Discretionary trusts provide flexibility in relation to revenue and capital distributions. This is one of the reasons they are a common choice for families. However, when there is a potential foreign beneficiary, the discretionary trust can find itself facing additional costs in the form of foreign surcharges. Foreign surcharges are additional fees that various state jurisdictions impose on the duties and/or land taxes over and above the original impost.
The 2020 changes to foreign surcharge requirements mean that administration for Australian discretionary trusts became a lot more complex.
Foreign Surcharges are subject to a complex array of rules
Each state and territory has its own rules for determining when a beneficiary is a “foreign person”. They also have their own rules for governing foreign surcharges, with some states even imposing clawback rules in the event a beneficiary later becomes a foreign resident. For this reason it is important to obtain specific advice for the relevant state or territory when a discretionary trust intends to purchase property.
Ultimately, any discretionary trust that is determined to have foreign beneficiaries will be required to pay both the ordinary state duties and/or land tax, as well as the relevant foreign surcharge. For this reason most discretionary trusts aim to avoid having foreign beneficiaries. Where this is not practical for the purpose and primary aim of having the trust in the first place, the trustee must be aware of how having foreign beneficiaries will impact their financial considerations.
Changes for NSW discretionary trusts that own residential property
On 24 June 2020 the State Revenue Legislation Further Amendment Act 2020 came into effect in NSW. This Act changed the foreign person surcharges for both land tax and duties where residential land located in NSW was owned by a discretionary trust.
The change means that a trustee is deemed to be a foreign person unless the trust deed explicitly excludes all foreign persons from being beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. This clause in the trust deed must be irrevocable. This means an individual beneficiary who has children overseas, who are defined as foreign persons, would not be able to amend the deed to include their foreign child as a beneficiary.
Non-compliant trusts, i.e. trusts that do not exclude both foreign persons, and potential foreign persons, as beneficiaries, will deem the trustee to be treated as a foreign trustee. The trust then becomes subject to the foreign surcharge rate of duty.
In NSW the rate of foreign surcharge is presently 8% of dutiable transactions relating to residential land while for land tax the rate is 2%. These charges are payable in addition to ordinary rates.
Retrospective Impact of the change in NSW
One of the most concerning things with the change in NSW is that the law applies retrospectively from 21 June 2016 for dutiable transactions, and from 2017 for land tax surcharges.
If you don’t have any foreign beneficiaries then you have until 31 December 2020 to amend your trust deed to irrevocably remove both foreign persons and potential beneficiaries who could be foreign persons, if you wish to avoid the foreign surcharge.
If you have previously not had foreign beneficiaries, but you do not wish to amend the trust deed because you will, or potentially will, have foreign beneficiaries, then you will need to consider if you are liable for any retrospective duties and land taxes.
Victoria has also implemented some changes as of 1 March 2020. While these changes essentially have the same impact as in NSW, the law does not apply retrospectively.
What should you do if you have a discretionary trust with property?
If you have a discretionary trust that holds property, or is intended to hold property then you need to assess the importance and likelihood of having beneficiaries who are foreign persons, or could potentially be foreign persons. This includes assessing your current trust deed, evaluating the goals and purpose of the trust, and reviewing the financial impact of having, or potentially having, foreign beneficiaries.
This may result in a change to your trust deed in order to intentionally exclude any foreign, or potentially foreign beneficiaries, or it may involve a change in your investment strategy.