Living and working in Germany: Trusts of expatriates can cause havoc

After World War II Germany became an immigrant country. Today more than 10 million people of Germany’s population are immigrants or second generation children of immigrants. Immigration has also its tax impacts.

A special tax problem occurs quite often with individuals form the USA or Anglo-Saxon countries when they come to live in Germany. Quite a few of them are beneficiaries of trusts.  The German tax regime of trusts is very unfavourable. This is due to two facts.

Germany’s civil law does not know this legal form. Therefore there exists uncertainty about the legal status of trusts. The second reason for the unfavourable taxation is the fact that German individuals tried to avoid high German tax burdens in the sixties and seventies of the last century by setting up trust in tax havens. This resulted in a punishing anti-avoidance tax legislation. Unfortunately German tax law does not distinguish between Germans who try to avoid taxes and foreigners coming to Germany. Trusts which have been set-up to benefit the latter were often not constructed to avoid taxation. Or if so this was legally accepted by their domestic tax system.

The tax regime of a trust in Germany depends mainly on its legal structure. If the settlor or a beneficiary is the beneficial owner of trust’s funds the trust will be treated as transparent for tax purposes. The high fiscal court of Germany (Bundesfinanzhof / BFH) ruled in a case regarding a Liechtenstein Stiftung as follows. In this case the settlor was able to control the trust. He had the right to appoint or remove trustees and to transfer all funds back to him or to third parties. The BFH classified the Liechtenstein Stiftung as transparent. The same tax treatment shall apply for trusts.

The tax situation of beneficiaries of transparent trusts being resident in Germany is as follows:

  • The beneficiary’s part of trust income will be subject to German income taxation if not denied by a double taxation treaty. Especially dividends, interests and other income from capital funds are subject to German taxation. Business or rental income might be tax free under provisions of the respective double taxation treaty.
  • Transfers of funds of the beneficiary to the trust or repayments to the beneficiary will not be subject to German income or inheritance and gift tax.
  • A serious problem can be the crediting of foreign taxes at source. This can apply for instance if the trust receives dividends from foreign sources and the foreign country imposes a withholding tax on these dividends. German tax regulations or provisions of the respective double taxation may deny the full crediting of the withholding tax on German income tax.

A beneficiary of an in-transparent trust might face far more severe tax implications if being resident in Germany. This especially applies for irrevocable trusts. The following tax implications might follow:

  • The transfer of funds to the trust by the settlor or beneficiary is subject to German gift tax. The very unfavourable tax class III is applicable (low allowances, tax rates between 30% and 50% on transferred funds).
  • Payments of the trust to the beneficiary who is resident in Germany can be subject to German income taxation under certain circumstances. And all payments of the trust will be subject to German gift tax. This extensive tax regime might result in a double taxation if payments are subject to German income and gift tax.
  • And the above mentioned problem of crediting foreign withholding taxes against German income tax is even more severe.
  • There are special provisions for so called family trusts. But in general they are not applicable for beneficiaries coming from abroad.
  • Double taxation treaties might provide a certain support against extensive double taxation. This is especially the case where German double taxation treaties with countries from the Anglo-American world have special provisions regarding the taxation of trust. But there is little support in regards to inheritance and gift tax since Germany’s only double taxation treaty in this respect has been agreed with the USA.
  • Citizens of EU-member states such as Great Britain or Ireland might be able to seek help in front of German courts if they are subject to extensive taxation. The German regulations might not be in line with European freedom rights.

Author: Peter Scheller, Somann & Scheller,

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