Tax position of unmarried couples

UK tax legislation relating to capital gains tax (CGT) and inheritance tax (IHT) is designed to  favour of marriage or Civil Partnership. The recent Budget has done nothing to change this.

Be aware that the phrase ‘common law wife or husband’ is misleading, if one partner dies without a will, the other will have no rights to the estate.

If you are committed to a long term life partnership with another individual, and you are not married or in Civil Partnership, the opportunities to mitigate CGT and or IHT are limited. This article discusses these limited options.

  • Assets owned when relationship started. Generally speaking it has been difficult to transfer assets between partners that were owned prior to the commencement of their relationship. For IHT purposes the transfer would be treated as a Potentially Exempt Transfer (PET) – any potential liability would only disappear after a seven year period. The IHT risk could be insured against by taking out a seven year life policy, but of course you would have to pay the premiums!

If assets are transferred between partners, and the asset in question is subject to CGT on disposal, any such transfer will create a CGT liability. The only exception is if the market value of the assets at the date of the gift or transfer is the same as, or lower than the original cost. With most share portfolios now in a loss position this may open up opportunities to equalise estates by gifting across securities. This may also crystallise CGT losses for the donor which he or she could put to good use.

Depending on the type of asset, transfers may trigger Stamp Duty Land Tax charges.

And finally, gains on gifts of certain business assets can be rolled over.

  • Assets purchased after the relationship started.  Assets purchased together after the relationship has commenced opens up the possibility of equalising estates by owning such assets jointly.

If there are concerns about unequal financial contributions made by partners to purchase the asset, these can be reflected in the percentage share.

In certain circumstances it may also be effective to use a trust to accommodate certain aspects of the transaction.

  • Insurance. If IHT planning is ignored a partner surviving a first death may be obliged to sell assets, if the couple’s assets were significantly above their nil rate bands. (Currently £325,000)

This may involve the survivor selling the family home, or taking out a mortgage, to pay IHT.

This risk can be covered by a first death life policy written in trust for the benefit of the survivor.

Conclusion

Most unmarried couples are disadvantaged in the UK tax system. Ultimately the only way to redress this is for our Government to legislate and remove this bias, or for affected couples to actually get married or enter into a Civil Partnership. Obviously there are many important non-tax reasons why this may be an inappropriate course of action to take.

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