Inheritance tax: another day, another government U-turn

IHT treatment of specialty debts

The government has back-pedalled on a controversial decision on inheritance tax after widespread criticism. HMRC came under fire when it decided that a type of debt which had historically been exempt from inheritance tax would now be subject to it – going against centuries of legal precedent.

After discussions with professional bodies, it has now changed its position again – though things still aren’t back to how they were before. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.

What’s the history?

The controversy relates to a type of debt called a ‘specialty debt’, which is one owed to someone who is not domiciled in the UK. It’s a kind of debt created by a deed or a seal, not just a normal contract.

Historically, such debts, when owed to a non-dom, have been exempt from UK inheritance tax if the document recording the debt is held outside the UK. In 2013, however, HMRC decided that specialty debts should usually fall under the country where the debtor lived instead – so if the debtor lived in the UK, the debt would now fall under UK tax law.

Yeah, so what?

Under the Inheritance Tax Act, property outside the UK is not subject to inheritance tax if the person inheriting it is not domiciled in the UK. And although ordinary debts come under the country where the debtor lives for tax purposes, specialty debts are considered to be a special kind of debt, and it is a long-established UK legal principle that their legal location is that of the document recording the debt.

The principle goes back to the Elizabethan ecclesiastical courts, which held that “the debt is where the bond is, being upon a speciality; but debt upon a contract follows the person of the debtor”.…

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