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Many think investing in the United States Exchanged Traded Funds (ETFs) is dangerous. They believe that because of the U.S. Estate Tax, they will lose a lot of money. This tax will heavily tax the assets of a decedent.
The U.S. estate tax means that your beneficiary will only get a portion of your estate when you decease. Because of that, many people recommend not investing in American ETFs (or even stocks).
But is that even true? Not really! Indeed, many people forget about the U.S.-Switzerland double taxation estate tax treaty.
In this article, we detail the U.S. Estate Tax and the U.S. Estate Tax Treaty with Switzerland. And we see what this means for Swiss investors.
The U.S. Estate Tax
In the United States, when an estate is transferred from a deceased person, the beneficiary has to pay a tax on this estate.
This estate tax is a United States federal tax. It means it will apply everywhere in the United States. In addition to that, some states have added extra inheritance taxes. And some states have removed the estate tax. However, we will focus on the U.S. Federal Estate Tax since this is the one that matters in our case.
This U.S. Estate Tax law taxes inheritance at 40% of the estate’s value. It is a very significant estate tax. It is among the top estate taxes in the world.
For American citizens, estates of up to 12.92 million dollars (as of 2023) are exempted from the U.S. Estate Tax. It means that most American investors do not care about this law. Very few investors have estates worth that much money.
However, this law also applies to non-resident aliens. It means it applies to everybody who invests in U.S. products. And unfortunately, the large exemption of 12.92 million dollars only applies to U.S. citizens.
Non-resident aliens only have an exemption of only up to 60’000 dollars. It means that if you have U.S. assets valued at more than 60’000 dollars, you must pay this estate tax. You will not be paying this tax, but it will be the beneficiary of your estate, likely your spouse.
So this means that if you invest in a U.S. ETF, you will be subject to estate tax. In general, this means that if you have more than 60’000 USD in U.S. ETF, your beneficiaries will lose 40% of this value. It is a very significant tax. This loss could be terrible if your beneficiaries are depending on your portfolio.
Because of that, many people assume that they should not invest more than 60’000 in U.S. ETF. But this is not true in Switzerland!
The U.S. Estate Tax Treaties
The United States has many tax treaties with other countries in the world.
The United States has two kinds of tax treaties:
- Income Tax Treaties
- Estate Tax Treaties
For this current problem, we are only interested in estate tax treaties.
These treaties can change how citizens of other countries are taxed either on income or on the estate. In the case of estate tax treaties, these treaties generally provide better conditions for foreign citizens.
The United States has about 60 income tax treaties currently. But they only have 15 estate tax treaties. And fortunately for us, Switzerland is on the list. It means that this treaty must be considered if we want to consider the U.S. Estate Tax.
If you are interested, you can find the list of U.S. Estate Tax Treaties from the IRS. This list should be kept complete.
The U.S. Switzerland Estate Tax Treaty
In 1951, the United States and the Swiss Confederation signed an estate tax treaty. To this day, this treaty is still valid. And this tax treaty is perfect for Swiss investors that have U.S. assets.
The official name of the tax treaty is “Convention between the Swiss Confederation and the United States of America for the avoidance of double taxation concerning taxes on estates and inheritances”.
What does this mean for Swiss investors? First, this treaty works both ways. There are some exemptions for Swiss people regarding U.S. taxes, and there are some exemptions for Americans regarding Swiss taxes. But here, we are only interested in exemptions for Swiss people.
The law article states that decedent citizens of Switzerland (or domiciled in Switzerland) have a right to a certain proportion of the same exemption that would apply to a United States citizen. We saw before that this exemption was 12.92 million dollars.
The critical part is the proportion. It is relatively easy to figure out. It is the proportion of U.S. assets in your entire net worth. You divide the value of your assets in the U.S. by your entire estate value, and you will get your proportion of U.S. assets. We also run some examples to make that clearer.
If you want all the details, you can read the original 1951 U.S. Swiss Estate Tax Treaty. It is a relatively short read. And I would say that for an official document, it is a straightforward document.
We can give a few examples to make it simpler:
- The decedent’s estate is one million dollars, with 200’000 dollars in U.S. assets and the rest in Swiss assets. The decedent has 20% of U.S. assets. It means he can get an exemption of up to 20% of 12.92 million, 2.584 million dollars. So, his beneficiaries will not pay any U.S. taxes.
- The decedent’s estate is 2 million dollars, with 1.8 million dollars in U.S. assets. The decedent has 90% of U.S. assets. So, he can get an exemption of up to 90% of 12.92 million, which is 11.62 million. So, there will not be any U.S. estate taxes.
- The decedent’s estate is 25 million dollars, with 2 million dollars in U.S. assets. It means the decedent has 8% in U.S. assets. So, he can get an exemption of 8% of 12.92 million. This is an 1.033 million USD exemption. His beneficiary must pay U.S. estate taxes on 0.966 million dollars (2 million minus the exemption). His beneficiaries will pay about 386’000 USD.
As you can see, most investors will end up paying no U.S. Estate.
We can take a final example of my situation. Once I retire, my net worth should be about two million CHF. I expect to have a house for about 300’000 CHF, 100’000 CHF in cash, and the rest in my investment portfolio. And my portfolio is currently 80% in U.S. assets. So I will have 80% of 1.6 million CHF in U.S. assets. This is 1.28 million CHF in U.S. assets. It is 64% of my entire estate.
So, I will get an exemption of 8.26 million dollars. It is much more than the value of my U.S. assets. So, I do not expect to pay any U.S. Estate Tax.
The exemption may change in 2026
The current large exemption is partly due to a change in 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). This almost doubled the exemption at that time.
Unless there is a change by the US Congress, the exemption will go back to normal in 2026. This means we will go from about 13 million to about 7 million USD.
While this is a significant difference, this remains a huge exemption. So, I am not worried about this change. It is also entirely possible that there will be new tax changes until then.
For Swiss investors, the U.S. Estate Tax is of little concern! Switzerland and the United States have an excellent estate tax treaty.
This treaty says that Swiss investors can be treated like U.S. citizens. It means that Swiss investors can get an extensive exemption. This exemption is still prorated based on the percentage of U.S. assets in your net worth at your death.
There are only very few cases where you would even pay this tax. It is only when you have a substantial net worth (more than 10M) and a small proportion of U.S. assets.
So, Swiss investors do not have to worry about investing in U.S. assets. United States ETFs are still the best ETFs available to Swiss investors.
If you are from another European country, you can see if your country has an estate tax treaty with the United States. If they have, you can try to find details about how this will impact you. If they do not, you will only be exempted up to 60’000 U.S. dollars. And you should probably avoid having more than that in U.S. assets.
Talking about U.S. ETFs, you may want to learn about why Swiss investors may lose access to them.
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