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Panama has always positioned itself as an attractive destination for expatriates, businessmen, retirees and foreign investors. Forty percent of real estate assets in Panama above $140,000 are purchased by foreigners. Despite the pandemic we can see that the Panamanian real estate market is going through a boom of international buyers. Real estate buyers often forget that they will most likely sell the property at some point. Personal circumstances may change, and eventually, you want to sell. The purchase of a property should be well structured from the beginning to avoid headaches and bad surprises in the future: What will be the taxes to be paid when the property is sold? What legal figure is the most convenient to acquire the property? Selling a Panamanian Corporation: Asset Deal vs. Share Deal In the past it was very fashionable to invest and sell real estate in Panama by buying and transferring the shares of a corporation, thus maintaining the cadastral value low, so as not to increase it each time it passed from hand to hand (buyer/seller). When the Panamanian government discovered that this was a normal practice, it decided to regulate this type of transactions: Which means in order to transfer a property, the seller must pay approximately five percent (5%) in taxes and the same applies if you sell the shares of a corporation. Five percent (5%) taxes of the value of that share deal must be paid to the tax office. The only advantage of paying that tax for selling the shares, is that the cadastral value will not increase every time the property is sold over and over again, and therefor maintain annual property taxes low. In fact, selling a corporation represents in simple words, selling the shares with all the corporation’s assets included, changing the board of directors, changing the resident agent and paying the taxes to the DGI (tax office) through form 108. The only thing that cannot be modified in this method of purchase and sale are the subscribers, but that does not affect the interests of the new owner... since with the formal resignation of the subscribers, they will not have any right to claim in the future. But, How Do You Sell a Private Interest Foundation in Panama? If foundations are not made as instruments to negotiate, neither to carry out business activities in Panama, since they are made for estate planning and as a living will, then how do you sell them? The answer can be found in an article that modifies the Foundation Law of Panama (already created several years ago by the way), in fact within a Law that is not related to the subject of foundations. Based on this legal footing you can sell all the rights of your foundation, including all its assets, by means of a private and notarized contract, and by making all necessary changes within the foundation (foundation council, resident agent, by-laws, and even the name if you like). Of course, the technical - practical legal details of the whole transaction are too complicated and complex to explain in a blog without boring the reader with technical and legal terms, but in conclusion,… you can sell your foundation. And if the foundation owns a property, well, you do not have to pay transfer taxes to the tax office because what you are selling is not the property itself, it is the foundation with its rights and obligations.
What should I do, sell the shares of the corporation I own or just transfer the title of my property to the buyer? In this week’s blog I explain you two very common situations which only apply to Panamanian corporations (SA - sociedad anónima) since private interest foundations have no legal framework to "sell" a foundation because they are originally used as a living will, for estate planning purposes and therefor the transfer of a foundation is not regulated (from a tax point of view), but this would be a topic for another blog. If I wish to sell my property, that is to say, transfer the title of ownership to the buyer, the taxes that the owner must pay to the tax office must be calculated, that is to say, the Real Estate Transfer Tax ("ITBI") which is 2% that must be paid based on the higher value of either the sale price or the updated cadastral value (VCA). But this value will be different from the one calculated by you, because for the Panamanian tax office, the property has as increase in value over the years (regardless of the global economic situation or crisis). Therefore, the period of time the property has been kept by you without selling it, will influence the calculation of the VCA. That means that the VCA calculated by the tax office might differ from the original value of the property. A property that costs $25,000 dollars, and being kept in your hands during 15 years increases its value. When you sell this very same property, the tax office will take into account this increase in value (the system calculates it automatically and you cannot modify it) using a coefficient of 0.75 for the full 15 years. That is to say that for the tax office that property had an increase of the VCA of $18,750.00 dollars. If you add this increase in value to the $25,000.00 dollars that you have in your deed, then your property is now worth: $43,750.00 dollars (for the tax office, regardless of the market value). Now, this tax for this specific example will be about $875.00 dollars, not much compared to the price, and it is still in your best interest to sell the property and not the shares and I will explain why. We continue with the same example of only 2% but with another sale value: If the sale value of the property is $352,500.00 dollars and under the same example, the property was kept for 15 years in your hands gaining value as a long term investment, the tax office is going to perform the same calculation with a coefficient for the land (0.75) and another for the improvements, the house, (0.5) because the value between land and improvements (house), results in the value of the property; In this example it turns out that the VCA is now $529,375.00 dollars. Even if you sell your property for a lower price, the government will base its calculations on the higher value in order to apply the 2% tax. This means you will have to pay $10,587.50 dollars and on top of that, the cadastral value of the property will increase (if applicable). In this particular case, it is recommended to sell the shares of the corporation that owns the property, because there is a capital gains tax on the sale of securities (shares of the corporation) which is 5%. For territoriality purposes, it is considered as Panamanian source income , an income produced by capital or securities economically invested in the national territory, whether its sale has taken place inside or outside the Republic of Panama. Therefore, if you sell the shares instead of the property, you will not increase the official registered value of the property (remember that annual property taxes are calculated based on this value). You pay your transfer taxes for the share deal and sell the property without further charges. The taxes for a share deal must be withheld and remitted by the buyer to the Panamanian tax office within 10 days after the closing. Taxpayers who commit tax fraud, and do not pay this tax to the national treasury, will be sanctioned with a fine of not less than 5 times nor more than 10 times the amount defrauded. The other tax to be paid is the Capital Gains Tax, which is 3% on the official registered price and the gain (if any) on the sale price. It is said "updated" because if you built "improvements" i.e. a house on the property, the improvements incorporated to the real estate must have been declared and registered in the Public Registry of Panama, otherwise legally they do not exist. These taxes were created to tax transfers of real estate, personal property and securities, made by individuals and legal entities. Each case is unique and special and we cannot guarantee that this example is accurate for your needs, but it does provide you necessary information to understand a little more about how buying and selling in Panama works so you can make an informed decision when selling your property or investing in real estate in Panama.
Foundations are a fantastic tool for estate planning and to structure and administrate your assets, but is a foundation really necessary? The answer to that question is not that simple, as there is no golden rule that is applicable to everyone and everybody. It depends on the type of assets you own and their value. If you purchase titled real estate in Panama you practically have three options: 1. Register the property in your personal name, 2. Register the property in the name of a corporation, 3. Register the property in the name of a foundation. Due to Panamanian inheritance law and its legal procedures I will always recommend my clients to avoid option number 1. Why should I avoid buying real estate in Panama in my personal name? When you own real estate in Panama in your personal name and you have a will, or otherwise you do not have a will, after your demise the procedure for your heirs to claim their inheritance will always be the same in Panama: 1. Your heirs must hire a Panamanian lawyer 2. The lawyer must file a lawsuit of succession (with will/ without will) with the court in Panama. 3. The process of the lawsuit will take from one (1) to two (2) years to be completed (given there are no complications in the process). 4. Meanwhile, you heirs cannot take possession of the assets until the Judge passes judgment in their favor. In other words, it is the Judge who has the order and the last word. 5. According to the minimum fee scheduled established by the Bar Association in Panama the lawyer handling the lawsuit has the legal right to charge 10% to 25% of the total commercial value of the estate as legal fees. Is it better to buy real estate in the name of a corporation of foundation? If you invest in real estate in Panama you should always register the title either in the name of a corporation or foundation in Panama. But using a foundation might not always be the best choice. Why? It depends on the type of real estate and the usage you want to give the property. The character and objective of a foundation in Panama is to hold and protect assets, while a corporation is per se created to execute commercial activities. Foundations in Panama are prohibited to execute regular business activities. So, if you plan to purchase real estate in Panama as a private retirement home and keep the asset as a long-term investment, a foundation sounds like a solid option. But if you want to invest in real estate as a short-term investment in order to rent, sell, and make it a profitable business , a corporation might suit you better. In fact if the property already has a very low cadastral value or a high cadastral value, it might be smart to use a corporation. Are there examples where a foundation is not necessary at all? Yes, I recommend my clients to never ever register a car title in the name of a foundation. Also, if you have a personal (savings) bank account, depending on your bank you can nominate a beneficiary at the bank. After your demise, your designated beneficiary(ies) can access the funds in the bank account (the procedure varies from bank to bank, so comparing different options is recommended). And if you are a permanent renter in Panama and only own a average bank account and a car, using a foundation or even a corporation to hold those assets is not worth it. Stay safe and healthy!