BEWARE OF CAPITAL GAINS TAX WHEN YOU EMIGRATE
01 Jun 2017
While many people immigrate to South Africa, we also see many of our clients emigrating from South Africa. And while formal migration-status is not necessarily linked to tax residency, the time of tax migration often coincides with formal emigration linked to passport or visa status. Many are surprised to learn (often after the fact) that emigration for tax residency purposes gives rise to tax consequences in South Africa, and specifically to capital gains tax (“CGT”) consequences in the form of so-called “exit charges”.
When a person ceases to be tax resident in South Africa, that person is deemed to have disposed of all his or her assets on the day that the individual emigrates for income tax purposes. In other words, in calculating their income tax exposure, individuals emigrating for tax purposes are regarded as having sold all of their assets at market value on the day before that on which they leave the country.
As a result, a capital gain is realised on this deemed disposal that is subject to CGT at the prevailing tax rates. Currently, 40% of capital gains so realised by individuals are included in their annual taxable income, which amount may be subject to tax at rates of as high as 45% resulting in an effective tax rate of 18%.
The policy justification for taxing individuals upon emigration is that taxes are to be levied on all capital growth achieved on assets owned by South African residents while they were tax resident. Once an individual will have emigrated, limited mechanisms would exist whereby capital gains may only be realised upon eventual actual sale of assets subsequently once the individuals are no longer tax resident in South Africa. (It is for this reason that South African immovable property is excluded from the “exit charges” regime–however the Income Tax Act provides for a withholding tax mechanism whereby CGT may be recovered from non-residents when they sell South African immovable property.)
While one may have sympathy for the policy justification for the levying of “exit charges”, it must be recognised that any deemed disposal of assets necessarily creates a cash flow conundrum for the individuals affected, quite often proving prohibitive for wealthy individuals seeking to emigrate. It is quite possible that assets of individuals emigrating may consist mainly of illiquid assets such as share investments. Upon emigration, these very assets may need to be actually disposed of in order to raise sufficient cash resources to be able to pay the resultant CGT that would have been payable on a deemed disposal of those assets at emigration.
Whilst the focus of this article is the exit charges that arise on emigration due to the change in a person’s tax residency status it is important to note that a person (including companies and trusts) can cease to be tax resident for various reasons which will also give rise to these exit CGT charges.