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.
AML rules & enforcement
In July 2017 the Indendance for the Supervision & Regulation of Non-Financial Persons adopted resolution JD-REG-001-17. This resolution sets the procedures for onsite inspections, reviewing procedures and documentation for compliance with Law 23 (2015).
As explained in a previous post, Law 23 set up the Intendance and regulated the types of businesses and professionals supervised by the Intendance. This included companies in the Free Trade Zones and Panama Pacífico. Likewise, it included real estate developers, realtors, lawyers & accountants. In particular, Law23 adopts measures to prevent money laundering and financing of terrorism. Article 13 of the Law charges the Intendance with supervising and regulating “non financial persons”.
Artice 13 of Executive Decree 361 (2015), adopted following Law 23 (2015), establishes that as part of supervising, the Intendance will carry out onsite inspections of these non financial persons. It also provides for off site inspections, where there is simply delivery of documentation and reports to the Intendance’s office. The intendance requires access to relevant and pertinent information in order to measure the effectiveness of the controls put in place. This is particularly important in higher risk business models, to ensure compliance. With this in mind, the Intendance established in JD-REG-001-17 the guidelines for requesting information or documents as part of inspections.
In order to undertaken an inspection, whether onsite or offsite, the Intendance must notify in writing. The time frame for the inspection, the scope and the documentation or information being requested are required in the letter. It must also indicate the format to be used (if applicable).
The person or entity under inspection must deliver the information or documentation by the dates required, in the requested format. Originals, copies, electronic format or any other means of delivery must allow the intendance to get a clear and real view of the situation the transactions being supervised. The intendance may request documents be translated to Spanish.
Late & incomplete compliance
Compliance which is provided late or not at all will be considered to have failed to comply. If the information or documentation requrest is incomplete, illegible or in a format different to the one requested, sanctions may also apply.
Costs of inspection
At this time, we have no idea of what the actual cost of inspections will be, although it is understood that the Intendance (similar to the Banking Superintendent) charges the entities that are under supervision for doing onsite inspections. They are charged for the manpower required to be in their offices for the time spent there. Other indirect costs are space, internet & phone connections that must be provided, and the staff that need to be assigned to assist and provide the inhouse documentation that is being inspected and reviewed.
Our firm is able to assist with compliance manuals, preparation of policies and procedures and preparation for such inspections.
While you don’t need a personal bank account in Panama to live here, it may lower transaction prices and make paying bills easier.
Reasons to set up a personal bank account
Many expats have differing views on whether or not you need to open a personal bank account. If you have an account in USD, it may make little difference in the bank charges. In other currencies, the bank charges could be high and might be reason enough to set up your account here.
Another reason for setting up a personal bank account in Panama is to apply for the friendly nations visa. One requirement is that you have a personal account with no less than a mid-four figure balance. You should deposit at least USD$5,000 in the account, then. The friendly nations visa will provide you with permanent residency, It also provides a work permit (depending on which application you make). And it allows you to eventually naturalize as a Panamanian (if having a second passport is your goal).
Paying bills online: many of the banks will allow you to pay bills online, although this is not for all utilities companies. Some still requirement payment at their office or through an approved intermediary. You can also pay your personal taxes online through some banks (such as income tax or property taxes).
Requirements: personal bank account
The requirements vary slightly from bank to bank. Nonetheless, the general requirements are the same:
- Complete the bank account application forms, all of them
- Your passport (the bank will make its own copy)
- 2nd ID – such as driver’s license
- Professional reference letter – such as from a lawyer / accountant / company you have done work with
- Banking reference – they are looking for proof of a banking relationship of more than 2-3 years
- If you don’t have a “bank account” but have a credit union account, this will usually work
- They may accept an investment account letter instead of a “bank”
- Minimum opening deposit: $1,000.00 (some banks do require less)
- Minimum balance:
- checking: usually somewhere between $250.00 to $1,000.00
- savings: usually somewhere between $500.00 to $1,000.00
The forms ask for proof of source of funds: the bank is interested in knowing how you support yourself financially and where they should expect to receive income from.
If you are applying for your friendly nations visa through our office, we would be happy to accompany you to the bank for your initial interview.
Choosing a bank:
Consider the following when choosing where to apply for your personal bank account:
- Where you live and branches that you have close by
- Online banking – which ones have their website in English
- What online banking services do they offer?
- Do you / your friend / the company you work for already have a relationship with the bank?
- Expat opinions regarding customer service – you will be able to find complaints against every bank, but some are worse than others
- What is their online security platform? Will you need a widget in order to pay bills and make transfers?
- Number of ATM machines available in your area of town if you like to get cash out
For more information, do not hesitate to contact our office for assistance.