Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme

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A Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme, or QROPS, is an overseas pension scheme that meets certain requirements set by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). A QROPS can receive transfers of UK Pension Benefits without incurring an unauthorised payment and scheme sanction charge. The QROPS programme was launched on 6 April 2006 as a direct result of EU human rights legislation with regards to freedom of capital movement.

A QROPS can be appropriate for UK citizens who have left the UK to emigrate permanently and intend to retire abroad having built up a UK pension fund. Alternatively, a person who is born outside the UK having built up benefits in an HMRC-approved UK pension scheme can move their pension offshore if they want to retire outside the UK. UK state pensions cannot be transferred, but defined contribution, defined benefit pension schemes and SSAS can be transferred abroad. A QROPS does not have to be established in the country you retire in, rather you can move your pension to a tax efficient jurisdiction and have your pension paid into the country of your choice.[1]

HMRC states that:[2]

Under section 150(8) a recognised overseas pension scheme is an overseas pension scheme that meets the following requirements prescribed under The Pension Schemes (Categories of Country and Requirements for Overseas Pension Schemes and Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes) Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/206). (Categories of Countries Regs) It must:

  • be established in a Member State of the European Union, Norway, Liechtenstein or Iceland, India, and the United States.[3] (HM Revenue and Custom’s legislation on these jurisdictions is regularly updated to monitor and improve the system – with non-conformity meaning a whole country can be de-listed.)
  • be established in a country or territory with which the UK has a Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) that contains exchange of information and non-discrimination provisions - see the list in RPSM14101046 (there is more information on the provisions of particular Double Taxation Agreements in the Double Taxation Relief Manual), or
  • satisfy the requirement that, at the time of the recognised transfer, the rules of the scheme provide that:
    • at least 70% of the funds transferred will be designated by the scheme manager for the purpose of providing the member with an income for life,
    • the pension benefits (and any associated lump sum) payable to the member under the scheme, to the extent that they relate to the transfer, are payable no earlier than they would be if pension rule 1 in section 165 applied, and
    • membership of the scheme is open to persons resident in the country or territory in which it is established.

Pension rule 1 in section 165 provides that no payment of pension may be made before the day on which the member reaches normal minimum pension age, unless the ill-health condition was met immediately before the member became entitled to a pension under the scheme.

To become a QROPS, a pension scheme must apply to and be approved by HMRC. A list of QROPS that have consented to have their names published is available on the HMRC website and is regularly updated.[4]

In April and May 2012 HMRC introduced a new host of regulations that had the effect of shifting the jurisdictions in which QROPS could be established.

Guernsey had previously been the premier jurisdiction for QROPS, but due to a conflict between local legislation and HMRC regulations, over 300 schemes were de-listed. Any former pension transfers to Guernsey were "grandfathered" under the old QROPS rules, but any new transfers to Guernsey would have to be taxed at the same income tax rate as Guernsey locals.

This led to Gibraltar and Malta to become more popular QROPS destinations.[5]

Malta was at this time regarded as an attractive proposition for the industry, especially as it was based in the EU. It currently has over 65 Double Taxation Agreements with other countries including EU member states. It has been proactive in the development of the QROPS market with the installation of local regulators to work with HMRC in order to ensure that all rules and procedures are adhered to.[6]

Since the new regulations came into force, QROPS were also closed in Cyprus and are now principally available in Malta,[7] the Isle of Man,[8] New Zealand and Gibraltar.

A QROPS should operate broadly in line with UK pension rules. A UK pension holder who has transferred their pension to a QROPS should be in a similar position as they would have been if the transfer had not taken place. What differentiates a QROPS from a UK held pension is that it must be recognised as a pension scheme under the country's legislation where it resides whilst still complying with the rules set out by HMRC. As the jurisdiction's rules, where the pension resides, differ to UK rules this leads to benefits available to the holder in comparison to a UK pension scheme. These benefits include having a greater choice of how much income can be drawn and the ability to avoid death taxes.[9] On returning to the UK, a QROPS pension income will be treated as a foreign pension and will only be taxed on 90% of its value, rather than the full 100% a UK pension's tax is based on.

QROPS are increasingly popular with British expats due to currency and investment flexibility, the tax advantages they offer when drawing pension benefits and their ability to be transferred to beneficiaries of choice in the event of death. Pension funds left in the UK are taxed on income at up to 45% and taxed on death after 75 years old at up to 45%. Transferring a UK pension fund into a QROPS can reduce taxation and avoid UK taxation as long as the pensioner remains tax resident outside the UK.

The mid April 2015 update to the QROPS list resulted in the Qualifying tag being dropped. As such the list is now known as the Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes list. This was done to clarify that schemes appearing on the list may not be qualifying. Many Australian and New Zealand Kiwisaver schemes were delisted as they did not meet the new statutory instrument which dictates that an overseas pension scheme cannot be accessed before the UK retirement age.

In June 2015 UK pensions legislation also introduced the requirement for anyone transferring their pension from a Defined Benefit pension scheme to have an Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulated pension transfer suitability report produced alongside professional advice from their country of residence.

QROPS schemes are required to report to HMRC any payments made to the member for at least ten years from the date that the transfer took place. However if the pension holder has been non-UK resident for five complete tax years they can benefit from more attractive options than those allowed under UK pension schemes.

In April, 2015 an amendment to section 3 of the Categories of Countries Regs added what HMRC describes as the Pension Age Test; that

 [(6A)The benefits payable to the member under the scheme, to the extent that they consist of the member's relevant transfer fund, 
  are payable no earlier than they would be if pension rule 1 in section 165 applied.]

This is a surprising addition as this requirement already appeared in section 2 (4) (b). It appears from the drafting of the amended regulation, that the department aimed this new requirement at the legal system of the host jurisdiction rather than at the deed governing the scheme, the rules of the scheme or the conduct of the scheme provider.

Also in April, 2015, HMRC wrote to all QROPS schemes and asked them to declare in writing to HMRC how they met the Pension Age Test; whether under the law of the country where the scheme is established or to say that the rules of the scheme do not allow benefits from UK tax relieved funds earlier than age 55 unless the member is retiring due to ill-health. 2015 HMRC guidance indicates that it is HMRC's view that the new section 6A may be read such that the Pension Age Test may be imposed by either of these methods.

The Kiwisaver Act 2006 (NZ) Schedule 1 sections 8 and 10 schemes require that members may withdraw to purchase a first home or in the case of significant financial hardship. A QROPS cannot allow purchases of residential property or allow access before the British pension age. So, HMRC's QROPS list published on 19 May 2015 included no Kiwisaver schemes and consequently a drastically reduced New Zealand list.

The changes introduced by HMRC April 2015 had a dramatic effect on many QROPS jurisdictions. In particular Australia which was at the time the largest QROPS jurisdiction, which saw this reduced to only one scheme. A scheme closed to public transfers. Entering 2016 Australia has seen a small number of additional schemes added to the HMRC ROPS list, however non are open to public transfers.

An important change also introduced in 2015 was the ability for QROPS to be able to offer Flexible Drawdown, in line with the change in UK pension legislation. This was introduced but restricted to QROPS jurisdictions within the EU.

This has left main QROPS jurisdictions like the IOM and Gibraltar unable at this time to offer Flexible Drawdown. Malta was quick to capitalise on this, and became the first to offer Flexible Drawdown. It remains the only QROPS jurisdiction able to accommodate Flexible Drawdown at this time. [10]

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