Quite recently I was watching the Disney movie Jungle Book with my son. I am sure that you remember the film. You may also remember the snake in the film, named Kaa, who tries on a couple of attempts to eat the ‘man cub – Mowgli’. If you happen to watch the film again you will see that he sings a song to hypnotise Mowgli, that song is called ‘ Trust in Me’.
Trust in me!
Like alot of things in life, there are things that trigger the grey matter to start working at a rapid rate and the lyrics to ‘Trust in me’ seemed to resonate with my grey matter on that day. It was all the talk of ‘TRUST’.
You may have been aware of all the talk of offshore trusts in the Panama Papers. Well, you will be grateful that I am not going to go into that in any detail because for most of my clients it has very little to do with them. However, what might affect you is if you hold a trust in the form of a pension, specifically a UK private pension, an IRA, 401K or other US based retirement fund and/or a trust which has been set up in another country which might have the objective of protecting your estate from inheritance tax and or using a trust to pass assets on to family members in the event of your death.
What is a trust?
A trust is basically an agreement between three parties:
- The initiator of the trust (the settlor)
- The trustee: the person responsible for looking after the assets on behalf of the settlor
- The beneficiary: the people named in the trust agreement who are entitled to receive the property/assets of the trust
The trustee holds the assets, legally, on behalf of the ‘settlor’, who ensures that they are distributed in accordance with the settlor’s instructions. This can save time, reduce paperwork and in some cases avoid inheritance taxes. When something sounds this good, why haven’t we all got one? Because in Italy things are never that simple.
Trusts in Italy
Before I start with the analysis of how trusts are treated for taxation purposes in Italy, I would like to caveat this by writing that if you have a trust and are unsure of its tax treatment then you may wish to seek the advice of a trust lawyer who specialises in this field. The information I have learnt here covers a range of trust tax law, in Italy, which is specific to about 99.9% of clients, but it may not be appropriate for everyone. It is a very complicated area and may need specialist advice.
The issue of trusts in Italy was best summed up by an Italian lawyer who I was asking about this topic some years ago and I asked what is the law surrounding trusts in Italy His reply has stuck in my mind….”there is no real law of trusts in Italy because no one trusts anyone”. If you think about it, he is right. You are effectively giving your assets to another party, on the basis of trust, to distribute them on your behalf. That works well in the UK and the US where trust law is written into the framework of society and universally accepted. However, in Italy, where corruption, fraud and a slow legal system exist there would be little recompense if the ‘trusted’ individual/company ran off with your money.
Different types of trusts
There are many different types of trusts which can be used for various planning purposes but they are almost all unwritten by 2 basic concepts. This is that they are either revocable or irrevocable.
An irrevocable trust is simply a trust with terms and provisions that cannot be changed by the person who set it up (the settlor). This is distinguishable from a revocable trust, which is commonly used in estate planning and allows the ‘settlor’ to change the terms of the trust and/or take the property/assets back at any time in the form of income payments or lump sum withdrawals.
This concept of irrevocable and revocable trusts are the defining factors in the tax treatment of trusts in Italy and why, if you inherit a trust or you set one up before moving to Italy, then it is worthwhile checking to determine which type it is.
In general, the irrevocable trust (the one which CANNOT be modified by the settlor), in Italy, is respected for income tax purposes. The trust is deemed to be the owner of the asset (not the person) and there is a legally defined separation between the person who set it up ( the settlor) and the beneficaries of the monies from it. i.e the person who set it up can’t take money and income out at will and change the terms of the trust as and when they please. This is important in the tax treatment which I will explain below.
Conversely, the revocable trust is ignored for tax purposes and the ‘settlor’ is treated as the owner of the assets and any income from the trust, as if they still held them in their own name. The person who holds the trust is also responsible for disclosing the assets in it to the Agenzia delle Entrate each year, as if they owned them directly. Clearly this is not very tax effective in Italy.
The irrevocable trust is certainly the most tax efficient of the 2 types of trust and the easiest one to declare in Italy. The tax treatment is very simple in reality because the trust itself is not taxed, although it must be declared on the Quadro RW each year under the ‘monitoraggio’ section. (and your % share in the trust) Any income distributed from the trust is treated as the income of the individual in the tax year in which it is distributed and taxed at your highest level of income tax. (Capital Gains and non earned income tax of 26% do not apply to this type of financial structure)
The revocable trust, by comparison, is another beast altogether. This type of trust is generally looked through and the assets in it are deemed to be in the ownership of the individual directly.(the settlor). In other words any assumed tax protection by placing assets in trusts is removed because the trust itself can be altered. The Italian authorities have a number of provisions, which if written into the trust deed, could destroy the existence of the trust. These include:
- The ‘settlors’ power to terminate the trust, causing a payment back to the settlor or the beneficiaries
- The power of the settlor to name themselves as a beneficiary
- Provisions which subject the trustee to consent or approval of the settlor i.e effective control of the trust by the person who set it up
- The settlors powers’ to terminate the trust early
- The provision granting a beneficary a right to a payment from the trust
- The provision requiring the trustee to take instructions from the settlor for the purpose of administering the trust assets
- The option to change beneficiaries
- The settlors powers to distribute or lend income or assets from the trust to persons designated by the settlor
- Any other provision, determined by the settlor or benficiary, which appears to limit the administration and distribution powers of the trustee
Assuming one of these provisions is written into the trust deed, then the protection of the trust invalidates the tax protection afforded by the trust and the assets will be subject to same rules as those assets which are held outside a trust.
Direct tax on assets in Italy is 26% capital gains tax and 26% on any income distributions/dividends or interest payments derived form assets, in the year in which they were realised. In addition a tax of 0.2% on the assets themselves as a wealth tax. The tax protection afforded effectively flies out of the window.
What are the alternatives?
For ultra wealthy individuals and companies there are always work rounds to these issues and with enough money you can pretty much construct anything these days to avoid taxes. However, this does not necessarily help the average person who would also like some tax protection for hard earned income and assets that you may wish to pass onto future generations.
The Investment Bond (Polizza Assicurativa Capitalizzazione) is a possible solution. It meets a number of similar criteria such as:
- No Italian income and capital gains tax on the fund itself
- Distributions are taxed at 26% on the proportional gain of the withdrawal (in some respects this is better than the irrevocable trust in which distributions are taxed at your highest rate of income tax)
- The option to name beneficiaries in the event of your death
- Continuation options in the event of death
- The possibility of regular withdrawals and/or lump sum withdrawals and
- A global range of investment options
- Lastly, the investment Bond itself is fully reported to the Italian authorities and any taxes paid at source so you don’t have the worry of having to submit the information each year yourself or making mistakes
The lesson to be learned from this is, that before you do anything, if you have a trust, are a beneficiary of a trust, have set up a trust yourself or had one set up for you, then the first thing you need to do is get a copy of the trust deed and look at your relationship / level of involvement in the trust to determine exactly how it fits into your tax affairs as a resident in Italy. If in doubt, consult a professional.
I am going to elaborate on this subject of trusts in my next Ezine, specifically in relation to UK private pensions and US IRA’s and retirement funds. These vehicles themselves are set up as trusts and therefore have a specific tax treatment in Italy.