Whether a person is considered a “U.S. person” or “non-U.S. person” will determine which income is subject to federal income tax. This also determines withholdings on that income, which may include earnings from real estate trade/business, passive rental income or sale of property.
Non-U.S. persons are subject to income tax only on their U.S. source income (income earned within the United States). According to the Internal Revenue Service, most types of U.S. source income paid to a foreign person are subject to a withholding tax of 30 percent, although a reduced rate or exemption may apply if stipulated in the applicable tax treaty.
What’s a U.S. or Non-U.S. Person? A U.S. person includes citizens and residents of the United States. For income tax purposes, U.S. residents include green card holders or other lawful permanent residents who are present in the United States. A person is also a U.S. resident if he has a “substantial presence” in the States.
A non-U.S. /foreign person, or nonresident alien (NRA) includes (but is not limited to) a nonresident alien individual, foreign corporation, foreign partnership, foreign trust, a foreign estate, and any other person that is not a U.S. person. You can read more on these definitions here.
Withholdings on real estate ventures
If you are a non-U.S. person it is important to consult with tax and/or legal counsel to determine if you are subject to withholding. Below are several situations that could require U.S. withholding with respect to real estate.
- Trade or business – A non-U.S. person is considered to be engaged in a U.S. trade of business if they regularly undertake activities such as developing, operating and managing real estate. If this is the case, the income is not subject to withholding; rather, the non-U.S. person files an income tax return and computes their applicable tax.
- Passive rental income – Income from a rental property is typically considered passive income (refer to my previous blog on Passive Activity Losses for details). Rental income is subject to a 30 percent withholding tax unless it is reduced under an income tax treaty. The 30 percent withholding rate is applied to the gross rents and is reported on Form 1042-S, Foreign Person’s U.S. Source Income Subject to Withholding.
- Sale of property – The Foreign Investment in Real Property Act (FIRPTA) requires a FIRPTA withholding tax of 10 percent of the amount realized on the disposition of all U.S. real property interests by a foreign person. A purchaser of U.S. real property interest from a foreign investor is considered the transferee and also the withholding agent. The transferee must find out if the transferor is a foreign person. If the transferor is a foreign (non-U.S.) person and the transferee fails to withhold, the buyer may be held liable for the tax.
Withholding on foreign partners in a partnership
In addition to filing an annual partnership tax return (Form 1065), if a partnership has taxable income that is effectively connected with a U.S. trade or business, it is required to withhold on income that is allocated to its foreign partners.
The withholding rate for effectively connected income that is allocable to foreign partners is 39.6 percent for non-corporate foreign partners and 35 percent for corporate foreign partners (2016 withholding rates). There are tax treaties with many countries that can reduce the withholding requirements and these should be reviewed.
Note that withholding is calculated on taxable income, not distributions of cash. A partnership needs to be aware before distributing cash to foreign partners that there may be a withholding obligation.