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Guide to International Estate Planning


For individuals with assets abroad, understanding how different legal systems and tax regulations work is key to ensuring your estate is managed efficiently and your wishes are honored. This guide to international estate planning will offer you essential information and practical steps to protect your wealth, minimize tax liabilities and pass on your legacy to future generations.

If you need help managing your assets and establishing an estate plan, consider working with a financial advisor.

Transfer Tax Basics

When planning an estate, it’s important to understand how transfer taxes work in the U.S. and other jurisdictions. Transfer taxes include estate tax, gift tax and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. The estate tax applies to the total value of a deceased person’s assets before distribution to heirs. As of 2024, the federal estate tax exemption is $13.61 million, so estates valued below this threshold are not taxed. However, states may have their own estate taxes with different exemptions.

The gift tax applies to the transfer of money or “property by one individual to another while receiving nothing, or less than full value, in return,” according to the IRS. In 2024, individuals can give up to $18,000 per recipient annually without incurring gift tax. The GST tax applies when assets are transferred to beneficiaries who are at least two generations younger than the donor, such as grandchildren, to prevent tax avoidance by skipping a generation.

International assets add complexity to estate planning. U.S. citizens and residents are subject to transfer taxes on their worldwide assets, including those owned in other countries. However, treaties between the U.S. and other nations may affect tax obligations, sometimes providing relief to avoid double taxation. It’s important to consult with a financial advisor experienced in international estate planning to navigate these regulations effectively.

Additionally, non-U.S. citizens who own assets in the U.S. are subject to U.S. transfer taxes on those assets, though the rules and exemptions differ significantly. The estate tax exemption for non-residents is much lower, typically $60,000, compared to the $13.61 million for U.S. residents.

Key Components of International Estate Planning

A last will and testament is a key component of an estate plan.

When you own property and assets in multiple countries, your estate planning needs become more complex. You must account for the varying laws and regulations in each jurisdiction. This includes understanding how different countries recognize ownership and inheritance, and how your assets might be treated upon your death. Here are the primary components and considerations of international estate planning.

Wills and Trusts

A will is a legal document that outlines how your assets should be distributed after your death. When dealing with international assets, you must make sure that your will complies with the laws of each country where you hold assets. An international will can help protect your estate in multiple countries, though you will need to verify that it’s valid in each country.

Trusts, on the other hand, can provide more flexibility and control over how your assets are managed and distributed. They can also offer tax benefits and help avoid probate, which can be particularly complex in international cases.

Tax Considerations

Taxation is another aspect of international estate planning. Different countries have distinct tax laws, including inheritance taxes, estate taxes and gift taxes. You must consider the tax implications in each jurisdiction where you hold assets. Double taxation treaties between countries can sometimes mitigate these issues, but you should consult a tax professional to navigate these complexities effectively.

Compliance Obligations

Staying compliant with the legal requirements of multiple countries can help you avoid disputes and financial penalties. This includes adhering to each country’s reporting requirements for foreign assets and ensuring that your estate plan respects local inheritance laws. Working with legal professionals experienced in international estate planning can help you comply with relevant jurisdictions.

Beneficiary Considerations

Naming beneficiaries in different countries requires careful consideration. You need to understand the local laws regarding inheritance rights and the possible implications for your heirs. For example, some countries have forced heirship laws, which dictate a portion of the estate must go to certain relatives, regardless of your wishes. Additionally, it’s important to consider the tax liabilities your beneficiaries might face and how to best structure your estate to minimize their burden.

Regular Review and Updates

An international estate plan is not a one-time task. Laws and personal circumstances can change, making it necessary to regularly review and update your plan. This can help your estate plan remain relevant and effective.

Do Assets Owned in Other Countries Get a Step-up in Cost Basis?

A couple meets with an estate planning attorney to make a plan for assets they own in another country.

A step-up in cost basis is a tax provision that allows heirs to reset the value of an inherited asset to its market value at the time of the original owner’s death. This legal loophole can drastically reduce the heir’s tax burden if and when they sell the assets. For example, if a property was originally purchased for $100,000 but is worth $500,000 at the time of inheritance, the step-up in basis allows the heirs to treat the property’s value as $500,000, minimizing their taxable gain when they set it.

When it comes to assets owned in another country, the rules surrounding the step-up in cost basis can vary. Generally, the United States provides a step-up in basis for foreign assets inherited by U.S. citizens or residents, just as it does for domestic assets. However, the tax laws of the country where the asset is located may also influence the process.

Bottom Line

Effectively managing an international estate involves understanding diverse legal systems, tax regulations and compliance requirements across multiple jurisdictions. Key components include creating wills and trusts that align with each country’s laws, addressing tax implications and double taxation, and considering the unique inheritance rights and tax liabilities of beneficiaries in different countries.

Estate Planning Tips

  • Whether you own assets in other countries or not, there are some estate planning essentials that everyone should consider, including maintaining an updated will, designating beneficiaries and appointing guardians to care for any minor children you have.
  • If you need help getting your estate plan together, consider speaking with a financial advisor. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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