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What to Know about U.S. Estate and Income Tax for Foreign Investors

What to Know about U.S. Estate and Income Tax for Foreign Investors

Disclosure: Any specific examples listed are solely intended for educational purposes and are not intended to be tax advice. Please consult with a tax professional for specific information related to your situation.

There are many reasons for foreign investors to hold investment accounts in the United States. With its long history of property rights, efficient and regulated capital markets, and plenty of affordable investment options, the U.S. consistently ranks as one of the best global destinations for wealthy international investors.

As attractive as the U.S. may seem, foreign investors also need to be aware of potential pitfalls. In this article, I will focus on investments in financial assets, such as portfolios of stocks and bonds held through U.S. institutions, as opposed to real estate. 

In principle, the U.S. is wide open to foreign investors, and there are no laws (whether federal or state) preventing foreign nationals from holding investment accounts. However, for various reasons (complexity, risk…), many brokerage firms, banks, and financial advisors may choose to limit their services to U.S. residents, or at least apply strict restrictions on services to non-U.S. clients (such as minimum asset size requirements). So finding the right investment partners already requires some familiarity with the U.S. investment landscape. 

U.S. Estate Tax for Non-Americans

Once you’ve found the right provider, your next concern should be the U.S. estate tax. Foreigners are only subject to U.S. estate tax on U.S. assets. But, in most cases, they only benefit from a measly USD 60,000 exemption (compared to USD 12.06 million for U.S.-domiciled individuals). Therefore, if a foreign account holder dies with investments in U.S. stocks worth USD 1,000,000, their potential U.S. estate tax liability would be USD 376,000, corresponding to a tax rate of 40% on amounts in excess of USD 60,000. 

As scary as this outcome may seem, it is entirely avoidable.

Investing in Non.-U.S. Situs Assets

One of the simplest ways to avoid it is not to invest in assets that are not subject to U.S. estate tax, which can be done even in a U.S. investment account. For example, investments in non-U.S. exchange-traded funds, or mutual funds (such as UCITS funds registered in Ireland or Luxembourg), are not considered U.S. situs and are not subject to U.S. estate tax upon the death of the non-resident owner. Likewise, ADRs of foreign companies, even if traded on the New York stock exchange, would not be subject to U.S. estate tax. More surprisingly, publicly-traded bonds are also not deemed to be located in the U.S. for the purpose of estate tax assessment, meaning that U.S. treasury bonds (possibly the most American of all American assets!) would not subject the owner to U.S. estate tax. 

Creating a Corporate or Trust Structure

With some careful planning, it is possible to design investment portfolios that avoid the pitfall of U.S. estate tax, even if held at a U.S. institution. If this option isn’t available, another strategy may involve the creation of some form of corporate or trust structure to hold investments. For example, many foreign nationals will choose to open their U.S. accounts in the name of an offshore investment company. Once in place, the company can invest in U.S. situs assets such as U.S. stocks. If the owner of the offshore company dies, ownership can be transferred to their heirs without subjecting their estate to U.S. taxes. The general principle at work here is that while the underlying investments may be in U.S. shares, the company itself is a foreign entity, and therefore not U.S. situs.

While these types of structures aren’t necessarily cumbersome to create, they do require careful consideration and planning, so investors should consult their legal counsel to ensure proper procedures are followed. 

Estate Tax Treaties with the U.S.

With all that said, there may be no need for clever portfolio construction, or for sophisticated corporate structures, if you happen to live in one of the 15 countries to have signed a bi-lateral estate tax treaty with the U.S. In many cases, such treaties will allow residents of the foreign nation to claim a larger U.S. estate tax exemption than the default USD 60,000. Or (depending on the specific treaty), may otherwise limit the scope of U.S. estate tax to very specific assets, such as immovable property. 

Foreign countries with estate tax treaties are:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • South Africa
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom

U.S. Income Tax for Foreign Investors

What about income tax? Unlike U.S. investors, foreigners who hold U.S. accounts do not have to file with the IRS every year. Instead, they are subject to withholding at source on the U.S. investment income they collect in the form of dividends. The default rate of withholding is 30%, but once again, with a bit of planning and know-how, this outcome can be mitigated.

To start with, depending on where you live, the 30% at source withholding on U.S. dividends may not be much of an issue. Since many countries have a tax rate higher than 30%, many investors will be able to claim a credit on their local tax return and simply pay the difference. In this case, the U.S. withholding will not result in any net increase in the investors’ tax liability. 

If that isn’t good enough, additional relief from withholding tax may be available under the terms of the various income tax treaties between the U.S. and the investor’s country of residence. The U.S. currently has 58 such treaties with foreign countries, many of which provide reduced withholding rates on dividends. For example, an investor from Norway may avail themselves of a 15% rate (instead of the standard 30%) by making a claim under article 8.2 of the USA/Norway income tax treaty. The procedure for making the claim is fairly simple and involves completing section II of form W8Ben and submitting it to the institution holding your account. 

Finally – as was the case with the estate tax – income tax withholding can be avoided by simply not holding U.S. assets. An investor could select funds or shares specifically incorporated in foreign jurisdictions and hold them through a U.S. account.  A portfolio composed, for example, of exchange-traded funds listed on the London Stock Exchange may enjoy the dual benefit of avoiding exposure to both U.S. estate tax and U.S. income tax withholding (though various tax withholdings may take place within the fund itself, dispensing on the underlying investments…).

 

Conclusion

In summary, while foreign investors can greatly benefit from holding all or part of their investment portfolio in the U.S., there are various potential mistakes to avoid, relating to both estate and income tax. Don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at Walkner Condon to discuss your specific circumstances.