Questions raised for U.S. life insurers doing business abroad
By Jeff DelleFave and John Latham
The practice of issuing life and annuity policies to nonresident aliens through offshore branches has for years been a standard business model for U.S. life insurers seeking to operate abroad. However, official guidance issued by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in the form of two revenue rulings that address several key tax issues surrounding these transactions, raises many questions for U.S. life insurers doing business abroad.
Revenue Ruling 2004-75 explicitly addresses a central issue raised by these policies by concluding that income received by nonresident aliens under life insurance or annuity contracts issued by a foreign branch of a U.S. life insurer is U.S.-source income that is subject to 30% withholding tax, unless otherwise reduced by an income tax treaty.
Within a month after issuing this ruling, the IRS responded to intense pressure from the life insurance industry by issuing Revenue Ruling 2004-97 and indicating that it would postpone the effective date of the prior guidance under Revenue Ruling 2004-75. Under the new guidance, the U.S. withholding tax is applicable to payments made after Jan. 1, 2005.
As a result of the rulings, insurance companies will quickly need to assess the implications of the new guidance on their current business models and products. For those affected, the Jan. 1, 2005, effective date will pose significant challenges. Moreover, recent comments by the IRS would appear to suggest legislative relief is the most efficient course of action at this time for those companies seeking the withdrawal of the ruling.
Without legislative relief, regulatory relief or the restructuring of current business models, these rulings will place U.S. life insurers doing business abroad at a clear competitive disadvantage to their foreign peers in certain jurisdictions. While companies are taking the necessary steps to address these issues so that their current and future policyholders are not adversely affected by the ruling, it is unfortunate that U.S. life insurers are having to spend resources to address a ruling that flies in the face of sound tax policy.
Because Section 861 of the Internal Revenue Code is silent on the sourcing of income received under a life or annuity contract, to reach its conclusion the IRS has created analogies with other classes of income that are specified within the statute. Revenue Ruling 2004-75 concludes that income received under a life insurance or qualifying annuity contract represents an investment return on the cash value of the contract and is therefore analogous to interest, dividends, and earnings and accretions on pension fund assets.
In general, interest or dividends are considered U.S.-source income when the payor is a domestic company. For example, earnings and accretions on pension fund assets are U.S.-source income when the pension trust is domestic. Thus, by analogy, the IRS has concluded that income received under a life insurance or qualifying annuity contract is U.S.-source income when the issuer is a U.S. domestic corporation.
Nonresident aliens generally are subject to a 30% U.S. withholding tax on payment of U.S.-source interest, dividends and other investment income, unless specifically excluded by statute. Moreover, any payor of U.S.-source income that fails to withhold and remit U.S. withholding tax becomes primarily liable for the withholding tax due.
The Business Dilemma
The rulings have significant business implications for U.S. life companies writing business through foreign branches. Many of these companies historically have operated in branch form outside the U.S. for legal and regulatory reasons. Typically, they have taken the position that payments made to policyholders were not subject to U.S. withholding tax, either because they believed those payments to be non-U.S.-source income or otherwise qualified under a statutory exception to the general withholding tax rules.
The rulings may force U.S. companies to price a potential 30% withholding tax cost into their policies. This will place them at a severe competitive disadvantage vis-?-vis their global competitors. The American Council of Life Insurers, a vocal critic of the ruling, asserted that the IRS analysis is flawed and requested that the IRS immediately withdraw Ruling 2004-75 pending a period of public comment. As noted, in a partial response, the IRS then agreed to a prospective application of the ruling, but commented, in releasing Revenue Ruling 2004-97, that it believed “the legal position reflected in Revenue Ruling 2004-75 is correct.”
As a result of the two rulings, companies will need to consider:
–The applicability of the rulings and whether they should adhere to the rulings based on their specific circumstances.
–The business and tax risks presented if they do not follow the rulings logic and it is later determined that they should have done so.
–The business implications with respect to structuring new contracts.