Real Estate in France: Purchase directly in owners’ names or indirectly through a holding company?

The question raised in the title to today’s Blog has been posed to me innumerable times. There is no stock answer. Different facts for different folks call for a tailored solution in a given case. There may be more than one possible plan that fits a purchaser’s needs. Clearly, planning for the purchase of French real estate has implications that must be considered, at the risk of suffering significant penalties, high tax costs, and eventually possible lawsuits among heirs.

Example: A client, non-resident of France, just asked whether he and his wife should purchase their dream secondary residence in the South of France jointly in their own names or through a holding company such as a French SCI. They wanted to know the ins and outs of each alternative. Here is my answer, somewhat modified and broadened:

The downside of buying in your own names is that you are bound by the French forced heirship laws with respect to that property, so each and every child of yours, present or future, born in wedlock or outside, and even born of one of you and a third party, will at the time of the decease of one of the joint owners, have a fixed inheritance interest in that property, whether or not the deceased owner is a resident of France at the time of death. Consequently, the principal reason for non-residents making their property purchase through an SCI or other form of holding company, is to avoid the French forced heirship rules. What is the underlying legal reason for this? The holding company shares are considered in international law as “intangible property”, and as such are governed by the law of the deceased owner’s domicile. If that domicile is in the US or England (for example), which does not have forced heirship in their law, then the holding company shares can pass freely in accordance with the deceased’s last will and testament, without giving preference or, indeed, any interest at all, to any person, child or not.

The fact that the forced heirship rules are avoided does not mean that the underlying French property is not subject to French inheritance tax; it surely is!)

If the property is owned directly by the individuals, it is best to have separate French wills relating to the real estate, which gives flexibility to an estate plan.

Caution: If you plan to rent the apartment furnished to third parties, use of an SCI or any holding company has distinct tax disadvantages. In effect, the company is treated as a commercial company, requiring a full set of financials, including a corporate tax return, to be prepared each year by a French “expert comptable” (CPA) and, moreover, as a commercial company, the owners do not get the benefit of the 22-year write-off for French capital gains purposes that would be available were the property owned directly by the owners or via an SCI that is not classified as a commercial company (i.e., has no furnished rental activity).

Worth mentioning here is the scourge faced by short-term renters in France. A long-standing French rule barring short-term renting (short-term defined as a lease of less than 12 months, or 9 months for students), is now being enforced with a vengeance, at least in greater Paris, with stiff fines being imposed on those caught doing it. It is not clear whether enforcement is so prevalent outside of Paris and its environs, but the risk is surely there.

Another downside to the use of an SCI or other holding company is the annual tax form (Form 2746) that must to be filed each May 15th to avoid the 3% annual tax imposed on companies owned by a corporation or other entity. Granted, if done in a timely fashion, filing is merely a nuisance, but it is still another item that must be on your checklist. (One can avoid the annual filing by sending the tax people a “lettre d’engagement”, that is, a pledge to provide the information requested in the Form 2746 upon request from the fisc.)

I don’t here consider issues of divorce or other forms of termination of ownership by one a co-owner, but for some people that subject is on the list of what should be considered in structuring real estate ownership.

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