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.

Gift Tax

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.

U.S.-Situs Property

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).

Estate Tax

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.

Takeaway

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.

Catching up? Start with Part I here.

Sale of USRP – FIRPTA

Aside from planning for the taxation of U.S.-sourced rental income, the foreigner must plan for the disposition of the USRP pursuant to a sale.

The taxation of gain realized by a foreigner on the sale of an interest in USRP is governed by FIRPTA (the “Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980”).

Because FIRPTA treats such gain as income that is effectively connected with the conduct of a USTB, the tax rate that is applied to the gain will depend upon whether the foreign seller is an individual or a corporation.

Assuming the property is a capital asset in the hands of a foreign individual (not inventory or otherwise used in a USTB – the sale of either of which would have been taxable as effectively connected income anyway), and has been held by the foreign individual for more than twelve months, the gain from the sale will be taxed as capital gain at a rate of 20%.

If the seller is a FC, the gain will be taxed at the applicable corporate rate, up to 35%.

FIRPTA – Withholding

Upon the foreigner’s sale of USRP, the buyer is required to withhold 15% of the gross purchase price, which amount must be remitted to the IRS. The purchase price includes the amount of any liability assumed or taken subject to. The remaining tax, if any, must be paid by the foreign seller when it files its U.S. income tax return. If the tax withheld exceeds the amount of tax owed as a result of the sale, the foreigner may use the filing of the tax return to claim a refund.

Because the 15% withholding does not necessarily bear any relationship to the amount of tax actually owed – indeed, the sale may have generated a loss – IRS regulations allow a foreign seller to request a certificate from the IRS that directs the buyer to withhold a lesser amount, based upon the information submitted by the foreigner to establish its actual tax liability.

For example, one may apply for a withholding certificate based on a claim that the transfer is entitled to nonrecognition treatment (as in the case of a like-kind exchange for other USRP), or based on a calculation of the foreigner’s maximum tax liability.

There are also other exceptions to FIRPTA withholding, where a USC, the stock of which is sold by a foreigner, certifies that it is not a USRPHC, and has not been one in the last five years.

Withholding as to Corporate Distributions

Note that special withholding rules apply to certain dispositions by corporations.

If a FC distributes USRP to its shareholders, it must withhold tax at a rate equal to 35% of the gain that is recognized by the FC on the distribution. (The distribution of appreciated property by a corporation to its shareholders in respect of their stock is treated as a sale of such property by the corporation.)

In the case of a USRPHC, it must withhold 15% of the amount distributed if the distribution is made in redemption of a foreigner’s shares or in liquidation of the corporation.

U.S. Real Property

The foregoing has assumed that the property being sold by the foreign person is a direct interest in USRP.

FIRPTA, however, covers not only direct interests in USRP, but also certain indirect interests.

Specifically, if the FMV of a USC’s USRP equals or exceeds 50% of the sum of (i) the FMV of all of its real property plus (ii) the FMV of its trade or business assets, then the corporation will be treated as a USRP Holding Corporation (“USRPHC”), and any gain realized on the disposition of any amount of stock in that USRPHC will be subject to tax under FIRPTA (so long as the disposition is treated as a sale or exchange for tax purposes).

What’s more, if a USC was a USRPHC at any time during the five-year period ending with the date of the sale of stock therein by a foreigner, the gain realized will remain subject to FIRPTA even if less than 50% of the value of the corporation is attributable to USRP at the time of the sale.

Fortunately, there is an exception to this five-year rule: under the so-called “cleansing” rule, if the USC disposes of all of its interests in USRP in taxable sales or exchanges, such that the entire gain thereon has been recognized, and the corporation owns no USRP at the time of the stock sale by the foreign person, then the stock sale shall not be taxable under FIRPTA (or at all for that matter).

Election to be treated as a USRPHC 

As you may have gathered, a FC cannot be a USRPHC. Seems straightforward enough, except that there is a special election that allows a FC to elect to be treated as a USRPHC exclusively for purposes of FIRPTA.

Why would a FC make such an election? One reason is to avoid gain recognition upon the transfer of USRP to the FC. Among the requirements that must be satisfied in order for an election to be effective, the FC must satisfy the above “50% of value” test for USRPHCs.

Exceptions to FIRPTA

Not every disposition of USRP by a foreign person is taxable and subject to withholding under FIRPTA.

For example, a foreigner may sell USRP and roll over the net proceeds therefrom as part of a deferred like-kind exchange without incurring a tax liability (provided that the replacement property is also USRP, the subsequent disposition of which would be taxable to the foreign seller).

This principle underlies other exceptions to gain recognition; specifically, if a foreign person exchanges one interest in USRP for another interest in USRP, the gain realized on the exchange may not be taxable if certain regulatory requirements are satisfied.

For example, a foreigner may contribute USRP to a USC (or to a FC that has elected to be treated as a USC under FIRPTA) in exchange for shares of stock in that corporation without incurring a tax liability, provided the foreign person “controls” the USC immediately after the exchange, and provided the transferee USC is a USRPHC after the contribution. (A narrower exception applies for certain transfers by foreigners to a non-electing FC, which is somewhat inconsistent with the above principle.)

Varieties of Dispositions

A sale of USRP is the most common type of disposition that triggers FIRPTA. However, there are many other transactions of which a foreigner needs to be aware.

For example, if a USRPHC redeems some (but not all) of the shares of a foreign shareholder, the redemption may not be subject to FIRPTA, and may instead be treated as a dividend, if the foreigner’s stock ownership is not sufficiently reduced.

If a USRPHC makes a cash dividend distribution to its shareholders in an amount that exceeds its earnings and profits, the distribution may result in taxable gain that will be subject to FIRPTA.

The partnership rules may generate similar results as to both distributions by, and contributions to, partnerships. The disguised sale rules, for example, may convert what appears to be a tax-free contribution of USRP by a foreigner to a partnership in exchange for a partnership interest into a partially taxable sale that is subject to FIRPTA.

What’s Next

Our next post will review the U.S. gift and estate tax consequences of which a foreign investor in USRP must be aware and must consider in structuring the acquisition, operation, and disposition of such property.

The Internal Revenue Service is serious about cracking down on U.S. taxpayers who have failed to disclose the existence of foreign accounts in which they have a financial interest, or over which they have signature authority.  Typically, these same taxpayers have failed to report certain transactions on their tax returns, the proceeds of which reside in these accounts, as well as any income or gains realized in such accounts.

Offshore Voluntary Disclosure

In 2009, the IRS instituted an Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) allowing taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts to make a voluntary disclosure to the IRS.  By coming forward, the taxpayer would avoid both substantial civil penalties and, generally, criminal prosecution.

The 2009 OVDP was so successful that the IRS started a second initiative in 2011 to enable more taxpayers to come forward voluntarily and report their previously undisclosed foreign accounts and assets.  This program closed on September 9, 2011, but the IRS announced in January 2012 that it was reopening the voluntary disclosure program for a third time.

The “New” Environment

The extension of the program is good news for delinquent taxpayers, especially given the increasingly aggressive enforcement environment surrounding foreign accounts.  In January 2013, the IRS issued final regulations under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requiring foreign financial institutions to identify their account holders who are U.S. persons and to report account information to the IRS with respect to these persons.  Moreover, the U.S. Treasury has been active in implementing FATCA through agreements with other countries.

Finally, the IRS has begun mining the information it gathered from taxpayers who participated in the earlier disclosure programs to identify foreign financial institutions in which U.S. taxpayers hold undisclosed accounts.

The combined result of these developments is that the IRS has more tools than ever to uncover hidden accounts.

 What’s a Taxpayer to do?

In light of the foregoing, any U.S. taxpayer who has a foreign account that has not been disclosed to the IRS is advised to apply immediately for participation in the voluntary disclosure program.  The extended disclosure program has no expiration date and may be terminated by the IRS at any time, leaving taxpayers once again subject to both severe penalties and criminal prosecution.

To participate in the current disclosure program, the U.S. taxpayer must provide a significant amount of documentation with respect to the years covered, pay back taxes, interest and several penalties, and agree to cooperate throughout the disclosure process.  However, if the taxpayer is accepted into the program, the IRS generally does not conduct an examination with respect to the disclosure made.  Additionally, when the taxpayer truthfully, timely and completely complies with all provisions of the program, the IRS usually will not recommend criminal prosecution.

Conclusion

The IRS is actively engaged in ferreting out the identities of those taxpayers with undisclosed foreign accounts.  This information is becoming increasingly available through FATCA, treaties, data-mining technology, and even whistleblowers.  The bottom line:  a non-compliant U.S. taxpayer cannot assume that his account will not be discovered; on the contrary, according to the IRS, it is only a matter of time.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of Queensborough: the Magazine of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.