Many individuals who live outside of America like to purchase real estate in America or invest in the U.S. Stock Market. It can be much safer than investing in other parts of the world and often times the individual has children who have moved to America to live or study. Florida and New York are particularly attractive locations for foreigners to buy vacation homes or rental properties, so I will focus on those jurisdictions a bit.
From a tax perspective
Florida is relatively easy to deal with as there is no estate tax. The transfer taxes are small and the process is pretty quick if you need to transfer the property during your lifetime. New York recently changed its estate tax laws, so that individuals can soon transfer over $5,000,000 before there is a state estate tax. Transfer taxes are a bit higher and the process is a bit slower, but it is not terrible.
It is a different story, both Florida and New York can be a royal nightmare and you should avoid probate. Probate is the process of transferring assets on death and is typically quite expensive. It is also very easy to avoid by setting up a simple trust that is invisible for taxing purposes. A trust can also be set up to avoid the US federal estate tax, and I strongly recommend this.
With respect to the US taxes,
A foreign investor must worry about both income taxes AND estate taxes. While owning stock or real estate outright may be easiest and perhaps even best to minimize income taxes, it can be the worst thing to do for estate taxes.
The United States is not very friendly when it comes to foreign individuals who wish to transfer property in America.
While a US citizen or resident alien may transfer $5,340,000 before there is a gift or estate tax, the threshold for non-resident is $14,000 for gifts (per person per year) and only $60,000 (total) on death. A person may gift $145,000 (annually indexed for inflation) to a non-citizen spouse before there is a US gift tax.
For transfers in excess of the limits above, there is an 18%-40% tax depending upon the amount of the transfer. You can defer the tax on a transfers to a spouse by setting up a Qualified Domestic Trust (QDOT).
Additionally, the rules are very complicated because some assets are taxed on death or gift and some assets are not.
The general rule is that if something can be considered a U.S. Situs asset, it is subject to the US Federal Estate Tax when the owner dies. Examples of U.S. Situs assets include: real estate located in the U.S., cash or jewelry in the U.S., ownership in a US based REIT, and ownership of a US based Annuity. Examples of Non-U.S. Situs assets include: real estate in foreign countries and stock in foreign corporations. Less obviously, this also includes life insurance and debt obligations (such as bonds).
This is further confused by the fact that some assets considered non-U.S. situs for gift tax purposes differ from the assets that are non-U.S. situs for estate tax purposes. Specifically, intangible property such as stock in a U.S. corporation or an interest in a US partnership or limited liability company are considered U.S. Situs assets for the estate tax, but not the gift tax. Additionally, cash on deposit in a checking or savings account at a U.S. Banking institution is a U.S. situs asset for gift tax purposes, but not for estate tax purposes.
To restate this another way, a gift in excess of $14,000 of cash on deposit in a U.S. bank is subject to a gift tax. However, regardless how much cash is there when you pass away, it is not subject to the U.S. Estate tax. Conversely, a gift of U.S. stock (regardless of how much), is not subject to the U.S. Gift Tax, but if you die owning the stock, anything in excess of $60,000 is subject to the estate tax.
(NOTE: a person must be really careful of that cash in a money market account is treated as an intangible asset so it is considered a U.S. Situs asset for estate tax purposes, but not gift tax purposes.) Please see this link to the IRS website which details assets that are subject to the US estate tax and those which are exempt.
If you are a non-resident, non US citizen who owns stock and real estate in the United States, your options include:
- Paying the estate tax on your death;
- Setting up a foreign corporation to own a local business entity (this will cause more income taxes now though, but save money on estate/gift taxes);
- Sell the stock and property before you die and put the money into non-US situs assets until afterwards (this can be tough to time though).
- Transfer the house to an LLC and then transfer the stock and the LLC to your children or to a trust for your children. As long as you survive for 3 years after the transfer, this should not be an issue for estate tax purposes.
- Sell the assets and invest the money inside of a life insurance policy. That will be free of income tax and estate tax. The question is whether you can find someone to write the policy on a non-resident
I generally recommend that if a person can afford it, you establish a US based trust in a state that doesn’t have an income tax (like Florida) to own assets. Ideally you should transfer money into the trust from a non-US bank account. If you do not need the income from the trust, you can make the trust strictly for the benefit of your heirs. This will avoid an estate tax on the assets owned by the trust REGARDLESS OF WHAT ASSETS ARE NOW IN THE TRUST. This is how you can invest in the market or in real estate without worrying about an estate tax. As mentioned above trust will also help with administration and managing the funds by avoiding probate.
Remember a gift or transfer of assets may require the need to file an informational return with the IRS. Also, the United States has tax treaties with several countries which may affect your need to do planning, so please confer with a competent international estate planning attorney before buying any assets in America.