I would like to focus my remarks on some of the key trends that might be expected to affect the world of high net worth individuals in the immediate aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic.
I Issues during the pandemic
During the pandemic, we have seen a relatively consistent pattern among OECD countries of measures that are mainly focused on delaying obligations to file tax returns and make tax payments to reflect the turmoil in some business and personal finances that these exceptional circumstances have wrought. Interestingly, at the beginning of April the OECD issued an analysis examining double tax treaties and the impact of the crisis on individuals' presence, which may have been constrained as a result of the pandemic. The following were notable conclusions.
i Permanent establishments
For individuals constrained to work in a different location and, in particular, for those working from home, provided the state of affairs is regarded as temporary and exceptional it would not generate the required degree of permanency to create a fixed place of business.
ii Corporate tax residence
The view from OECD is that the temporary relocation of board members to different locations will not generally impact a company's tax residence.
iii Personal tax residence generally
In considering where an individual's centre of vital interest may be, any exceptional circumstances generated by the covid-19 pandemic should not, by themselves, cause an individual's residence to change.
One specific area where countries have taken steps to introduce exceptional guidance is in the context of a day count test. Specifically, Australia, Ireland and the UK have given guidance in the context of disregarding days of presence where this is used as a factor in determining residence. Clearly in all these cases, significant care needs to be taken to ensure that a temporary, exceptional circumstance does not become a permanent state of affairs. Where any tax analysis is dependent upon an individual being constrained in their ability to travel, it is likely to be prudent to keep contemporaneous records of attempts to travel to show that an individual has not changed his or her behaviour or residence in consequence of the crisis on a more permanent basis and taken the opportunity to leave the relevant country as soon as possible. Difficulties may arise if an individual in Country A is unable to travel to Country B but could have gone to other locations. Will it be possible to argue that all steps were taken to leave if the individual waited until it was possible to travel to Country B?
II Possible reshaping of tax policy post covid-19
There have been many pronouncements and speculations appearing in the media about how national governments will look to finance the deficits they have incurred during the crisis. A significant degree of speculation has focused on the extent to which high net worth individuals will be targeted with an increased tax burden as one of the mechanisms for financing government deficits. Speculation varies between the possible introduction of some form of annual wealth tax to increased estate taxes.
One interesting example is a proposal in Argentina for a one-off tax levy on ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWI). The bill being promoted in Argentina proposes a one-time tax on wealth calculated on personal assets of Argentine residents as at 31 March 2020. For individuals with a personal asset base of US$3 million, the proposed rate of tax would fall in the range of 2 per cent to 5.5 per cent. This would be in addition to the current annual wealth tax burden of 2.25 per cent for individuals on wealth that is held outside of Argentina. An article published by an Argentine think tank in April 20201 sets out an interesting array of proposals that have been advanced, principally by opposition parties, in South America and Europe. One additional strand that has emerged in Europe is the exclusion from state aid programmes for companies that are headquartered in 'tax havens'. This has been promoted in countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark and France.
A pan-European tax for UHNWIs in the EU has been suggested by economists, Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez (University of California at Berkeley) and Camille Landais (London School of Economics).2 The suggested parameters they advance would be to tax those holding assets of more than €2 million ( the top 1 per cent) at 1 per cent, those holding assets of more than €8 million ( the top 0.1 per cent) at 2 per cent above that threshold and those holding more than €1 billion at 3 per cent above that threshold. They also argue that by making the tax EU-wide, there will be no incentive for individuals to relocate within the EU to avoid the tax.
Historically, one of the objections that has been raised, certainly in Europe, to wealth taxes is the relative inefficiency in the collectability of wealth tax because of the significant degree of compliance work required in checking an individual's filings and valuing their net worth to calculate the levy.
Clearly there is a paradox for tax authorities in considering any form of one-off, or permanent, tax measures that are targeted on high net worth individuals, namely the concern that such measures do not detract from the efforts of business entrepreneurs to create employment and prosperity for others. Furthermore, there will clearly be concern about measures that could be seen as targeting wealthy individuals from other jurisdictions who are looking to locate in the relevant country where increased tax measures could both discourage high net worth migrants from relocating to the jurisdiction or, in some cases, might create an incentive for such individuals to give up their residence.
If new measures of this character are proposed, it will be very interesting to see, in countries such as the UK or Italy that have special regimes for non-domiciliaries, how those regimes will be impacted, if at all, by tax-raising measures targeted at wealthy individuals.
Turning to estate taxes, one recent proposal that is worthy of note in the UK is a report published in January 2020 by a cross-parliamentary group of politicians that considered the UK's inheritance tax policy in the context of intergenerational fairness.3 Notable conclusions from the report were to highlight the extent to which the UK's rule exempting gifts between individuals that occurred more than seven years before the death of the donor as allowing the very wealthy to mitigate their estate tax burden in a way that is not open to those of more modest means who do not have significant surplus to donate to future generations. The central proposal from the report was to scrap a 40 per cent inheritance tax burden levied on gifts occurring on death or within seven years with a flat rate 10 per cent tax that would apply to all gifts giving each individual a lifetime allowance for gifts that were exempt. Part of the thinking behind switching to a donee-based tax system is to encourage senior generations to make wealth transfers to younger generations (potentially from grandparents to grandchildren) in a manner that rebalances the distribution of wealth towards the young. While such measures are unlikely to be central in financing any deficits arising from the covid-19 pandemic in the short term, it will be interesting to see whether a flat rate tax, at a lower level, will find favour with policy makers in the UK. The thinking of the group issuing the report was that the overall unpopularity of the current regime, where taxes are levied on death could be overcome by one that is levied at a much lower rate and is applied uniformly to gifts during the lifetime as well as on death.
Another notable initiative from the EU that is likely to, potentially, impact private clients are the proposals incorporated within the sixth version of the EU Directive on administrative cooperation (DAC6). DAC6 aims to provide the tax authorities of EU Member States with additional information to enable them to close potential loopholes in tax legislation and harmful tax practices. Intermediaries advising on cross-border arrangements involving EU jurisdictions are obliged to report details of the arrangements and the relevant tax payers involved to their Member States who will share the information with other Member States' tax authorities. If there is no intermediary with an obligation to report, the relevant taxpayer will be obliged to do so. For the purposes of DAC6, an arrangement is interpreted very broadly and a cross-border arrangement is reportable if it concerns at least one EU member state and satisfies at least one of the hallmarks described in the Directive.
The hallmarks are very broadly worded and describe certain characteristics which, if satisfied, make the arrangement reportable. The majority of the hallmarks cover arrangements with some form of tax 'benefit' but there are specific hallmarks relating to arrangements that undermine the application of automatic exchange of information agreements such as the Common Reporting Standard and attempts to conceal beneficial ownership. A key concern with this particular hallmark is that the test appears to be wholly objective and the intentions of the parties are arguably not relevant. Intermediaries acting for high net worth individuals and their structures will need to consider the impact of these rules on any arrangements entered into that may concern one or more EU Member States.
Turning away from the tax arena, many jurisdictions have introduced measures during lockdown to facilitate the digital execution of documents, including wills. It will be interesting to see to what extent policymakers will be happy to allow such measures to prevail on a long-term basis. Historically, the very strict measures that prevail on the execution of wills are clearly designed as a protective measure to mitigate the impact of undue influence. It seems likely that such measures will become a permanent part of the overall landscape for the execution of wills going forward. In circumstances where wills are drawn up by professional advisers who have direct contact with a testator or testatrix without the intervention of family members, such measures could well be a welcome relaxation that will make it easier for individuals to make wills in the years ahead in circumstances where it is likely to be less easy to travel to meet, in person, with one's professional advisers for a significant period of time. Given that, in many circumstances, there is a significant degree of 'inertia' that stops individuals from engaging with estate planning, this can only be a welcome development.
In conclusion, we can expect a significantly changed paradigm to prevail to the planning arena for wealthy families in the months and years ahead once the primary crisis generated by the pandemic concludes. A key area of uncertainty at present is the extent to which enhanced tax measures will be targeted at the wealthy. The wider changes in business practice and greater use of video meetings could, however, provide something of a 'silver lining' in terms of making it easier for individuals to access reliable estate planning and succession advice and measures on digital execution could facilitate the easier execution of documents once that process is concluded. What is certain is that a combination of these various measures is likely to significantly impact the planning environment for wealthy families in the years ahead. It seems likely in this context in particular that the EU will become more assertive in its approach to wealthy individuals and their tax affairs as DAC6 is implemented.
RMW Law LLP