PART I – Heightened Interest in Tax Implications of Foreign Owner Transfer of a U.S. Real Property Interest
The number of foreign persons investing in U.S. real estate has continued to rise in recent years. The National Association of Realtors reports that foreign buyers purchased more than 104 billion dollars in U.S. real property from March 2014 to April 2015. Florida was named the state most favored by foreign buyers, garnering twenty-one percent (21%) of the total purchases made by foreign buyers. This trend spotlights the importance of the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980, I.R.C. § 1445, more commonly known as FIRPTA. Also, recent changes to FIRPTA made in December, 2015, resulting from the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, mean the amount of taxes to be withheld on certain transfers of a U.S. real property interest by foreign nationals has increased.
FIRPTA was enacted, in part, to ensure that foreign sellers pay taxes on the sale of a U.S. real property interest. Under FIRPTA, all sellers of a U.S. real property interest (considered to be transferors) are presumed to be foreign and the burden of proving otherwise is placed squarely on the shoulders of the property buyer. Buyers of a U.S. real property interest, considered to be transferees and withholding agents by the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) for purposes of FIRPTA, must withhold and remit taxes to the IRS in the amount equal to fifteen percent (15%) of the amount realized from the sale of real property (usually the contract price) in order to be protected from any tax liability which the seller fails to satisfy to the IRS.
As the withholding agent, the buyer/transferee is required to remit the tax withheld from the amount realized on the sale to the IRS within twenty (20) days of the property transfer utilizing the appropriate IRS forms which require that the seller/transferor has a U.S. tax identification number. The foreign transferor can have the amount to be withheld reduced if it applies, no later than the day of closing, for a withholding certificate and demonstrates the existence of certain conditions meriting a reduction in the amount of taxes due on the property transfer.
The buyer/transferee is relieved of the withholding requirement if the seller/transferor gives the buyer a certification, signed under penalties of perjury, that the seller/transferor is not a foreign person. The certification is required to contain the seller/transferor’s name and address, and tax identification number. The buyer can only rely on this certification if the buyer has not been provided with a notice or does not otherwise have actual knowledge that the seller/transferor is a foreign person.
In a buy-sell transaction of a residence for $300,000.00 or less involving a foreign seller/transferor, a buyer is not required to withhold and remit taxes to the IRS if the buyer is an individual and is willing to sign an affidavit stating that the buyer or a member of the buyer’s family will be occupying the purchased residence for at least fifty percent (50%) of the time that the purchased residence is occupied during the first two (2) twelve (12) month periods following the transfer. When the amount realized on the transaction exceeds $300,000.00 but is less than $1,000,000.00, and the buyer, who is an individual, is willing to sign an affidavit stating that the buyer or a member of the buyer’s family will be occupying the purchased residence for at least fifty percent (50%) of the time that the purchased residence will be occupied during the first two (2) twelve (12) month periods following the transfer, then ten percent (10%) of the amount realized must be withheld. These exceptions to the withholding requirement can benefit the foreign seller because funds will not be withheld from the sales proceeds in an amount up to fifteen percent (15%) of the amount realized; however, they can result in exposing the buyer to liability for taxes, penalties, and interest owed by the foreign seller to the IRS resulting from the sale of the residence.
The withholding rate remains at fifteen percent (15%) when the amount realized is greater than $1,000,000.00 regardless of the use of the property. Likewise, the fifteen percent (15%) withholding rate applies when the buyer is not an individual or when the property will not be utilized by an individual buyer as a residence.
FIRPTA does not apply only to transactions involving residential property; rather, it includes any real property located in the U.S. or the U.S. Virgin Islands, personal property associated with the use of real property, and interests in a mine, well, growing crops, timber or other natural deposits, as well as rents paid to a foreign person (note: withholding rules governing rental payments made to a foreign person are beyond the scope of this article). A foreign person includes non-resident alien individuals, as well as partnerships, trusts, estates, and (certain) corporations and limited liability companies domiciled outside of the United States. And, whether involving individuals or entities, FIRPTA applies to real property transfers including, but not limited to gifts, sales, exchanges, redemptions and transfers.
Since seller/transferors are presumed foreign, and it is the buyer/transferee’s burden in a transaction involving the transfer of a U.S. real property interest to prove otherwise, or to be saddled with potential tax liabilities related to the disposition of U.S. real property by a foreign transferor, buyers or transferees (other than certain U.S. governmental entities) are advised to seek legal counsel if the seller/transferor is unable to produce the certification described above attesting that it is not a foreign person.