The Hidden Passive Foreign Investment Corporation Danger & How To Address It
Passive Foreign Investment Company (PFIC) is a term that many U.S. taxpayers and practitioners do not understand or recognize but it stands as one of the most significant risk exposures to any US taxpayers with foreign investments of any sort. Many U.S. taxpayers, primarily individual investors, and practitioners are too quick to conclude that they do not own a PFIC interest. In our experience, this is because they either don’t understand what a PFIC is or they are daunted by the complicated PFIC rules and reporting requirements. The common results on audit are unexpected severe tax consequences to unsuspecting and unprepared taxpayers. When one considers that a PFIC could be anything from a small interest in a foreign corporation to a Bitcoin investment it is easy to see how easy it is to come into contact with the complex and punitive PFIC rules. This article is intended to provide some basic guidance on the PFIC regime and to address some basic issues.
The PFIC rules were enacted in 1986 as a counterpart to the anti-deferral regime of Subpart F with an intended target of U.S. owners of foreign corporations with primarily passive income or assets. The PFIC rules, unlike the rules in Subpart F, aim to remove the economic benefit of deferral with respect to any and all U.S. PFIC investors and not just those with significant ownership interests. Extremely broad and complex, the PFIC rules discourage U.S. taxpayers from investing in PFICs assuming that they can identify whether their foreign investment is a PFIC in the first place.
The PFIC rules are primarily contained within IRC §§1291, 1297, 1298 and related authority. Primary technical guidance has historically been provided by IRS Notice 88-22 which continues to provide significant guidance to this day.
Generally defined, a PFIC is a foreign corporation that has, during the tax year, at least 75% passive income (“Income Test”) or at least 50% of assets that produce passive income (“Asset Test”). Passive income is any income that would be Foreign Personal Holding Company Income (“FPHCI”) as defined by the Subpart F provisions in IRC §954(c). Many conclude that unless the investment is considered a Controlled Foreign Corporation (“CFC) there is no PFIC exposure. This is an incorrect and false analysis that confuses PFIC with Subpart F. This is an especially dangerous conclusion when one recognizes that the PFIC rules don’t apply to a CFC after 1997 as part of the PFIC/CFC overlap rule of IRC §1297(d) exempting CFC shareholders from the PFIC regime.
Here for example, are common PFIC investments that we regularly see in our international tax practice. In any of these or similar situations PFIC testing is required:
Foreign Mutual Funds
The primary investments of a mutual fund are most often passive or generate passive income qualifying the mutual fund itself as a PFIC.
Foreign Holding Companies
Many foreign holding company investments by U.S. shareholders are tailored to avoid CFC rules due to passive share investments. However, there is often PFIC exposure which often goes untested. This is a very common PFIC scenario.
Foreign Hedge Funds
Like a mutual fund, a hedge fund is an entity often engaging in passive investment activity. We work with a number of foreign hedge funds and any U.S. investor in a foreign hedge fund has potential PFIC exposure.
A foreign trust is most often a foreign entity consisting of passive investments generating passive income. We often see U.S. beneficiaries of foreign trusts, many of which are family trusts established many years ago, that qualify as PFICs and carry significant past tax liabilities with them.
Foreign Bank Accounts
A bank account might also be a PFIC if that account is a money market type investment rather than simply a deposit account as many money market investments are equivalent to fixed income mutual funds.
Foreign Pension Funds
PFIC rules can and do apply to passive investments held inside foreign pension funds unless those pension plans are recognized by the U.S. as “qualified” under the terms of a double-taxation treaty between the U.S. and the host country.
Bitcoin / Cryptocurrency
If cryptocurrency is held in via a foreign fund or it is held via a foreign entity maybe a PFIC investment. The passive nature of these investments always require PFIC testing.
As noted above, the PFIC regime is essentially an anti-deferral regime intended to remove any advantage of income deferral provided by a non-CFC offshore investment. PFIC taxation falls into three elective categories. First, income can be currently taxed as a Qualified Electing Fund (“QEF”) under IRC §1293 where a U.S. shareholder elects to have their PFIC income taxed annually. Second, the IRC §1291 “interest on deferral” regime allows annual U.S. taxes on PFIC income to be deferred but requires the U.S. shareholder to pay any tax plus interest on the deferred PFIC income when the shareholder ultimately receives their PFIC income via distribution or disposition. Third, there is the IRC §1296 mark-to-market regime where the shareholder recognize gains and losses from marketable stock on an annual basis. The most common taxing regime chosen is a QEF election if PFIC treatment cannot be avoided altogether.
One notable rule around PFICS is the “once a PFIC always a PFIC” rule. This rule states that if stock in a foreign investment meets the PFIC definition at any time during the shareholder’s holding period it continues to be treated as a PFIC forever even after it no longer meets the PFIC definition. This requires a lookback for many taxpayers to see if their investment has been tainted as a PFIC at some point in the past even if it clearly no longer qualifies as a PFIC today. This is not an uncommon event.
This article is not intended to be and should not be treated as a complete description of the PFIC testing and treatment rules. There is much more to this regime including complex Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) reporting rules which include filing Form 8621 for each PFIC investment.
The bottom line to any U.S. taxpayer or practitioner who believes that a foreign investment is or was a PFIC should immediately research or seek out an experienced international tax practitioner with PFIC experience to help them navigate and limit their PFIC tax exposure.
Frank J. Vari, JD, MTax, CPA is the practice leader of FJV Tax which is a CPA firm specializing in complex international and U.S. tax planning. FJV Tax has offices in Wellesley and Boston. The author can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone at 617-770-7286/800-685-2324. You can learn more about FJV Tax at fjvtax.com.