Why Chinese HNWIs wishing to establish offshore trusts should act now?

Why Chinese HNWIs wishing to establish offshore trusts should act now?

Chinese HNWIs should act now as China may introduce estate tax, exit tax on emigration and adopt new rules to tax the contribution of appreciated assets into an offshore trust.

Chinese high net worth individuals (“HNWIs”) are very interested in using offshore trust for wealth planning because of the unique benefits offshore trusts offer and also due to the fact that Chinese domestic trusts are not suitable for wealth planning.  As to the timing, we think Chinese HNWIs should act now so that they could avoid the adverse consequences caused by the next wave of Chinese tax reform.

China may introduce estate tax soon

Estate tax has suddenly become a very hot topic in China recently.  There has been a lot of media coverage on this over the past few months.  In 2004 the Ministry of Finance issued a draft of the Provisional Regulations on Chinese Estate Tax for public comments.  Although the draft was revised again in 2010, it had never become law.  The introduction of estate tax was then repeatedly mentioned as a medium term goal in several important resolutions on reform adopted by the central government over the past few years.  There were even rumors earlier this year that Shenzhen would become the first city to introduce estate tax on a pilot basis, which caused widespread panic among local residents, but those rumors turned out to be a false alarm.

Why estate tax has suddenly become a media focus is the natural result of the widespread frustration and anxiety among Chinese people about the increasing income disparity between the rich and the poor.  The people who are in favor of estate tax argue that estate tax can significantly help to solve this income disparity issue.  However, the opponents take the view that it is simply too early to introduce such tax in China because China doesn’t even have the required basic infrastructure for collecting and administrating such tax (e.g. a nationwide asset registration system and a reliable asset valuation system), let alone certain key technical issues that would need great wisdom to figure out the answers for, such as the exemption amount, the tax rate, etc..

Despite of those hurdles such as the infrastructure and the difficulties in working out those technical issues, in my personal view, because generating additional tax revenue from estate tax is not a top goal for China (at least not yet), the timing for the introduction of estate tax in China would mainly depend on whether and how quickly China can have good control over the income disparity issue.  If China fails to do so, estate tax may arrive much earlier than people would anticipate.

Needless to say, if China introduces estate tax, it will automatically introduce gift tax.  So for those who think they could get around with the estate tax by giving wealth to their children or other family members as gift should think again.

China may also introduce exit tax on emigration

Many countries impose an exit tax on persons who cease to be tax residents in those countries.  This often takes the form of a capital gains tax against unrealized gain attributable to the period in which the taxpayer was a tax resident of the country in question.  Exit tax can be assessed upon change of domicile, habitual residence or citizenship.

China also taxes its tax residents on worldwide income, but nonresidents are taxed only on China sourced income. So if a Chinese individual becomes a nonresident from a resident, under current Chinese tax rules, the person will no longer need to pay Chinese tax on non-China sourced income, even if the income represents the unrealized capital gains attributable to the period when the person was still a Chinese tax resident.  The change of such tax residency often takes place when the person emigrates from China to another country.

We may see a change to such rules soon if the current emigration wave continues to rise.  Although there is no official study confirming this, China is now the largest emigrant source country in the world.  While the emigration is generally not Chinese tax-driven, it will be just a matter of time before the Chinese tax authorities realize the resulting permanent tax revenue loss.  At that time, the introduction of exit tax would likely be inevitable.

China may adopt new rules to tax the contribution of appreciated assets into an offshore trust

China currently doesn’t have any specific tax rules on trust.  As a result, in the case of offshore trust, when a Chinese settlor contributes appreciated assets (e.g. company shares) into a trust, people generally would take a position that the contribution should not give rise to any Chinese tax.  If such appreciated assets are offshore assets, when they are disposed of by the trustee, no Chinese tax would apply because the trustee is not a Chinese tax resident.  If the trustee distributes such income to the beneficiary or beneficiaries, under current Chinese individual income tax rules, another position could be generally taken that the distribution should be considered gift and thus not taxable in China.   In other words, the use of offshore trust could minimize the Chinese tax that the settlor should have paid if he or she disposed of such assets directly.  The current capital gains tax rate for individuals is 20%.

China will soon reform its individual income tax law. The trust taxation rules will certainly be part of the reform and it won’t be too difficult for the Chinese tax authorities to detect the loophole mentioned above.  Or they may fix it earlier simply by introducing a deemed sale rule or a general anti-avoidance rule.

Why Chinese HNWIs wishing to establish offshore trusts should act now?

What you need to know about setting up an offshore trust for a Chinese high net worth individual (“HNWI”)?

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.