PFIC AND UK TAX RULES FOR “OFFSHORE FUNDS”
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®️