Property managers with foreign investor clients (what you should know)
Mullin, Kevin J
Unless a tax treaty exists between the U.S. and a specific country, foreign owners, including estates, corporations, nonresident aliens, and partnerships, pay a flat 30 percent withholding tax on the rents produced by their U.S. real estate investments. This tax applies unless foreigners’ investments are connected with a U.S. trade or business or the foreign owner has made an election with the Internal Revenue Service to be taxed on a net basis. (Having rental income taxed on a net basis after deductions for costs or operations, maintenance, and carrying charges usually results in a lower overall tax for the foreign owner.) On the other hand, U.S. citizens and residents, both individuals and corporations, are not subject to this withholding tax.
This 30-percent withholding tax is calculated on the gross amount of the rents generated by the property without allowable deductions for interest, depreciation, repairs, management and association fees, insurance, real estate taxes, or other expenses of owning and operating the property.
Managers as Agents
Since the IRS has no jurisdiction to collect this tax against a person residing in a foreign jurisdiction, the law generally designates the U.S. person who has the last contact with the money before it leaves the U.S. as a “withholding agent.”The withholding agent is charged with the responsibility for paying over the 30-percent withholding directly to the IRS. Failure to do so can result in the withholding agent being personally liable for payment of the tax, plus interest and penalties.
For rental real estate, the withholding agent is typically the property management company that collects the rent from the tenants, pays the expenses of owning and operating the property, and remits the balance to the owner. Unfortunately, the property management company is often blissfully ignorant of the implications and potential for liability that the designation of withholding agent brings under law.
Avoiding the Withholding Tax: Foreign Owners
Because of this potential tax liability, the property manager needs to know with certainty whether its foreign client is subject to the withholding tax or whether the client is exempt from withholding. For the foreign investor, there are two ways to qualify for an exemption from the withholding tax and, instead, pay its fair share of income tax on a net basis after deductions.
Trade or Business. The first way a foreign person can achieve exemption from the withholding tax and be taxed on a net basis is to qualify its real estate operations as being “engaged in a U.S. trade or business.” Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for determining when a foreign investor’s real estate operations rise to the level of a U.S. trade or business. Instead, the legal test is based on the nature and extent of the foreign investor’s activities in the U.S., which leaves the foreign investor looking to various court cases for guidance.
Resolution of one’s status as not being engaged in a U.S. trade or business (and thus, subject to withholding taxes) under these cases can be fairly determined if the foreign person’s activities are very limited, such as owning one rental property leased on a triple-net basis. Moreover, it is fairly clear from the court cases that a foreign investor will be considered to be engaged in a U.S. trade or business if the foreign investor’s activities are considerable, regular, and continuous with regard to his or her properties. For example, owning several properties and being involved directly (or through an agent) in lease negotiations, maintenance and repairs, collection of rents, payment of operating expenses, and performing record keeping, would almost certainly qualify a foreign owner for this classification. However, should a foreign investor’s activities fall within these two extremes, it may be difficult to gauge the character of the investment, which leaves the foreign owner and the property manager to guess.
Net Election. Having to guess how a court will decide on the question of being engaged in a U.S. trade or business can be a hazardous way to operate real estate for both the foreign owner and the property manager. By way of relief, the Internal Revenue Code does allow a foreign corporation or nonresident alien individual to make an afrmative election to be taxed as being engaged in a U.S. trade or business, which takes the uncertainty out of the process. To qualify for the election, the foreign corporation or nonresident alien individual must derive revenue from the U.S. investment. Because the foreign person will not otherwise be able to qualify for the election, investments in nonproductive properties, such as raw land, should be leased to generate some revenue, even if the use is merely interim or temporary. In the case of a nonresident alien individual, the real estate investment must be held for the production of income.
To make the election, the foreign owner merely files a statement with his or her federal tax return that identifies that an election is being made along with a schedule of all the taxpayer’s U.S. real properties, their locations, and a description of the improvements on the properties. This election is effective for all qualifying U.S. properties for all subsequent years and can only be revoked with the consent of the IRS.
The foreign investor who makes such an election also needs to file a Form 4224 annually with its property manager, which notifies the property manager that the foreign owner is exempt from withholding tax for that tax year.
Avoiding Withholding Tax: Property Managers
That the foreign investor can elect to be taxed on a net basis is fine, but how is the property management company to know whether its principal is a foreign owner and whether the foreign client has made such an election to be taxed on a net basis, thus relieving the property manager of the withholding tax obligation? Guessing incorrectly whether one is a withholding agent or whether someone is a foreign owner or relying on a false verbal representation will not relieve a withholding agent from its obligations under the law. The best ways to avoid potential liability are:
* Assume that the property manager is a withholding agent in all cases until the IRS certification forms described below are received proving differently; and,
* Use the IRS certification forms with every client as part of the application process to systematize the approach to this issue. Completion of these forms will provide a “safe harbor” for the property manager even if it should later be determined that the owner falsified the forms and that withholding taxes should have been paid.
Property managers should become familiar with the following IRS certification forms, which need to be received from the client prior to any rental income from the property being realized. The best time to obtain such forms is at the time of management contract signing and thereafter as required.
Statement and Form 1078 (U.S. citizens and residents). U.S. citizens and residents should provide a statement in duplicate to the property manager that they are not foreign persons but citizens or residents of the U.S. No particular form is necessary for this statement, but it needs to be in writing and should be signed by the person making the statement. If the client is a person who is a resident alien of the U.S., the client can complete such a statement or can use Form 1078. No withholding is necessary from clients who complete either the statement or Form 1078, but the property manager is required to transmit the duplicate copy of the statement or Form 1078 to the IRS upon receipt.
W-8 and Form 4224 (foreign persons). Nonresident aliens and other foreign persons should complete and deliver to the property manager Form W-8, which certifies that the person is a foreign person. Completion of Form W-8 will trigger a withholding obligation on the property manager unless the foreign person also delivers a completed Form 4224. Form 4224 certifies that the income received by the property manager is exempt from withholding because it will be taxed on a net basis. Form 4224 must be filed with the withholding agent for each taxable year by the owner of the income and before payment of the income to which it applies. Failure to obtain a Form 4224 from a foreign person who claims exemption from withholding may result in denial of the exemption.
New Certification. Effective January 1, 1999, a new, simpler regime for certification will be implemented. These regulations will combine several existing forms used in connection with withholding including Form 4224 into a single, expanded Form W-8. While the new regulations should make it easier for property managers and their clients to comply, the basic system of withholding on income from real property is not being changed and must still be followed.
Other Issues for Foreigners
When acquiring U.S. real estate, there are good reasons why a foreign person should not take title to U.S. property in his or her own name, but rather should consider using an offshore-U.S. corporate structure. For example, a nonresident alien who takes title to the U.S. real estate in his or her individual name is exposed to the imposition of U.S. estate taxes, which can run as high as 55 percent on the fair market value of the property (determined as of the date of death) with very limited deductions. By comparison, U.S. estate taxes can dwarf the income tax considerations.
For foreign corporations that acquire income-producing U.S. real estate directly, a surtax, the 30-percent branch-profits tax, is imposed on top of the regular U.S. corporate income taxes. Accordingly, foreign corporations and nonresident alien individuals who currently own property in their own names should carefully consider restructuring their real estate investments into an offshore-U.S. corporate structure with the U.S. subsidiary owning the real estate directly. In this way, owners can avoid not only withholding taxes, but also U.S. estate and branch-profits taxes.
In spite of these issues, foreign persons often do take title to U.S. real estate in their own names. Thus, property managers should take precautions and seek competent professional advice so that their foreign clients’ problems do not become their own.
This article is for general informational purposes only and no action should be taken or withheld based on the information supplied herein. This material is presented with the understanding that the author and the publisher do not render any legal, accounting, or other professional service. In no event will they be liable for any direct, indirect or consequential damages resulting from the use of this material.
Kevin J. Mullin, J.D., C.P.A., has been practicing law for over 15 years with a focus on advising foreign investors on their U.S. real estate investments and international busi ness and tax planning. Mr. Mullin has offices in Denver, Colo., and Washington, D.C.
Copyright Institute of Real Estate Management Jul/Aug 1998
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