For about a year now, Panama has debated decentralized government. It will use property taxes to assist local city councils in this endeavour. Resistance to change has been very vocal, especially as scaremongering occurred: You will lose your homes. If you fail to pay your property taxes, your home will be taken from you. This is just another measure of expropriation. At the end of August, Bill 509 was sent back to first debate for re-drafting after a public outcry. It went through a lengthy second debate. Last night, Bill 509 was approved by the legislature in its third debate. It now awaits signing into law by the President, Juan Carlos Varela. We expect it to be sanctioned by the President and published, as there is no pressure for veto or further debate.
Bill 509 – 2017
The principal debate centered on an article removing the tax exemptions enjoyed by Free Trade Zones. “Free Trade Zones” refers to Processing Zones, Baru, Colon FTZ, and Panama Pacifico. Most of the Chambers of Commerce in Panama objected to modifying their tax treatment. They alleged it is important to have legal certainty for foreign investors. Although these changes were forward looking, they modify all of the special laws which had established these Free Zones. A key concern is investment: private investors in infrastructure will be scared away if changes are made. The Free Trade Zones have been hit hard in recent years by other economic factors, some of which have decimated sectors of the business.
For home owners, however, Bill 509 promises a large reduction in property taxes. In some cases, a reduction down to 0%. For most, the reduction will be 75%, and for some of the higher valued properties, only a 50% reduction. As it stands, Bill 509 establishes the following tax rates for primary family residences:
- 0% for homes valued under $120,000.00
- 0.5% for homes valued between $120,000 and $700,000
- 0.7% for homes valued over $700,000.00
These new tax rates apply as of January 1, 2019. This is because before that date, property owners must present to the Tax Department their affidavits regarding this being their “primary residence” or “family home”, to establish it as the residence that receives these new rates.
However, a property owner with more than one property, will be eligible for these new tax rates only on their primary residence. The following rates apply to weekend or holiday homes, investment, rental, commercial or industrial properties:
- 0% – less than $30,000 (this stays the same)
- 0.6% for properties valued between $30,000 to $250,000
- 0.8% fo properties valued between $250,000 to $500,000
- 1.0% for properties valued over $500,000.00
Even for properties in the highest bracket, this is a reduction from the highest existing tax rate on properties of 2.1%.
Bill 509: improved collections
One of the changes that Bill 509 introduces that will assist with collections is that it appoints banks & mortgage financing companies as tax collectors. This does not apply to first time home buyers, but does apply for all other purchasers. Banks will add the property taxes due to the monthly fees, interest and principal calculated and will include the tax in the monthly payments. The bank will then remit the property taxes to the respective tax office.
Bill 509 also establishes that there will be no appraisals carried out on property values until 2024, allowing 5 years at current property values. Nevertheless, I would expect that after 2024, there is a general move by the tax department to get updated appraisals on all properties for the purpose of collections.
Good news: Moratorium
For anyone that owes property taxes, the good news is that there is a moratorium until December 31, 2017 to get up to date. This moratorium ensures that you only pay the actual taxes that you owe – they are writing off the interest and penalties if you pay all of the property taxes that are owed. For some property owners, this will be thousands of dollars in savings.
Gray & Co. will provide an update once the law has been sanctioned & published. We are also available to assist clients in getting up to date with the payment of their property taxes, taking full advantage of the moratorium that is being offered.
In 2018, our office will be available to assist clients in registering their primary residence under this new law in order to take advantage of the new tax rates.
Property Taxes: Types
When you are thinking about retiring, the last thing you want to deal with are the details. But the devil is in the details, and one of the details you need to clearly understand is property taxes in Panama. There are a number of property taxes in Panama, but the principal ones that you need to be aware of are:
- Annual property tax
- land tax
- improvements tax – or tax exemptions
- Transfer Tax (2%)
- Capital Gains Tax
Annual Property Taxes – Land Tax & Improvements
Whether you own an apartment or a house, you need to know what taxes are going to be charged by the Panamanian DGI (Dirección General de Ingresos) each year. We recommend that before you buy, you ask the sellers for the tax statements so that you can see the history of what they have paid each year. You should also ask what is tax exempt and when the tax exemption runs out. As I said above, the annual property tax has two parts:
- land tax
- improvements tax or tax exemption
The land tax
There is a difference between owning a condo and owning a house. The property taxes are the following:
- Condominium: you will pay 1% of your proportional value of the land under the building. Say the land is worth $1,000,000 and there are 84 apartments in the building: you are responsible for $11,904.76 in land value. Your 1% per annum is: $119.05. Whatever the value of your assigned piece of the land, your tax rate will always be 1%.
- House – land taxes: This is a little more complicated! The first $30,000.00 in value is exempt from taxes. Then the following rates apply:
- 1.75% = $30,000 < and up to $50,000.00
- 1,95% = $50,000 < and up to $75,000.00
- 2.1% anything over $75,000.00
- So, if the land value of your property is $85,000.00 you will pay: $0.00 on the value between $0.00 to $30,000.00; 1.75% on $20,000.00; 1.95% on $25,000 and 2.1% on $10,000.00. Which is about $1,050.00 per annum in property taxes.
What you need to look out for is cases, which I have seen, where the previous owner, in order to get a reduction in 2005 or so on their capital gains tax, did a property appraisal and pushed the value of the land up over $250,000.00, and at these rates, the property taxes each year are about $4,500.00! This means that you will pay in April, August & December about $1,500.00 in property taxes.
Improvements Tax or Tax Exemptions
The other part of the equation in calculating your property taxes is the tax on the improvements. There are many properties that have a 20-year tax exemption on the improvements, and so for now you only have to pay the land taxes. But the questions to consider are:
- Are the improvements exempt?
- If so, when the tax exemption expire?
- What is the tax rate after the exemption expires?
So, if you purchased an apartment in a building that was built in 1996, the 20-year tax exemption would already have ended and you would need to pay property taxes on the land and the apartment itself. That is why you find so many people prefer the new buildings, even though the older buildings are much more spacious and possibly better construction (depending on the building and the year of construction).
Sale of a Property: taxes due
When you go to sell a property, there are 2 taxes which need to be paid:
- Land transfer tax
- Capital Gainst tax
Land Transfer Tax:
The land transfer tax is based on 2% of the higher of the two values:
- the tax basis value in the DGI system
- the sale price value
The Tax Department always wins – they will collect on the higher value!
Capital Gains Tax:
The 2nd tax payable at the time of the sale is the Capital Gains Tax: 10% of the value of the gain.
BUT… and as everyone says, when you see the word “but” just ignore everything you heard before the word: the tax department requires you to prepay an estimated 3% tax on the value of the sale to cover your capital gains tax.
- Your purchase price: $270,000.00
- Your sale price: $320,000.00
- Your gain: $50,000.00
- 10% of the gain: $5,000.00
- 3% value of the sale: $9,600.00
At the time of the sale, you will pay the tax department $9,600.00 in Capital Gains Tax. As you look at this, you might think “that’s unfair!”, but your only option is to ensure that your lawyer does the paperwork right and requests a refund of the overpayment of the capital gains tax! This process is some 3-4 years long – and some clients simply walk away. The Tax Department pockets the difference.
On the other hand, if you made a large gain, there is a box that you can tick, stating that this is your “final return” on the transaction, and that is the complete amount of capital gains tax that you owe. You should review these numbers carefully with your realtor or the lawyer that is handling the closing for you.
For more information regarding your property purchase or sale in Panama, please contact Joan Villanueva in our office.
Other Property Tax issues:
There are more issues to consider regarding property taxes, such as filing your Declaration of Improvements (if you just finished building a house on a lot), presenting a request for a tax exemption (if the builder did not request the exemption from the tax department), and other similar issues, but we will deal with them in another article.
If you read Panama’s recent headlines, you might be forgiven for thinking that all we have here are scandals and corruption, no laws in Panama and no Criminal Code. If you’ve driven in Panama, you might also be lead to believe that we don’t have a Road Code. That’s not true! We have all the laws we need – we just selectively comply with them, due to selective enforcement. One of my pet peeves in Panama is that drivers STILL don’t know how to go around a round-about!
I highlight this because in 2014 Panama was once again grey-listed by GAFILAT (the Latin American Financial Action Group, a member of the FATF), in spite of having AML (anti-money laundering) and CFT (couter financing of terrorism) laws in place. An IMF visit to Panama highlighted the lack of enforcement of 16 of the principal FATF recommendations. Panama’s principal problem has been one simply of enforcement of the laws that it has. In October 2015, when FATF meets in Europe, Panama will request another evaluation of the measures taken in the past 18 months to ensure enforcement of the laws and compliance with the principal recommendations.
The reality of Laws in Panama
While Panama changed its rules regarding Bearer Shares (requiring that they go into custody or switch to registered shares) and adopted KYC (know your client) rules for lawyers and registered agents, without mentioning the regulations, procedures and reporting standards that exist for financial institutions, it has customarily ignored an important part of the process relating to implementation and supervision.
I will admit, when Panama adopted Law 23 in April of 2015 I groaned – “another law, another supervisory body”: as if there weren’t enough already! As lawyers, we are already subject to the Fourth Chamber (Sala Cuarta) of the Supreme Court, as well as being subject to the oversight of the Colegio Nacional de Abogados (Panama’s Law Society). We already had Law 2 (2011) and Law 47 (2013). And yet, neither of these bodies is charged with the oversight and supervision of compliance with AML/CFT rules.
Law 23 (2015), whose purpose is “to prevent money laundering, financing of terrorism and financing of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” established the framework for the “Administration Office for Supervision of Non-Financial Subjects”, as part of the Ministry of Economy & Finance. The administrator, Francisco Bustamante, has already participated in meetings to establish a series of training sessions, particularly aimed at operators of the Free Trade Zone in Colon, to ensure best practices are incorporated into policies and manuals, and communicated to all employees that deal with financial transactions. There is a long list of enterprises that will now fall under the supervision of this office, which were previously not supervised by any bodies. To date, supervision had been limited to the Banking Superintendence (banks and trust companies), the Insurance Superintendence (insurance companies & brokers), the Securities Market Superintendence (stock exchanges, brokers & dealers, investment advisers), and the Cooperatives.
This new office, which we will refer to as the AOSNFS (Administration Office for Supervision of Non-Financial Subjects), has the oversight of 16 sectors of the economy, which previously were reported to FAU (Financial Analysis Unit of the Ministry of Economy & Finance) in the case of suspicious financial transactions, but which were not directly subject to any supervision. There are now 20 new “subjects” that will need to report suspicious transactions over the $10,000.00 limit. These sectors are the following:
- Free Trade Zone companies, including Colon FTZ, Barú FTZ, Panamá-Pacifico & Bolsa de Diamante
- Remittance services (for sending money)
- Casinos, betting agencies and other forms of gambling
- Notaries public
It is expected that over time the AOSNFS will issues procedures and policies to be followed by companies within each of these sectors for compliance with AML/CFT measures. With the implementation of this law, adopting Executive Decree 361 (August 2015), which gives an organic structure to the AOSNFS, including offices and sub-directors, it is expected that Panama is 90% compliant with the 6 basic action plans that were agreed upon to get Panama off the grey list. Additionally to Law 23 (2015), Panama has also made modifications to the Criminal Code (tighter money laundering rules, among other things) and also a law to enhance and enable international cooperation with other agencies. As of July 2015, a round of seminars for FTZ companies and currency exchange companies already began. But, there is still a ways to go; the AOSNFS still has to finish appointing its staff, decide which systems and software to use, and then start the laborious task of working with each segment of industry to adopt appropriate Risk Based Approaches for AML/CFT.
As usual, the newspaper headlines in Panama focused on the fact that lawyers, accountants and auditors were to come under supervision by the AOSNFS; and yet, when you read the actual article, the main changes are with the Free Trade Zones, currency exchanges, pawn shops and remittance services. But it’s much more interesting to focus on the lawyers and accountants! Or as another news headline read “Even your lottery winnings will be scrutinised”, since one of the resolutions adopted by the AOSNFS indicated that winnings over $500.00 should be reported, as well as pawning more than $1,500.00 or sending more than $2,000.00 through remittance services. As of today, the AOSNFS has adopted and published 14 resolutions, regulating the type of reporting to be undertaken by different sectors.
If in New Zealand and Australia they have come to realise that dirty money has driven up property prices, would it be true to say the dirty money is responsible for holding Panama’s property prices at an unrealistic high? Overseas research points out that money laundering is much easier in major cities and it has a large impact on property prices, especially as prices in London have soared. In Mexico, after adopting new AML regulations for realtors, pawn shops and used car dealers, companies complained that business had dropped some 30% (Latin America: Money Laundering Grows). Panama’s requirements for developers, realtors and construction companies, in the past, were not stringent enough to deal with these issues, so some have speculated that our real estate bubble need never burst.
The new regulations (Resolution JD-001-015 of the 14 of August 2015), however, provide very practical requirements for ensuring that AML/CFT measures are adopted:
- Developers must obtain proper due diligence from any investors who participate in the project
- Builders and sub-contractors must verify the identity and details of the developer of a project
- Developers must obtain proper due diligence on realtors and agents that sell the project
- Real Estate companies must have proper documentation identifying each of their agents and any independent agents they work with
- Realtors and real estate companies must identify who is the person buying the property, and if a corporation is used, the person controlling the corporation
- In the event of any cash or cash-like transactions, identify any suspicious transactions.
Listed among the measures to be adopted, are requirements such as knowing what the purchase of property is to be used for, knowing the client in person, as well as other ways to verify the documentation that has been received. In the case of any cash or cash-like transaction, the client should provide:
- Full name
- Birth date
- Country of birth and nationality
In the case of a corporation, foundation or other legal entity being used in a purchase, it is additionally required to get full documentation on the corporation, the officers, directors and shareholders, and identify the ultimate beneficial owner. Additionally, banking and commercial references should be obtained. PEP rules have also been introduced with these regulations, which is especially important given Panama’s recent scandals involving members of the past government and their property purchases.
Along similar lines, lawyers, notaries and accountants are required to obtain similar information regarding their clients, for real estate transactions (when they are acting on the client’s behalf). In all of the following cases, this information is required to be obtained:
- Purchase of real estate
- Administering funds, securities or other assets on the client’s behalf
- Administering bank or securities accounts
- Organising capitalisation of a company or its administration
- Creation of corporations, foundations, trusts etc., or their administration
In the event that the client uses cash or cash-like transactions to pay, over USD$10,000.00, the professional should take extra care to ensure that full compliance with the AML/CFT measures is met. These measures are the following:
- Full name
- Postal address, if different
- Phone number
- Mobile phone
- Fax number, if applicable
- Email address, if applicable
As with the case of realtors, in the case of acting on behalf of a legal entity, full due diligence on the parties involved should be obtained, such that the ultimate beneficial owner and other controlling parties are all identified.
In the case of any suspicious transactions, all “non-financial subjects” are required to report the transaction directly to the UAF, in which case they are prohibited from informing the client of the report filed. Law 23 protects the informant from any civil or criminal action being taken against them by the client for having reported the transaction, as it is not considered to be a breach of confidentiality or privilege to report a suspicious transaction under this law.
The issue of AML/CFT will not simply be taken care of by laws in Panama and regulations – without actual supervision and implementation, it will be difficult to ensure that Panama is truly compliant. Unless it assigns enough resources to make enforcement effective, money laundering (whether from corruption, drugs or other crimes) will continue to be a blot on Panama’s reputation.