consequently, be faced with a new set of complications– especially as their U.S. estate planning tools may not necessarily work in their new country. Below are five important items any American should consider before they more or retire abroad.

IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS AND WHERE THEY ARE LOCATED

Will you still own a house in the United States? In your new country? A business? Or will you simply own stocks and bonds? Where are those located?  The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might suspect. Instead, Americans living abroad may have to consult the Estate Tax treaty between the United States and their country of residence to determine where the assets are located (situs is the legal term for the legal location of property) for estate tax purposes.  The United States has treaties with 15 countries currently.

UNDERSTAND YOUR POTENTIAL FUTURE TAX EXPOSURES

Whether there is an applicable estate tax treaty or not, American expats should be aware that once they establish a long-term residence abroad (in the U.S., the legal term would be “domicile,” but in most foreign countries, the critical term is simply “residence”), they may have gift, estate and/or inheritance tax exposures based on the laws of their residence country, even on assets back in the United States. Those expats should then prepare a plan to handle such taxes when they come due.

Even U.S. tax exposures should not be completely dismissed for the affluent expat. Remember that the aforementioned 2017 tax reforms are due to sunset after 2025 (if they are not repealed in the interim), which means that federal gift and estate tax exemptions will be halved to the inflation-adjusted pre-2018 levels (somewhere in the $6 million range per individual and $12 million per U.S. citizen couple.  Moreover, if the U.S. expat marries a non-citizen spouse, the ownership (by sharing, acquiring, or inheriting) of U.S. situs assets by a non-citizen spouse may have dramatic implications for the couple’s overall U.S. gift and estate tax exposures. Such mixed nationality couples have distinct estate planning needs, which differ greatly depending on whether there is an applicable estate tax treaty and, if so, the specific language within each treaty regarding spouses.

MAKE SURE YOUR WILL IS RECOGNIZED WHERE YOU LIVE

The U.S. system for determining how assets are distributed by a decedent to the beneficiaries (commonly known as probate) is not universal and several countries do not allow people to simply determine to whom they wish to distribute their assets, but instead, the legal code may dictate who receives the assets.  However, in several cases, there are ways for Americans to have their wills accepted by local authorities.  For instance, in the European Union, there is regulation 650/2012 which allows for European Union residents to select their home country’s laws as those governing probate or the distribution of their assets.  Note, however, this doesn’t allow for Americans to bypass laws governing taxes! It also will require a new will in most cases, because this special EU provision and the election of U.S. probate law must be specified within the will itself.

TRUSTS DON’T TRAVEL WELL

Relatedly, not all countries recognize trusts and as a consequence, an American trust can cause large headaches from a foreign country taxation perspective.  For instance, in certain countries, distributions from the trust can be taxed both at the level of the trust and at the level of the recipient.  As a result, trust distributions taxes can approach 70% or 80%.  In other cases, a U.S. trust with a U.S. trustee may deemed to become a resident-country trust upon the trustee (e.g., the grantor of a living trust) becoming a resident of the country. When the trustee returns back to the United States, the trust itself could be liable to pay an exit tax that is effectively a realization of all unrealized gains within the trust! Consequently, Americans outside of the United States who need the protections of trusts should consider a wide variety of “trust substitutes” including direct gifting, 529 plans, or other strategies. 

Should the would-be expat try to avoid this problem by setting up a new trust upon their arrival in their adopted country?  Not so fast –This is almost certain to cause onerous U.S. taxes to be applied!  The U.S. Internal Revenue Code is particularly skeptical of “foreign trusts” with U.S. beneficiaries. Ultimately, distributions to such U.S. beneficiaries will face a very complex and punitive tax regime specifically designed to treat current-year distributions as only partially accrued income from the current year and inappropriately deferred income from prior years. The upshot is that the U.S. beneficiary will have to restate taxes over several years in each year they receive a distribution, pay ordinary income tax instead of capital gain rates (or return of capital, which would be untaxed in a domestic trust) on portions of each distribution, and interest and penalties for the portions deemed to be deferrals of income from prior years for good measure.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF INHERITING OR RECEIVING GIFTS WHILE LIVING ABROAD

While the United States taxes the donor of a gift or the decedent’s estate, in most foreign countries that tax these wealth transfers, it is the recipient of the gift or inheritance that is taxed. This simple difference in legal cultures may have extremely profound consequences for the U.S. expat who receives a gift or bequest from a parent or other family member. Will property located outside of the residence country of the expat actually subject the expat to local taxation upon receiving it through a gift or inheritance? The answer varies not only from country to country, but, in certain cases (e.g., Spain or Switzerland) may even vary depending on the region (e.g., province or canton) in which the expat resides!

The implications described here are far reaching and the key takeaway is that the expat must not only be mindful of their own estate plan before moving abroad, but also the estate plan of those family members from whom they are likely to receive or inherit wealth in the future. Besides the potential tax exposures from direct gifts or inheritances, there may again be negative consequences flowing from the expat’s present or future interest in a family trust. The expat’s own trust may not travel well, but it’s not only their own trust that an expat needs to consider.

Stan Farmer, CFP® and Keith Poniewaz