Foreign Investment in U.S. Real Property: Gift And Estate Tax Considerations
April 17, 2017
Last week, we reviewed the various U.S. federal income tax consequences that may be visited upon a foreign person who owns and operates U.S. real property (“USRP”). Today we will consider the U.S. federal gift and estate tax consequences of which a foreign individual must be aware when investing in USRP.
As you probably know, the gift tax is imposed upon the transfer of property by an individual, to or for the benefit of another individual, for less than full and adequate consideration. The typical scenario involves an outright transfer to a family member, or a transfer to an irrevocable trust for the benefit of a family member.
For a U.S. person – meaning a citizen or an alien individual who is domiciled in the U.S. – who makes a gift, the Code currently affords an annual exclusion of $14,000 per donee, plus a combined lifetime/testamentary exemption of $5.49 million, plus an unlimited marital deduction provided the donor’s spouse is a U.S. citizen. (Note that “domicile” for gift and estate tax purposes is not necessarily the same as “residency” for U.S. income tax purposes; domicile is a more subjective concept: what jurisdiction does the foreign individual consider to be his “permanent home”?)
In the case of a non-U.S. person who is also a non-domiciliary, the Code provides the same $14,000 annual exclusion as above, as well as an annual $149,000 exclusion for gifts to a non-U.S. citizen spouse (not an unlimited marital deduction). There is no other exclusion. The marginal gift tax rate is 40% for taxable gifts over $1 million.
In order for the U.S. gift tax to apply to a transfer of property by a non-domiciliary, the property transferred must be located in the U.S. Thus, a gift transfer of USRP is taxable.
Importantly, however, a transfer of intangible property, including shares of stock in a USC, including a U.S. real property holding corporation (USRPHC), is not subject to the gift tax.
As a result, a gift transfer by a foreign individual (“FI”) of shares of USRPHC stock (or of cash to fund a corporation’s acquisition of USRP) to an irrevocable foreign trust for the benefit of the FI’s family is not subject to U.S. gift tax. It is imperative that the foreign donor respect the separate identity of the corporation the stock of which stock is being gifted: the corporation should have its own accounts, act in its own name, hold board meetings, etc. – it may even be advisable that the FI not use the corporation’s USRP without paying a fair market rental rate for such use; otherwise, the IRS may be able to ignore the corporate form and treat the transfer of the stock as a transfer of the underlying USRP.
Similarly, though it is not entirely free from doubt, a transfer of an interest in a partnership that owns USRP should not be subject to gift tax, provided the partnership is not engaged in a U.S. trade or business (USTB).
We all have to go sometime. It’s the morbid truth. Even wealthy foreigners.
The U.S. estate tax is imposed on the FMV of the U.S. assets of a foreign decedent. This includes the foreigner’s direct interest in USRP.
It also includes the FMV of USRP in a foreign trust if the FI gifted the USRP into the trust and retained an interest in the income from, or in the use of, the trust’s property.
Where the USRP is subject to a nonrecourse debt, the amount of such debt may be applied to reduce the FMV of the property for estate tax purposes. In order to claim a reduction for any recourse debt encumbering the property, the estate of the FI must disclose his/her worldwide assets and claim only a proportionate part of the debt as a deduction, the assumption being that the FI’s worldwide assets are available to satisfy the recourse debt.
The FI’s U.S. gross estate also includes his shares of stock in a U.S. corporation (“USC”), including a USRPHC.
The state of the tax law as to the situs of a partnership interest is not entirely clear, though there is authority for the proposition that U.S. property includes an interest in a partnership that is engaged in a USTB.
The gross estate does not include shares of stock in a foreign corporation (“FC”), however, even if its only asset is USRP, and even if the FC has elected to be treated as a USC for purposes of FIRPTA (see above). Again, it is imperative that the FI have respected the corporate form: it should have its own accounts, act in its own name, etc. (see last week’s post); otherwise, the IRS may be able to ignore the corporate form, treat the FC as a sham, and include the value of the underlying USRP in the FI’s estate.
The FI’s estate does not include an interest in USRP that is held in a foreign trust, provided the FI did not retain (expressly or implicitly) any beneficial interest in, or control over, the trust.
Unlike the estate of a U.S. citizen or domiciliary, the estate of a FI will not have the benefit of the $5.49 million exemption. Rather, there is only a $60,000 exemption amount (though some treaties may provide for a greater amount provided the FI’s estate discloses its worldwide assets). The 40% rate kicks in when the U.S. taxable estate exceeds $1 million in value.
Additionally, there is no unlimited marital deduction unless the FI’s surviving spouse is a U.S. citizen. If the spouse is not a U.S. citizen, a qualified domestic trust (“QDOT”), with a U.S. trustee, will allow an unlimited marital deduction, and the resulting tax deferral benefit, though it is less than ideal for planning purposes. For example, every time principal is distributed to the surviving spouse, the U.S. trustee must report the distribution, and must withhold and transmit the applicable estate tax.
Finally, let’s not forget that any property that is included in the U.S. estate of a FI receives a basis step-up, thereby removing the depreciation in basis during the life of the decedent, and the appreciation in value of the property, from the reach of the U.S. income tax.
Last week’s post explained that the role of the U.S. tax adviser is to educate the foreign client as to basic U.S. tax considerations before the foreigner acquires USRP; to confer with the foreigner’s non-U.S. tax advisers as to the treatment of the investment under foreign tax law; and to see how to accommodate the foreigner’s business, investment, and other goals within a tax-efficient structure.
I can say with some certainty that there is no single structure that satisfies all of a taxpayer’s goals. The many relevant, and oftentimes competing, factors that we have discussed over the last couple of weeks must be identified and weighed, the various options must be formulated and presented to the foreign client, the client must understand the advantages and disadvantages of the options available, and then the best option under the circumstances must be selected.