Decoupling to Beat the Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty

Last updated on October 11, 2018

Property buyers and investors are well aware that on top of the basic Buyer’s Stamp Duty (BSD) payable on the purchase of a residential property, Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD) is also payable if you already own another residential property or you are not a Singapore citizen. This can add up to quite a hefty sum, and greatly reduces the profits which you may have been looking to receive from your property investment.

How can you then plan your property purchases to minimise the amount which you may have to pay in taxes? In this article, we will give you pointers on how smart planning by a typical married couple can reduce ABSD liability.

History and Purpose of ABSD

ABSD was introduced in 2011 as part of a slew of property cooling measures in the face of rising property prices amid strong investment demand by both local and foreign buyers of residential property. Its aim is to stabilise the property market and ensure that prices do not increase or fluctuate drastically. The rates were raised in 2013 to the current levels.

Decoupling and Part-Purchase

One method for a couple to avoid paying ABSD on a second residential property purchase is to do what is known as a decoupling and part-purchase of the ownership of the first property. This involves separating a couple’s ownership status of the property by removing one spouse from the ownership it. That way, he or she can buy a new property without paying ABSD for what is a second property owned by the couple. What does this entail?

As most married couples purchase their matrimonial home as joint tenants, decoupling results in Spouse A becoming the sole owner of the existing property and Spouse B purchasing a new property. This would require the following steps:

1. Severance of joint tenancy

This requires the signing of an instrument declaring the severance of joint tenancy in the property. Your lawyer will prepare this instrument in the required forms for your signing, and subsequently register it with the Singapore Land Authority.

2. Part-purchase of one spouse’s share in the property by the remaining spouse

This means that Spouse A buys over all the shares owned by Spouse B in the property. This is commonly known as part-purchase because Spouse A is purchasing only a part of the property, since he/she already owns the other part. A part-purchase typically requires the following steps:

Transfer of ownership through a Sale and Purchase: This works exactly the same way as a normal sale and purchase. A sale and purchase agreement will have to be signed by the parties, and the agreement will have to be stamped.

While a transfer of ownership can also be effected by way of a gift by Spouse B to Spouse A of his/her share, it is advisable to go through with a sale and purchase instead. This is because a transfer by way of gift may be set aside as a transaction at an undervalue in the event of bankruptcy. This may have negative implications for the owner looking to sell the property, as it may be more difficult for the potential buyer to obtain a bank loan.

Stamp duties: Stamp duties have to be paid within 14 days of the execution of the sale and purchase agreement. BSD will have to be paid, based on the purchase price (or the market value, whichever is higher) of the share of the property being transferred. If the property was purchased less than 4 years ago, then Spouse B will also have to pay Seller’s Stamp Duty (SSD). Again, what is payable is also on the portion of the property being sold (i.e. if Spouse A is buying over 1% of the property from Spouse B, then what is payable is on the purchase price/market value of that 1%).

Refund of CPF monies: All CPF monies used by Spouse B towards the purchase of the property will have to be refunded to his/her CPF account together with accrued interest upon completion of the sale. Your lawyer will also have to help you apply for a partial discharge of the CPF Board’s charge over your house, such that Spouse B’s name is removed. The refund of CPF monies can usually be completed within 10 working days of the sale, freeing up Spouse B’s CPF funds for the purchase of a new property.

Restructuring and refinancing of bank loan: If you financed the purchase of your property with a bank loan, you will need to speak to your banker about restructuring or refinancing of your home loan. This will typically involve removing Spouse B’s name from the loan.

If you are looking to refinance with a different bank, you may read our article on some tips and pointers when refinancing your home loan. If you are looking to complete your part-purchase within a shorter period of time, it may be easier to refinance with your existing bank, as they are more likely to allow for a shorter notice period for redemption of your existing loan if your new loan is also with them.

Similar to a normal refinancing process, your lawyers will also assist you in discharging the existing mortgage for the old loan and lodging the mortgage for your new loan.

Upon completion of the above transactions, Spouse B can go on to purchase another property without paying ABSD. This is because he or she no longer owns any property.

However, decoupling the ownership of Housing Development Board flats might not be possible because the Housing Development Board (HDB) revised its regulations on 1 April 2016 to restrict the transfer of flat ownership. Flat owners will be allowed to transfer the ownership of their flats under six circumstances including marriage, divorce, death of an owner, financial hardship, renunciation of citizenship and medical reasons. All other reasons will be assessed by HDB on a case by case basis. More information on this HDB regulation can be found here.

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Planning Ahead – Ownership Structure of Your Purchase

The above process can be shortened if prior to the purchase of the first property, the parties plan ahead. If couples foresee that they may want to buy a second residential property in the near future, they may wish to purchase their first property as tenants-in-common. This removes the need for severing a joint tenancy.

The most financially prudent method is of course to have one spouse own 99% while the other owns only 1%. Any future payment of BSD and SSD due to a decoupling will only be payable on that 1% share being transacted.

Implications of Arrangement in the Event of Divorce or Death

Buying a property as tenants-in-common, as opposed to buying as joint tenants, has implications on inheritance. Buyers who decide on an unequal ownership, such as a 99%-1% tenancy in common, may also be concerned about how their property will be divided in the event of a divorce.

As tenants-in-common, the rule of survivorship does not apply. This means that when one of the owners pass on, his or her share will be distributed either according to his or her will, or according to the Intestate Succession Act. This is in contrast to a joint tenancy, where the survivor will by operation of law take ownership of the whole interest in the property.

In the event of a divorce, the court will consider all the circumstances of the case before deciding on the division of the property. The court is not bound to divide based on strict legal ownership. You can learn more in our article on how the court divides matrimonial assets.

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