International buyers invested $82.5 billion in U.S. residential real estate (4.8% of total U.S. sales) according to the most recent survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors for the 12 month period ending with March 2012. According to that survey, the top states in the U.S. for international buyers were Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. That survey also finds that the top-five international buyers were from Canada, China, Mexico, India, and the United Kingdom and that Brazil also remains a major source of purchasers. Homes are bought in the U.S. for investment, vacation-use, temporary use for professional, educational (which could include providing a home to a child who is pursuing his or her education in the U.S.), and a myriad of other reasons.
U.S. home buying and ownership, without proper planning, can have unexpected and unintended consequences. Many international clients are not aware that ownership of a U.S. home triggers U.S. estate tax on death and a gift of the property during lifetime triggers U.S. gift tax. U.S. estate and gift tax is imposed at a rate of 40%. An individual who is neither a U.S. citizen nor domiciled in the U.S. can shelter only $60,000 of U.S. situs assets on death (i.e. assets located or deemed to be located within the U.S.). In terms of gifting, an individual who is neither a U.S. citizen nor domiciled in the U.S. can make annual exclusion gifts of $14,000 per year to anyone and can currently pass $143,000 per year to a spouse who is not a U.S. citizen free of gift tax. That is in contrast to the $5,250,000 that a U.S. citizen or domiciliary can pass free of estate tax on death or by gift during lifetime as well as unlimited transfers to a U.S. citizen spouse.
To avoid triggering U.S. estate tax on death, many international clients are counseled to take title to the home in a foreign “blocker” corporation which, if respected, is not subject to U.S. estate tax on death. This form of title has the added advantage of providing anonymity and liability protector to the shareholder . Owning a home in a foreign corporation triggers other more immediate tax concerns such as application of the corporate tax rate (up to 35%) in lieu of the preferential long-term capital gains rates on sale (up to 20%), possible imputed rental income for use of corporate property by the shareholder, loss of step-up in the income basis of the home on the death of the owner (the basis of the stock in the corporation would be adjusted but the inside basis—the home itself would not be entitled to a basis adjustment), and loss of the ability to avoid the home being reassessed for California real property tax purposes on transfer from parent to a child. In addition, a U.S. person who will inherit shares in a corporation that will either become a Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) or a passive foreign investment company (PFIC) faces numerous special compliance obligations and substantive tax issues as a result of the ownership of those shares. There are many other ways to take title, such as through a LLC or a trust and each option should be explored in depth to achieve the client’s objectives to the maximum extent possible. Consideration should also be given to planning aimed at avoiding a public court proceeding that would be necessary to convey title to the beneficiaries of an international client who dies holding title directly to a U.S. home.
Buying a U.S. home involves many competing objectives.