Dispelling Spanish Inheritance Tax Myths

Raymundo LarraĆ­n Nesbitt, August, 8. 2015

Over the last eight years a few rogue companies have been set up with the sole purpose of putting the fear of God into British to entice them to incorporate corporate structures on top of the Spanish real estate or else buy into obscure equity release schemes to avoid Spain’s IHT (the latter led to hundreds of senior citizens losing their homes to these cunning predators). Truth is most people didn’t even need them in the first place. On average inheritors pay 15% on Spanish Inheritance Tax, a far cry from what’s been shouted from the rooftops.

For a full comprehensive list of IHT-related tax myths peddled by unscrupulous non-regulated outfits or IFAs (Independent Financial Advisors) with a vested interest to coax fellow British into incorporating expensive (and often unnecessary) corporate structures, or else set up devious equity release schemes, to elude Spanish Inheritance Tax please read my article below which debunks them.

By Raymundo Larraín Nesbitt
Lawyer – Abogado
8th of August 2015

 

Introduction

Scaremongering, a time-proven sales tactic. Car and insurance salesmen, in my experience, have always been top of the game at this because they know exactly what makes a customer tick. You will read plenty of scary stuff on ex-pat newspapers and internet on inheritance taxation in Spain which aims to prey on the gullible and harp on people’s inbred prejudices. I will try to cast away some of these widely held misconceptions.

 

Examples of Widely Held Misconceptions

 

1. “Spanish Inheritance tax legal fees can be at least 40 to 50%.”

False

Fact: On average inheritors pay in Spain 15% in inheritance tax. Only in the most extreme cases would you pay such a high amount. To give an idea, a single beneficiary that inherits over €800,000 would stand to pay 34%. Normally there are multiple beneficiaries to an estate; it’s not just one person that inherits all. Also the beneficiaries of the bulk of the estate are normally children, not non-relatives (which do not qualify for tax allowances). The significance this has is that the taxable base (the 800k) would then be split amongst the heirs dramatically reducing the IHT liability as it follows a sliding scale. To this you must also add the legal and family allowances (both national and regional) which reduce the percentage to be paid even further. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the taxable base for property is well-below the true market value.

I’ll put this in perspective with the most common example on British nationals inheriting in Spain. In my experience expatriates have second homes in Spain worth on average €400k. This property is normally owned in joint names meaning each spouse owns 50% of the property. On average couples have two children. So when one parent passes away, his 50% (the €200,000) is normally inherited by his two children. Therefore the taxable base of each child would be €100,000 (as the €200,000 is split equally between them). The surviving spouse naturally still owns his 50%. The state inheritance tax on a taxable base of 100k would be approximately €10,000 (10%). Children are classified in Group I for inheritance taxation purposes. The state tax-free allowance amounts to almost €16,000 for each child. In other words, the state allowance completely offsets the inheritance tax liability (meaning they pay nothing on inheriting in Spain in this example). Additionally children under 21 years old have further annual reductions with a maximum cap of €48,000. On top of this there are autonomous regional allowances that children may benefit from. So in this particular example, which in my professional experience I dare say is the most common, each child would stand to pay zero on inheriting a taxable base of €100,000 each. When the surviving spouse passes away the same result will unfold again providing the laws are not changed. So basically each child will have paid almost nothing on inheriting €200,000 each when both parents are dead.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can imagine a parent passing away bequeathing a €3,000,000 property to a single child or to a friend. In this particular case the inheritance liability would indeed sky rocket (over a million). For this particular case I strongly advise obtaining an estimation on the inheritance tax the beneficiary stands to pay. In this example it is definitely worthwhile looking into corporate structures to mitigate exposure to ISD/IHT as much as possible.

2. “Heirs will be forced to sell the property in Spain to pay off Spain’s extreme inheritance tax”

False

Fact: Same as previous point. Selling a property would be exceptional. In fact I’ve never come across a single client in over a decade that has been forced to sell to pay Spain’s ISD/IHT on inheriting. Moreover, you cannot inherit anything until you have first paid inheritance tax. So no-one can sell the property they are inheriting to then pay off the tax as the property is technically not theirs to sell as it is still under the deceased’s name. Only once the tax duties have been settled and the property is lodged under the name of the beneficiary at the Land Registry is he free to sell on if he wishes as the property is now legally under his name to do with it as he pleases.

3. “The financial debt of your heirs is maybe as much as 50% of the value of your property”

False

Fact: Everyone inheriting in Spain would then be broke. Same as the previous two bullet points, on average inheritors (beneficiaries) pay 15% for IHT/ISD in Spain.

4. “Yours husband or wife will not be exempt from Spanish Inheritance Tax.”

Misleading

Fact: Spouses indeed are not exempt from paying inheritance tax in Spain but they qualify for legal tax allowances. If resident in Spain then the surviving spouse is entitled to further autonomous regional tax allowances. These allowances, both from the state and from the autonomous region where the property is located, may greatly reduce the burden. Additionally if the surviving spouse is resident in Spain they may qualify for a 95% reduction on the main home providing they have lived in it the previous two years and keep it the following ten years (with a maximum reduction of €122,000).

5. “Want to avoid up to 81% of Spanish Inheritance Tax?”

Misleading

Fact: Scaremongers love quoting the extreme 81.6% tax rate for IHT as if this were the norm on inheriting in Spain. While it’s true that Spain’s inheritance tax can be as high as 81.6 pc – in the most extreme case – this only applies to the following case:

a) the beneficiary inherits > €800,000
b) the beneficiary is already well-off (his pre-existing wealth before inheriting > €4,000,000 or £3,000,000)
c) is a non-relative of the deceased classified in Group IV (no family ties to him i.e. a friend)

Clearly a problem affecting only a privileged few. Not a problem that the vast majority of beneficiaries inheriting in Spain will have to contend with unless they are already multimillionaires.

6. “If you incorporate a UK Limited Liability company and place the Spanish real estate inside you will be 100% shielded against Spain’s ISD/IHT. After death, only the shares are reorganised, the company owns the asset, and so it doesn’t change hands. This falls outside Spanish inheritance tax. Win-win”

False

Fact: Resident beneficiaries are obliged to pay inheritance tax under article 17 of Spain’s Inheritance and Gift Tax Royal on inheriting real estate within Spanish territory; regardless on whether the property is locked up or not within a holding company structure and regardless of whether you inherit the property itself or the shares. Likewise non-resident beneficiaries of a property located in Spanish territory also stand to pay Spanish inheritance tax (ex art. 18 of same decree) regardless if it’s in a holding structure or not. Moreover, I believe in the latter you may even be liable to attract UKs IHT beside Spain’s if the beneficiary happens to be a UK national.

Additionally Spain’s Non-Resident Act 5, 2004 clearly states that any re-arrangement of company shares (regardless of company’s nationality) which main asset is real estate located in Spain is taxable in Spain (CGT).

Depending on how clumsily this tax avoidance scheme is carried out it may be labelled as tax evasion (criminally pursuable for defrauded amounts above €120,000 ex art. 305 et seq. Spanish Criminal Code).

And to close I would like to take the opportunity to dispel a malicious misunderstanding on misreading one of my articles: Non-residents – Six Advantages of Making a Spanish will. Making a Spanish will does not reduce or mitigate your beneficiaries’ inheritance tax bill in any way whatsoever (as highlighted in the article itself). But it is extremely useful to save your beneficiaries time, money and hassle at a time of bereavement.

Without a Spanish will a beneficiary will normally incur in penalties and surcharges for late payment on inheritance in Spain. The reason for this is because there’s a deadline of 6 months as from the time of the testator’s demise to file and pay Spanish Inheritance Tax. UK probate, in my professional experience, always exceeds the six months deadline if there is no Spanish will. In which case penalties and surcharges are accrued and added to the inheritance tax for late payment. So ‘in a way’, making a Spanish will helps to mitigate or reduce the inheritance tax bill by way of helping not to attract said surcharges and penalties as the beneficiary is able to pay in time within the six-month deadline thus avoiding a lengthy procedure. I hope this clarifies the misunderstanding.

Spain’s Statutory Four-Year Tax Limitation

Another matter is if Spanish authorities do not get wind on the death of an owner who holds company shares, property or other assets. The statutory limitation of 4 years on all taxes, including Spanish Inheritance Tax, may kick in timing out the obligation to pay inheritance tax altogether – there is nothing the Tax Office can do after said time has elapsed to claim payment of inheritance tax from the beneficiaries. It should be noted that – exceptionally – the statute of limitation for Spanish Inheritance Tax is 4 years, six months and one day. In the particular case of a non-resident in Spain it is extremely difficult for the Spanish Tax Office (understatement) to know if and when they have passed away; unless of course his beneficiaries take to pro-actively inform the Spanish tax authorities… (or for that matter their bank in Spain; which also has the legal obligation to disclose the death to the tax office).

 

Conclusion

Inheritance tax planning in Spain is a complex matter, so please seek legal advice from a qualified lawyer and be wary of anyone advocating property ownership through corporate structures is “always beneficial” – not the case and in fact may be even be counter-productive and a complete waste of money. Beware of companies offering bespoke one-trick ponies to circumvent Spanish inheritance tax by offering “100% protection” against it.

If you fear Spain’s inheritance tax (IHT/ISD) you should first ask for an estimation from a gestoría or law firm before you do anything rash such as setting up a Spanish company or UK limited company to place it on top of the Spanish real estate. Inheritance tax varies widely within Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions (in some it’s not even taxed!). Truth is that corporate structures are neither needed nor recommended for the vast majority of people.

 

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