QNUPS – for pension or tax purposes?

Having posted a slightly negative view of FICs in the last blog, it is a natural step to also do something similar for another fairly common structure with apparent tax savings, QNUPS.

Tax objective or pension?

QNUPS are Qualifying Non-UK Pension Schemes. The main selling point is the possibility of IHT exemption and a tax deferral of income and gains. These benefits feel vulnerable to HMRC attack or legislative change.

If the desire is wholly or mainly to have a top up pension scheme (in addition to a fully funded normal UK pension), the concept may work. But, the more that tax is the driver, the risk of unexpected tax charges increase.

Legislation

The rules are rather thin, being mainly one paragraph of IHT legislation and a Statutory Instrument. These were introduced to amend a tax anomaly with another type of offshore pension (QROPS). The idea of a QNUPS is to piggy back on another country’s pension rules applying to its residents, subject to certain qualifying criteria.

As complex structures, advisers and offshore companies like them, as they generate relatively high or recurring fees.

What could go wrong?

  • The income and gains of a QNUPS may be taxable on the person funding it, under the UK anti-avoidance rules, although these rules have been relaxed recently, to be more proportionate in line with EU law
  • HMRC may argue that the IHT breaks do not apply
  • The press may see it, rightly or wrongly, as the next tax scam
  • Targeted legislation may be introduced to negate the tax advantages, possibly with retroactive effect
  • QNUPS may be difficult to unwind, if attacked by the tax system, as they are long term pension-like structures
  • The structure might not fully meet the requirements to be a valid pension in the other country (some countries have adapted their rules to make QNUPS attractive to UK residents – but is that enough?)
  • Even if it works, you may face the costs and uncertainty of defending it from HMRC attack

Safeguards

To safeguard against these, you should involve a pensions adviser as well as a tax adviser and I suggest taking a specific opinion from Tax Counsel, based on your own circumstances, to fully explore the risk areas.

A general opinion from Counsel may not be enough – that will be addressed to the those selling the idea to you (check that you also read the instructions to see what was asked). It may not cover downsides or specifics (eg it may say “if entered into as a pension scheme” but that doesn’t mean that you are entering into it as a pension scheme). Ensure that you ask for a review of possible downsides.

Also assume that a tax challenge will take place – does all the evidence genuinely point in the right direction? Who is responsible if ultimately tax is charged? An “audit” of the live paperwork by a tax investigation specialist may be useful to stress test the structure, advice, file notes and email trail in anticipation of a HMRC enquiry.

HMRC consultation

There is an impression that HMRC and the Treasury do not like QNUPS. There was a hint that a consultation would take place, with draft tax changes, but nothing has appeared. It would have to fit within EU law, which may limit what could be done, although a possible Brexit impacts on that, of course.

Overall, tread carefully when considering QNUPS, if the reason is any wider than “I wish to have an additional pension fund”.

 

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