Have you heard about a Lex Chaplin? Why should you? There has never been such a law. However, the term has been used since the 1950s when Charlie Chaplin moved to the Swiss Canton of Vaud, presumably under a lump-sum taxation regime. Such a rule was not new. In 1862, the Canton of Vaud introduced specific tax arrangements for foreigners who did not follow a gainful activity in Switzerland, mainly because they retired, but were of economic or touristic interest. Chaplin lived in Corsier Sur Vevey for 25 years until his death in 1977.
Since Chaplin arrived in Switzerland, other cantons have implemented lump-sum taxation regimes, and still today, it attracts foreign celebrities and wealth owners to move to Switzerland. There has always been a political debate around such taxation arrangements, not only in foreign countries that lost substantial taxpayers but also in Switzerland. Some cantons such as Zurich, Basel (Stadt and Landschaft), and Schaffhausen do not offer them anymore after referendums or legislative initiatives. Tax competition is an international phenomenon, and in Switzerland, it is also happening between cantons. In Europe, several countries have a preferential tax regime to attract foreign nationals, and most of them exempt foreign income from taxation to various degrees.
While Swiss lump-sum taxation is not among the cheapest global residence options competing over wealthy taxpayers, it is one of the most attractive for several reasons. This post will cover the main benefits and things to consider when it comes to this topic.
The Swiss tax system
In Switzerland, taxes are levied by the Confederation, the cantons, and communes. However, people have the final say on taxes since tax laws are subject to a referendum as any other law that poses an obligation on citizens. The public debt ratio to GDP is around 30% and an excellent foundation for maintaining the medium-long term's current taxation level. Internal tax competition between cantons and communes promotes economic growth and investments and fosters the public administration's efficiency. According to the Swiss taxman, both direct and indirect taxes are not among the highest by international standards, and we agree with that statement.
What is lump-sum taxation?
Essentially lump-sum taxation is a taxation methodology based on the taxpayer and dependent family members' annual worldwide living costs. Such a taxable base is then subject to ordinary federal and cantonal income and wealth taxes at applicable rates. So what's the benefit? Lump-sum taxation provides a predictable taxable base and attractive tax results if the taxpayer's foreign income is significantly higher than the individual cost of living. Furthermore, there are no surprises since the tax authorities' advance ruling typically covers the relevant amounts.
Who can benefit from lump-sum taxation?
Foreign nationals who become subject to unlimited taxation in Switzerland for the first time or after a ten-year absence can benefit from lump-sum tax if they don't perform any gainful activities in Switzerland. If a couple intends to immigrate, both need to fulfill these requirements. The taxpayer cannot exercise any gainful activity in the sense of a full or part-time occupation on Swiss territory irrespective of local or foreign income. As active entrepreneurs may not meet the requirements, we recommend following a restrictive interpretation of this subjective criterion and avoid the performance of any independent or employment work on Swiss soil. In particular, artists, scientists, inventors, athletes, and board members lack the subjective criterion if their workplace is considered Switzerland and risk becoming subject to ordinary taxation. However, several Formula 1 drivers enjoy Swiss lump-sum taxation benefits since, in the absence of a Grand Prix in Switzerland, they perform their work exclusively outside Swiss territory.
If this baseline sounds risky to you, the good news is that Switzerland has a long tradition of advance tax rulings, and tax authorities have to act in good faith towards the taxpayer. You can expect the tax authorities' service mindset, although it may vary from canton to canton. You can discuss individual circumstances with the tax authorities before requesting a tax ruling to obtain certainty and predictability. If the taxpayer is missing one or both of the subjective criteria during the following taxable periods, e.g., due to taking on Swiss nationality or performing a gainful activity in Switzerland, ordinary taxation will become applicable.
The taxable base
Three factors determine the taxable base: the global cost of living, the rent or rental value of the taxpayer's Swiss real estate, and Swiss sources' income. The international costs of living of the taxpayer and all dependent family members encompass everything you could imagine. This includes lodging, food, beverage, clothes, taxes, social security contribution, housekeeping and cost of employees at the taxpayer's service, educational fees, travel expenses, sport and leisure activities disbursements, and maintenance of cars, yachts, motorboats, and airplanes. The sum of these costs corresponds to the taxable base of at least CHF 400'000 subject to ordinary tax as long as the amount is higher than the Swiss rental costs or Swiss sources' income.
The Swiss rental cost is calculated per household and corresponds to the sevenfold of the taxpayer's real estate's yearly rent or rental value. For other taxpayers without an owned or rented home and who prefer living in a hotel, the threefold cost of yearly lodging and catering is the taxable base.
Finally, Swiss sources' income and foreign source income for which a double tax treaty benefit has been claimed need to be calculated. This so-called control calculation includes income from movable and immovable assets in Switzerland and foreign source revenue where the taxpayer claims the application of double tax treaty relief on foreign taxation. The double tax treaties with Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Canada, Austria, and the USA provide specific rules to include foreign source income in the Swiss control calculation to obtain treaty benefits.
With that, you have three factors for the taxable base, and the highest amount will be taken by the tax authorities to apply income tax at ordinary rates. For federal tax purposes, a minimum tax base of CHF 400'000 is required. Since the taxable base determination is not straightforward, cantons have defined specific minimum amounts for income and wealth tax calculation. Again, the Swiss taxpayer is the tax authorities' customer. The best approach is to discuss details with the tax authorities and have the common understanding confirmed in a tax ruling.
Which other taxes are due?
In addition to income tax at a federal and cantonal level, cantons also levy wealth tax. In most cases, the tax base for income tax calculated as outlined above will be multiplied by 20. Thus, if the taxable income is CHF 500'000, the taxable wealth will be CHF 10 million.
The unlimited tax liability includes gift and inheritance taxes levied by the cantons. As there is tax competition between them, most cantons provide exemptions for spouses and children. The Canton Schwyz does not levy gift and inheritance taxes at all, and the Canton of Lucerne is only taxing gifts within the last five years before a person's death.
Lump-sum taxpayers are subject to social security contributions in Switzerland. The amount depends on wealth and foreign employments and may reach a yearly maximum of CHF 23'900.
Although almost 25% of the Swiss population are foreign nationals, immigration to Switzerland is subject to restrictions. While EU nationals with sufficient financial means can benefit from persons' free movement, non-EU citizens need to fulfill an economic or fiscal interest to obtain a residence permit. Thus, they are subject to higher minimum tax base thresholds, but lump-sum taxation remains the desired way for non-EU nationals to take residence in Switzerland.
As always, each tax situation requires individual evaluation. After performing the above calculations and discussing all details with the tax authorities, they need to be provided with all relevant information and the request for a tax ruling on the taxable income and wealth. With such a verdict obtained, you can then request a residence permit. From experience, we would say that the entire process takes around two months.
While not among the cheapest global residence options, Swiss lump-sum taxation has a long tradition and comes with certainty and predictability that other newcomers in the field may not be able to offer. Apart from the required calculations, the evaluation of immigration to Switzerland under a lump-sum taxation arrangement should focus on gainful activities' circumstances since there are crucial restrictions, particularly for entrepreneurs. Pre-immigration planning should further cover wealth structuring and the impact of estate and inheritance taxes. With that, you can make the most of your residence in a regularly top-ranking place among the global countries with the highest quality of living.