Issues arising from setting up an offshore trust for a Chinese HNWI include the recognition of the trust itself and other legal and tax constraints.
As more Chinese HNWIs have realized the unique benefits of offshore trust, especially in the areas of asset protection and succession planning, the number of Chinese HNWIs using offshore trust for wealth planning is increasing fast. However, setting up an offshore trust for a Chinese HNWI can be a complex task due to the Chinese legal and tax constrains.
The recognition of offshore trust in China
The first big question about offshore trust is always whether it is even legally recognized in China. Offshore trust is not specifically recognized by any of the written laws including the Chinese Trust Law. There is also no court case providing any guidance or clarification. However, just like that offshore holding companies are recognized in China, the general understanding based on the Chinese legal principles is that offshore trust should be recognized in China if it meets all the legal requirements in the jurisdiction where the foreign trust is formed.
The community property issue
Under the Chinese Marriage Law, the property obtained by a couple or either spouse during their marriage period is generally considered community property. Community property is jointly held by both the husband and the wife, which means that, even if only a small portion of the community property is disposed of by one spouse without the consent of the other spouse, such a transfer would be invalid. There are already enough court cases in China enforcing such rules.
As such, securing the consent of the other spouse is the essential precondition for contributing community property by one spouse to an offshore trust. Without such consent, the contribution could be held invalid under Chinese law (assuming China has the jurisdiction), which means the relevant assets may thus need to be returned by the trustee. This issue normally arises when a husband sets up an offshore trust for the benefit of his second family or when he intends to hide assets from divorce.
A related issue is when the consent of the other spouse is not obtained, whether the trustee shall have any liability. This issue will most likely come up when the trust assets are ordered by a Chinese court to be returned to the couple but the value of such assets under the trustee’s management has decreased significantly. Although there is no clear rule in China and there hasn’t been any court case in China providing any guidance, the answer to that question would likely depend on whether the trustee has acted with malice. Unfortunately, the term “malice” is not defined by Chinese law in the trust context. Trustees thus should exercise enough caution before taking on the trustee role.
The regulatory restrictions on putting assets into an offshore trust
Dependent on the location and type of the asset, there could be Chinese regulatory restrictions on contributing such assets to an offshore trust. For offshore assets, there is generally no Chinese regulatory restriction on the contribution of such assets to an offshore trust. If those assets are onshore assets, the contribution of such assets to an offshore trust is extremely difficult under the Chinese foreign exchange control rules, banking rules, foreign investment rules, and outbound investment rules. For example, a Chinese individual is legally allowed to remit out only USD 50,000 annually. Another example is that a foreign entity (e.g. a trust company) is not allowed to own real property in China unless it is for self-use (e.g. used as office space for its Chinese representative office). As a result, the offshore trusts we have seen typically do not directly own onshore assets.
The uncertain tax treatment of an offshore trust
There are no specific tax rules on either domestic or offshore trust. By applying the existing general tax rules, until specific rules on trust come out, one could argue that technically a settlor would not be taxed on the contribution of assets to an offshore trust even if such assets have appreciated in the hands of the settlor. Also, a Chinese non-settlor beneficiary would not be taxed on trust distributions as China doesn’t tax gift income yet. Lastly, the trustee would not be taxed on accepting or holding the trust property as long as it is a non-Chinese entity and operates outside China. However, whether such technical analysis could be respected by the Chinese tax authorities is an open question as, to our knowledge, there hasn’t been any actual administrative case on this.
The uncertainty regarding the withholding and reporting obligations of the trustee
While the existing Chinese anti-avoidance rules apply to enterprises, not individuals, they could come into play in the offshore trust context, especially when a special purpose holding company is formed underneath the trustee and controlled by the Chinese settlor. In that case, the SPV could be considered a Chinese tax resident if it is considered effectively managed in China. If so, the SPV would be subject to Chinese income tax on its worldwide income and need to file a tax return in China.
Even if the SPV is not considered a Chinese tax resident, if the trust property is Red Chip company shares, there could still be a technical requirement under Circular 698 that any transfer of the SPV should be disclosed to the Chinese tax authorities through an information filing. Failure to comply with this reporting requirement would be subject to a fine. In practice, a number of foreign trustee companies are reluctant to follow this rule because they take a position that such Red Chip companies are formed with bond fide business purposes. However, whether the SAT would respect this position has not been tested up till now.