Background

The background of this week’s blog is a bit different from the previous ones due to the unique nature of the topic. This week we will be looking at Article 18 of the DTA – Pensions, Annuities, Alimony, and Child Support, which affects a much broader demographic than other articles. The background focuses more on the global economy and financial markets, but there is a reason for this.

Most people start saving for their retirement when they earn their first salary. Contributions are made monthly (either by yourself or on your behalf) towards a Pension Fund (IRA, 401k, super, etc.) and are invested in various classes of assets. We diversify investments to reduce risk and maximize continuous growth, and it gives people a sense of comfort and security to invest in their future via a Pension Fund. 

Asena Advisors is the only multi-disciplinary (Accounting and Legal) international CPA firm in the United States that specializes in U.S. -Australia taxation.

In recent months, the world has contended with the emergence of the Omicron variant, central bank policy tightening, and persistent inflation. And most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ignited a geopolitical crisis that is shaking global financial markets to their core.

As tensions continue to mount in Eastern Europe, the concern about what is to come has led to some people impulsively cashing out their retirement portfolios or reviewing them. 

I’ve always been a great admirer of Warren Buffet and his quotes on investments. 

So just to lay the foundation for this week’s blog, I thought I would share two relevant quotes about the current economic climate.

“The most important quality for an investor is temperament, not intellect.” 

“Uncertainty actually is the friend of the buyer of long-term values.”

Humans are, by nature, irrational beings and are often tempted to make trades when they think the market is working against them, whereas in contrast, it is the well-tempered investor that learns not to watch the market. This person ultimately ends up reaping the most rewards over the long term. 

Their investment philosophy is that you don’t need to have an extremely high I.Q. to build more wealth, but rather that you should be more disciplined with your reaction toward the market’s irrationality. 

Now to link the background with the rest of the blog to follow, if you are a U.S. resident with an Australian pension or vice versa, prior to considering whether to cash out your pension or not, make sure you take a step back and instead make sure you understand the potential adverse tax implications of having an international pension fund. 

Introduction

The purpose of the Australian treaty is to prevent double taxation and fiscal evasion.

Because the U.S. does not tax contributions or accumulated earnings, and Australia does not tax the distribution of benefits, a U.S. resident could perceivably relocate from the U.S. to Australia and never pay income tax on contributions, accumulated earnings, or the payment of pension benefits that accrued while the employee worked in the U.S. To prevent this issue, the two countries formed a double taxation agreement.

Interpreting Article 18 of The DTA – Pensions, Annuities, Alimony, and Child Support

Article 18 addresses the taxation of cross-border pensions and annuities. Subject to Article 19, pensions and other similar remuneration paid to an individual who is a resident of one Contracting State in connection with past employment shall be taxable only in that State. 

Article 18(4) 

defines the term’ pensions and other similar remuneration, as used in this Article, to mean ‘periodic payments made by reason of retirement or death, in consideration for services rendered, or by way of compensation paid after retirement for injuries received in connection with past employment.’ 

Article 18(5) 

defines the term ‘annuities,’ as used in this Article, to mean ‘stated sums paid periodically at stated times during life, or during a specified or ascertainable number of years, under an obligation to make the payments in return for adequate and full consideration (other than services rendered or to be rendered).’ 

We are the only multi-disciplinary international CPA firm in the United States that specializes in U.S.– Australia taxation.

Article 18 is critical to any U.S. person who is a beneficiary of an Australian Superannuation Fund for the following reasons:

  • The U.S. has taxing authority over vested Australian superannuation benefits pursuant to Article 18 of the DTA; and
  • In the absence of a specific Article dealing with contributions and the annual income derived by pension schemes (as exist in the U.K. treaty), the U.S. retains the right under Article 1 of the DTA to tax contributions and accumulated earnings under its domestic tax laws.

In terms of the IRC, most foreign retirement plans are not considered “qualified plans” under Section 401(a), which means the plans generally do not qualify for tax-deferral treatment. 

For a pension plan to be tax-exempt, the plan must satisfy the requirements contained in § 401 Internal Revenue Code 1986 (IRC). Section 401(a) IRC specifically provides that, for a pension plan to be a “qualified plan” (and therefore exempt from tax under § 501 IRC), it must be organized in the U.S. Accordingly, this means that no Australian superannuation plan (whether retail or self-managed) can be a “qualified plan.” (Read our Whitepaper on Taxation of Foreign Pensions for more details)

There are essentially three phases of U.S. tax treatment that need to be looked at when dealing with the taxation of an Australian superannuation plan. I will provide a brief summary of the three phases for this blog, but please review our Whitepaper for more information.

Phase 1 – Contributions 

Suppose contributions are made to an Australian superannuation fund after an Australian citizen becomes a U.S. person (or a U.S. citizen becomes an Australian resident). In that case, the contributions will be taxable in the U.S. under § 402(b)(1) IRC. 

Phase 2 – Earnings Derived Within A Superannuation Plan After An Australian Citizen Becomes A U.S. Person

Subchapter J contains the general rules concerning estates, trusts, beneficiaries and decedents, specifically the grantor trust rules. While it is critical that an individual assessment of the circumstances of every taxpayer be undertaken, most superannuation plans (or portions thereof) in Australia could be classified as grantor trusts for U.S. tax purposes. 

Phase 3 – Distribution of benefits 

In our opinion, there are two possible ways in which accrued Australian superannuation benefits (contributions and earnings) may be taxed in the U.S.

The first is that Australian superannuation benefits of a U.S. person will be taxable upon such a person attaining 60 years of age (the Australian retirement age). The taxpayer will first be liable for tax in Australia, but receive foreign tax credits in the U.S. (creditable only against U.S. federal income tax) for the Australian tax paid (which will be nil if the account is in the benefits phase). In the event of any shortfall, they will pay further federal, state, and city income tax (where applicable).

The second view (the alternate view) concerns highly compensated employees (HCE) and the application of § 402(b)(4) IRC. If an employee is a highly compensated U.S. person who is also a member of a foreign pension plan (i.e., an Australian superannuation plan), technically, on a literal reading of § 410(b)(3)(C) IRC, there is a high likelihood that the foreign pension plan will fail the minimum coverage tests because contributions made in favor of non-resident aliens with no US-source income are not included for the purposes of determining whether the coverage tests have been satisfied.

Conclusion

Both Australia and the U.S. recognize the need for their citizens to be able to self-fund their retirement and the importance of having a globally mobile workforce. This is evident when looking at the concessional tax treatment for individuals who maximize superannuation and pension contributions, and the current impact government-supported pension plans have on federal and state budgets.

We are the only multi-disciplinary international CPA firm in the United States that specializes in U.S.– Australia taxation.

The inadequacies in the DTA arise because it approaches Australian superannuation and U.S. pensions as though they are only taxed at one point, which is on distribution.

Unfortunately, unless Article 18 is amended, the adverse tax implications of U.S. migration on a taxpayer’s superannuation benefits may become a determining factor in whether an executive migrates between Australia and the U.S.

So, the current global economic turmoil might be the perfect opportunity to focus on reviewing the tax exposure of your pension fund instead of considering cashing it out.

Our team of International Tax specialists at Asena Advisors will be able to assist you with these complex tax rules that could apply to your pension fund. In times of adversity, you need proper guidance to your specific needs, and our Multi-Family Office will help you find opportunities in uncertain times. 

Shaun Eastman

Peter Harper